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Small towns of Puget Sound.

"Gunkholer's delight," sailors might call Puget Sound. That old salt-water saying reflects an appreciation for sheltered waters with an abundance of good anchorages. It's a legacy of the days when this inland sea was itself the only real highway, and settlement followed its shores.

Ferries still serve towns along the long, lean bight of Puget Sound. You can board one in busy downtown Seattle and in 35 minutes step off at easygoing Winslow. The ports are not very far apart; as the crow flies, it's only 90 miles from Steilacoom in the south to northerly Fairhaven. We've grouped a dozen towns as you might encounter them on the way to some of the area's popular destinations Mount Rainier, the Olympic Peninsula, Whidbey Island, the San Juans, British Columbia. There are also two day-trips from Seattle. You can drop by one town for lunch, move on to another for dinner, a third for lodging. For weekends, it's wise to book rooms ahead. Port Townsend, La Conner, Poulsbo, and Friday Harbor can have crowds on weekdays, too.

A small-town renaissance

Roads and rails reduced the importance of these seaside towns, and the places dozed through most of the 20th century. But then residents from the growing cities nearby discovered their picturesque waterfronts and relaxed pace-and their main streets began to come alive with crafts studios, antiques stores, cafes. Sightseers now pour in as regularly as the tides, to join the idlers on the docks, to poke through a boatyard's rusty clutter, to admire a ship captain's sturdy cottage. You can comb a beach, pedal a country lane, paddle a kayak, or join a cruise. All dozen towns front the sound, offer plenty of shoreline recreation, and preserve some of their past. Even the smallest ones have places to eat and stay. We've tried to identify what's distinctive about each town. For details on where to eat, spend the night, rent boats and bikes, or sign up for tours, call the sources in each entry (area code is 206).

If you're on your way to Mount Rainier, visiting Steilacoom and Gig Harbor takes you from a last-century backwater to a bustling boat harbor. Winslow and Edmonds make good day trips from Seattle.

STEILACOOM

The town's sea captain founders are gone, but their graceful houses remain, clapboard classics in the New England tradition. They line the tidy lanes of this 1854 seaport, where a 19th-century stillness lingers on. If you're looking for action, bypass Steilacoom.

Otherwise, take exit 119 from 1-5. At the Steilacoom Historical Museum, at 112 Main Street (open from I to 4 daily except Mondays), get a map-guide and ask about weekend walking tours. Don't miss the Nathaniel Orr Home and its treasure of handmade furniture. The 1891 E.R. Rogers House welcomes you to dine above the island-dotted sound (582-0280). Two B & Bs are 20 minutes away by county ferry on Anderson Island, historically linked to Steilacoom. Try venerable Anderson House ($50 up, 884-4088) or new Burg's Landing, at the dock ($55 up, 884-9185). For details, call 581-1900.

GIG HARBOR

Does the sight of a bay full of boats-sails billowing, pennants fluttering, hulls gleaming-compel you toward the sea? After Friday Harbor (see page 62), Gig Harbor is the best boat-watching stop on Puget Sound, and it's much easier to reach. Weekends are busiest for boats but also bring plenty of tourists.

Founded by Yugoslav fishermen in the 1860s and named for the gig of the captain of the expedition that discovered this hidden waterway, Gig Harbor is 15 miles north of Steilacoom off State 16. A narrow entrance funnels boats into the harbor single-file. You can watch the parade from dockside eateries like The Tides Tavern, at the foot of Soundview Drive. Or try the new pier at Jerisich Park on Harborview.

Better yet, rent a runabout, paddle boat, or sailboat from Rent-A-Boat, off N. Harborview Drive ($7 to $15 an hour, 858-7341). See swaying wharves and barnacled pilings, neglected hulks listing in the low-tide mud. Pass fish-packing houses, dry docks, sleek cruisers, and fishing boats nodding at their moorings. There's even a floating B & B aboard the 1903 Danish windjammer Krestine (8589395). A half-dozen other B & Bs are within walking distance of the harbor. For details, call 851-6865.

WINSLOW

You can see the best of Winslow, a half-day's outing from Seattle, on a mile-long waterfront footpath called Walkabout. Ferry sailings are frequent from Seattle's Pier 52, where you can pick up the brochure Leave Seattle Behind,- it includes a Winslow map and details about attractions (842-3700). The 35-minute crossing offers views; round-trip fare is $3.30. Walkabout takes you right behind the Hall Brothers Shipyard, which once turned out square-riggers. You can chat with private owners sanding, painting, and rerigging their hauled-out craft. Cross a footbridge to Eagle Harbor Waterfront Park, with a new fishing pier and low-tide beach. At Madison Avenue, turn left to a coffee house, ship chandlery, and the Saltwater Cafe (good seafood). The cafe overlooks a pair of marinas berthing luxury yachts. Return as you came or via Winslow Way and the business district.

EDMONDS

Its ferry is a gateway to Port Townsend and the Olympic Peninsula, but don't overlook all you can do right here. Edmonds boasts more waterfront diversity than any small town so close to Seattle; it's just 20 miles north of downtown on I-5 and State 104.

Take a low-tide stroll with beach rangers or go scuba diving (rentals available) at an underwater park next to the ferry. Dig clams south of Marina Beach, or rent a rod and cast for bottomfish from the pier next to Olympic Beach. Try a salmon charter or a weekend sightseeing cruise; call 776-6711.

Buy fresh crab from the dockside dealer at the marina, assemble a picnic, and watch commercial salmon fishermen setting nets offshore in August, September.

Scandinavian Poulsbo and Victorian Port Townsend are colorful detours on the way to the Olympic Peninsula. On Whidbey Island, stop at Langley and Coupeville.

POULSBO

The cod schooners are gone, and tourists now outnumber fishermen here, 13 miles northwest of Winslow on State 305. But reminders of its Nordic heritage abound. Sample the best on a walk down Front Street, bright with flags and murals, rosmaling and window boxes, past restaurants proffering pickled herring and shop windows bursting with crystal and pewter. New Day Fishery sells seafood supplied by its own boat. Sluys' Bakery tempts with aromatic pastries. In August, Judith's Tearooms reopens to serve steamed cod, salmon loaves, and open-faced sandwiches. Poulsbo Country Deli has Scandinavian specialties for a picnic at Waterfront Park on Liberty Bay.

Five Swans Nordic House on Front sells Swedish cookware and pewter, Finnish crystal, Norwegian rosmaling, Danish porcelain, Icelandic woolens. Galleries sell local crafts. For details: 779-4848.

PORT TOWNSEND

This treasure of 1880s architecture-full of carpenter Gothic gingerbread, shingled turrets and cupolas, and arresting colors-has astonished tourists for decades. It's Puget Sound's most famous small town, and almost a holy place for travelers who fancy architectural detail. But behind the facades lies an unholy history. Take an hour for a guided sidewalk tour, led by a fifth-generation sea captain. You'll hear all about Port Townsend's sporting houses and opium dens, sailors and tycoons, embattled customs house and forgotten underground (where recent excavation has unearthed a trove of new artifacts). Tours are $3; call 385-1967. The city was built by 1880s speculators who bet that the Union Pacific Railroad would terminate here, at the entrance to Puget Sound. It didn't, and the buildings were forgotten.

Thirteen old mansions now operate as B & Bs ($55 to $100 double). Book well ahead; for a list, call 385-2722.

LANGLEY

This may be the best blend of small-town pleasures around the sound. Langley abounds with art and style but is solidly unpretentious. It offers civilized comforts but is close to nature. It's also close to Seattle by car and ferry (7 miles from the Clinton dock, off State 525), but doesn't draw the crowds you have to expect in La Conner or Friday Harbor. Design shops with fine linens and antiques and handsome galleries of regional art line up alongside the town pharmacy, theater, and mercantile on Langley's movie-set-perfect main street (called First).

Upscale eateries rub shoulders with funky taverns. Old-timers nurse ice cream cones next to a sculpture of Boy and Dog by local artist Georgia Gerber, and smile at views of passing orca or gray whales. A stairway drops to a mile of public beach, anchored at one end by the most talked-about new place to stay on the sound, The Inn at Langley (from $135, double; 221-3033). Terraced into the bluff, its 24 rooms face the sea-each with fireplace, reading nook, hot tub, and deck. The restaurant (weekends only) offers a predinner talk on Northwest cuisine. You must book rooms well ahead. Other lodgings nearby offer more spur-of-the-moment choices; call 321-6765.

COUPEVILLE

The greatest asset of this town, about 25 miles northwest of Langley, is the gorgeous countryside that surrounds it. Beyond Coupeville's false fronts and boardwalks, old wharves and new historical museum, lie golden wheat fields and cobbled beaches, pioneer homesteads and blockhouses, glacier-carved headlands and wind-sculpted conifer groves. Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve (see the June 1989 Sunset) protects some 17,000 acres of "cultural landscape" not much changed in certain respects since the 1850s.

Allow time to see some of the reserve on foot-a walk can be the best part of any visit. In town, pick up a brochure with map from the local tourist board office, in Mariner's Court at Front and Alexander streets, 1/2 mile north of State 20. You'll find limited lodgings in town and around the reserve; call 678-5434.

The towns of Friday Harbor and East-sound are delightful, but lodgings and restaurants are crowded in summer-and getting there by ferry and car takes hours. For a faster trip, consider flying in by scheduled small plane. From Anacortes to Friday Harbor takes only 15 minutes, costs only $18 (planes fly from Seattle and Bellingham, too). For details and other help, call 468-3663. Book flights, lodgings, and restaurants well ahead. Off 1-5, La Conner and Old Fairhaven are short detours on the way to Vancouver or the North Cascades.

FRIDAY HARBOR

Order picnic supplies ahead from Kings deli (378-4522). Book a cab from the airport to town (378-3550), pick up your picnic, and continue to the marina. San Juan Boat Rentals (378-3499) will hold a 16-foot dory for you ($65 for 4 hours). The rental agent can give you a map and directions to Turn Island-or taxi you over. Beach on the island's north shore, enjoy your picnic, explore island trails, and return. Overnight in Friday Harbor, or fly to Eastsound on Orcas Island 15 minutes, $18).

EASTSOUND

Here is a peaceful foil to Friday Harbor's throngs. The town's flowery lanes, old-fashioned gardens, and rustic nursery may remind you of England's West Country. You'll find pubs with dart boards, and shops selling British imports. It's a pleasure to stroll, or you can rent a bike or moped or arrange a sea kayak or sailboat outing. Unpretentious eateries beckon; Christina's is famous for seafood. Have the island taxi (376-4994) shuttle you from the airport (2 miles from town) to your room. A few B & Bs are within walking distance of town, and other inns, resorts, and farmhouses (such as Turtleback Farm) dot the rolling countryside.

LA CONNER

No river valley around the sound affords grander landscapes than the Skagit, and no town captures the beauty better than this classic farm and fishing village. Painting's famous Northwest School (Richard Gilkey, Mark Tobey, Guy Anderson, Morris Graves) evolved here in the 1930s, the artists smitten with the valley's muted light, mist-cloaked islands, farms, levees. See their work in the Valley Museum of Northwest Art at the 1891 Gaches Mansion (466-4446).

Rising on Swinomish Channel, La Conner once welcomed stern-wheelers and steamboats, and still boasts a fishing fleet. Today, the town greets you with sightseeing and dinner cruises on the channel; one serves salmon as you motor to picturesque Deception Pass and back ($45 and up, 466-4076). Dockside restaurants overlook the channel's procession of boats, and shops sell woodwork and other crafts. About 15 miles west of 1-5 on exit 221 or 230, La Conner gets crowded on weekends; parking's hard to find, and restaurant lines grow long. But the peace of the river valley is always there; call 466-4778.

FAIRHAVEN

Just off the freeway, Fairhaven fairly demands a visit. Follow signs from exit 250. A booming port in the 1880s, the town succumbed to the panic of 93 and was eventually absorbed by neighboring Bellingham, but clung to its identity. Today, it's thriving again, thanks partly to the new Alaska ferry terminal.

Entrepreneurs have opened coffee houses, cafes, galleries, and studios in a collection of restored brick Victorians around 12th Street and Harris Avenue. If your time in town is limited, you can eat lunch at an outdoor cafe and then be on your way. Or stay and explore. Rent a mountain bike (733-4433) to pedal woodsy Interurban Trail or view-rich Chuckanut Drive. Rent a kayak, rowing dory, sailboat, or outboard skiff (647-2469) to see Fairhaven's eclectic waterfront. For lodging details, call 671-3990.
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Date:Jul 1, 1990
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