We drove south from Winthrop, stopping briefly in the tiny town of Twisp to grab a coffee and giggle at the ingeniously named “Cinnamon Twisp Bakery”. The rain which had hastened our departure from Winthrop caught up with us and sent us scurrying back on our way. The road wound us through the fertile Methow Valley, thick with orchards. Fruit-laden boughs overhung the roadway, heavy with apples, pears and peaches. The aroma of ripe fruit in the heat of the midday sun was intoxicating.
Stacks of wooden crates teetered precariously by the side of the road, ready to be filled with the fruits of the approaching harvest.
Our route followed the Methow River until it spilled into the mighty Columbia River. A heavy, black freight train thundered past us;. it felt out of place in this gentle part of the world with its lush orchards and verdant vineyards scrambling up hillsides.
The storm was stalking us and along the Columbia it finally had its wicked way, lashing our car with so much water we had to slow almost to a complete halt because the windscreen wipers couldn’t keep up with the volume of water and visibility was almost nonexistent. Violent shards of lightning spat from the heavens and then, just as suddenly as it had arrived, the storm moved on, leaving scarcely a trace behind save a few telltale raindrops on our car window.
Around the southern shores of Lake Chelan and ever south along the Columbia, we watched the countryside dart by but didn’t dally as we still had a long way to go today. Just north of Wenatchee we turned west towards the mountains and started to climb higher. Not far along we turned off into the town of Cashmere because Jo wanted to visit the home of the Pacific Northwest sweet treats, Aplets and Cotlets. For the uninitiated, they are small, rectangular confections for all the world like Turkish Delight, but flavoured with apple and apricot, filled with chopped walnuts and dusted with powdered sugar.
We ambled around the factory shop, indulging in far too many free samples and snapping up a few boxes on special offer to bring back as gifts. Naturally we made sure to get an extra box for us to nibble on as we headed back across the mountains. There was only one more stop left for us on our trip before we made the descent back into Western Washington. Nestled on the eastern side of Stevens Pass at an elevation of about 1100 feet, the little town of Leavenworth brings a little slice of Bavaria to the heart of the North Cascades.
Leavenworth started life as a small logging community located right beside the tracks of the Great Northern Railway which was completed in 1893. The town’s streets ran parallel to the tracks and the Great North Railroad company set up their headquarters and a huge switching yard for trains right in the centre of town. Life and business flourished in this little community until the railroad moved their headquarters to Wenatchee in the 1920s, to the detriment of Leavenworth’s economy. Their economic woes were compounded by the closure of the switching yard, rendered obsolete by the construction of the Cascade Tunnel in 1929, the longest railroad tunnel in the US which is still in operation today (Amtrak’s Empire Builder coasts through this tunnel on its way to Seattle).
The town foundered; businesses closed, townsfolk moved away and the once thriving pioneer town looked destined to become just another ghost town. It might well have done so if it weren’t for a couple of residents who went on vacation to California. There, they visited the Danish community of Solvang, filled with Danish architecture, restaurants and businesses, boasting a replica of Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid statue, and a bust of Hans Christian Andersen.
In 1962 a town meeting was called and the community decided to try turning Leavenworth into a tourist attraction. Surrounded by snow-capped mountains; they opted for a Bavarian theme and slowly transformed their logging town into a fully fledged alpine hamlet complete with Oktoberfest, yodeling and a Christkindlmarkt (Christmas market).
It’s a town-turned-theme park and although I am not a fan of theme parks, I have a soft spot for Leavenworth. It’s remarkably well done; cheesy in the best possible way and an awful lot of fun. If you’re going to create a faux alpine village, this is how it should be done. The streets are decked with flowers, walls adorned with murals and buildings given a ‘Tudorbethan’ overhaul.
The pioneer street names remain but they have also adopted German names that appear on all the signposts.
A ghost town no more; this gamble paid off big time. As we walked through town, crowds thronged the ‘Strassen’ and filled the local Espresso Haus, Cafe Mozart and Gingerbread Factory.
What’s more, it appears to be just the tip of the “Eisberg”. As Jo and I explored the bustling streets we came across blocks and blocks of buildings under construction at the far end of town; a future extension to the main shopping and dining hub. I suspect this little town has got a very bright future and I, for one, applaud their ingenuity.
It was late afternoon when we arrived, so I made a beeline for the Nutcracker Museum (it has limited hours) and wandered in to admire an extraordinary collection of Nutcrackers dating from antiquity to the present. A giant soldier stood guard over glass cases filled to bursting with all kinds of delightful figures.
There were thousands of them, all charming, but my favourites were a rather menacing Shakespeare nutcracker…
…and a peculiar little nutcracker with a furry hat and boots that put me in mind of Attilla the Hun.
Up the street from the museum we found the Kris Kringl shop; a store where it’s Christmas every day of the year.
Room upon room was filled with Christmas trees and decorations, Santas, elves, carousels, reindeer in ballet shoes, twinkling lights and train sets. An entire wall was given over to themed ornaments, each set given its own cubbyhole along the wall. New ornaments were being carefully staged by a dirndl-clad shop girl in the far corner.
Right at the very back, a dimly lit room housed elaborate model villages. Centre stage, a yuletide olde worlde New York City glittered and radiated Christmas cheer.
Off to the side I noticed an altogether spookier village with grimacing clowns and glowering pumpkins. The Kris Kringl store was obviously willing to diversify.
So atmospheric was the interior of the Kris Kringl shop that it was genuinely disorienting to wander back out into high summer when snowflakes and icicles would have been more in keeping with the ambiance. I have visited Leavenworth once before in the middle of winter and it is truly magical to walk through the town when it is dusted in snow and sparkling with Christmas lights.
As there was no snow to be found today, I opted to cool off with a rather unusual local offering, Umpqua Black Licorice ice cream. First, the brand name Umpqua is ridiculously fun to say. Second, the ice cream is a gloopy green-black mess; how could I resist?
It was absolutely delicious; the herbal spiciness contrasted surprisingly well with the chilly creaminess of the ice cream. The only downside was that it left its mark, staining my lips a disconcerting grey-green that sent Jo into peals of laughter every time she looked at me. We wandered off the main drag to check out some of the residential buildings and Bavarian-style rooftops as I finished my ice cream and grabbed a bottle of water to try to return normal colour to my lips.
On our walk back to the car, we found a giant knight in armour keeping watch over the Ritterhof Motor Inn…
…and a bronze goat herd tending to his unruly goats clambering over rocks around a fountain outside the Festival Hall.
I have no doubt there was plenty more to explore around town but it was getting late and we had a long drive back to Seattle. Also, my lips were still strangely grey and I was getting worried looks from passing tourists, so was happy to escape their gaze and return to the relative privacy of our car. About a half an hour out of town we crested Stevens Pass and hit a bank of fog. Western Washington’s weather had thrown us a welcome home party.
As the fog grew thicker I put my camera away and Jo and I motored contentedly over the mountains, reminiscing about our recent adventures, munching on Aplets and Cotlets and giggling all the way back to Seattle. My lips had returned to normal by the time I got back, but the memories of our trip around the North Cascades Loop will stay with me forever.
Here is a little footage of our travels today.
The Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum is open daily 2-5 pm May 1 to October 31 and on weekends only from November to April. Admission (at time of writing) is $2.50 for adults, $1 for students, under 5 free.