PORT TOWNSEND, Wash. – It’s 8:30 on a Friday night, and teenage girls wearing short skirts and flip-flops are rocking out to the Rolling Stones in the Undertown, a basement coffeehouse and wine bar likely used a century ago to store ice and coal.
Mention Port Townsend, on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, and wooden boats and old houses come to mind. This historic waterfront town boasts plenty of both, reminders of the late 1800s, when wealthy businessmen banked on its future as a major Northwest shipping port.
Europe meets the Northwest in Uptown, a residential neighborhood on a bluff overlooking Port Townsend Bay where sea captains and businessmen built elaborate Victorian homes.
The mansions are still there. A handful are B&Bs or boutique hotels, including the landmark Ann Starrett Mansion, a stately Victorian built in 1889.
But every bit as much of a draw today are Uptown’s culinary treasures. Memories of lemon-ricotta pancakes got me out of bed for an early-morning ferry ride from Seattle’s waterfront and the one-hour drive to Port Townsend.
My first stop was Sweet Laurette’s Cafe and Bistro, 1029 Lawrence St. Maybe it’s the creaky wooden floors or the ceramic coffee bowls, but every time I come here, I feel as if I’m in a village in Southern France.
Around the corner, bakers at Pane d’Amore, 617 Tyler St., work nights turning out pastries made from pears and blueberries for the Saturday farmers market. Local cheesemongers, cider makers and artists keep a food and music-fueled street party going until early afternoon.
The little restaurant with the wine-colored curtains? That’s Lanza’s, 1020 Lawrence St., in the same Italian family for 26 years.
Dine here, and swap a few stories about Southern Italy with waitress Julie Lanza. It won’t be long before Lori Lanza Kraght, her sister and the chef, sends out a slice of their 88-year-old mother’s almond cake.
Port Townsend’s boom times ended almost as quickly as they began when the Northern Pacific Railroad gave up on a planned rail connection to Tacoma. Over the years, entrepreneurs found new uses for a cache of 19th-century homes, churches and commercial buildings.
For a glimpse of how an aristocratic family lived 130 years ago, I wandered through the Rothschild House at Taylor and Franklin streets, the former home of a wealthy Bavarian family, now a state park. Posted on a wall was the menu for a July Fourth lunch served by ladies of the Presbyterian Church in 1901. Coffee, salad and sandwich: 15 cents.
Art galleries, shops and restaurants fill the historic buildings along Water Street, Downtown’s main drag. Two favorites: Joglo, 830 Water St., a slice of Bali transported to the second floor of a building overlooking Port Townsend Bay; and Gallery 9, 1012 Water St., a co-op where local artists sell handcrafted drums carved from exotic woods and baskets fashioned from cedar and sea grass.
“Downtown used to be just tourist shops, and it used to feel like that,” says Frank d’Amore, who opened his first bakery, Bread and Roses, in downtown Port Townsend in 1982.
“Now,” he says, “people are taking little bits of what they have Uptown and moving them Downtown.”
A half-dozen more shops and cafes known mostly to locals line Washington Street near the Fountain Steps that connect the two areas.
Karen Graham, owner of Insatiables Books, 821 Washington St., stocks her shelves with collectible hardbacks, which she inventories in her head. No computer. No email.
Anchoring the Point Hudson marina at Water and Jackson streets is the new Northwest Maritime Center, headquarters for anyone into messing about with boats, and worth a peek even for landlubbers.
Volunteers from the Wooden Boat Foundation have been working on the restoration of a 61-foot cedar rowing shell used in the 1950s by the University of Washington crew team.
The chance to spend the late afternoon happy-hour hopping is just one reason to spend the night. Best views are from the deck at Sirens pub, 823 Water St., or on the patio at T’s, 141 Hudson St., in a former Coast Guard nurses’ quarters building overlooking the marina.
Among a handful of Uptown B&Bs is the Blue Gull Inn, 1310 Clay St., built in 1868 by N.D. Hill, the town pharmacist. At $116 per night, the Blue Gull is a good value in a town where it’s possible to pay much more. Bonus points to innkeeper Renee Eissinger for welcoming guests with platters of homemade cookies and lemon bars.
With Centrum, a nonprofit arts group based at nearby Fort Worden State Park, Port Townsend attracts a crowd to its annual summer jazz festival. Year-round, resident artists contribute to a lively music and dance scene.
Two spots not to miss:
• The Undertown. Twinkling lights decorate this daytime coffeehouse and nighttime dance club under the sidewalks at 211 Taylor St.
Bands sometimes request all-ages dance parties, with a changeover to adults-only later in the evening.
• The Upstage, 923 Washington St., hosts jazz, blues and country rock bands in a former Chinese laundry.
Top pick: any performance by Whidbey Island singer and guitarist Piper Reva. She sprinkles herself with glitter dust then performs the musical equivalent of one-act plays. Props one night included several costume changes, a half-dozen wigs and a rubber alligator.