by Deborah Steele Hazen
“Snowbound in Bavaria,” read the text I sent to my daughter Amanda Saturday afternoon. “Have decided to stay. Applied for job in the polka band at King Ludwig’s. Please ship my accordion.”
Yes, I do have an accordion, and 50 years ago I could play it rather well. In a pinch I can still squeeze out a semblance of the “Beer Barrel Polka,” and I’m pretty sure I could sing the “She’s Too Fat For Me” polka at least as well as the jolly, lederhosen-clad singer at King Ludwig’s Restaurant in downtown Leavenworth, Wash.
Yes, we were in the small Washington town on the eastern edge of the Cascade Mountains, not in Bavaria. But Leavenworth gives an awfully good impression of a German Alpine village – with a bit of Norman Rockwell small-town America thrown in.
It is with somewhat mixed feelings I report that, after a delightful long-weekend vacation, my husband Phil and I are not working at King Ludwig’s; we did leave the beautifully snow-cloaked mountain village, and we are back at work at our regular jobs in Clatskanie.
In the 1960s, Leavenworth was a little timber town struggling on the brink of extinction after the closure of a large sawmill and the re-routing of the Great Northern Railroad, when local leaders borrowed an idea from Solvang, Calif. which had transformed itself into a little bit of Denmark in keeping with its Danish founders.
Ignoring the English name it had received from an early settler, Leavenworth decided to adopt a Bavarian style, because the steep fir and pine-studded slopes that rise up swiftly from the Wenatchee River Valley are reminiscent of the Alps.
Back in the 1970s, perhaps inspired by Leavenworth, there was talk of trying to adopt a theme in Clatskanie. But there was never anything like the shared vision and commitment that the business and property owners of Leavenworth must have had.
Just slightly larger in population and geographical size than Clatskanie – 1989 residents, compared to our 1727, and 1.251 square miles, compared to our 1.189 – Leavenworth attracts close to two million visitors per year.
Until fairly recently, I wasn’t particularly interested in going to Leavenworth. The idea of adopting a permanent “theme” for a town in order to attract tourists struck me as a bit tacky.
I Was Wrong!
During the last decade or so, I have heard more and more positive reports about Leavenworth from friends and acquaintances, some of whom travel there at least once a year.
As the owners and operators of two small businesses, Phil and I find it almost impossible to be gone for more than a few days at a time, but we try to schedule two or three long-weekend trips a year – one of them around the holidays. With Christmas and New Year’s falling in the middle of the week, a holiday season trip didn’t materialize this year – a fact I was bemoaning in early January, when the topic of Leavenworth came up again in a conversation with a friend.
After doing a bit of research on the Internet, I plopped my laptop on Phil’s lap one evening with a photo gallery of Leavenworth on the desktop. “Let’s go to Leavenworth for Valentine’s Day,” I said. “Okay,” he replied.
Since we seldom take long vacations, we like to splurge on our weekend trips. We booked the best suite in the most highly-rated hotel in town – the Bavarian Lodge – a family-owned and operated four-story hotel that is only slightly bigger than the Clatskanie River Inn. Our suite, which featured a two-person spa in the turret overlooking the park in the center of the village, was expensive, but not unreasonably so compared to hotel rooms in cities or other tourist destinations – especially considering its spaciousness, comfort, attractive furnishings, and the full breakfast that came with the room.
An all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet with eggs, sausages, fried potatoes, biscuits and gravy, waffles, scones, muffins, various breads, cereals, fresh fruit, juice and coffee is served in the lodge’s banquet room. The complimentary big breakfast allowed us to skip lunch. (Okay, full disclosure, we did make one midday stop for a bratwurst at the outdoor Sausage Garten).
The owners were eating breakfast with their adult children at the table next to ours on Friday morning, planning the decor for the 42-room addition – basically doubling the size of the hotel. They stopped to visit with us, ask us where we were from, what we did, etc. We had a nice casual, friendly conversation.
That’s another thing we liked about Leavenworth. Most of the hotels, bed and breakfasts, restaurants and shops are locally-owned and operated by friendly, small-town people.
Via I-5 through Tacoma, then Snoqualmie Pass and Blewitt Pass, Leavenworth is almost exactly 250 miles from Clatskanie. With clear highways, we made it in four hours.
There was snow covering the grass in the park when we arrived in Leavenworth, but the highway was dry. We were hoping for snow. True, Clatskanie had 10 inches during the first week of February, but Phil and I are kids-at-heart. We always want snow.
We arrived about a half hour before check-in time, so we took a little walk around town. Any fears I had about tackiness, vanished.
Leavenworth is charming. Every building has Bavarian touches of gingerbread woodwork and tole painting, but they aren’t “cookie cutter” or cheaply done. We liked the fact that the holiday lighting – which was still in place through the Valentine’s/President’s Day weekend – was not strictly uniform. Every tree in the park was brightly lit, but some of them had white lights, others multi-colored, a couple of big firs were in blue and white, one was all in red, and one had multi-colored lights with big sparkling snowflakes. The effect was enchanting.
Similarly, all the commercial buildings in the village had lights and winter decor, but there was colorful and creative individuality.
Cashmere Side Trip
After breakfast on Friday morning, we drove 12 miles southeast on Washington Highway 2 past hundreds of acres of orchards and vineyards, to the nice little town of Cashmere, the home of the Aplets and Cotlets factory.
My great aunt Susie (Steele) Van, a longtime Clatskanie resident, had taught high school in Cashmere for several years during the 1920s, before coming to Clatskanie and marrying George Van. I wanted to see the town that held such fond memories for Aunt Sue.
Unlike Leavenworth, Cashmere doesn’t have a theme, but it is a well-kept little community with an awning system that shelters both sides of the street on a block in the old part of town. Something like that would be nice in downtown Clatskanie.
Wishing for a Blizzard
After returning to Leavenworth on Friday afternoon, the snow began to fall. On Saturday, it snowed harder and longer. Kids and their parents gathered on the little sliding hill in the park, Bavarian oompah music emanated from the gazebo, the snow-covered trees and buildings shimmered in their holiday lighting.
Phil and I walked around town in the snow, browsed through the shops, enjoyed two of the best restaurant dinners we’ve ever had – at Café Mozart on Friday night and Visconti’s on Saturday. When we got tired of walking, we retired to our turret and watched the sledders from the windows.
It was like a Bavarian Norman Rockwell painting.
We kept hoping we would be snowbound.
When the snow stopped late Saturday night, and the snowplows came through, Phil watched the weather radar on his smart phone, trying to wish up a blizzard.
Sadly, it didn’t materialize – at least not before check-out time the next morning. We got back over the mountain passes before a predicted heavy snowfall in the Cascades.
Leavenworth has festivals and activities for every season. Skiing, sledding, snowshoeing and sleigh rides in the winter; kayaking, fishing, hiking and golfing in the summer; wine-tasting and breweries all year long; holiday lighting ceremonies and Christkindl markets during December, an Ice Festival in mid-January, Maifest in the spring, performances of “The Sound of Music” throughout July and August, Oktoberfest in the fall. There are accomodations from RV parks to cabins to bed and breakfasts, not to mention the turrets in the Bavarian Lodge. Try it. We think you’ll like it.
And, if Phil and I ever go missing from Clatskanie – a town we have loved all our lives – look for us in Leavenworth.