The seeds of your next getaway are often planted while you’re still on the road. Returning home from Portland by train, I gazed out the window as the tracks hugged Puget Sound in Washington state. At one point, we sped past a miles-long stretch of ocean with restaurants on stilts jutting out into a bay—with tantalizing signs for a chowder house and a brewery. As the sun set, joggers ran along the boardwalk. “What a cool place,” I thought to myself. “Where are we?”
Minutes later, the train pulled into Tacoma Station. I was already planning my next trip.
Tacoma isn’t an obvious vacation destination. Virtually everyone I told about my plans asked, “What’s in Tacoma?” Well, for starters, amazing art. I’d already been there once to explore the city’s glass scene, which is flourishing thanks to artist Dale Chihuly, who grew up there. For me, watching artists at the Museum of Glass’s hot shop manipulate the molten material was reason enough to return. But I also wanted to check out the LeMay car museum, which focuses on the history of the automobile with a collection that ranges from a spiffy red-and-white 1906 Cadillac Model M to a 1983 DeLorean DMC 12 reminiscent of the one in Back to the Future.
Most of all, I wanted to explore that beautiful bay. I did so when I returned a few months later, but I also found much more worth seeing than I’d ever anticipated.
Just a 10-minute drive north of downtown Tacoma, a narrow park lines the Ruston Way waterfront. The two-mile stretch faces Commencement Bay, and the train tracks run along the foot of Tacoma’s Old Town hill, where I stayed. In four days, I only ventured downtown once—to revisit that awesome Museum of Glass. Otherwise, I delighted in exploring the bay and its surrounding neighbourhoods, which felt more like they were part of a Gulf Island than a gritty city.
Make no mistake: Tacoma is indeed a metropolis. Old Town is the city’s birthplace; you can still visit a replica of the cabin that Civil War veteran Job Carr built there in 1865, betting that Commencement Bay would be the terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad. (In 1873, Tacoma was indeed selected as the terminus.) A village grew around his cabin, followed by a thriving port. That grew into a cluster of pulp mills, factories, aluminum smelters, and more, leading to the city’s dubious “aroma of Tacoma” reputation.
But while freight trains rumbled through Old Town on a regular basis, I found it pleasant and scent-free. The hulking pair of Military Sealift Command ships moored just off Chinese Reconciliation Park gave it a bit of an edge, forming an odd juxtaposition with the red pagoda. Old Town itself is a charming few blocks that includes wine bars, a quaint tearoom, and the Spar, Tacoma’s oldest saloon, where black-and-white photos of days gone by provide the backdrop to live blues performances. Many of the surrounding residences are beautifully restored heritage houses, and while there’s not much in the way of shopping, the Proctor District offers a pleasant alternative a five-minute drive away.
Then there’s Point Defiance Park, Tacoma’s version of Stanley Park, about a 10-minute drive from Old Town. Formerly a military reserve base, the 310-hectare green space is situated on a spectacular peninsula, much of it cliffs and old-growth forest. At sea level, Owen Beach has a covered picnic area and a lovely waterfront promenade flanked by the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges. It’s a great place to kick back on the sand, and kayak rentals are available.
I enjoyed the leisurely Five Mile Drive that lines the park’s perimeter, and I stopped at multiple pullouts to drink up the views of Puget Sound, Vashon Island, and Gig Harbor. In one spot, the vista included the Tacoma Narrows and a forest-green bridge that looked remarkably like the Lions Gate from a distance, linking Tacoma to the Kitsap Peninsula.
The bridge intrigued me enough that I crossed it the following day after a 10-kilometre drive west from downtown. That’s when I learned that it’s actually the Tacoma Narrows bridges, a pair of twin suspension bridges, the eastbound one with a US$5.25 toll. The nominal fee was worth it for an afternoon exploring Gig Harbor, a picturesque town lined with million-dollar yachts and even more expensive views of Mount Rainier.
Pouring rain gave me a good excuse to spend some quality time at 7 Seas Brewing, a craft operation located incongruously in a Gig Harbor strip mall. As I sipped a flight of beers in the taproom—including the fantastic, raisiny Wheelchair Barleywine—I marvelled at how different Washington’s pub culture is from B.C.’s. On a Saturday afternoon, the place was packed and included many parents, who chatted at communal tables while their young children ran about. While the brewery doesn’t serve food, it encourages patrons to bring in their own: a prominently displayed chalkboard lists nearby restaurants for takeout and delivery.
In my remaining time in Tacoma, I checked out that brewery on the waterfront that had caught my eye on the train. Part of a Washington-state chain, the RAM Restaurant + Brewery has not-bad beer like the smooth Disorder Porter and a stellar ocean view. I also visited another craft brewery in the city’s North End called Engine House No. 9. Billed as Tacoma’s first craft brewery, it’s housed in a brick building built in 1907 that was the city’s last horse-drawn fire station. Near the bar, you can still see the stable gates, and touches like the two-storey brass fireman’s pole and nets hanging from the ceiling make it a fun place to imbibe.
In the end, I ran out of time and didn’t get a chance to tour the LeMay car museum. No matter. There’s always the next trip.
Access: Tacoma lies about 280 kilometres south of Vancouver on the I-5. For tourism info, see the Travel Tacoma website. The Silver Cloud Inn offers accommodation on the waterfront; Airbnb has listings in Old Town Tacoma. For info on Point Defiance and other parks, see the Metro Park Tacoma website.