I’ve leaving for 10 days in Germany today. With the trip on my mind last weekend, I figured I’d get a headstart on all things Deutsch by checking out the annual Oktoberfest in Leavenworth, a faux Bavarian town in the North Cascades east of Seattle.
The natural beauty in the Icicle valley, smack dab in the mountains, is incredible. Which makes Leavenworth’s quirky German ambiance all the weirder.
At one time, Leavenworth was a railroad and lumber town, with its fortunes tied to the Great Northern Railway. When the railway pulled out at the end of the 1920s, the town languished for decades until city officials decided to turn it into a themed tourist attraction in the 1960s. Although several themes were considered, community leaders decided to take advantage of the alpine setting and turn the entire city into a Bavarian village.
And when I say the entire town is Bavarian themed, I’m not kidding. As soon as you enter town, you start seeing buildings in the perched Tudor style that we associate with southern Germany. Even chain stores such as McDonald’s, Starbucks and Cold Stone Creamery follow the mandated style.
In some ways, the idea is a little creepy, not to mention ignorant. Germany is much more than Bavaria, after all, and it’s incredibly parochial to have one region represent an entire country. It’s the equivalent of Germany having a “United States” tourist town that only looks like New Orleans.
On the other hand, Leavenworth’s buildings are cute – and the gimmick is incredibly successful. Thousands of tourists visit Leavenworth every year, drawn to a constant stream of festivals, nearby hiking in the Wenatchee River valley and all-season recreation. The views alone make the town worth a stop, even if you can’t tell your schnitzel from your spaetzle.
The Leavenworth Oktoberfest takes place on Fridays and Saturdays for the first three weekends in October. $20 gets you a wristband to the festival grounds, which have the standard trappings of any Oktoberfest celebration.
You’ve got your beer and brats….
Your oompa bands….
And your bar wench babes.
These moms, still wearing their numbers from an Oktoberfest half marathon held earlier in the morning, cracked me up. I can’t tell if they’re ready to pour a pint, hand out a cookie or sprint across town. Maybe all three.
Dressing up isn’t just for the young, of course.
As you might expect, the crowd is more interested in partying than German culture. There’s plenty of booths on the grounds, as well as stores on Leavenworth’s main street, selling mountaineer hats, Viking braids and other festival paraphernalia.
Most if not all of the Leavenworth shops are geared toward tourists, most with a Bavarian or Pacific Northwest theme. Think cheese shops, sausage vendors, sweaters and outdoor gear. If you’re a Nutcracker nut, you’re in luck: not only do stores have displays such as the one above, there’s also a Nutcracker Museum.
(So sue me, I kinda like Nutcrackers. I may have to come back up to Leavenworth for Christmas decorations later this fall).
There’s only so much Oktoberfest-ing I can take. So after an hour or so, I slipped down to Leavenworth’s waterfront along the Wenatchee River. The city has set up a nice network of parkland and trails around the river that allow you to escape the German joviality for a while for some Pacific Northwest peacefulness.
As you might expect, the town’s restaurants lean toward German cuisine (although I did see a few Mexican restaurants that looked pretty good). While the clerks at my hotel (the unremarkable Fairbridge Inn) recommended King Ludvig’s, that restaurant seemed a little too close to the Oktoberfest grounds for me (the crowd gets rowdier as the hour grows later). So I went to Cafe Christa instead. The jaeger schnitzel (pork in mushroom sauce) tasted quite good. I’d go back.
You don’t have to stay overnight in Leavenworth to enjoy Oktoberfest. I found that I could have easily made it a daytrip from Seattle. But that’s because I’m not a big beer drinker. If you are making a weekend of it, make sure to book your hotel several weeks in advance, as space fills up. And yes, expect to pay more than you usually would, as the rates are definitely higher.
On my way out of town, I made a stop at Lake Wenatchee, a popular state forest and camping site just a few miles outside Leavenworth. It looks like a gorgeous place to go hiking, kayaking or canoeing. Even if Leavenworth’s German theme turns you off, the town is a great launching pad for exploring the scenery in this area of the Cascades. I’ll definitely be going back, hopefully next time with my husband.