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Ports and Pints in Washington’s Puget Sound

The Pacific Northwest occupies a singular place in our collective imagination, and for good reason: The evergreen forests, towering mountains, quaint waterfronts and distinctive culture make the region a unique part of the American landscape. These elements are on full display in the Puget Sound region of northwest Washington.

Whether you explore the iconic sights, sounds and flavors of Seattle; take in the national parks around Olympia; immerse yourself in the maritime history of Gig Harbor; or take a wildlife-watching expedition in the San Juan Islands, a trip to Washington promises to deliver experiences that fulfill your expectations for the beautiful, one-of-a-kind Northwest.

Olympia: Picturesque Parks and Bountiful Byways

Situated at the southern tip of Puget Sound, Olympia serves as northwest Washington’s hub of outdoor exploration. But groups should also take some time to explore the area’s rich history, agricultural heritage and growing beer scene.

First things first, though: Olympia is ideally situated at the midpoint of two of the region’s most scenic national parks.

“We are so close to Olympic National Park and Mount Rainier National Park,” said Jeff Rowe, director of sales at the Olympia-Lacey-Tumwater Visitors and Convention Bureau. “A lot of our tour groups use Olympia as a home base, then do hub-and-spoke tours to those parks. Olympic National Park is about an hour-and-a-half drive, and that takes you through a beautiful national rain forest. Mount Rainier National Park is about a two-hour drive. There, people can go up to the visitors center at Paradise Lodge, which can also be the starting point for a number of terrific hikes.”

Within Olympia itself, a number of museums and attractions will give groups a feel for the area’s history. The Olympic Flight Museum features a collection of vintage aircraft that range from World War II to the Vietnam era. The museum is located at the airport right next to Glacier Aviation, which offers helicopter tours of the surrounding area.

Another popular stop is the Schmidt House, a historic mansion built by one of the first families to brew beer in Olympia using water from nearby sources. Groups touring the home will learn about the family, their iconic Olympia Beer and the history of brewing in the area.

Beer isn’t just history in Olympia, though. Microbreweries have been popping up around town, offering modern twists on a regional tradition.

“Fish Tail Ale has a beer that was voted best beer in the world last year by the World Beer Council,” Rowe said. “They offer a brewery tour, where they talk about the process of collecting hops from eastern Washington, brewing the beer here and distributing it. They also give some of the byproducts back to local farmers to help them feed their animals. The farms sell them cheese at reduced prices, and they sell that cheese in their restaurant.”

Breweries, as well as some area organic farms, are featured in Olympia’s Bountiful Byway tour program, which gives group travelers opportunities to meet farmers and learn about the work they do. Highlights include picking lavender and shopping for gifts at a local lavender farm, as well as Lattin’s Country Cider Mill and Farm, where groups can learn about cider production and sample the farm kitchen’s signature apple fritters.

Gig Harbor: Waterfront and Maritime History

About 40 miles north of Olympia, the town of Gig Harbor offers a scenic waterfront with large helpings of charm and maritime history.

“We have a small, quaint, historic downtown with maritime heritage that’s very evident as you walk along the waterfront,” said Karen Scott, director of tourism and communications for the city of Gig Harbor. “We’re sheltered by a bay that is pretty scenic and has spectacular views of Mount Rainier through the head of the harbor.”

Many groups start their time in the area at the Harbor History Museum, which is right on the water. The museum features exhibits that trace Gig Harbor’s past, with a focus on maritime history. One of the chief highlights is a historic fishing vessel that volunteers are working to restore. Visitors can watch the restoration work on the large ship and talk with volunteers about their maritime memories.

Maritime enthusiasts will find more to enjoy at the Gig Harbor Boat Shop, a nonprofit organization that promotes the history and art of wooden boatbuilding. Groups can take part in special boatbuilding experiences there. And Harbor WildWatch, an environmental organization, teaches visitors about the marine wildlife living in Gig Harbor, with diving demonstrations and other experiences that give guests close-up looks at sea creatures.

Groups can take narrated sightseeing cruises offered by a number of companies in Gig Harbor, during which they’ll learn about the city’s commercial fishing past and see some of the “net sheds” that are leftovers of that tradition.

“Net sheds are what the commercial fishermen used to store their nets,” Scott said. “We still have the largest inventory of net sheds on the Puget Sound.”

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.