Weekend Escape: Victorian gems and bawdy seaport roots are key to Port Townsend, Wash.

Port Townsend, Wash., was a bawdy seaport in the late 19th century, its saloons and bordellos packed with rowdy sailors whose ships docked here to clear customs before sailing into Puget Sound. After the customhouse moved to Seattle in 1911, Port Townsend, on the northeastern tip of the Olympic Peninsula, dwindled into a ghost town. Lucky for us, artsy types “discovered” its abandoned Victorian buildings in the 1970s and began restoring them. My husband, Paul, and I recently took a detour to Port Townsend on the way to Seattle, a two-hour-plus drive (and ferry ride) away.

Thanks to its lively historic district and picturesque waterfront, Port Townsend is an enchanting destination for a weekend escape — even if you’re not headed to Seattle.The tab: $330 for two nights in a hotel and $300 for meals, tour and theater tickets. Taxes, car rental and airfare not included.

The bed

Who knew we would sleep in a brothel? At the 19-room Palace Hotel [1004 Water St; (800) 962-0741], set in a building that housed one of Port Townsend’s most notorious bordellos in the port’s heyday, we stayed in Miss Lou, named for an infamous former occupant. Though we had to climb three steep stairways to reach our room, the reward was a 14-foot ceiling, a comfy king-sized bed and a sweeping view of Port Townsend Bay.

The meal


Port Townsend offers an array of restaurants in refurbished historic buildings. We enjoyed dinner at the intimate Fountain Café [920 Washington St.; (360) 385-1364], where a savory specialty is local mussels and clams steamed in a pesto-Chardonnay broth. At the laid-back Silverwater Café [237 Taylor St.; (360) 385-6448], the signature fish and chips, made with fresh local Lingcod in a lemon and dill batter, lived up to its stellar reputation.

The find

We got the lowdown on Port Townsend’s checkered past on a Twisted History walking tour [(360) 390-8318]. Guide Grymm Dupp regaled us with bygone scandals he learned through his research and from his Grandma Pruitt, who moved to Port Townsend in the 1880s and lived to be 103. The tour ended at the Rose Theatre [235 Taylor St.; (360) 385-1089], set in a restored 1907 vaudeville house. We headed upstairs to the Starlight Room, a ballroom-like screening room with crystal chandeliers and pillow-strewn vintage sofas. It was a treat to kick back and watch a movie with local film buffs while sipping wine and snacking on fresh popcorn topped with real butter.

The lesson learned

Port Townsend has banned chain businesses in its historic district. Instead of Starbucks, you’ll find locally owned coffee houses with names such as Better Living Through Coffee, and instead of Banana Republic, clothing stores with names such as World’s End and the Northwest Man. I found it refreshing to visit establishments where I didn’t know what I would find until I walked inside — and what I found was, for the most part, distinctive.