Welcome to Little Norway
Poulsbo, Wash., Viking City
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
As you approach Poulsbo on Highway 305 from the Bainbridge ferry landing, you realize that you’ve entered the world of the Northwest Nordic, where roads have names like Lovgreen, Reitan, and Noll. And the Norskie nomenclature gets even more intense once inside the city limits, with street names like Fjord Drive, Iverson Street, and Jensen Way. I took a turn on Queen Sonja Vei to the public parking lot and deposited my car there for the afternoon as my adventure began.
The façades of the houses along Poulsbo’s Main Street have a distinctly old-world feel, perhaps more European than strictly Norwegian, although murals and signs let you know where allegiances lie. Most businesses greet you with a friendly “Velkommen!” I was particularly impressed with the signage at the senior center that reads, “Vi elsker deg” (We love you), and everywhere I looked, there were horned helmets and trolls to remind me that I was in the Viking City.
The natural setting of Poulsbo is, by the way, stunning. With the majestic Olympic Mountains in the background, green hillsides look out to the marina docks, where both locals and visitors tie up. It’s a weekend boater’s paradise, and it’s no wonder that smaller cruise lines have started to make stops in Poulsbo.
Shopping for Scandinavia
In search of everything Nordic, my first stop was Nordiska (www.nordiskashop.com), a more recent addition to the core business district that offers Nordic gift items and kitchenware. The shop is run by Kristin Lorentz Klassert, who moved to Poulsbo with her husband and young daughter to be closer to family. When the
Nordic Maid, Poulsbo’s only Scandinavian gift shop, was closing its doors after 21 years in 2017, she saw a business opportunity.
Klassert’s mother is Taiwanese, but her paternal ties to Sweden and Norway have been reinforced in her adopted hometown of Poulsbo. A Seattle girl from the start, she learned some Swedish from her grandfather and went on to study it at a folk high school in Mora in Dalarna, a part of Sweden known for its rich folk culture.
The Scandinavian aesthetic left a deep impact on the exchange student. She continued her studies at the University of Washington Scandinavian Department, while working part-time at an upscale kitchen shop. It was then she realized that her true calling was retail, and she spent 12 years working with a wine wholesaler in Hawaii before returning to the mainland.
For Klassert, Nordiska is the fulfillment of a dream. Her boutique collection comprises a small space, yet the items are so well curated that there is no shortage of things you’ll want to take home. Klassert carries items from all the Nordic countries, as well as Nordic-inspired pieces by American artists. The owner is quick to point out that her shop is not a souvenir shop in the traditional sense: she sells items that are both beautiful and useful, with an appeal to a broad clientele.
While there is an emphasis on clean aesthetic, the feeling in the shop is by no means sterile. “I am very aware that I am running a store and not a museum,” Kristin remarked, and for this reason, items are available in wide price range. “I want everyone to be able to go home with something they love,” she adds. She understands that her customers are willing to pay for good design and quality craftsmanship, but she strives to keep prices reasonable.
Norwegians at heart
At the heart of the community is the Poulso Sons of Norway Lodge, also known as Grieg Hall (www.poulsbosonsofnorway.com). Situated right on Liberty Bay, it offers one of the best views in Poulsbo and is a popular gathering place for the local residents.
If you happen to arrive on a Wednesday, a smørgåsbord lunch is offered complete with open-faced sandwiches, pickled herring, soups, cheeses, cold cuts, and a plethora of pastries, including krumkake, heart-shaped waffles, and the ever-loved bløtkake.
The Poulsbo Sons of Norway lodge is about much more than food, though, as explained by Alisha Amundson, youth and cultural director (and wife of the current president). The lodge has about 1,200 members and is home to the Poulsbo Leikkaringen, one of the most active groups of young folk dancers in the country. Many local residents first come to the lodge to learn folkdance as children and remain active through adulthood.
All of this enthusiasm translates into annual community festivals, including Julefest and a weekend-long Viking Fest to celebrate the 17th of May. Both bring out hundreds of local residents and attract thousands of visitors from near and far.
Takk for maten — skål!
The Sons of Norway is not the only place in Poulsbo to get a taste of Norway, and no trip there would be complete without a stop at the famous Sluys Poulsbo Bakery (www.sluyspoulsbobakery.com). It’s a family-owned business where all products are handcrafted on the premises. While these days the offerings may be more American in flavor than Scandinavian, the scents are heavenly, and you can still load up on fresh Danish pastries and Norwegian lefse.
If this is all not enough, only a few doors down is Marina Market (www.marinamarket.com), owned and run by the Rowe family since 1998. With about 2,400 sq. ft. of retail space and 25,000 food items, it is a paradise for the Nordic cook — or any foodie, for that matter.
Loyal customers come from all over the Northwest to shop there. If you are looking for lutefisk, sausages, specialty cheeses, bread, and chocolates, look no further. And if you are thirsty for European craft beer, there are over 1,000 labels to choose from. It is also the home of the famous licorice shrine, and sells over 500 varieties.
The market also carries specialty items from other northern European countries, including Germany and the Netherlands. Owner Jonathan Rowe tells me that his wife Andrea is of Dutch heritage, and they are proud that their shop has become a meeting place for the Dutch community. Marina Market carries the food that they love, and they are willing to travel to get it. And for those who aren’t able to travel, the Marina Market does a booming mail order and e-commerce business.
But perhaps the most unusual food offering in Poulsbo can be found at the Slippery Pig Brewery (www.slipperypigbrewery.com) down the street. There I tried one of their now-world-famous lutefisk tacos (a recent post I put on Facebook went viral). It’s an unusual taste, for sure, best consumed with an aquavit chaser or cocktail.
The pub’s ale selection is to die for, especially the house brews, including “Norwegian Sunburn” and “Baldur’s Blonde.” I met with Dave Lambert, master brewer and one of the pub’s five owners. A Poulsbo native with Norwegian ancestry, he first started brewing on the family farm where he was also raising pigs, thus the name for the alehouse, “The Slippery Pig.”
I got excited when I spotted Mora Iced Creamery (www.moraicecream.com) on the corner because of my immediate association with Mora, Sweden, where Kristin Klassert had studied. I, like all Scandinavians, love ice cream, and I was anxious to see what flavors they offered.
Once inside, I learned that Mora was started by a transplanted Argentine couple. “Mora” means “blackberry” in Spanish, and it is their signature ice cream flavor. I tried it in a waffle cone and was not disappointed: it would please the palette of any Nordic ice cream devotee.
The Nordicness of Poulsbo sparked my curiosity to learn about where is all comes from. Fortunately, there is a Maritime Museum, the Martinson Cabin, and the Heritage Museum at City Hall.
I had time to briefly visit the Heritage Museum, which is run by volunteers from the Poulsbo Historical Society (www.poulsbohistory.com). At the small but informative exhibit, I learned that Poulsbo was first settled in the 1880s by Norwegian immigrants, who were later joined by other Scandinavians from the Midwest. The area was logged early on, and the settlers made a living by farming and fishing. With time, Poulsbo became a port city, connected by boats to other areas of the region, including the Puget Sound mosquito fleet.
I was fortunate to share a cup of coffee with Becky Erickson, who has been the mayor of Poulsbo since 2010. Mayor Erickson grew up in Seattle and is of Irish descent, but when she married into a Norwegian Poulsbo family, she embraced their heritage. She realizes the importance of Nordic culture for the city, both past and present. While not so fond of lutefisk, Mayor Erickson loves Scandinavian meatballs, and she would like to see a restaurant in town offer Nordic fare. Someday when she is not busy running the city, she would like to visit Norway, and she expressed interest in learning more about the potential of sister cities around the world. Poulsbo has two of them in Norway: Namsos in Trøndeland and Halden in Østfold.
Mayor Erikson was quick to point out that Poulsbo is a living community, not just a weekend Disneyland for tourists. Like many other residents, she underlined that Poulsbo “is not Leavenworth.” The reference is to Leavenworth, Wash., a Bavarian village in the Cascade Mountains created by a group of architects and town planners who wanted to save a dying town. While Leavenworth has no historical ties to Germany, Poulsbo’s connection to Norway and the Nordic countries is “something that goes back generations and is real.”
In Poulsbo, there is no agenda behind the Norwegian connection, though it is supported and cherished. “We are who we are,” says Mayor Erickson. “We embrace many of the values handed down to us from the Norwegian settlers: honesty, hard work, community. These are values that endure.”
A unique feeling for life
I left Poulsbo thinking that I wanted to return again sooner than later. There were more shops, bars, cafés, museums, parks, and scenery to explore, and I wanted to learn more about the unique feeling for life there.
As I drove out of town, I stopped at the Poulsbo First Lutheran Church to reflect on my visit. I had been told that the church, first organized in 1886 and rebuilt in 1908, was still an important gathering spot for the community — especially with its annual lutefisk fundraiser dinner — but I didn’t expect to be awestruck when I entered the sanctuary.
I stood there alone and looked at the simple carved wooden altar, and I was transported back the Emigrant Church in Radøy, Norway, which I had visited with a group of Seattle musicians last fall. I could hear the music in my mind again, as I relived the sense of community we felt that evening. I was moved to realize that over a century ago, Norwegian emigrants had left their churches back home and built this new one where I was standing.
Wandering back to my car, I looked at the gravestones and saw one Norwegian name after another — with the occasional Swedish one for good measure. There were family graves commemorating those who had built the community, one generation after another.
It was a sunny spring day, and yellow daffodils poked up through the green grass as I gazed up at the little church on the hillside. It was an unusually clear day, a picture-perfect scene. I knew I would be coming back for sure, for I felt at home there in the Viking City of Poulsbo, Little Norway in the Pacific Northwest.
For more information on Poulsbo, visit www.cityofpoulsbo.com or www.visitpoulsbo.com.
This article originally appeared in the May 31, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.