Leavenworth is a trip. Nestled against the far side of the Cascade mountains just a few hours east of Seattle, this little town does an impression of a Bavarian village with all its might. The beer flows freely and the music is oompah; buildings are decorated with wooden beams, family crests and gingerbread trim (or their trompe l’oeil versions). The HeidleBurger boasts “Best Burgers in Town,” and even the 76 station, Starbucks and Howard Johnson’s are in on the illusion, their corporate identities trumped, for once, by a civic thematic mission.
The small town centre is entirely committed — several square blocks of signs in gothic fonts bearing names such as “Das Sweet Shoppe.” There’s candy and candles, hats and tchotchkes; you can get your photo taken in a dirndl with an accordion in your arms, or ride in a carriage hauled by a horse round and round. There’s a museum devoted solely to nutcrackers. Leavenworth is deeply weird and alarmingly adorable, and people love it.
And why shouldn’t those who settled here, coming from far away in Germany back in the day, celebrate — and cash in on — their heritage? But while that might seem the likely backstory, Leavenworth is an even more American success story than that: It was just a regular logging town struggling to survive in the 1960s when the idea of a tourism-friendly makeover was fabricated. As leavenworth.org puts it, “To say the change worked is like saying you can taste a hint of cabbage in kraut.”
German philosopher Theodor Adorno would’ve had a field day with Leavenworth — the distant Bavaria re-created entirely for prosperity’s sake, where the people of the region get an artificially foreign break, with plenty of “spurious and illusory activities” to divert them. He called the phenomenon “the culture industry” and it’s here in spades — and, as he noted, consumed heartily, yet “not quite believed in.” The charm is beyond-Disneyland ridiculous, and everyone goes all-in on the fun.
This makes for excellent people-watching. Take an outdoor table at Icicle Brewing Company on a sunny autumnal afternoon, and see the visitors stroll by, happy in their new Tyrolean felt headgear (regular size or comically tiny and attached to a headband). Across the way, it’s selfies galore with the hops harvest-festival mural on Starbucks’ rear; a couple women pretend to hold the reins of the painted horses, and from here, with a beer, it looks picture-perfect.
But the tourists must also be fed. Try Argonaut for coffee and snacks; South for Mexican food (sources say to get the poblano sauce on a burrito); and Good Mood Food for just that. For a fancier (read: pricier) dinner, Watershed makes very good farm-to-table comfort food (the meatloaf, huge and delicious, costs $32 US), while Mana is there for the upscale vegan crowd (at $85 for eight courses).
Of course, you don’t have to actually move — whatever uber-German-style pub you’re in will have pretzels, sausages and the like. The name of one might ring a bell to some: Rhein Haus. Leavenworth’s latest addition fits so seamlessly here — pretty, pale pinewood; steins and antlers and snowshoes everywhere — you’d never guess its Bavarian artifice is a meta-import, just opened in August. The first installation is on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, and Tacoma and Denver also have locations.
Rhein Haus’s menu meets all the hungry drinker/hiker/snowboarder expectations: the town’s best pretzel; a prodigious bratwurst; rich, slightly smoky goulash with big chunks of beef. Fat, extra-crispy fries love the curry ketchup, but the platter-sized pork schnitzel’s thin sauce needed more lemon, capers and/or shallot (avoid inundation by ordering it on the side, and pass the salt and pepper).
The place has a sense of humour: a stuffed wildcat in repose sports the Tyrolean tourist hat (and manages to look debonair), while staffers wear T-shirts printed with folk-costume-tops rather than the real thing.
Just three blocks away, Leavenworth’s other new development does a different kind of imitation. Posthotel is castlelike — six stories built into the hillside overlooking the Wenatchee River — but it exercises restraint with its cream-coloured and flagstone exterior. Inside, too, it’s tasteful and soothing, with a faint lavender-herbal scent in the air, and only a modicum of antlers. Posthotel staff wear the classiest possible version of traditional German country attire, while most of the guests pad around the place in slippers and soft, white robes.
Yes, it’s just like a Euro-style sanitarium, and yes, it’s weird at first, but not for long. Quiet pervades, and no children are allowed; every bed is king-sized, with a soft bank of pillows, and every room has a gas fireplace and enormous marble tub. But why would you soak there when the spa awaits? A gentleman will kindly orient you, intoning the words “hydrotherapy” and “reflexology” over the four special foot-soaking pools, invoking the name of Sebastian Kneipp, a Bavarian priest who founded the naturopathic movement, promulgating the idea that frigid plunges into the Danube cured his tuberculosis.
In Posthotel’s capacious, vaulted-ceilinged spa, you may partake of two lovely wood-paneled saunas, one extra hot. There are two steam rooms, too, one offering the opportunity to recline on a contoured marble bed, like a body on a slab in a healthful mausoleum filled with a thick, humid, tranquilizing cloud. A shower with settings such as “Arctic Mist” will buffet you and, just as you look up, dump a deluge from above. Padded lounge chairs, wearing their own terry-cloth cozies, are incapable of anything but a fairly steep recline. An infinity pool, flowing from indoors to out, has underwater bubbling chaise-beds to tickle you all over. The view — mountain crags, distant forests, circling hawks, the river with regular people taking the air along it — is fabulous. Should you grow weary, back inside, there is a nap room with individual waterbeds.
All this swaddled “wellness” currently costs $385 US per night on weekends (going up to $435 in 2019). Skiers will doubtless swoop in after days on nearby Stevens Pass slopes, but one must commit to vigorous consumption of leisure to get the most of Posthotel. The price of admission is almost all-inclusive: the spa (treatments extra); use of fancy Public (not “public”) bikes; a gorgeous mini-golf course (windmill-free); all-day coffee, tea and fruit; beautiful breakfast and lunch buffets (the former with eggs and sausages to order, the latter with a choice of soups); and a nightly eight o’clock dessert extravaganza (perhaps with a chocolate fountain).
Could a couple German-cheese-and-cold-cut sandwiches secured at lunch — the robes have big pockets — plus a huge, juicy front-desk pear become supper? The distinct sense at Posthotel is that if it contributes to your temporary sense of wellness, no one’s going to stop you. Maybe that bike ride around Leavenworth earlier was just enough.
If you go
Rhein Haus: 707 Highway 2, Leavenworth; 509-888-1568; rhleavenworth.com
Posthotel: 309 Eighth St., Leavenworth; 509-548-7678; posthotelleavenworth.com