Where I live in Australia, heat and humidity are common in the lead-up to Christmas. But this year, I was after something different. I flew to Seattle chasing a Pacific Northwest winter experience. I wanted to see real evergreen trees covered in fresh flakes, not fake firs coated with artificial spray-on snow. I wanted to hear carolers on street corners singing Christmas songs while wearing scarves and coats, not t-shirts and shorts.
A friend from Seattle suggested that if it was Christmas cheer I was after, I should drive a few hours east and visit the town of Leavenworth, Washington. “It’s a unique town,” she said—and she wasn’t wrong.
Along the highway, snow laden evergreen trees stand upright like an army of stationary soldiers. I swoon as Seattle slips away, slowly replaced by the snowy suburbs. As we switch from the double-lane highway to a single lane, I want to reach out my passenger window and touch the fir trees just to confirm that they’re real.
After a two-hour drive, as the car turns onto Front Street in Leavenworth, I feel as if I’ve left the U.S. entirely and landed somewhere in Europe. Nestled in a valley surrounded by Washington’s Cascade Mountains, Leavenworth is picture-postcard perfect. Everything along the town’s main thoroughfare—houses, apartments, shop fronts, and restaurants—looks straight out of Bavaria.
Before a handful of early settlers moved into the frontier town in 1885, Native Americans from the Yakama, Chinook, and Wenatchi tribes wandered the lands beneath the towering Stuart Range and Wenatchee Mountain peaks. They hunted deer and elk and fished salmon from nearby Icicle Creek. As the gold, fur, and timber trades grew, so did the population—to 700 by 1904. But in the 1920s, when the Great Northern Railway created a new route that bypassed Leavenworth, the town slowly declined.
A revival came in the 1960s when two local businessmen, originally from Seattle, suggested transforming Leavenworth into a Bavarian village. The makeover, which began in 1965, has been a tourism boon ever since and the town now attracts close to 2 million visitors annually.
Like a rat lured by the Pied Piper’s magic flute, I follow the German music floating down Front Street. An eclectic mix of shops sell everything from ski gear to cuckoo clocks, chocolate, and fresh caramel apples (Washington grows more apples than any other state in the U.S.). A Nutcracker Museum has somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 nutcrackers on display—what began as a place to show off Arlene and George Wagner’s private collection has turned into one of the largest collections of nutcrackers in the world.
Outside the Danish Bakery, a Christmas tree decorated with giant pretzels reminds me I’m hungry, and music coming from the München Haus Bavarian Grill and Beer Garden beckons. With a stein of German draft beer and a giant hot pretzel with Beecher’s cheese, I’m transported back to my European backpacking days and fond memories of Munich’s Hofbräuhaus.
As the afternoon light fades into dusk, the twinkling lights—more than 500,000 LED bulbs—transform the town into a Christmas fairytale. The lighting festival begins every year at Thanksgiving and the lights stay on through Valentine’s Day. Jessica Stoller has lived in Leavenworth for 25 years, and she confirms that December is the most festive and fun month of the year.
“You can’t help but get in the holiday spirit,” she says.
Stoller, the media director at the Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce, says that this mammoth lighting spectacle is the work of just two people. “Our lighting specialist works seven days a week from the middle of October until Thanksgiving,” she says. “It’s a huge undertaking, but he’s gifted and they’re amazing.”
In Australia, the only reindeer I see are in books or on TV, so it feels like Christmas comes early when I discover that Leavenworth has a farm with 19 live reindeer. Erika Bowie is the manager at the farm owned by her parents, Kari and Hans Andersen. Since 2014, the family has provided horse and carriage rides in downtown Leavenworth. “Our carriage takes Santa Claus through the parades during festival season and one year we joked to Santa we’d get him real reindeer to pull him and his sleigh,” says Bowie. “When we found out Leavenworth is the same latitude as parts of Mongolia where huge herds of reindeer naturally thrive, we knew we could consider a reindeer farm.”
Their first six reindeers arrived by boat from Whittier, Alaska in 2016. Anna, Elsa, Freja, Mischief, Vixen, and Snowflake were joined by three more reindeer flown down from Palmer, Alaska. “Reindeers really do fly, just not first class,” Bowie says.
The farm also has ducks, geese, draft horses, and pigs—but in December, the clear stars are the reindeer, which guests can feed by hand. The farm also has a few Santa sleighs, but they’re not functional. “Our guests are welcome to pose in them for photos, just don’t fly away,” Bowie says.
A peaceful haven
Nestled into the forest on the banks of Icicle Creek is the Sleeping Lady Resort, a peaceful respite located just ten minutes from the brightly lit town.
In 1991, local environmental activist Harriett Bullitt purchased 67 acres of land adjacent to a property her family had owned since the 1930s. She renamed the area The Sleeping Lady after the mountain profile that sits above the valley. Over the years, Harriett, who turns 96 this year, and her team have transformed the parcel of land into a haven for anyone looking to immerse themselves in nature and the outdoors.
With 58 guest rooms, the resort is purposefully small, providing an intimate connection with the stunning scenery. Guest rooms are positioned in clusters and my Alcove Room looks like a gingerbread house with a thick layer of snow clinging to the pitched roof.
I traveled halfway around the world to experience Christmas in the Pacific Northwest, and I’m not disappointed—the town of Leavenworth has truly ignited my festive spirit.
If you go
Leavenworth is located about two hours east of Seattle, Washington. The holiday lights are on display from Thanksgiving to Valentine’s Day.