Leavenworth is one of those cities which, despite growing up in Washington, I never visited before moving to the other side of the country. I’ll be honest, in high school I thought Leavenworth was a small town with plenty of cows and not a whole lot of nightlife. One of those blips on the map that we passed by when making the long drive to visit family in Spokane.
How wrong I was.
It was only after I moved to Orlando, over 3,000 miles away, that I discovered Leavenworth for what it really is: an adorably themed Bavarian-style town nestled along the North Cascade Mountains.
Established in 1890 by Western pioneers, Leavenworth hit its stride when the Great Northern Railway came to town. As the railway headquarters, the small timber town enjoyed a constant stream of visitors throughout the year, and saw a massive boom in its industry and commerce. Of course, once the railway re-routed and moved its headquarters elsewhere, Leavenworth suffered. With the heart of its business opportunities torn out, the city limped along until the 1960’s, when two businessmen from Seattle saw an opportunity to re-invent Leavenworth as a tourist attraction.
Inspired by the Danish-themed city of Solvang, California, downtown Leavenworth underwent a major face lift, and emerged as the themed village that still exists today. And while the railroad may have shifted directions,a new Amtrak station (established in 2007) brings visitors to the town throughout the year, helping Leavenworth to enjoy the same popularity it did 100 years ago.
When I visited in April, however, we did not take the train. Mom and I hopped in the car and enjoyed a two hour drive, past Wallace Falls and through the Cascades, the scenery getting prettier and prettier as we continued along. It was one of those cases where the journey truly is as good as the destination.
I loved the little town as soon as I saw it. Sure, it’s a little over the top, but how could anyone not love this? I felt as if I were in Disneyland, or some other faraway themed land. And while I planned on playing it cool, I could not stop pulling out my camera to take photo after photo. From the cute shops and street signs, the murals and the statues, and the stunning mountain views, it really did feel a bit like I’d been transported far away, to Switzerland perhaps. I wondered if the ode to Bavaria was viewed as obnoxious, touristy and overly cheerful, but as we strolled around, I saw more and more older European couples, clearly locals, enjoying life in their little slice of home.
After doing a quick lap around downtown, Mom and I walked down to the Riverfront Park. Along with pretty tree-lined trails and picnic areas, the park runs alongside the Wenatchee River.
Talk about gorgeous.
We spent a little while here exploring, taking photos, and just relaxing by the water before hiking back up to the themed downtown area to shop around and grab lunch. (Why is it that every time I visit home I’m reminded of how out of shape I am!?)
Mom sent a postcard and chatted with the shopkeeper at “A Matter of Taste,” while I drooled over the impressive array of sauces, dips and jams available for sampling. I brought home two mini jars of honey creme (my favorites were the Irish Cream and Huckleberry), and was seriously tempted by the Caesar dip. Now I know what to buy next time I’m in town. A Christmas visit with Dan is definitely in the works!
Distracted by a cute chalkboard sign advertising a $3 wine tasting, featuring Huckleberry Riesling, I made a quick stop in the next shop over, the name of which I can’t seem to remember. I really enjoyed all three samples in the tasting, and wound up bringing home a bottle to share with Dan once I landed in Orlando. And yes, I picked the bottle for looks as much as taste. It was the most “Bavarian” looking bottle in the store, and the perfect souvenir!
Sauerkraut, beer and sausages are more Dan’s specialty, so I saved the beer gardens for a future visit with him. Mom and I ate at an Italian restaurant called Visconti’s. The food here was just okay and I don’t plan on returning, but the downtown and mountain views from our dining area almost made up for the boring food.
After lunch it was more shopping and walking around, followed by a visit to the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum.
I didn’t initially plan on writing about the museum, but as we explored more, I started to change my mind. And while the nutcracker collection was unique and entertaining, it was the history that made me want to share this unique little spot.
The nutcracker collection was started in the 1970s by Arlene Wagner, who worked as artistic director for a local ballet company. Inspired by the characters of the famous Nutcracker ballet, she and her husband began to collect the wooden figurines in their travels. They began searching for nutcrackers in antique shops and roadshows, often travelling to certain locations just to bring home a certain piece. As their collection grew, so did their fame, and artisans and friends connected them with new finds. Their collection even included nutcracker figures of themselves!
As the couple grew older, they decided to donate their entire collection to the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum, so that people could continue to enjoy it for generations after their passing. Arlene still works in the museum, and was actually there to greet us upon arrival. Her husband sadly has passed, something which I found unfathomably sad. Sitting there day after day surrounded by all those shared memories sounds simultaneously draining and intoxicating. You have to admire her passion for these little nutcrackers.
And it’s not just the traditional wooden figurines made famous by the Nutcracker ballet! This collection, which now includes donations from friends and fellow collectors around the world, has entire walls dedicated to metal, wooden, and themed nutcrackers. There is an entire display shelf full of nutcrackers shaped like alligators, a wall of unique carved faces with nutcracking stems, and even a pair of spiked shoes used for the industrial mass-production of pre-cracked nuts.
Some of the older, more delicate pieces were not allowed to be photographed, a rule which I respected as we walked up and down the rows. With so many other interesting figurines to photograph, it was no skin off my back!
Looking through those photographs now, I am super tempted to feature them in a whole new post. I’ll share just a few more photos with you and finish things up.
After leaving the Nutcracker Museum, we decided to get back on the road and begin the long trip back home, along those lovely mountain roads. Our few hours in downtown Leavenworth were enough to get a good feel for the town, and I already have a few ideas for a future visit with Dan. I’m thinking we’ll catch a train through the mountains, catch a few tastings, and wander the Christmas markets hand in hand. If we’re lucky, it might even snow! It’s hard to believe that were it not for the quick thinking of two businessmen in the sixties, Leavenworth might not have survived at all.
What do you think of Leavenworth? Does it strike you as a novel idea, or a tourist trap? And for those of you who have been to Germany, Switzerland, etc, how does Leavenworth hold up to the real deal?