Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Leavenworth: A Town for All Seasons

What could attract over a million and a half visitors annually to an ersatz Bavarian village in the middle of Washington State's Cascade Mountains? Could it be the Maifest in May, the Accordian Celebration in June, Autumn Leaf Festival in September, Ocktoberfest, Christmas Market, Christmas Lighting Festival?  Everything is celebrated here from salmon to sausages to snow. The Arts and Entertainment Network honored it as The Ultimate Holiday Town, and as the Chamber of Commerce boasts, “There’s always something happening in Leavenworth.”
It wasn’t this way not so many years ago. In the early 1960s, the once-booming lumber town was in serious decline. The Great Depression, the sawmill closing, and departure of the railroad switching yards had left Leavenworth with an ailing economy and lack of jobs. As the town became more and more run-down, local business leaders and residents formed a committee called Project LIFE (Leavenworth Improvement for Everyone) and turned to the University of Washington’s Bureau of Community Development for help in saving the community. A number of ideas were tossed around, but the concept of creating a theme town was the most popular. There were already several successful examples in the country including “Danish” Solvang, California, “Swiss” New Glarus, Wisconsin, and “German” Frankenmuth, Michigan. While Leavenworth had no single ethnic tradition, it did have an attractive alpine setting and the idea of creating a romanticized, Bavarian village seemed to be the best fit.
Architectural consultants were called in and the transformation took off. Downtown businesses were redesigned with half-timbered facades and embellished with Bavarian elements including window shutters, scalloped designs, flower boxes, and Germanic script. Great efforts were taken to make the town as authentic as possible; even Safeway and McDonalds caught the Bavarian spirit.
Today, tourists roll in by the busloads and the hills are alive with the sounds of oompah-pah, polka music and the ch-ching of cash registers. Leavenworth shines as an amazing success story in community improvement. While some critics consider it a bit too kitschy and way over the top, the concept somehow works. Visitors gladly make the 100-mile trek east from Seattle to experience a little bit of Europe without the ten-hour plane flight, weak dollar, and language problems.
Shopping is a big attraction here with dozens of specialty shops lining Front Street. Many stores stick to the German theme offering cuckoo clocks, music boxes, Hummel figurines, smoked meats and sausages, Christmas ornaments, and nutcrackers. There’s even a museum dedicated to the nutcracker with over 5000 of them, from the traditional, wooden toy soldiers to a silver-plated French courtesan.
Restaurants with names like King Ludwig, Café Mozart, Munchen Haus, and Der Hinterhof offer an opportunity to sample Bavarian cuisine washed down with German beers. If sausage, schnitzel, and sauerkraut are not to your liking, there are dozens of other choices as well.
Likewise, accommodations range from charming, Alpine-inspired bed and breakfasts to rustic cabins on the banks of the Wenatchee River. With so much variety, Leavenworth makes as excellent home base for exploring the Washington Cascades. 
When all the Bavarian gemutlichkeit becomes overwhelming, visitors can escape to the great outdoors. The surrounding Wenatchee-Okanogan National Forests offers over 2600 miles of hiking trails and there are several, easy nature trails in town along the Wenatchee River. Other recreational opportunities nearby include horseback riding, whitewater rafting, and fishing. Winter time brings downhill skiing at Stevens Pass, cross-country skiing, sleigh rides and snowshoeing.
With its many festivals, four season outdoor activities, and scenic mountain setting, Leavenworth has gone from down-in-the-dumps lumber town to one of Washington’s top tourist destinations in only forty years.

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