Wednesday, December 14, 2011

LEAVENWORTH: Bavarian Christmas Extravaganza

Nestled in the cascade mountains, the Bavarian themed town of Leavenworth, Washington, makes for a fabulous family getaway, particularly around Christmas.  Leavenworth has an interesting history.  Officially founded in the late 1800's, the town began to thrive when the Great Northern Railway built a route through Stevens Pass.  It became a bustling town with a prosperous sawmill.  However, the railroad company eventually rerouted and pulled out.  After a sharp decline in revenue following the loss of the railroad and logging industries, the folks of Leavenworth decided to reinvent the town for tourism to boost the economy.  So they hired German architects and remolded the village to resemble Bavaria.  Over 20 percent of Leavenworth's population are German, which says a lot for how they managed to get the vibe right.

If you love Christmas, Germany is The Place To Be in December.  Actually, almost anywhere in Europe, but particularly Germany as they really do it up for the holidays, and they do it beautifully.  Having lived in Germany, I was very curious to visit Leavenworth and see if it felt familiar, and while I didn't exactly feel like I was in Germany, it definitely brought back some fond memories of Bavaria and I was thrilled to show my son.  It was close--some cobblestone and a few Smart cars and Fiats just might have done it for me.  Much of the architecture seemed accurate and there were even smells that transported me.  The Munchen Haus smells like Germany and offers a couple of vegetarian options.  We enjoyed a hot pretzel with mustard outside in their courtyard heated with lamps and fire.

This year, the city greened their celebrations by converting to LED lights and they did a beautiful job decorating.  The village is very winter wonderland magical and ideal for children, particularly with sightings of both the German Father Christmas and Santa.  It's also very romantic and hundreds of people get married and engaged in Leavenworth every year.
For families, Leavenworth is a great destination with something for everyone.  There are places to sled with varying degrees of difficulty.  For instance right on the main street there is a small hill for kids to play, perfect for little ones.  For more of a challenge, there is a spot with pulleys to help you up the hill for tubing as well as cross country skiing and moderate downhill skiing.  Snow shoeing is also popular and accessible.
If you would like to go on a sleigh ride, there are several options.  Icicle Outfitters offers sleigh rides, complete with hot chocolate, apple cider and real cowboy coffee in a tent with a wood burning stove.  Horse drawn sleighs glide along a majestic backdrop featuring the Sleeping Lady--an image you can see hidden in the mountain silhouette.  Rides are inexpensive and in case you are wondering, the horses don't mind.  They swap them out so they don't get fatigued and these are powerful animals who for centuries have been bred to plow fields and haul heavy loads.  There are even farmers in Leavenworth who still use these magnificent creatures to plow their crops in lieu of machinery.   Icicle Outfitters also offers guided trips, camping, hiking and fishing trips.

Leavenworth has a natural foods store, dining options offering vegetarian fare, and a Farmers' Market with organic produce.  Leavenworth is actually the number one exporter of organic pairs in the US.
Lodging options are plentiful.  We stayed at the Icicle Village Resort and found it to be luxurious and accommodating.  I strongly recommend splurging on a suite.  You might spend a little more, but you get a lot more and it really enhances the experience.  There is a microwave and fridge, so you can bring some of your own healthy food and snacks--particularly nice when you have growing children that never seem to stop eating, and it's wonderful for those of us with special dietary needs.

The room was so inviting and comfortable neither one of us was in a big hurry to leave.  We sleep on a Tempurpedic at home, with soft bamboo sheets and fancy pillows and we are very spoiled.  When I go to a hotel, it's unusual for me to find the bed super comfortable and the pillows--forget it, I usually bring a travel pillow to supplement.  This hotel nailed it with a plush mattress, soft bedding and perfect pillows, I slept great which is rare for me in a hotel.  It was clean and quiet and very nice.  The room also came with a iPod docking station/speaker so we were able to listen to Christmas music without having to bring along travel speakers.
Our room had a fireplace and a whirlpool bathtub which, for my six year old, was like having a little swimming pool in the room.  Speaking of swimming, there is a pool on the grounds that is heated and enclosed in a big bubble.  It was fun to be able to go for a swim even though it was freezing cold outside.

Breakfast is included and is set up as a buffet in the hotel's restaurant, JJ Hill.  The menu, I was happy to see, includes vegetarian, vegan and gluten free options, and a train circles the room while you eat, which is fun for the kids.  They had it decorated festively and portions were generous.  The Icicle Inn has its own movie theatre on the grounds and we went to see Happy Feet Two on a full size screen in a very clean cozy theatre. To get to the movie, you walk through an arcade, which is not my cup of tea, but great for some, it's another thing to do for kids which is nice for weary parents.  There are enough activities on-site that you could stay right on the premises and still have plenty to do.  Views from the inn are beautiful and our room had a balcony and a big window so we could really enjoy the mountain atmosphere.  The hotel is in a good location, about a 10 minute walk from downtown.

We were there on the night of the Lighting of the Christmas Tree and the city had a special tent set up for hot apple cider and glowine.  It was very festive and if you weren't in the mood for Christmas, you would be after this.  The main street has some interesting little shops to check out.  There is a Nutcracker Museum in a shop filled with nutcrackers and several places to find Christmas tree ornaments, many imported from Germany.  There's a crazy hat shop with everything from Viking hats to kitty cat hats, to hats covered with eyeballs.  There are bakeries, one of which is an authentic Bavarian bakery that was closed while we were there (which may have been a good thing after all).  Shopping is plentiful, but when I'm in a new place there are two things I really love to do:  eat and explore.

My favorite restaurant from my brief sampling was South, a Latin place.  The atmosphere is rustic with exposed brick walls, lots of color, and Mexican fixtures.  They have vegetarian, vegan and gluten free options and the food is delicious.  I want to go back in the Summer just so I can eat outside in the courtyard.  The Good Mood Food Cafe is another great choice and offers fresh juices, salads, wraps, and other healthy satisfying meals.  It's kid friendly, with a little play table and chairs, and they aim to use organic, local and natural foods.  There were more yummy food options in town than I had time to try, but there's always next time.  I'd definitely like to visit again.

If you need a winter getaway that will satisfy the whole family and get you in the holiday spirit, or if you'd like a little taste of Germany without the overseas travel, check out Leavenworth.   There are festivals all winter to keep you in wonderland mode.  Find out more on the Leavenworth website HERE.