Who knew that if you drove south from Vancouver for a couple of hours and took a quick ferry ride west, you’d end up in Norway? Okay, maybe not the country itself, but a little town in Washington state that’s so full of Scandinavian charm it’s even tickled the fancy of a Norwegian newspaper.
I had never heard of Poulsbo before I visited it this summer. Located on the Kitsap Peninsula across Puget Sound from Seattle, it’s close enough for locals living there to commute to the Starbucks capital. (It’s a 20-minute drive from Poulsbo to the Bainbridge Island ferry terminal; from there, you take a half-hour ferry ride to downtown Seattle.) Not as well-known as posh Bainbridge Island, the waterfront town is so picturesque that I wondered why it wasn’t already on my getaway radar.
Sluys’ Bakery, with the Viking ship mural nearby, is a focal point in Poulsbo. Carolyn Ali photo.
With a population of about 9,000, you don’t have to look far to see Poulsbo’s Scandinavian influence. Norwegian flags line colourful Front Street in the historic downtown district on Liberty Bay. It’s a quaint little area filled with restaurants, shops, and galleries, where everyone stops to drool over the pastries in the window of Sluys’ Bakery. Down the block one way, a mural of a Viking ship stretches across the outside wall of a chocolate shop. The other way, the Nordic Maid gift store beckons with displays of Finnish cookbooks, Danish iron candle holders, and Norlender sweaters. And around the bend, one wall of a clock tower is covered with a bucolic mural of a blond maiden in a mountain hamlet who proclaims “Velkommen til Poulsbo”. On a hill in the distance, the spires of the little white First Lutheran Church rise above the town.
There are several charming murals in downtown Poulsbo. Carolyn Ali photo.
Norwegian loggers, farmers, and cod fishers were attracted to the area’s fjord-like environment and settled it in the 1880s. Resident Ivar B. Moe named the town after Paulsbo, Norway, but the post office misread his handwriting when he registered it; hence, it’s spelled Poulsbo but pronounced Pauls-bo. Ten percent of the population still has Norwegian roots, and the local Sons of Norway lodge occupies a prominent position overlooking a lovely park facing the water.
Browsing the shops, I was delighted to see that Marina Market devotes an entire aisle to canned and jarred seafood such as pickled herring, as well as lutefisk, a traditional cod dish cured with lye. The store also features a licorice “shrine”, stocked with different brands of the sticky sweet from around the world.
“I’m just about ready to apply for The Guinness Book of World Records,” owner Andrea Rowe told me, estimating that she’s got close to 400 varieties. The salty ones are especially popular in Scandinavia, she noted, adding that she sees plenty of amused Norwegian tourists exploring the town. She pulled out a printout of a recent article from the website of the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet profiling Poulsbo. “When the Norwegians come over and they see all their flags, it’s a little weird for them,” she added with a chuckle.
Of course, Norwegians make up a minority of Poulsbo’s visitors; most come from Seattle and the Puget Sound region, and not just for the Scandinavian ambiance but also the outdoor activities. “The Kitsap Peninsula is definitely a destination for paddlers,” said John Kuntz, a director of the Kitsap Visitor and Convention Bureau, who I met at the Poulsbo dock. As the owner of Olympic Outdoor Center prepared to launch his kayak, he explained that visitors can spend days exploring the 400-kilometre-long shoreline along the Kitsap Peninsula Water Trail, which offers public shoreline access and camping. Beginners can also rent a kayak or a paddleboard for an hour or two to explore tranquil Liberty Bay. “The estuary is one of the top harbour seal–rearing areas in Puget Sound and a great destination to view marine wildlife,” he added.
A waterfront walkway overlooks Poulsbo’s picturesque Liberty Bay. Carolyn Ali photo.
Perched over the marina with a 180-degree view of the bay, the Loft restaurant is the logical place to chill out with a beer after a paddle—or warm up with a bowl of soup, as the case in the rainy Pacific Northwest may be. There are also plenty of interesting eating options in the historic district, and not a McDonald’s or Starbucks in sight. (The Poulsbohemian Coffeehouse up the hill drew me in on name alone and also offers a gorgeous bay view.)
The Poulsbohemian Coffeehouse has a lovely patio and an equally nice view indoors overlooking the bay. Carolyn Ali photo.
“There are a lot of restaurants that are really doing a local-food focus,” said Kate Cummings, market assistant for the Poulsbo Farmers Market, when I chatted with her there the next day. She singled out Mor Mor Bistro and Bar as a leader in the town’s farm-to-plate cooking for its Northwest cuisine. By coincidence, I had been to Mor Mor the night before for the weekly appetizer-and-wine-pairing evening, and had really enjoyed both the food and the warm, art deco touches of the casual room.
There was plenty of tempting prepared food at the market too. Too bad I had just eaten breakfast; otherwise, I would have snacked on freshly made crumpets, handmade Filipino lumpia, and cheese tamales. I couldn’t turn down a sample from the Viking Feast Ice Cream booth, however. Their super-creamy product, which is made from the Icelandic yogurtlike dairy product skyr, was delicious. I made a mental note to visit their retail store later for a scoop of white chocolate coconut.
Go hungry to the Poulsbo Farmers Market. Carolyn Ali photo.
From the market, I hopped in the car for a half-hour drive north to Port Gamble. The town, which is a national historic landmark, sits on the water overlooking Hood Canal just past a floating bridge that connects the Kitsap Peninsula with the Olympic Peninsula and Port Townsend. Thick forests flank either side of much of the highway, and I recalled Kuntz telling me that parts of these wooded areas are filled with cycling and hiking trails.
Founded in 1853, Port Gamble was the longest continuously operating mill town in North America until it shut down in 1995. Its heyday over, the town’s colourful, preserved New England Victorian-style homes now make it a tourist attraction, and while people do live in the quaint buildings, some now function as art galleries and cafés.
After wandering through the general store, which has both souvenirs and a café that overlooks the water, I ran into Kuntz unloading kayaks from his truck at his shop across the street. We chatted briefly about the town’s history, and then he caught me off-guard by adding matter-of-factly: “The post office is haunted.” While the historic building around the corner from his store still functions as a postal hub, the basement was at one time Port Gamble’s morgue, and apparently the spirits are restless.
Pointing to the cemetery overlooking the water, Kuntz told me about Gustave Englebrecht, who was buried there in 1856. “Let’s just say he has been around town,” Kuntz said cryptically. When prodded, he explained that residents have had sightings and heard footsteps, and even claim to have recorded his voice.
Such hauntings make Port Gamble even more attractive to some visitors, especially in the run-up to Halloween, with “ghost walk” tours taking place throughout October. The third annual Port Gamble Ghost Conference is set for October 19 and 20 this year, and according to the website for Port Gamble, it will include tours, lectures, and “paranormal investigations”.
Now there’s a getaway that’s far from ordinary.
ACCESS: From the Peace Arch border crossing, drive about 170 kilometres south to Edmonds ferry terminal and take a 30-minute ferry ride to Kingston; Poulsbo is located about 20 minutes southwest. Poulsbo Inn & Suites and GuestHouse Inn and Suites Poulsbo-Kitsap are both a five-minute drive from the waterfront. The Poulsbo farmers market happens every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. through December 22. The writer visited as a guest of the City of Poulsbo. For information on the region, see visitkitsap.com/ and poulsbochamber.com/.