At first glance, Leavenworth has many of the markings of a typical small American town. As you descend into the town from the Cascade Mountains, a two-lane highway morphs into a four-lane strip bordered by familiar corporate brands – 76 gas, Howard Johnson’s, Wells Fargo, Starbucks. It looks pretty much like Anywhere, USA. But it doesn’t take long to realize there’s something else going on here. It’s the font.
I’m assuming it’s some kind of town ordinance, but all signs use a typeface familiar to anyone who’s visited the northern Alps, or who takes their Oktoberfest seriously. Apparently it’s called the Fraktur – translated as “broken” or without the smooth curves we see in most popular script – and in Leavenworth no other fonts need apply. In good Germanic fashion, rules matter.
Rules also seem to apply to building design. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the country’s largest bank, coffeehouse, or fast food restaurant – if you’re going to do business here, you had better bring your best half-timbered, ornamental Gothic architecture. And don’t forget the petunias.
I can (sort of) understand the need to create theme towns like this. Relatively isolated places such as Leavenworth need to make a destination out of themselves after other sources of revenue (logging, mining etc.) have moved on. A few tourists no doubt come to this area to spend time in the wilderness, but a far greater number would probably prefer to take it all in from a bar stool. And if that bar chooses to serve up a steady serving of oompah, bratwurst, and Kölsch, all the better.
But my goal in coming to Leavenworth was not to throw back steins or rediscover my inner von Trapp (although Sound of Music was playing at the Leavenworth Summer Theater). I had come to do some mountain biking in the nearby Freund Canyon. In addition to its Gothic trimmings, Leavenworth is a bit of a mountain cycling mecca and has a number of shops renting bikes.
But I needed food and drink, and in Leavenworth there is ample supply of both. If heavy portions of lumberjack cuisine is what you’re looking for, the downtown Leavenworth restaurant scene is probably going to disappoint. Every second shop seems tied to a local winery and wine tastings go all day. Despite the reputation of German food to be on the heavy side, I found restaurants went a little overboard on the fufu. I suspect the prawns and diablo sauce I ate one night had fewer calories than your average french fry. These aren’t the meals you need after spending all day single tracking deep in the mountains.
Whether the eats are to your liking or not, Leavenworth is in a beautiful part of the country, and this is no doubt part its appeal. Driving from the coast, it’s the first place where the sun seems intent on making more than just a cameo appearance. On my visit, Leavenworth’s Waterfront Park was a lively place, with the young and old renting floatables and drifting down the Wenatchee river. If not drifting, visitors were jumping, diving, or wading in the river’s refreshingly cool waters.
Leavenworth is kitschy, and I’m confident no self-respecting Bavarian would be caught dead in the place. The oompah bands, lederhosen, and dirndl frocks can be a little much at times. Still, it seems to be a genuinely happy town and the mood was infectious. When people smiled and said hi on the streets, my first reaction was, you must be from around here. And whether you take in the mountains from a hardtail or a taverne, you’ll be hardpressed to find a more picturesque part of the country.