LEAVENWORTH, Wash. — I spent last weekend in a Bavarian village, and I only had to drive six hours to get there.
In the shadow of towering peaks glazed with early-season snow, I ate schnitzel and schweinshax’n, raised a stein to accordions and alphorns, shopped for lederhosen and nutcrackers, and took my morning coffee mit apfelstrudel.
No, it wasn’t Garmisch nor Oberammergau, but here at the east end of Stevens Pass, in Washington’s North Cascades, the village of Leavenworth is as near to Alpine Germany as you’re likely to find in the Americas.
The multistory buildings along U.S. Highway 2, which slices through town between Icicle Canyon and Wenatchee, are constructed in Tyrolean style with gables, balconies and colorful murals. There are more of the same along Front Street, which faces the town square, and intersecting downtown lanes. Many residences and country inns follow suit, often bearing German-language names or inscriptions.
The year-round festival schedule includes Maifest in spring, music events throughout the summer, and the Autumn Leaf Festival and Oktoberfest in fall. But Leavenworth is especially colorful during the Christmas season, as the entire town is aglow with holiday lights. For three consecutive weekends, through Dec. 16, the Christmas Lighting Festival brings Santa and his entourage to the gazebo in Front Street Park: Choral singers and hand-bell groups chime beside a 25-piece “oompah” band, amid holly and Tannenbaum (that’s Deutsch for “Christmas trees”).
Arriving in town
I left Bend around 9 a.m., headed straight north on U.S. Highway 97, made a lunch stop in Yakima and arrived in Leavenworth, four miles west of the junction of highways 97 and 2, in the midafternoon. I made my first stop at the chamber of commerce, on the right side of Highway 2 on the approach to town, for maps and information. As darkness fell, I arrived at my hotel, the Obertal Inn.
Like nearly every other lodging in Leavenworth, the Obertal has assumed a Bavarian theme.
Just two blocks off the central intersection of Ninth and Front streets, the moderately priced three-story motel, adorned with finely crafted wood railings, has spacious if standard rooms that (thankfully for my four-legged traveling companion) welcome dogs.
It was a short stroll to King Ludwig’s Restaurant, where host Leroy Hall insisted that I try the house-special schweinshax’n for dinner. Though he has lived most of his life in Leavenworth — “There’s no place I’d rather be,” he said — the balding Hall might have strolled straight out of the Schwarzewald with his Teutonic swagger and edelweiss-embellished suspenders.
Schweinshax’n is rotisserie-broiled pork hock, and King Ludwig’s claims to prepare this dish more often than any other restaurant west of Chicago. The defining feature of my entrée was the largest fried pork rind I have ever seen. Having removed that, I could enjoy the tender meat with red cabbage, sauerkraut and a traditional, vinegary sliced-potato salad. My beverage, naturally, was a good German-style winter ale.
Alphorns and sleigh rides
The next morning after breakfast, I visited the Enzian Inn, where Bob and Rob Johnson, the father and son who designed and built this hotel in 1984, greet each dawn with an impromptu alphorn serenade. Impeccably clad in lederhosen, knee socks and an Alpine hat, Bob, a spry septuagenarian, lifted his 8-foot-long carved softwood horn onto a rail beside a fourth-floor balcony, then himself climbed up to play. It’s tradition in the Alps, he explained, to wake the village in such a manner.
Taught to play by a Swiss-born logger about the time he opened the hotel, Bob is now the leader of a five-member alphorn band. The group performs at many community celebrations, and the alphorn’s low, mellow tones have become well-known throughout the village.
On a previous winter visit to the Leavenworth area a couple of years ago, I enjoyed cross-country skiing. The Leavenworth Winter Sports Club maintains four sets of nordic trails within three miles of downtown; 26.5 kilometers (about 16.5 miles) of groomed trails include 5 km lighted for night skiing. The system can be accessed within two blocks of Front Street, and the 3 km through Waterfront Park welcome dogs.
This time around, I was a bit too early for snow in town. But curiosity tempted me to venture a mile and a half out Ski Hill Drive to Bakke Hill. Kjell Bakke, son and nephew of the men who built the 15- and 26-meter ski jumps in the 1930s, still offers weekend jumping instruction to those who want to soar like Eddie the Eagle. The mountain once hosted world championship jumping competitions, and many early Winter Olympians trained here. Today you’re more likely to see novice skiers on its two rope tow-served runs; tubers who scoot down a lighted, sculpted run; or athletes dry-land training for the coming season.
Horse-drawn sleigh rides are another possibility for winter visitors. Four companies offer visitors the opportunity to snuggle under blankets and go prancing through the snow; nearest to Leavenworth is Icicle Outfitters and Guides, two miles south of town.
Nutcrackers and polkas
Back in town, after a bratwurst lunch at the Munchen Haus, I paid an afternoon visit to the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum, the only museum of its kind in the United States and the abiding passion of owner Arlene Wagner. Wagner and her husband, George, assembled a collection of about 6,000 nutcrackers from many nations and cultures, some of them centuries old. The assemblage now occupies several rooms atop the Nussknacker House on Front Street.
The most immediately recognizable nutcrackers are of the vibrant variety that inspired Tchaikovsky’s classic “Nutcracker Suite,” composed in the 1940s and now a staple of the Christmas season. Others range from 14th-century carved-wood crackers to metal, porcelain and ivory nutcrackers, and there are even some millennia-old “nutting stones.” More contemporary nutcrackers depict cartoon characters (Mickey Mouse, of course) and pop-culture icons (Elvis Presley), along with all manner of professions (firefighters, police officers, baseball players). And what would a nutcracker collection be without Father Christmas?
Now 83, Arlene Wagner is acknowledged as a national authority. She sells her own coffee-table book, “The Art and Character of Nutcrackers,” and shows a 14-minute film that should be required viewing for any visitor to her museum.
By early evening, ready for dinner, I slipped into Andreas Keller, Leavenworth’s closest relative to a German-style beer hall. Don-Ann Steenberg was playing polkas on the button accordion, and I found myself tapping my foot as I ate a juicy rotisserie chicken. For dessert, I walked upstairs two flights to the Keller’s sister restaurant, Café Mozart. Here a Viennese harpist played as I sipped cup of coffee with apple strudel, a relaxing finish to the day.
Leavenworth, which has a population approaching 3,000, was first homesteaded in 1885 by pioneers in an area known as Icicle Flats, where the Icicle River flows into the Wenatchee River. It became an important rail head in the early 1890s, when the Great Northern Railway laid tracks across Stevens Pass, and in 1893 was platted and named for Captain Charles Leavenworth, president of the Okanogan Investment Co.
A sawmill was built in 1904; the first fruit orchards were planted in 1906, followed by miles of irrigation canals. Two decades of great prosperity followed. But the Great Depression ushered in hard times, and while timber and stone fruit remained foundations of the economy (and remain so today), the community struggled until 1962, when key business leaders approached the University of Washington Bureau of Community Development to help them envision a way to save their town.
That’s how the Bavarian theme came about, with Project Alpine persuading building owners to remodel. The first six renovations took place in 1965 and 1966, and others soon followed. No federal assistance was forthcoming; the entire project was privately financed. As Leavenworth adopted its new look, a celebratory schedule followed, beginning with the Autumn Leaf Festival, Christmas Lighting and Maifest.
And the music scene has exploded. Classical musicians, resident at the Icicle Creek Music Center, perform year-round, highlighted by a chamber music festival in July. The Leavenworth Festhalle hosts a choral festival in April, the International Accordion Celebration in June and Oktoberfest in October. The Leavenworth Summer Theater presents three classic musicals (last year “Sound of Music,” “Will Rogers Follies” and “Camelot”) in July and August at the outdoor Ski Hill Amphitheater.
As well, Leavenworth has become a center for agricultural tourism. Seven Washington wineries have tasting rooms in town, and a spate of fruit stands market the produce from the area’s prolific apple, cherry and pear orchards.
I devoted my second morning in Leavenworth to a little Christmas shopping. I found an alpine hat at Bavarian Clothing (933 Front St.), an authentic cuckoo clock at Alpen Haus Gifts (807 Front St.), a tiny carillon at Die Musik Box (933 Front St.) and unique Christmas decorations at Kris Kringl (907 Front St.). I couldn’t resist a novelty nutcracker from the Nussknacker Haus (735 Front St.).
Then I had lunch at Café Christa — this time, jager schnitzel with a rich hunter sauce — and headed south again to Bend. It was a short trip, but it’s nice to know that Bavaria isn’t far away.
Visiting Leavenworth, Wash.
• Gas, 625 miles @ $3.15/gallon $78.75
• Lunch, en route $6.50
• Dinner, King Ludwig’s $33.48
• Lodging (2 nights), Obertal Inn $227.76*
• Breakfast, Obertal Inn (included) $0
• Lunch, Munchen Haus $14
• Admission, Nutcracker Museum $2.50
• Dinner, Andreas Keller $24
• Lunch, Café Christa $15.70
*Includes 9.5% state and local lodging tax
• Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce: 940 Highway 2, Leavenworth; 509-548-5807, www .leavenworth.org
• Enzian Inn: 590 Highway 2, Leavenworth; 509-548-5269, 800-223-8511, www.enzianinn.com. Rates from $115.
• Hotel-Pension Anna: 926 Commercial St., Leavenworth; 509-548-6273, 800-509-2662, www.pensionanna.com. Rates from $99.
• Obertal Inn: 922 Commercial St., Leavenworth; 509-548-5204, 800-537-9382, www.obertal.com. Rates from $69.
• Andreas Keller Restaurant: 829 Front St. (downstairs), Leavenworth; 509-548-6000, www.andreaskellerrestaurant.com.
• Café Christa: 801 Front St. (upstairs), Leavenworth; 509-548-5074, www.cafechrista.com .
• Café Mozart: 829 Front St. (upstairs), Leavenworth; 509-548-0600, www.cafemozartrestaurant.com.
• The Gingerbread Factory: 828 Commercial St., Leavenworth; 509-548-6592, www .gingerbreadfactory.com.
• King Ludwig’s Restaurant: 921 Front St., Leavenworth; 509-548-6625, www.kingludwigs.com .
• Munchen Haus: 709 Front St., Leavenworth; 509-548-1158, www .munchenhaus.com.
• Icicle Outfitters and Guides: 14800 State Park Road, Leavenworth; 509-669-1518, www .icicleoutfitters.com.
• Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum: 735 Front St., Leavenworth; 509-548-4573, www .nutcrackermuseum.com. Open 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
NEXT WEEK: PORTLAND SHOPPING