Spending time in Leavenworth, a small town of 2,400 in the mountains of central Washington state, takes investment. Either you arrive at the absurdity of an entire city that looks like an 18th century German village and shake your head, or your heart will melt and you’ll embrace the Alpine architecture and soak up the delicious vernacular of it all. Here’s “Twilight” meets the Brothers Grimm, sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon.
I decided to let go of all cynicism and feel the love.Honestly, it’s hard to resist a small town Firm Get rid of the illusion of being located in the European Alps. Last year, a study by travel company Next Vacay surveyed America’s busiest towns for Christmas, scoring them based on criteria such as the number of Christmas markets, snowfall, comfort and photo-worthy winter scenes. Leavenworth wins. The town looks like a small German village surrounded by snowy mountains and a reindeer farm. Really not competitive.
I’ve been here in the fall, but Leavenworth seems ready to roll out holly. Christmas lights hang in the town, and it’s snowing on the way from Seattle through the Cascade Mountains.
The town boasts 21 miles of festive lights in winter, as well as the must-have German Christmas market and Nordic sports. There are festivals every day in December. The town even has its own Christmas song. Winter Carnival follows in January.
Before I visit the beer garden and the Nutcracker Museum, there is a very serious question to answer: How does a small village become a fantasy land full of log cabins? The town may seem like it’s been around for 200 years, but it started its Germanic transformation less than 60 years ago, according to the associate curator of the Leavenworth Historical Museum.
In its early days, Leavenworth was a thriving place. In the 1860s it was a fur trading outpost, then a gold rush boomtown and finally a timber exporter. By the 1920s, the supply of lumber dried up, the railroad was relocated, and Leavenworth became a ghost town. But a pair of enterprising businessmen had a vision, and that vision was… Bavaria. The aforementioned businessmen, Bob Rogers and Ted Price, began working with businessmen, town officials and the University of Washington. For six years, this dead city center is becoming a place to amaze visitors today.
Everything in Leavenworth is Bavarian. Zoning laws are strict. Even chains like McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Hampton Inn use Bavarian-style fonts and architecture. But the best part about Leavenworth is that most of the stores and restaurants are not chains. Instead, Front Street (or Front Street, as street signs read in a Germanic font) is filled with independently owned shops and restaurants.
It’s also where you’ll find the Nutcracker Museum. If you’re going to rebuild an alpine town and make it the most Christmassy place in the country, it should have a museum with more than 9,000 Nutcrackers, from prehistoric ones to contemporary pop culture nutcrackers. Not all block wood soldiers are painted red. There are at least two of Hillary Clinton’s Nutcrackers, plus Yoda, Elvis, elephants, squirrels, birds, every imaginable Disney character, football players, the whole Nutcracker, and of course in all kinds of uniforms soldier.
As you may have gathered, the word “subtle” doesn’t really exist in Leavenworth, which is what makes it interesting. The pretzels are huge, the little sausages are plentiful, and the gingerbread factory’s gingerbread cookies are fresh year-round. The biscuits are so delicious that they are good for breakfast. Well, at least I did, and I will do it again, despite the judging eyes of passersby. Christmas ornament store Kris Kringl (no thanks) is not for the faint of heart. I have never seen so many accessories representing such a wide range of food, sports, drinks, animals and hobbies. Do you need a decoration that looks like a jar of almond butter? It’s here. How about a bunch of Bud Light Christmas lights? Go straight upstairs.
I should mention that in Leavenworth there is a lot more than pretzels and mint bark. Among the t-shirt and souvenir shops, there is Cheesemonger’s Shop, a European-style chocolate shop called Schocolat, and a speakeasy called Pika Provisions. For such a small town in Lilliput, Leavenworth’s dining options are plentiful. Sulla Vita is a great pizza restaurant with a very impressive terrace. Pavz Tacos has Mexicans, as every faux Bavarian village deserves decent tacos, and a seafood restaurant called Yodelin. Outside the city centre, Wildflour, a restaurant specialising in pasta, serves fine dining.
But honestly, I’m here for kitsch and Christmas. I can find good food anywhere, but the reindeer farm is unique. My assumption is that Leavenworth Reindeer Farm will be a sad petting zoo with a few scabies-ridden reindeer and maybe an angry goat that makes visitors’ eyes stink. Erika Bowie, the family farm’s general manager, is outspoken. The farm has 27 reindeer (and a couple of cats) and looks very robust. She is like a walking reindeer encyclopedia. If you come here, you will learn everything about reindeer, whether you like it or not.
“Reindeer’s eyes change color, from brown to blue,” she explained excitedly. “They are the only mammals on Earth that can see ultraviolet light. They can run 50 miles per hour and swim 6.2 miles per hour. That’s faster than Michael Phelps. Antlers are the fastest growing tissue on Earth. It’s a day long an inch.”
After hearing all this, I chose not to try reindeer sausages at the snack bar, but according to Bowie, reindeer are a staple in her family’s native Norway. The farm offers family-friendly activities and tours, and is building the largest geodesic projection dome on the West Coast. Inside the dome, visitors can view the Northern Lights and herds of reindeer from all over the world in 360 degrees.
On my flight from Boston to Washington State, a local told me to make time for a hike around Leavenworth, and after many sausage tastings, it felt like it was time to follow his advice. With my limited time — all schnitzels don’t eat themselves — I strategically chose Peshastin Pinnacles State Park in nearby Cashmere. The 1.5 mile trail I took was steep, but the short hike made for a spectacular view.
I would say, watching the sunset and enjoying the beauty of nature really fills me with a festive spirit. But am I kidding? Definitely the gingerbread man made it.