Thursday, January 28, 2016

Northern Exposure - not for us

We’re trying to figure out where we want to live, in retirement.  Where we are now, Richardson, Texas, is pretty good.  Everything is convenient, we know where to go for whatever we need, and we have friends in the area.  There are just two problems:  July and August.  It gets incredibly hot here during those two months, and June and September can be pretty bad as well.  So we are looking at alternatives.

The first thing we did was to look at a book called America’s 100 Best Places to Retire, by Mary Lu Abbott.  Each of us devised a list of places we were interesting in checking out.  Typically, the lists were not the same, except for one place: Port Townsend, Washington. 

Port Townsend is at the tip of a peninsula sticking into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which separates Washington from British Columbia.  The town is described in the book as in the rain shadow of the Olympic range, and receives less rainfall than other parts of Washington.  The rain clouds have to dump their contents to clear the mountains, leaving Port Townsend with minimal annual rainfall.  But it doesn’t get hot there, which is something we are looking for.  We decided to check it out.  And we decided to do something smart – check it out during the worst time of year rather than the best, figuring that if we liked Port Townsend in January, we would like it any time.

Our itinerary included spending a couple of days north of Seattle, for a tour reunion put on by Rick Steves’ Europe ( for people who took a tour with them during 2015.  There is also a day-long event called ‘Test Drive a Tour Guide’, which was really just them selling their tours.  We did meet the young woman who led our “Best of the Adriatic” tour and a couple who were on our tour, and that was nice.  We stayed in Lynnwood, near Edmonds, for three nights.  (My review of the hotel in Lynnwood is here). Then we caught the Edmonds to Kingston ferry and started on our way to Port Townsend.

The ferry was not rough, but the day was very, very dark.  This was at noon.

After arriving in Port Townsend, we had to wait a while for our room to be ready at Manresa Castle (review found here) and we wandered around the downtown area for a while.  Port Townsend has a lot of Victorian buildings, very well kept, and lots of nice eateries and shopping.  It may be in danger of becoming one of those tourist towns with nothing but t-shirt shops and art galleries, but it isn’t there yet.

We found a place to eat lunch called Jordini’s on the Water, part of kind of a shopping arcade on Water Street (the main street).  No customers were there except us, and in fact the whole town seemed pretty deserted.  I think everyone was watching the Seattle Seahawks playing the Carolina Panthers in the NFL playoffs.  When I had last checked the score, it was 31-0 in favor of the Panthers, but when we got to Jordini’s the game was on their giant flat-screen TV and the Seahawks had clawed their way back into the game.  The menu looked very good, and I chose a half portion of the Italian Stallion sub sandwich.  The half portion was six inches long and almost equally thick, and was excellent.  Unfortunately, that seemed to set the pattern – every meal we had in Port Townsend (not counting breakfast at the Castle) was very good, and portions were probably too generous.  While we ate, the game ended with the Seahawks trailing. 

Half a sandwich at Jordini’s

While waiting for our room to be ready, we stopped off at the Tourist Information office and spoke for a while with a gentleman who had retired to Port Townsend from Texas, specifically Austin.  We asked about how people get to Seattle and to the airport, where to shop, etc.  He made a point of saying how not hot it is there, since we were interested in less hot summers.  He also said it often rains on the fourth of July.

Our room at Manresa was ready at 4 PM, and they gave us a $25 coupon for something off dinner at a restaurant in town, since their restaurant was not open on Sunday (or any other day we were there). We took advantage of the coupon and ate at The Belmont, on Water Street, which would be considered ‘fine dining’ I suppose.  The crab stuffed halibut was pretty good.

The next day (Monday) I contacted a realtor who I had been emailing back and forth with about looking for a house in Port Townsend.  Her name is Anne McLaughlin, and she was perfect for us.  She showed us neighborhoods, explained about the lifestyle in Port Townsend, and showed us a couple of homes for sale that were not occupied.  The deal in Port Townsend is whether or not you have a view.  If you have a nice view, add $100,000 to the price.  We found the homes were smaller than in Texas, and a lot of them have septic tanks and heat with propane.  The peninsula (meaning the Olympic Peninsula, not just the Quimper Peninsula where Port Townsend is located) does not have a natural gas pipeline, so everyone heats with electric or propane or probably even wood stoves.  We saw a lot of the Cape George area, which is popular with retirees.  We would prefer a one-level house, and there are not a lot of them, but there are some.  I would guess that the price per square foot is 50% higher than in Richardson, TX, but the lifestyle is simpler and people aren’t so overboard with large houses. 

While meeting with Anne, we overheard her making a lunch date with someone at a place called Silverwater Café, so based on that recommendation, we went there for lunch.  It was the only place in Port Townsend that we went to twice, so that’s also a recommendation.  The food there was very, very good although the service was a little spaced out.  Marijuana is legal in Washington, which probably had nothing to do with it.

That evening we decided to try a place near Silverwater, called Alchemy Bistro.  I think this restaurant may have two sections, one less expensive and once fancier, but I am not sure. We ate in what was certainly fine dining, and we even had live music, a competent piano player.  I had a cod dish that was just okay.  Service was excellent.  Towards the end of our stay, an old man went up to the piano player and dropped some money in the tip jar, and spoke with him a moment.  The man looked familiar, and after a moment I realized he was one of the actors on a TV show from the 90’s called “Northern Exposure”.  The actor is named John Cullum, and he was playing an old man then.  He’s older now, but moving well.  “Northern Exposure” opened with a moose walking down the street, and the whole attitude of the show seemed to be replicated in Port Townsend.  We didn’t see any moose, but I saw more deer in one afternoon than I had seen before in my whole life.  And one big one was strolling along Lawrence Street, the main drag of Uptown Port Townsend, just minding his own business.

On Tuesday we decided to drive over to a town called Sequim, pronounced ‘skwim’, which is supposed to have what they call the ‘blue hole’, a hole in the cloud cover produced by peaks in the Olympic range.  Sequim is a bigger deal than Port Townsend, having the only Costco around, a Home Depot, lots of shopping.  It is home to a lot of retirees from California, seeking the sun but a cooler climate.  Anne, our real estate lady, seemed a little contemptuous of Sequim, saying they built houses there that resembled the houses they left behind in Southern California.  We saw some exceptionally tacky houses near the main road, but used our Zillow app to find some farther afield, and ended up in a large development called Sunland, where some nice new houses can be found.  We got a realtor to show us one, and it was very impressive, although attached on one side.  It was not a ‘duplex’ per se but pretty upscale.  Sunland is close to being built out, and seemed very nice, but the properties do not have much in the way of a view.  A golf course winds through the development.  Lots of deer hanging around.

We had a good lunch in Sequim in a place called Hiway 101 Diner, which was straight out of the Fifties.  Nice food.

That evening, back in Port Townsend, we had dinner at a Northern-Exposure type place called Owl Sprit Café (note – not Owl Spirit).  This was a pretty laid-back, inexpensive place that had an extensive lunch menu and a less extensive dinner menu, but the lunch menu went until 8 PM.  So I went with some sliders (below) from the lunch menu (I love sliders) while my wife chose some vegetable linguini (vegetarian).  We were both happy with our choices.


Our final day in Port Townsend we spent looking back at some of the properties we had seen with Anne, and in walking around Fort Worden State Park, looking at some of the old officer’s quarters that you can actually rent out, although probably not in January.  While there, we saw a bald eagle, but could not get a decent photo. The day was incredibly cold and dreary, and in fact I don’t think the thermometer reached 50F the whole time we were there.  We ate lunch again at Silverwater, and for dinner chose a place called Fountain Café, where I had something called Scotch Fettucine, meaning with smoked salmon.  So-so. Jody had a risotto dish large enough to feed a squad of vegetarian Marines, if any could be found.

When Thursday came around and it was time to go home, we were ready.  But we had a hundred mile drive to Sea-Tac, and endured a couple of hours of really heavy rain during the drive.  At times it was nearly impossible to see.  The speed limit was just a dream. I think during the drive it finalized our determination that we could not live in a place like this, no matter how nice it is in the summer time.  The difficulty of getting around was too much, and it was too remote and too much of a culture shock.  So our search for a place to live in retirement will continue.