Viking Fest

Velkommen til Poulsbo the sign proclaims as you enter this little village on the shores of
Liberty Bay — and while it’s not terribly difficult to translate the Velkommen, er,
Welcome, into English, the simple fact that the sign is in Norwegian tells you everything
you need to know about Poulsbo, Washington. If you need additional reinforcement, however,
just point the nose of your motorhome down Front Street, where attractive antique stores,
bakeries and candy shops — all reminiscent of Scandinavia with their colorful rosemaled
storefronts — seem as far removed from traditional images of the Pacific Northwest as a
Boston Whaler is from a shrimp boat. Poulsbo is often referred to as “Little Norway”
because, in the 1880s, many Norwegian settlers were attracted to the area where towering,
snow-capped mountains and deep-water fjords resembled their homeland. Hardworking and
industrious people, they supported themselves by logging, fishing or farming — and kept
the language and traditions of the country they’d left behind. In fact, Norwegian was the
region’s primary language right up until World War II, when a large influx of people with
varying ethnic backgrounds came to live and work in the nearby naval installations. The
Norwegian influence still predominates in the look and customs of this little town of 7,000
or so inhabitants — especially during the middle of May, when this village along the
western shores of Puget Sound celebrates Viking Fest, a fun-filled three-day extravaganza
commemorating the completion of the writing of Norway’s constitution on May 17, 1814, a
constitution modeled on that of the United States. It marked the beginning of a long
struggle for independence from its union with Sweden, which was finally achieved in 1905.
Viking Fest starts on Friday afternoon at Waterfront Park, located just behind the Front
Street shops, and stretches four blocks, from the Sons of Norway on one end to the Marine
Science Center on the other. Food and craft booths line the waterfront parkway and carnival
rides draw kids from miles around. The tangy smells of barbecued meat mingle with the
mouth-watering scent of seafood, while accordion players and dancers in colorful Norwegian
costume entertain at the outdoor Kvelstad Pavilion. The wonderful fragrance of fresh bread
and Scandinavian pastries from the Poulsbo Bakery reaches from one end of town to the other
and, just down the street, Boehm’s Chocolate Shop presents a selection from a chocoholic’s
fantasy. Diet first if you must, but plan to indulge yourself while in Poulsbo; you don’t
come across food like this every day. Evening brings more dancing and a fireworks display
along the waterfront. Saturday morning kicks off with a pancake breakfast, followed by foot
races. In the afternoon, a boisterous group of Vikings lead a parade down Front Street.
Classic car clubs show off vintage autos and, in the pavilion, boot-scootin’ grannies show
that age is no reason to give up dancing. The waters of Liberty Bay are full of white sails
and sleek cabin cruisers as people from all around Puget Sound boat in for the celebration
(spectators can become participants by taking a harbor boat tour of the spectacular
waterways). The Poulsbo Marine Science Center, located at one end of the parkway, allows
you to see and touch many of the marine animals that you’ll find along the shoreline.
Sunday brings another pancake breakfast and more music and dancing. In the afternoon, you
can watch a Lutefisk eating contest at the Kvelstad pavilion — or even participate if you
are one of the first 12 people to sign up. For the uninitiated, Lutefisk is a Norwegian
gelatinous concoction of cod soaked in lye. True Norwegians seem to love it. If you have
any energy left after all these activities, there is more to see and do. The Suquamish
Museum provides an opportunity to experience the early history of the Pacific Northwest
“through the eyes of Chief Seattle,” while the Naval Undersea Museum in nearby Keyport
houses the nation’s largest collection of naval undersea artifacts. Bainbridge Island
Vineyards and Winery is only minutes away and offers tours and tasting. Garden lovers will
enjoy exploring the magnificent Bloedel Reserve — and if you like gambling, Clearwater
Casino is just outside of Poulsbo along State Highway 305. Or, you can choose to just walk
along the beach, listening to the sound of the gulls, examining bits of shell and watching
the boats pass by. A good place for this is Fay Bainbridge State Park, just across the
Agate Pass bridge from Poulsbo. Though there are no hookups available, it is our first
choice for camping when attending the Viking Fest; it is close and the beach is beautiful.
We also like Scenic Beach State Park, which is a little farther away but is on a
spectacular piece of waterfront along Hood Canal (during parts of the year you may collect
oysters along this beach). If there’s a drawback to attending Viking Fest, it’s that the
celebration only lasts three days — but it’s a wonderful 72 hours of Norwegian discovery.
The people of Little Norway are vibrant and active — and the trip to Puget Sound is
certainly a lot less expensive than booking passage to Scandinavia.

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