I missed Bremerton.
More precisely, I’ve been missing Bremerton. Though I’ve lived in Puget Sound for 18 years, I had never explored the city that is a quick drive from Tacoma.
For years now, homegrown punk rockers MxPx have urged me to “Move to Bremerton.” And my surname is the occupation of many of the city’s residents. But until this week I had always disrespectfully sped by the naval city on my way to the Olympic Peninsula or Vancouver Island.
So, on Tuesday, I set out to explore a city that I soon learned is filled with museums, restaurants, parks and, yes, big gray ships.
The Puget Sound Navy Museum has a home in a stately and historical structure at the edge of the Naval shipyard. In front of the building, as if it’s bursting through Arctic ice, is the sail of the USS Parche, the Navy’s most decorated submarine.
With its sister museum — the Naval Undersea Museum in Keyport — the Navy Museum offers a glimpse into naval life civilian museums can’t match.
The museum reflects Pacific Northwest naval history from 1840 to the present, but exhibits tend heavily toward two local subjects: the shipyard and Bremerton’s resident aircraft carrier, the USS John C. Stennis.
Though the Stennis is currently in port, it’s undergoing maintenance and not open to the public.
Beyond the museum is a beautiful city park with fascinating structures that erupt every few minutes with whalelike plumes of water. It’s a great place to get views of the Seattle ferry and the shipyard with its iconic hammerhead crane.
USS TURNER JOY
One ship that is always open to the public is the USS Turner Joy, docked just to the north of the ferry terminal. The Vietnam-era destroyer was decommissioned in 1982 and now is maintained by the nonprofit Bremerton Historic Ships Association.
The $12 entry fee made it the priciest item on my itinerary, but it also was the most interesting. The 418-foot-long Turner Joy was built in Seattle in the late 1950s. It carried 17 officers and 275 enlisted sailors.
The self-guided tour covers 90 percent of the ship (only the bilge and a few other dangerous areas are off limits) and offers civilians a firsthand look at what Navy life was like in the 1980s. The ship looks like the crew just left for shore leave.
“The goal is to make it look like an active ship,” employee April Alvarez said.
Sailors must have grown sympathetic with sardines in the tightly spaced bunks. The captain’s cabin, by contrast, could have housed a dozen men. At one point, on the lowest deck, I found myself lost for a few minutes until I found the ladder I had descended on.
The ship’s barber shop is ready for its next client. Dinner trays are neatly stacked in the galley while the ship’s silver is lined up in the wardroom mess, a map of the Korean Peninsula on one wall. But the most fascinating room is the Combat Information Center, glowing red and filled with green radar screens and other equipment.
The ship still is the site of enlistment and retirement ceremonies as well as “haunted ship” tours in the week preceding Halloween.
Longtime Bremerton figurative painter Amy Burnett maintains this studio on Pacific Avenue. But her vibrant paintings are only part of her gallery. A good chunk of space is devoted to Pyrex. Yes, the glass cookware.
“It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever been involved with,” Burnett tells me. Neatly arranged bowls, butter containers and enough casserole dishes to outfit an army of church ladies line the shelves.
The museum gets a steady and enthusiastic stream of visitors, Burnett says.
The appeal, she says, is part mid-20th century resurgence, part kitsch and part nostalgia. “It’s mom’s cookware.”
Across the street from the Pyrex collection is another of Bremerton’s quirky museums. Because it is closed Tuesdays, I had to pull some strings to get in.
The nonprofit Valentinetti Puppet Museum is a small storefront operation that displays only some of its 1,500 puppets at any one time. They include marionettes, hand puppets and shadow puppets from all over the world. Some are works of art, others are whimsical and a few are just creepy.
The organization hires puppeteers several times a year to put on shows, board member Mary Hamlin told me. She says her puppet skills are akin to a first-grader’s, but she enjoys volunteering at the museum.
“I love theater and I love art. It’s a good match,” she tells me.
The museum is dominated by a 10-foot-tall Pinocchio puppet. He often rides in cars during local parades — for his own safety. “If you have a wind blowing, he becomes quite buoyant,” Hamlin says. I carefully watch her nose but it stays the same length.
The museum is currently highlighting Mexican puppets.
Given that the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard disgorges thousands of workers every day, it’s not surprising that there is an unusually high number of eateries crammed into downtown. One name kept getting repeated to me: El Balcon.
This Mexican-Salvadoran hole-in-the-wall is owned by Mario and Maria Amaya. He’s the Salvadoran, she’s the Mexican. Together they cook up some of the tastiest south-of-the-border cuisine you’ll find this far north of the border.
The Amayas were living in Tacoma in 2008 when Mario lost his lumber job in the recession. The couple, then amateur chefs, began to cook food on their apartment’s balcony (“balcon” in Spanish) to sell to local residents. “We knocked on doors,” Mario recalls.
In 2010, they created a food cart, prepped their goods in Tacoma, and took them to Bremerton to sell. “There wasn’t a lot of sleep,” Mario says.
In 2012, they opened their brick-and-mortar establishment. Now, lines stretch out the door. Soon, the restaurant will quadruple in size and go two-stories high when the Amayas take over the space next door.
It’s a phenomenal rise for the humble and religious couple who, for a few months in 2010, were homeless after city officials banned their food cart. Scarred by that experience, Mario gives a plate of food to any homeless person who asks for it.
“I can’t forget those months when we were homeless, when my children were hungry,” says the father of five.
On my visit, the restaurant’s menu was offering 15 burritos ($7.49-$10.49 each), 10 tortas ($7.49-$9.49 each), seven tacos (four for $6.49) and five pupusas ($3 each).
I ordered a cheesy and spicy spinach pupusa that melted in my mouth and carne asada tacos that I adulterated with a smoky garlic salsa. Maybe I was just hungry, but it was about the best taco I’ve ever eaten.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you might want to try the “Bremerton” burrito. It contains nachos (yes, chips too), jalapeno, pulled pork and vegetables ($8.49). Amy Burnett Gallery and Pyrex Museum
Where: 402 Pacific Ave., Bremerton
When: 11 a.m-6 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays
Information: 360-373-3187, amyburnettgallery.com USS Turner Joy Museum Ship
Where: 300 Washington Beach Ave., Bremerton
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily
Admission: $12 adults, $10 seniors, $7 children (5-12), free for those younger than 4 and active military in uniform, half price for active military and dependents with ID
Information: 360-792-2457, ussturnerjoy.org Puget Sound Navy Museum
Where: 251 First St., Bremerton
When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays–Saturdays, 1-4 p.m. Sundays
More information: 360-479-7447, pugetsoundnavy museum.org El Balcon
Where: 326 Pacific Ave., Bremerton
When: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays
Information: 360-813-1617, facebook.com/Bremelbalcon Other stops to make
BUG MUSEUM (ABOVE)
10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily
1118 Charleston Beach Road W., Bremerton
This free, privately held bug-and-reptile zoo has a wide variety of fascinating live insects and scaly creatures, including Eddie the iguana (pictured) and Sssstella the boa. Frogs, snakes and insects eating leaves and insects resembling leaves round out the collection.
KITSAP HISTORICAL SOCIETY AND MUSEUM
280 Fourth St., Bremerton
This small museum in the downtown core has a recreated “main street” that rivals those of big-city museums. You’ll feel like your time machine just landed in the 1800s. Valentinetti Puppet Museum
Where: 257 Fourth St., Bremerton
When: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays
Suggested donation: $2 adults, $1 student, $5 family
More information: 360-373-2992, ectandpuppets.orgCraig Sailor: 253-597-8541 firstname.lastname@example.org