Kala Point Real Estate - Steve Kraght
Kala Point Real Estate
Kala Point Real Estate - Steve Kraght
Linda Foard & Steve Kraght

Fort Worden: One-time bust now a blast

Travel: Sunday, February 23, 2003

Fort Worden LighthousePORT TOWNSEND — For the military, Fort Worden was a bust. Much of its weaponry became obsolete not long after the fort opened in 1902 on the northeast tip of the Olympic Peninsula.

But the Army's loss became the public's gain. Fort Worden, which was turned into a state park 30 years ago, has all the right stuff for a family vacation.

The park's Victorian-style military officers' homes have been turned into 33 units which are rented out to vacationers. They can sleep anywhere from 2 to 14; are reasonably priced; and have kitchens, fireplaces and walk-out-the-door access to the park's many amenities.

Like the beach? Fort Worden has almost two miles of beach, much of it easily walkable, plus the scenic Point Wilson lighthouse.

Want to learn about the seaside? The Port Townsend Marine Science Center in the park has exhibits on local sea creatures and geology.

Kids like spooky places? The half-block-long gun batteries scattered through Fort Worden — designed to protect shipping lanes but outpaced by more mobile, modern weaponry as early as World War I — are concrete mazes of massive weapons mounts, dark corridors and storage rooms. Children, and adults, shriek during games of hide-and-seek and mock attacks in their dark corners.

Want something quieter? Walk or bike on trails that wind through the 433-acre park. Or watch the waves and ships near the lighthouse.

A popular place

The only downside of Fort Worden is the vacation houses are so popular they're sometimes booked months, even a year, in advance. Already, you can forget about much of the summer.

I got lucky, nabbing a last-minute rental of a four-bedroom house for a winter weekend.

Elbow room — and a kitchen — in vacation accommodations make me happy, but four bedrooms and two bathrooms were rather excessive for my daughter and me. So we expanded the family, taking along a school friend of hers and my mother. From pre-teen to 80-something, it worked wonderfully for all of us.

During the days, we explored the park and Port Townsend — its downtown is just a five-minute drive away.

Officers' Row

Officer's Row in Fort WordenEvenings were old-fashioned family time. Since the Fort Worden houses have no phones and no TVs, we played cards, read by the fireplace and had leisurely dinners around our big dining table — which could have sat another six people.

The price was definitely right — $166 a night for the four-bedroom house. Other accommodations range in size from one to six bedrooms, including a house that's accessible to people with disabilities. For the many conferences that Fort Worden hosts, old military barracks have been turned into dorms or groups take over the houses. There's also a hostel and a beach side campground that's popular with RV'ers year-round.

If you rent one of the officers' houses, don't expect luxury. The high-ceiling houses are wonderfully spacious, but most are plainly furnished, although their Tiffany-style lamps are a nice touch.

Do expect some quirks in these old houses. In ours, the hot-water pipes that fed the radiators would thump and groan at odd moments. The kitchen, although spacious, had only very basic pots and other gear. Most houses are duplexes, and the walls are thin: At night, the prodigious snores of a man on the other side of the wall echoed into my bedroom.

A town with the right stuff

When rain and wind finally drove us off the park's beach and trails, we headed into Port Townsend. The town has a lot to offer, since urban refugees and active-minded retirees have helped pack it with cultural and outdoors events, from literary seminars to music and maritime festivals.

The downtown is a good place to stroll, snack and shop with kids. Water Street — on the harborfront as its name implies — has a three-block stretch of well-preserved buildings filled with antique stores; art galleries; kid-pleasing knick-knack shops; bookstores, restaurants and ice-cream parlors. The parallel Washington Street also has some antique shops and cafes.

What's appealing about Port Townsend is it's not overly cute or contrived ( although in summer the downtown can be awash in tourists). Its well-preserved heritage buildings are the real thing.

Port Townsend owes its stately architecture to the 1880s when it was touted as the western end of a transcontinental railroad. That touched off a building boom, bringing substantial masonry buildings to the downtown and ornate Victorian homes to the bluff above (many now are B&Bs.)

The railroad never arrived. But neither did the redevelopment that has stripped many Northwest towns of their historic buildings. Port Townsend remains a rather grand, and well-preserved, town of about 8,000.

One of the grander historic buildings, the 19th-century city hall, has been turned into the Jefferson County Historical Society Museum.

My daughter and her friend weren't too enthusiastic about its exhibits on the area's native tribes, Chinese and white settlers and maritime history. But the old city jail was a kid-pleaser.

We made an even more successful museum stop back at Fort Worden where the Commanding Officer's Quarters has been turned into a museum.

The 12-room house, next to the vacation housing on Officers Row, has a suitably commanding view of the beach and Admiralty Inlet across to Whidbey Island. The house is packed with Victorian furnishings, from an elegantly set dining table to a child's bedroom and china dolls. Volunteers in turn-of-the-century military garb answer questions, but leave visitors free to wander.

We'd like to stay here, sighed the girls, as they explored the museum's cozy rooms. At least we were staying just 100 feet away in our own historic, if not so fancy, house.

Kristin Jackson's Family Matters column runs monthly in the Seattle Times Travel section. Contact her at kjackson@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2271.

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