Winter escapes

The Small-Town Charm of a Leavenworth Christmas

An Australian dreaming of a quintessential white Christmas finds it in Leavenworth, a slice of Bavaria in America’s Pacific Northwest

Christmas falls in the middle of summer in Australia. And it’s hot. So hot that Christmas Day usually requires a swim to cool off. But after years of watching snow-blanketed Christmas-themed movies, with people wrapped up in cosy layers sipping mulled wine, I yearn for a white Christmas, one where Santa’s cheeks are rosy from the cold – not heatstroke.

Aware of my mission to find a winter Yuletide experience that will satisfy my festive fervour, a Seattle-based friend proffers an idea rated highly by her family: ‘Head over the mountains to Leavenworth,’ she says. ‘You’ll find a town that’s transformed itself into a Bavarian mountain village – kind of hokey, but fun.’ My woolly hat and mittens are launched into a suitcase and I’m flying halfway across the world faster than you can say ‘Noel’.

Leavenworth lies at the junction of the Wenatchee River and Icicle Creek, below the towering eastern peaks of the North Cascade Mountains in Washington State. From Seattle there are two ways to drive the 200-odd kilometres to Leavenworth: one is via Interstate 90; the other – more adventurous – option is the high mountain road through Stevens Pass on US Route 2. It’s been voted one of the most scenic drives in the US, but the roads can be closed in winter due to heavy snowfall. 

Preferring not to fit snow chains to our car wheels, we take the lower road, bidding our farewells to Seattle. The suburban sprawl of the city is quickly replaced by snow-laden evergreens straight out of a Hans Christian Andersen tale. Rising above the forests, snow-capped mountains emerge with forbidding names such as Cougar, Tiger and Rattlesnake, their peaks crowned in moody, dark clouds.    

Credit: Connie Coleman/ Getty Images

Three hours later – after a pitstop in the small mountain community of Cle Elum to sample maple bar doughnuts from the century-old bakery – we arrive in the village of Leavenworth. I wonder if somewhere along the highway we have inadvertently taken a wrong turn through a time portal to mid-20th century Europe. Everything, from houses to apartments to shopfronts, mimics old-world Bavaria. It’s equal parts kitsch and cute, if not entirely disorienting.

The incongruous town is no accident. Originally home to the Wenatchi tribe of Native Americans, who would fish salmon from the creeks and hunt deer and elk that wandered the valleys, in the mid-1880s, mining, logging and railroad industries led to a small settlement springing up in Icicle Flats. By 1893 the town had grown to 700 and was named Leavenworth, after Portland businessman Charles Leavenworth. With the building of a sawmill in 1903 – the second-largest in Washington State – the town prospered. But two decades later, the Great Northern Railway re-routed the rail tracks to bypass the community. Local businesses and the sawmill were forced to close, and Leavenworth steadily morphed into a ghost town.

Fast-forward to the 1960s. Ted Price and Bob Rodgers, owners of a café outside Leavenworth, suggested revitalising the community by capitalising on its alpine setting and turning it into a tourist attraction. Inspired by a visit to the Danish-themed town of Solvang in California’s Santa Ynez Valley, the Seattleite duo relocated permanently to Leavenworth and began transforming the derelict town into a Bavarian wonderland.

Credit: Andy Porter

Today, Front Street – the town’s main thoroughfare – holds an eclectic assortment of shops, selling everything from ski gear to cuckoo clocks, cheese to fresh caramel apples. The Nutcracker Museum has more than 7,000 nut-opening devices on display – who knew they could be so fascinating? Bavarian music carries through the air as though Munich’s Hofbräuhaus were just around the corner, and I’m expecting characters in lederhosen to step from behind shop doors and break into a traditional shoe slapping folk dance at any moment.

A snow-doused Christmas tree decorated with giant edible pretzels reminds us that we’re hungry. We opt for the family-owned München Haus’ enticing selection of bratwurst, pretzels and German potato salad. The beer garden offers the perfect spot to take in the Christmas Lighting Festival – an annual display involving more than 500,000 LED lights that runs from Thanksgiving weekend to Valentine’s Day. As daylight fades, twinkling lights adorning trees, awnings, eaves, balconies and shopfronts transform the town into a magical wonderland. Warmed by the gas fire in the centre of our table, we raise our steins to this little slice of Bavaria in the heart of the Pacific Northwest.

Credit: Icicle TV

But there are other winter wonderland delights to explore in the region. At the Leavenworth Reindeer Farm, owned by the aptly named Hans and Kari Andersen, I hand-feed Rudolph and his cohorts before climbing aboard a Santa sleigh to compose the perfect Christmas card image.

And at the base of the Stuart Range, in the foothills of the Cascades, lies Sleeping Lady Mountain Resort – a peaceful haven nestled in the thick of the forest on the banks of Icicle Creek, just a 10-minute drive from the main drag of the village.

A much-loved local personality, philanthropist and environmental activist, 95-year old Harriet Bullitt established the Pacific Northwest hideaway in 1995. ‘We’re not a mattress company or a subsidiary of Victoria’s Secret,’ she clarifies. ‘The name Sleeping Lady comes from the profile of the mountain as seen from the base of the canyon.’

Spread across 67 acres, the resort provides ample space for exploring the area’s natural beauty, with 58 guestrooms and cabins arranged in clusters, as well as a couple of restaurants, a bar and spa. On the doorstep lie ski trails, which I’m told offer spectacular hiking in the mountains come summertime. But at this time of year, steadily falling snow has blanketed the resort in a thick layer of soft icing, creating a fairyland that is blissfully peaceful and beautiful. It’s exactly the white Christmas I was looking for.

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