Washington: Willkommen to Bavaria

By Pamela Wade

The roadside billboards give Pamela Wade her first clue that she's entering a new world.

The Gingerbread Factory is straight from 'Hansel and Gretel'. Photo / Pamela Wade
The Gingerbread Factory is straight from 'Hansel and Gretel'. Photo / Pamela Wade

When even McDonald's, Starbucks and Prudential Insurance bow to local pressure, you know you've got a phenomenon on your hands. In fact, even before you arrive at Leavenworth, in Washington state, this town starts messing with your head.

One minute you're driving past apple orchards, red barns and yellow school buses as American as apple pie. Then the roadside billboards turn sort of foreign. The advertisements for local businesses are written in an elaborate Gothic script that has me looking twice to distinguish s from f.

There's a lot of gold and red, and the names sound distinctly Teutonic. I'm still bemused by the wooden scrollwork frame and little peaked roof on the sign showing prices at the petrol station when we cross a bridge and arrive at Leavenworth. It's as though we've passed through a portal and been translocated to southern Germany.

Against a suitably alpine backdrop of mountains and pine forests, the buildings lining the streets are traditional Bavarian in style: wide eaves on the pitched roofs, decoratively carved bargeboards, bright shutters and hand-painted murals on the stucco walls.

It's bizarre, disorienting - and charming. We stop at a zebra crossing to allow a woman in a full, gathered skirt and dirndl to pass; accordion music drifts in through the windows.

Everywhere we look, it's German. There's a bakery with a golden pretzel hanging outside; a couple of doors along is a window full of cuckoo clocks and painted wooden nutcrackers; down a staircase is a cheese shop, its glass cases crammed with emmentaler, bergkase, tilsiter; across the road is Gustav's with 25 beers on tap.

Cafes and restaurants offer sausages and sauerkraut, pork hocks, strudel and stollen. There's even a Gingerbread Factory in a ridiculously pretty cottage straight out of Hansel and Gretel.

Nancy from Visitor Information explains. Once a prosperous and lively sawmill town, Leavenworth languished when the railway withdrew in the 1920s.

It seemed destined for a slow death until the suggestion was made to reinvent it as a Bavarian-themed town to attract tourists.

Local businesses, in an admirable act of faith, invested in the necessary alterations to their buildings. The results were so successful that now two million people visit every year, giving local authorities the power to insist that even multinational brands such as McDonald's and Starbucks conform to strict regulations dictating on-street appearance: the Golden Arches are much less garish when surrounded by a dainty border of hand-painted edelweiss.

It's October, and though the hanging baskets all along the verandas and balconies are still bright with petunias, the big trees on Front Street are beginning to drop their red and orange leaves.

The Wenatchee River is clear and blue, running over rapids, and I stop on the bridge to Blackbird Island to enjoy the scene.

When the salmon are running, it's an impressive sight, but we're too late this season. Too early, on the other hand, for the sleigh rides with hot cider and the snow-mobile tours at Mountain Springs Lodge up the road.

But we've timed it perfectly to visit Mike at Smallwood's. In the run-up to Halloween, his Country Mercantile is buzzing with families choosing pumpkins to carve and people browsing the stands of apples and pears. He's full of praise for New Zealand. "We owe you guys such a lot," he says. "We're the apple state of America, but all we grew were Red and Golden Delicious until you came up with Gala and Jazz."

At Abendblume, a picture-perfect alpine chalet where we sleep, German fashion, each under our separate goosedown duvet in a fabulously comfortable four-poster bed, Renee gives us apples for breakfast - in a sauce with cardamom, over soft little dumplings drenched in icing sugar. We polish off a panful each.

The only unwelcome German we've come across in Leavenworth is the phrase "Guten Appetit". With food like this, the last thing we need is encouragement.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Economy class airfares to Seattle start from $2502 per person return, travelling on Air New Zealand and partner airlines, with daily services via Los Angeles.

Leavenworth is a picturesque two-hour drive from Seattle and can be incorporated into a loop route. It can also be reached by train.

What to do: Leavenworth has an extensive programme of year-round festivals and events and is especially colourful at Christmas. See leavenworthwa.org for more details.

Be spoiled rotten at Abendblume; get active at Mountain Springs Lodge; or try something more restful and cultured at Sleeping Lady Mountain Resort.

Further information: For more about visiting Washington state see experienceWA.com.

Pamela Wade travelled as a guest of Washington State Tourism.

- NZ Herald

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