The Great Northwest : Touring the grandeur of Washington’s magnificent Olympic Peninsula
(Photography by Charter Weeks)
It juts off the West Coast and into the turbulent Pacific like the prow of a ship. Its interior is a wilderness of snow-capped mountains shouldering the sky. One main highway circumnavigates the peninsula and only a few small roads push inland from the coast. Winds drive clouds off the ocean where they collide with the mountains, spilling enough moisture to create a moss-laden rain forest. Further east, the mountains cast a “rain shadow” and the rolling countryside around Port Angeles and Sequim enjoys a relatively dry climate year-round. Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula offers some of the most spectacular scenery in the Northwest. As is our habit, we chose to explore this area in the off-season, preferring to share our vacation with the people who live here rather than with the three million visitors who flock to the parks and shores in the height of summer.
My husband and I arrived at the Seattle/ Tacoma Airport where Chevrolet’s Western Division had arranged to have our car waiting: a 1991 red convertible with a six-speed. We took the expressway into Seattle, at once comfortable with the car’s effortless performance. Downtown Seattle offers many fine hotels, but we chose the informality of Chelsea Station, a bed and breakfast inn located at the edge of the Woodland Park Zoo and Rose Garden in a quiet neighborhood minutes away from the city center and the ferries. The following morning’s breakfast included ginger pancakes, fresh fruit, coffee and a choice of teas prepared and served by our genial host, Dick Jones. Daily newspapers and a bookshelf of tourist guides were available for us to read. We chatted a while with our companions at the breakfast table before setting off for the ferry to the peninsula. The bright morning was polished by warm breezes off the bay.
At Winslow, one of the dozens of small islands in Puget Sound, we followed Route 104 north toward the Hood Canal Bridge. We took a short detour at Poulsbo to visit the Thomas Kemper Brewery. All-malt lager beer is produced here, as it is in a number of “micro breweries” throughout the state — and these deep gold draughts have a complexity of flavor that I’d never tasted before.
We turned off 104 onto the shore road to Port Townsend. The winding route was more scenic than the highway, and it gave us the chance to shift the Corvette through the curves with a Bonnie Raitt CD turned up loud. In the last part of the 19th century, Port Townsend rivaled Seattle as a center of commerce. Its ornate Victorian homes and public buildings are in startling contrast to the simpler styles of the rest of the region. Many of the old houses have been given over to bed and breakfasts, and, like small port cities on both coasts that no longer sustain an economy based on merchandise brought in by trading vessels, the downtown streets are lined with antique shops, book stores, small hotels and restaurants. A free guide to the area can be picked up at the Chamber of Commerce Information Center, showing the way to the 100-year-old Tree of Heaven (a gift to the town from an emperor of China), historic houses and the Jefferson County Historical Society Museum and Library. Port Townsend’s Rhododendron Festival was in full swing, but at this time of year, the entire region is a festival of extravagantly showy shrubs and wildflowers. From the windows of The Lido restaurant we watched gulls float over the harbor while we lunched on fresh calamari and clams and sampled an excellent Washington state Chardonnay.
On our way to Sequim, where we planned to spend the night, we turned off Route 101 up Lost Mountain Road to the Lost Mountain Winery. Proprietor Romeo Conca’s driveway was something of a challenge for our low-slung carriage; next time we’ll park on the road and walk up to the shady house where he creates his natural, sulfite-free wines from Washington state grapes. In the summer, visitors can taste his new releases along with homemade bread and good cheese. Romeo showed us some of the labels that have adorned past bottles: beautifully executed poems, one for each year’s vintage. For wine buffs, Lost Mountain is one of four wineries in the Olympic area, all of which can easily be visited in a day’s trip.
It was late afternoon when we turned down the long driveway of the Domaine Madeleine. We were met by Madeleine and John Chambers who invited us to walk around the grounds. Past brilliant rhododendrons and lush azaleas, the lawn stretched to a cliff overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the gray outline of Vancouver Island’s mountains. Two cargo ships moved silently eastward.
Next, we were given a tour of the house. To call the place a bed and breakfast establishment would be like calling our Corvette simple transportation. The spacious living room is decorated in spare elegance with Oriental antiques. There is a downstairs suite overlooking the water, and upstairs, the Ming Room offered us a private balcony, European feather bed, whirlpool, a charming array of French perfumes and Pierre Cardin bathrobes in the closet.
That night, Madeleine reserved a table at C’est Si Bon, a French restaurant down the road, and sent us off into the warm evening. We were pleased to discover C’est Si Bon, featuring many regional specialties. The high walls were crowded with paintings and mirrors; many of the tables were set in glass booths, graced with fresh flowers and baskets of homemade bread. The chef, Norbert Juhasz, described the evening’s offerings and suggested wines to accompany Charter’s medallions of beef in currant sauce and my salmon with crab leek sauce. These excellent main dishes were served with potatoes, asparagus and a delicious side dish of curried pepper mushrooms. Toward the end of the meal, Norbert’s wife, Michele, emerged aproned from the kitchen with a frothy orange mousse. We left just before midnight feeling pampered.
Heading west toward Port Angeles the next morning, we turned onto the Heart 0′ the Hills Highway. The wide, steep and looping road took us high into the magnificence of the Olympic Range. Snow that had long disappeared from the lowlands remained on the precipitous slopes and peaks. Every turn, each crest offered such astounding vistas that words were altogether inadequate. It was a pleasure to put the Corvette through its paces as we climbed to Hurricane Ridge where mountains filled the vast spaces around us, crowding the enormous sky. From here, as from a few other park entries, one can hike into a pristine wilderness filled with glaciers, lakes and abundant wildlife. The Park Service provides maps, interpretive publications, lectures and tours, as well as information on hiking, climbing and campsites.
Back on Route 101, after a roller coaster descent, we continued west past Lake Crescent and the Sol Duc Hot Springs, sharing the road with huge logging trucks hauling out chunks of the forests. For the first-time visitor, the sight of clear-cut hillsides is a shock. Timber company signs announce “Managed Forest,” listing the dates of harvest, slash and burn, replanting. As we approach the little town of Sappho, we see yellow signs in the windows of stores and gas stations: “Supported By Timber.” Feelings run high in this part of the world, where lumbering has long been a way of life and where now economics clash with concerns for the rapidly vanishing old growth forests and the wildlife they harbor.
Not far away, up winding Route 112, native Americans of the Makah tribe give evidence of another world view. For a glimpse of a society that thrived 4,000 years ago and which still retains many of its traditions, we headed to Neah Bay and the museum at the Makah Cultural and Research Center. The first Europeans arrived in Makah territory in the late 1700s and by 1855, the Makahs had signed a treaty establishing the now 44-square-mile reservation. A $2 million dollar museum on the outskirts of town displays relics of the ancient civilization and is the sole repository for an extraordinary discovery. In 1970, tidal erosion exposed a group of homes in the coastal village of Ozette that had been perfectly preserved in a mudslide centuries ago. Thousands of artifacts were retrieved, creating a detailed picture of Makah daily life. We walked slowly through corridors darkened to protect the fragile artifacts: cedar bark clothing, woven cedar rain hats, baskets and boxes for holding water or boiling food, tools, whaling gear, works of art, toys. The displays are arranged to follow activities of the seasons of the year: spring whale hunting, summer gathering and fishing, fall wood and stone working and indoor winter ceremonies, games, basket weaving. Taped songs and stories in the Makah language whisper in the background. There is an unmistakable air of reverence about this place. Along with the permanent collection, there are modem replicas of a longhouse, canoes and equipment made by contemporary craftsmen. Fine examples of modern Makah basketry are on sale. The museum also mounts temporary exhibits. We saw a wonderful photographic exhibit titled, “Riding in His Canoe: The Continuing Legacy of Young Doctor,” which chronicles the life and times of a fascinating man at a time when the Makah language and culture was in great peril. Today, the Makah Archives maintains a vast collection of documents, films, slides, oral histories and tapes of the Makah language spoken by elders. It is designed primarily as a resource for the adults and children of the community to read and learn about their tribe. Instruction in the language is part of the school curriculum. The Neah Bay area is a paradise of coves and beaches where the visitor can sail, canoe, fish and explore. But, to my mind, it’s the richness of Makah culture and its relationship to the land and sea that makes a trip to the westernmost tip of the continental U.S. a must.
We backtracked past Sappho to Forks. The afternoon was lengthening. We put the top down and drove to Mora beach just as the sun was setting. The Pacific pounds onto the shore; its windblown waves tumble beach stones into a deep carpet of smooth pebbles. Gigantic bleached skeletons of trees litter the verge, carried down mountain rivers to the sea and returned to shore by the ferocious surf. The Quileute Indian Tribe’s village of La Push was visible to the south. Everything — water, village, driftwood — was caught in the brilliance of the dying light. We ate smoked salmon, a specialty of the Smokehouse Restaurant, and the regional delicacy, Dungeness crab. We went to bed early in our comfortable room at the Miller Tree Inn.
As if the lonely Olympics or the vast Pacific weren’t enough, the peninsula shelters another marvel. A few miles south of Forks, a road cuts into the park to the edge of the Hoh Rain Forest. We drove under Sitka spruces that towered 300 feet, trees that were already 250 years old when Pilgrims were making landfall on a distant shore. We left the car at the park center and walked deep into the forest. We saw grazing deer and elk tracks, wild strawberries and plant species that we did not recognize. We sat by the shallow, fast-running Hoh River and watched swallows diving. At another time we might return with a tent and sleeping bags and spend whole lost days here.
We visited the Forks Timber Museum on our way out of town. There were photos of horses dragging spruce out of the woods, a replica of the rude the woods, a replica of the rude bunkhouses where loggers fell exhausted into bed at night, memorabilia of a time before chainsaws and cherry pickers.
There had not been a single break in the fine weather since we arrived. Accelerating a responsive sports car along an almost-empty regulations, I might mention a policy that highway proved a temptation impossible to resist. Evidently, the state trooper found the temptation to stop me irresistible as well. When I explained the purpose of my trip in the borrowed Corvette, Officer Henson was sympathetic, but firm. Corvettes were not exempted from the state speed limit. I confess to being a bit chagrined, however. My speed, though admittedly excessive, had been barely enough to warrant shifting into sixth gear. Imagine how fast I could have been going! Officer Henson gave us his card and wished us a pleasant, slower journey.
While I’m on the subject of highway regulations, I might mention a policy that struck me as eminently sensible. Washington state requires any vehicle going slowly enough to accumulate a following of more than five cars to pull over and let them pass. We continued back to Port Angeles, the peninsula’s largest town, for some sightseeing. Then back for one more luxurious night at the Domaine Madeleine and more conversation with John and Madeleine. We hated to leave.
Back in Seattle that night, sitting over a long and pleasurable dinner with friends and relatives, we were struck by the realization that a mountain wilderness, long, deserted ocean beaches, native American settlements and secluded inns were only a day’s drive from the Northwest’s most beautiful metropolis. That is the Olympic Peninsula, and we shall return.
—Freelance writer Marie Harris is a New Hampshire resident. She and her photographer/husband are partners in an industrial advertising agency.
Planning Your Trip
For information, brochures, assistance in planning a trip to the Olympic Peninsula, call or write:
North Olympic Peninsula
Visitor & Convention Bureau
P 0. Box 670
Port Angeles, WA 98362
For information, brochures, assistance in planning a trip to the greater Seattle area, call or write:
Seattle-King County Convention & Visitors Bureau
520 Pike St., Suite 1300
Seattle, WA 98101
Chelsea Station, 4915 Linden Ave. North, Seattle, WA 98103; 206-547-6077.
Domaine Madeleine, 1834 Finn Hall Rd., Port Angeles, WA 98362
Miller Tree Inn, P 0. Box 953, Forks, WA 98331; 206-374-6806
Cafe Sabika, 315 E. Pine Capitol Hill, Seattle, WA; 206-622-3272
Lido, 925 Water St., Port Townsend, WA; 206-385-7111
C’est Si Bon, U.S. 101, Port Angeles, WA 98362; 206-452-8888
Smokehouse Restaurant, U.S. 101, Forks, WA 98331; 206-374-6258
Thomas Kemper Brewery, 22381 Foss Rd. NE, Poulsbo, WA 98370; 206-697-1446
Lost Mountain Winery, 730 Lost Mountain Rd., Sequim, WA 98382; 206-683-5229
Makah Cultural & Research Center, P 0. Box 95, Neah Bay, WA 98357; 206-645-2711
Forks Timber Museum, Highway 101, Forks, WA 98331; 206-374¬9663
Superintendent, Olympic National Park, 600 E. Park Ave., Port Angeles, WA 98362; 206-452-4501