A Visit to the Maritime Town of Gig Harbor

by Nancy Zaffaro
Gig Harbor

Less than an hour from Seattle, Gig Harbor is an inviting coastal town. This South Puget town  with a population of just under 10,000, welcomes you with its maritime history, great food, shopping, and sites. Sailboats, yachts, and small motor boats bob with the rhythm of the waves in the city harbor. The salt air is fresh. There are park lawns and picnic benches. There are heritage homes and buildings from the mid-to-late 19th century when the town was first settled by white settlers, many from Croatia and Scandinavia. You’ll see the net sheds and the still-active fishing boat boatyards.

Pick up a free walking map and historic waterfront guide and start walking.

What to See:

Gig Harbor’s Historic Waterfront

Gig HarborYou can spend the entire day exploring Gig Harbor’s historic downtown waterfront. A big part of Gig Harbor’s maritime history is found in the center of downtown, at the site of the Skansie Shipbuilding Company. The four Skansie Brothers built their first boat in 1912. Brother Mitchell stayed with the endeavor and from 1912 through 1930, the company built more than 100 “purse seiners” (fishing boats) as well as ferryboats. His son took over the shipyard after his father’s death. He expanded the business, running the ferry system that connected Gig Harbor, Tacoma, Vashon Island, and Fox Island. He also built tugboats and other ships during WWII.

Today, you’ll see ship restoration work in progress. Pick out your favorite yacht or sailboat. Enjoy the views, the restaurants and shops of the whole harbor area.

Harbor History Museum

The Harbor History Museum contains a fabulous display of artifacts from the Native Salish tribes people of the area. There’s another showing life in Gig Harbor from pioneer times through modern maritime and logging days. The 7,900 square foot main building includes a gallery for rotating exhibits, and I enjoyed the Jini Dellaccio photographs during my visit. The Midway schoolhouse was moved to the site to save the area’s last one-room schoolhouse.

Gig Harbor

The Harbor History Museum

Outdoors, under cover, take in the Thunderbird sailboat on display. Thousands of these Douglas fir plywood sailboats were constructed beginning in 1958. The highlight for me was seeing the restoration effort of the Shenandoah purse seiner. Ten volunteers and one full-time shipwright are working on bringing this ship back to life.

Gig Harbor

The Shenandoah is being restored to its original glory

What to Do:

Finholm District

Pay a visit to the Finholm District on North Harborview Drive, just up the hill from downtown. The harbor views are great. Get another scenic viewpoint by taking the 100 steps up the Finholm View Climb, right next door to the Finholm Market.

Gig Harbor

The harbor view from Finholm District, with Mt. Rainier visible at the left.

Cushman Trail

Gig Harbor is just made for strolling. Enjoy sun and tree canopy on the city’s Cushman Trail, the nearly 6.2 paved walking and biking trail. The trail is nice and wide, giving bikes, strollers, walkers and runners a wide berth. You’ll find park benches, restrooms, and trail maps along the way. The trail is mixed graded, so you’ll get a bit of a cardio workout too. We started our walk right in downtown.

Gig Harbor   Gig Harbor

Grab a Paddle

It’s time to get on the water and there are a couple ways to get out there. Rent a kayak or SUP from Lee’s SUP or Gig Harbor Yachts. The protected waters of the peninsula make this a fine place for a relaxed paddle.

Gig Harbor? Or Venice, Italy?

You’re on vacation. Try something a little different, a little unexpected, and oh, so much fun — a harbor gondola ride on a real Italian gondola. There are only 30 Venetian gondolas to have made their way to the U.S., and only one in the Pacific Northwest.

John Synco’s real Venetian gondola, Nellie, weighs 1,000 pounds and no, there’s no motor

Gig Harbor Gondola gondolier/owner, John “Cinque” Synco, takes you for a ride that is both unique and entertaining on his 1,000 pound 36’ gondola, Nellie. Pass boat yards and net sheds, beautiful waterfront homes, seals and other wildlife, and the Gig Harbor lighthouse.

Gig Harbor Gondola

Enjoy seeing kayaks, boats, beautiful homes, and wildlife…and quiet moments like this one

Gig Harbor GondolaJohn is great fun, and his long-time love of Italy, the Pacific Northwest, and being on the water shines through. Not just for couples, our little group of three enjoyed his mix of Venetian gondola lore and Gig Harbor history, tales and visitor tips. If you’re looking for just a romantic and quiet harbor tour, John can deliver that as well.

And he can sing. “I started out thinking, ‘I’ll be rowing the boat.’ But I discovered it’s all customer service. People want to relax.” He had a customer who asked him to sing, but he admitted he wasn’t a singer. “I felt bad, so I started learning. And now, for people who want it, I enjoy what it gives the ride.” Take him up on the offer; his Italian serenade ended our ride on a high note.

Rowing a gondola is no small skill; John has always loved rowing but did go through gondola training in Italy. He’s able to take groups of up to six people for a ride! Andiamo! Here we go!

Gig Harbor Gondola

Gig Harbor Gondola’s John “Cinque” Synco takes you for a relaxing and entertaining gondola ride

Where to Eat and Drink:

Spending time in the fresh sea air will work up an appetite—or at least that’s my excuse. Gig Harbor’s restaurants, pubs, and coffee houses offer more than fortitude. You’ll find a wide mix of great places to eat and drink, from casual to fine dining.

Millville Pizza Company

Gig Harbor

Millville Pizza’s John Ross

In a time when restaurateurs open their own place only after years of working in various kitchens, John Ross, owner of Millville Pizza Co., has a refreshingly fun—and for budding entrepreneurs, encouraging—story.

John grew up in Gig Harbor. His family is one of the earliest to settle in the area and build a home in the Historic Millville District just a block away from the restaurant. Like many who grew up in small towns, he left, but decided to return. When he decided to open a restaurant, he had never worked in a restaurant, and had never owned a business. But he and his wife, Alyssa, set about the task anyway. They had a real Italian wood-burning pizza oven installed and custom tiled, bought some bread baking and pizza cookbooks and started baking.

“I baked like crazy. The first three months were a total mess,” John admits. “I don’t know how  I stayed open, but we did. And I got better.”

Indeed. The pizza at Millville is incredible, and John’s baking skills have gotten so good, he now sells his bread to other restaurants. Choose your choice of pies, and order one of their fabulous salads and homemade desserts.

Gig Harbor   Gig Harbor Millville Pizza

Devoted Kiss

 At Devoted Kiss Café in Finholm District, you’ll find tasty, fresh, high-quality and ample portioned breakfasts, salads and sandwiches. Owner Christina Dengler’s casual Finholm District café is open for breakfast and lunch and also makes a great quick coffee stop. There’s a cozy fireplace for cooler days, and an outdoor deck that overlooks Gig Harbor for those fine-weathered ones.

Gig Harbor Devoted Kiss   

Consider too, two other great spots we’ve written about here on our site. Try Table 47, the brand new Ocean5 entertainment complex restaurant (and stay for a game of duckpin bowling or other games). Downtown, stop by at a Gig Harbor stand-by, the waterfront Tides Tavern.

Need a coffee? Susanne’s Bakery and Java and Clay Café have great coffee, tea and homemade baked goods.

Heritage Distilling

Gig Harbor-based Heritage Distilling is the most awarded craft distillery in North America by the American Distilling Institute 5 years in a row (from 2014). Their latest big award, for their Brown Sugar Bourbon, is “World’s Best Flavoured Whisky” at the 2018 World Whiskies Awards. This is no small feat given that they were up against flavored whiskeys from the top distilleries world-wide.

In addition to their line of whiskeys, the Heritage Distilling portfolio includes gins and vodkas, with some of the most creative line of naturally flavored vodkas. Visit the downtown tasting room, or take a short drive to where the magic is done at the distillery. (We share of some of their new cocktail recipes here.)

Gig Harbor

Heritage Distilling’s Laura Hines offers tastings of their spirits. Enjoy tastings at either their downtown tasting room or their distillery location.

Where to Shop:

Gig Harbor has some fabulous shops in the downtown area on Harborview Drive and in the Finholm District.

Downtown, Marie Pires’ Imagine Great Things has wonderful gift and houseware items, including Fair Trade items from throughout the world. Explore the Ebb Tide Gallery, the Keeping Room Fine Wine and Gifts, Tickled Pink, Sea Hags, and the dolly mama stores.

In Finholm District, stop in at the Finholm Market and Grocery for snacks and picnic items. At Vicki’s Life, Vicki sells her creative and fun handmade leather bags, jean bags and jewelry.

Where to Stay:

The Maritime Inn

Gig HarborA stay at Gig Harbor’s waterfront Maritime Inn offers location, location, location because it’s just across the street from Skansie Brothers Park and Netshed, the Harbor and downtown shops and restaurants. You truly can park the car and not use it again until you leave, if you so choose.

Gig Harbor

Each of the rooms in this 16-room boutique inn is named after ships that have played a part in Gig Harbor’s maritime history. Each room features a photo of the ship for which it’s named. I stayed in the Avalon Room, which faces the water and the site of the Skansie Boatyard where the Avalon was built in in 1929. The room has all the comforts; a waterfront view, great bedding and linens, fluffy bathrobes, and a fresh, new appearance. There’s tea and coffee in the room, a spacious bath, and a gas fireplace for a bit of romance or on those cool evenings.

A complimentary continental breakfast from the Butler’s Pantry is included. There’s no breakfast room, but take a tray back to your room or, weather permitting, make a picnic of it at the park.

Gig Harbor

The Avalon Room at Gig Harbor’s Maritime Inn. (Photo courtesy The Maritime Inn)

Gig Harbor offers a variety of other lodging options as well. Arriving to Gig Harbor via your own boat? Sounds good to me. Dock at Jerisich Dock, the city’s public dock or Arabella’s Landing Marina.

A Weekend in Gig Harbor

A weekend in Gig Harbor is the perfect retreat from city life and being right on the water makes this getaway even more relaxing and restorative. Whether a visit to Gig Harbor is a close-in trip, or a breakaway from a Seattle- or Tacoma-based vacation, you’ll love your time spent in this lovely maritime town.

For More:

-All photos by Nancy Zaffaro, except as credited.

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Barb June 18, 2018 - 1:33 pm

Great article. Seriously, I had no idea there was so much to do in Gig Harbor. The Devoted Kiss looks like my kind of place.

Debbra Dunning Brouillette June 19, 2018 - 2:33 pm

Hi Nancy! My husband and I visited Gig Harbor a few days after the IFWTWA conference where we visited my cousin and family and spent the night at The Maritime Inn. You really covered it all! Now I know lots more things I would like to do and see the next time I visit them. It is beautiful there! I got some great pix from their deck, which from your description tells me it is located in the Finholm District.

Nancy Zaffaro June 20, 2018 - 8:10 am

Hi back, Debbra, and good to hear from you again. So enjoyed meeting you and others at the IFWTWA Conference So glad you and your husband were able to visit Gig Harbor. There’s a lot to like, definitely, and glad you found the charm as well. Thanks so much. Yes, your cousin’s house likely was in Finholm; those hillside homes have beautiful views!


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