When you visit Leavenworth, a picturesque mountain town nestled on the rugged shoulders of the Stuart Range in central Washington, it seems that most of the names you see around town have "icicle" in them. Icicle road, icicle ridge, icicle creek, icicle canyon, icicle this, icicle that. Must be a reason. But the one you're thinking, nope.
The place isn't frigid, and you certainly don't see icicles everywhere. In fact, the name comes from white settlers in the 1880s who couldn't quite enunciate the word Native Americans used to describe the place where they lived. In the P'squosa (Wenatchi) tongue, "narrow bottom canyon" was "Na-sik-elt", but European ears and lips could only get as close as "icicle." Funny how things happen.
For much of the past century Leavenworth, like many small rural towns, had its ups and downs. Mostly downs. Run down, down in the dumps, down and out. Then in the 1960s the city mothers (note that I said "mothers" and that's a whole 'nother story) had an inspiration that changed everything. They took the controversial idea to an empathetic Seattle banker and soon after, the first of the run-down false-front buildings along Front Street began a miraculous metamorphosis. In a few short years a new village was borne, a Bavarian village in an idyllic setting of spectacular alp-like mountains that surround the town. And the rest is history.
For its alpine ambiance alone, Leavenworth is well worth a trip. About 130 miles east of Seattle via I-90 or Highway 2, it offers so many "authentic" Bavarian experiences that you'd swear you were in Austria, Switzerland or Lichtenstein. (Just think of all the airfare you're saving!) However, I am here to tell you that Leavenworth is much, much more than just a beautiful, charming Bavarian village - but more on that later.
First things first. When you arrive in town, stop by the Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce office at 940 State Hwy 2. The staff is very friendly, well organized and eager to help make your getaway to Leavenworth the best you ever had. Visit their website for a sneak preview. (509) 548-5807 (www.leavenworth.org)
After a chamber visit you're probably hungry, so what better way to begin a Bavarian adventure than with "the best German food in Washington State." And that would be King Ludwig's Restaurant on Front Street, of course. We were greeted at the front door by happy smiles and the beat of an oompah band that plays Friday and Saturday nights year around. There's something about oom-pah-pah, clapping hands and a chicken dance that makes good food and drink taste absolutely terrific! We enjoyed a liter of bier (that's brewsky in English) and a huge platter of German favorites like schweinshax'n (broiled pork hock), schnitzel, leberkase, winekraut and other treats with guttural pronunciations I'll leave to you. Then if you still can'you get up on your feet - and along with everyone else in the room, dance it off. The place is a kick - literally - so call (509) 548-6625. (www.kingludwig.com)
As they say here, "Life is a festival in Leavenworth!" There's a festival for every 100 citizens here - that's about 20 per year - but of course all of you are invited! So come celebrate the birds, beers, wine, bikes, music, salmon, ice and Christmas, to name just a few. Check the chamber's website at the bottom of this story for events and schedules
With nearly 100 specialty shops and delicatessens to choose from, you are guaranteed to find a perfect gift for just about anyone. Leavenworth is a shopper's paradise wrapped in the prettiest package of Bavarian Village and mountain backdrop imaginable. If you're not in the Christmas spirit before you arrive, I can assure that you will be when you see Front Street dressed in its holiday lights. Check the chamber website for dates and events.
Craggy peaks that soar over 8000 feet above the village inspire lots of artists here, and on Front Street every Friday-Sunday from May to mid-October you'll see professional and fine amateur artists demonstrating their talents before your eyes. There's nothing like taking home a beautiful souvenir created by a local artisan to create happy memories (and help keep the local art colony solvent).
Like really, really good chocolates? Then go see George Roleter at Sweet Dreams in the Obertal Mall. His is a small shop with a single glass counter filled with mini-trays containing mini-orbs of the finest Swiss chocolate. Behind the counter standing stiffly is a double-breasted suit with brilliant white shirt, flashy red silk tie and a head tucked in the collar that is a remarkable likeness of a suave, silver-haired gentleman. Then you hear a voice, the lips move and you realize there's a live person in there! It's George, who after a couple minutes of very dry humor, is as sweet and delicious a personality as the candies he proffers. You have to savor both. (509) 548-5144
How about nutcrackers? You say you already have one and that's plenty? Well, not after you meet Arlene Wagner, collector and curator of one of the world's largest nutcracker collections at the Nutcracker Museum, right in downtown Leavenworth. This charming 80-something lady is so passionate about her 5000 nutcrackers that before you know it, you're hooked on them, too. Truthfully, I was smiling so hard at her stories and the array of clever mechanical means with which to take the windbreaker off a walnut that my face ached. For a paltry $2.50 adult admission, I bet yours will, too. Call for hours (509) 548-4708 (www.nutcrackermuseum.com)
Now we're finally talking real icicles...because Leavenworth is famous for its winter alpine adventures!
Just 20 miles north of Leavenworth, Kahler Glen Golf & Ski Resort has over 30 kilometers of groomed cross-country ski trails for all levels of skiers. You can ski right out the back door of one of their luxury condos. Ski rentals available, too. (800) 440-2994 (www.kahlerglen.com)
For cross-country ski fans and families looking for an extraordinary experience, check out Leavenworth Winter Sports Club. It offers 26 kilometers of professionally-groomed trails just minutes from downtown, along with lessons and equipment rentals for the whole family. Pick your pleasure: Nordic or alpine skiing, ski jumping, terrain and tubing parks, and snowshoeing. Afterwards do R&R at their historic cozy lodge. (509) 548-5477 (www.skileavenworth.com)
For downhill skiers, Leavenworth is near two of Washington's favorite ski areas: Stevens Pass and Mission Ridge.
Stevens Pass boasts over 1100 acres of terrain and 1800 vertical feet covered with 450 inches of heavy snow every year. Add 10 lifts, three lodges, five restaurants, two bars, two coffee shops and munch stops everywhere, and you will have a good time. On State Hwy 2 just 65 scenic miles east of Everett, 37 miles west of Leavenworth. (206) 812-4510 (www.stevenspass.com)
East of Leavenworth 32 miles, Mission Ridge is famous for blue skies, sunshine and dry powder. Add sweeping views of Mt. Rainier, Mt. Stuart, the Columbia River and Wenatchee Valley and it's one of the most picturesque ski venues in the NW. Enjoy 2000 acres of deep snow, 2200+ vertical feet, four lifts (one is a high-speed quad), two tows, trails for every skill level, lessons and more. Add 66 acres of snow-making (the most in Washington) and you are assured of great skiing anytime. (509) 663-6543 (www.missionridge.com)
Other popular winter activities for you to enjoy include horse-drawn sleigh rides, snow-shoeing, snowboarding, snowmobiling'and naturally, great coffee and hot toddies.
There are many excellent eco- and ag-tourism venues in or near Leavenworth. At the chamber pick up a free copy of the "North Central Washington Ag Tourism Driving Map" and you'll find over 60 members representing fruit orchards, produce farms and stands, specialty foods, wineries, arts and crafts, lodging and more. (www.visitwashingtonfarms.com)
Sleeping Lady Mountain Retreat offers a wide variety of packages and activities focused on eco-tourism, including nature walks, hiking and biking, fishing, horseback riding, float trips and whitewater rafting. When there's snow, guests can enjoy sleigh rides, downhill and cross-country skiing, and snow-shoeing. (www.sleepinglady.com)
And there are numerous orchards and farms offering ag tours. From Miller Orchards, a 100-year old local producer, I learned that 162 MILLION pears grew within five miles of Leavenworth this season. And they keep the best ones for you at their fruit stand on Hwy 97, so be sure to pick some up! (www.millerorchards.com)
One stop you have to make near Peshastin east of Leavenworth is Smallwood's Harvest, referred to by the locals as the "Disneyland of Fruit Stands" in Washington. The place is a mega-market of fresh-picked fruits, veggies, and a mind-boggling assortment of jams, jellies and everything else sweet to eat. Plus there's a petting farm, maze and much more. Take the kids; they'll love the place! (509) 548-4196 (www.www.smallwoodsharvest.com)
Here the mispronounced "icicle" turns out to be prophetic, and this is why. Local vintners are blessed by ice. You heard it right'ice. Freezing temperatures on the slopes of this mountainous region deep chill the grapes, quickly converting starch to sugar that produces a rare "ice" wine that is nothing less than phenomenal. The Columbia Cascade Winery Association has much more info on their website. (509) 782-0708 (www.columbiacascadewines.com)
Icicle Ridge Winery is one of six vintners near Leavenworth and its owner, Louis Wagoner, produces several varieties from vineyards throughout Washington (he says he can't afford to be frozen out every year). A family enterprise that Louie refers to as a "love" winery, not a "money" winery, the family entered its first competition recently with "Icicle Ridge Riesling" and won 2nd place out of 3000 wines tasted! And that's ALL varieties. You simply have to try it to appreciate why. (509) 548-7019 (www.icicleridgewinery.com)
Leavenworth offers eight wine-tasting rooms around town hosted by vintners statewide. (www.visitwashingtonwineries.com)
WHERE: About 130 miles east of Seattle via I-90 and Hwy 97, or Hwy 2 east of Everett.
WHAT: A world-class four-season destination in a Bavarian alps setting
WHEN: Year-around. Visit every season to enjoy a wide range of alpine activities and colorful festivals.
WHY: There's nothing like soaring mountain peaks, beautiful Bavarian-style architecture and friendly people who are passionate about their town to warm your cockles.
HOW: Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce (509) 548-5807 ( www.leavenworth.org).Click here for recommended lodgings.
Photos from top: Leavenworth Front Street, courtesy Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce; carriage rides; art in the park; SkiLeavenworth cross-country trail by DON ADAMS; (photos by STEVE FRENZL)
OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other Northwest travel ideas, be sure to check out other Northwest Travel Advisor articles on Wine Country, Snoqualmie Falls, Northwest history, and western theme towns.