Where I live on Australia’s east coast, Christmas falls smack bang in the middle of summer and its hot. So hot in fact Christmas Day usually involves a swim in the pool just to bring the core body temperature down. If you’re lucky enough to be in an air-conditioned home, Christmas lunch is enjoyed in a room regulated at a comfortable temperature. But as much as I love downing cold turkey and ham with a selection of chilled salads on Christmas Day, I’m yearning for a ‘white’ Christmas experience.
Chasing a white Christmas
My decision to fly halfway around the world to Seattle in early-December was a pre-Christmas present. Earlier in the year at a tourism breakfast sponsored by Visit USA during an IMM Conference in Sydney, I won a fantastic prize of a return trip to the USA on Delta Airlines I chose to fly to Seatttle. My heart was set on exploring parts of the Pacific Northwest in the heart of winter.
After years of watching festively themed movies with snow-covered streets, where real evergreen fir trees (not the fake plastic kind) are laden with snow and where people rug up in overcoats and scarves.Somewhere that gatherings around fireplaces to warm up is more common than dips in the pool to cool down. A place where Santa’s cheeks are rosy from the cold, not from over-heating. Where windows are frosted over by chilled air, not the manufactured air-conditioned kind, and carollers bundled in layers of warm clothing (not shorts and t-shirts) gather on street corners singing age-old Christmas songs.
Yes, I was definitely yearning for a cooler climate. I was more than ready to ignite my festive spirit.
To read my Leavenworth Christmas story published in the December 2019 edition of Discovery (Cathay Pacific’s inflight magazine) click on the link to their website Small town Charm of a Leavenworth Christmas
Seattle in December
Seattle is a magical city. Strolling through the maze of stalls at the 112-year-old Pike Place Market overlooking the Elliott Bay waterfront, I pause to watch the antics at the Pike Place Fish Co. where fish throwing has become a tourist phenomenon. Stall-holders dressed in overalls ‘work’ the small crowd of onlookers before tossing a large silvery fish through the air to the waiting hands of a customer who’s been quickly coached into the intricacies of catching a flying fish.
Fresh warm cinnamon doughnuts from the Daily Dozen Doughnut Company and Chukkar Cherries’ chocolate-covered treats have me returning to the Pike Place Market a few times throughout my Seattle stay.
Although it’s proclaimed to be the city where it rains 150 days of the year, the cloudless azure blue sky allowed for breathtaking views of the Cascade and the Olympic Mountain ranges from the iconic Space Needle Observation deck 184 metres above the ground.
With no musical ability, I somehow created some intricate riffs in the interactive Sound Lab of the Museum of Modern Pop (Mo Pop) and marveled at the brightly coloured glass sculptures by artist Dale Chihuly in the Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibition, conveniently next below the Space Needle.
The wide city streets of this easy to navigate city are sprinkled with Christmas lights and trees. But instead of carolers on street corners and in the markets, I find buskers, which is not surprising given Seattle is the birthplace of grunge music. Bands like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and solo musicians Jimi Hendrix and Macklemore began their musical careers in Seattle.
Upping the ante on my mission to ignite my festive spirit leads me to Enchant Christmas, for the world’s largest Christmas light maze under the roof of Seattle’s Safeco Field (re-named in 2019 as the T-Mobile Park.) What is used as a green grassed sports field during the year for the Mariners – Seattle’s baseball team – has been dramatically transformed into a sparkling winter wonderland. A labyrinth of Christmas lights glowing golden, white, purple and blue overtaken the field. Christmas carols are piped over the loudspeakers and fake snow. For almost two hours I wander through the maze, giddily like a child who simply cannot get enough of the festiveness of Christmas. There is a challenge: try to help Santa find his missing reindeers in time for Christmas. With fake snow cascading from canons placed strategically around the field and an ice-skating rink in the centre – this was a Christmas utopia.
With my intention to well and truly ignite my festive mood I wondered what could top Enchant? My Seattle friend recommended we visit a quirky town. Nestled in the eastern slopes of the Cascade Mountains in Washington State, the town of Leavenworth is a two-hour drive (135 miles / 190km) from Seattle. There are two choices of routes to Leavenworth from Seattle, either by US Highway Two voted one of the most scenic drives in the US, or the more direct route via Highway I-90. Highway Two is through Stevens Pass, a high mountain route, which during winter is the more adventurous. Drivers must confirm the roads are open beforehand.
Knowing in advance snow was expected and our preference to not have to fit snow chains on the wheels, we rented an all-wheel-drive vehicle and farewelled Seattle around lunchtime on a Friday. The double laned-highway is edged by snow-laden evergreen trees straight from the pages of Hans Christian Anderson’s Christmas story.
Snow-capped mountains with foreboding names like Cougar, Tiger, and Rattlesnake rise above the green forests. Ninety minutes into the journey we stop in the small mountain town of Cle Elum in the heart of Kittitas County. My friend suggests we visit the Cle Elum Bakery.
“Wait until you try their maple bars!” she says smiling.
The bakery which opened in 1906 was taken over in 1947 by the Osmonovich Family who now continues the tradition as third-generation bakers Oon a Saturday during summer, they sell over 100 dozen maple bars. Thankfully in winter, we’re not dealing with annoying crowds. We purchase our maple bars to go (along with a hand-made cinnamon sticky roll – couldn’t say no could I?!)
As we turn into Highway 97 towards Leavenworth the sky turns an azure blue – a sign of good things to come!
Arriving in this quaint village around 4.30pm, it feels like we inadvertently made a detour and somehow ended up in Europe. Everything from houses, apartments, signage, shop fronts all mimic German Bavaria. we found an easy park in one of the back streets near the Cascade Medical Centre which has also succumbed to the Bavarian theme. Shop windows display merchandise that is Bavarian-inspired. I can’t believe what I am seeing!
Originally called Icicle Flats, early settlers moved into the northwest frontier town in 1885 – the commodities traded were gold, timber, and fur. In 1903 the second largest sawmill in Washington State was built in the town and logging became a thriving industry in Leavenworth. Close to the Great Northern Railway the town grew to 700 by 1904. When the Great Northern Railway created a new route which bypassed Leavenworth in the 1920’s local businesses based along Icicle Creek floundered and the town became deserted.
In the 1960s two local businessmen originally from Seattle came up with the idea of turning the town into a tourist attraction. They’d visited the Danish-themed town Solvang in California and thought that the town of Leavenworth surrounded by mountain ranges could be transformed into a mini-Bavaria. That was 1965. Jump to 2018 and the addition of a few festivals: Autumn Leaf Festival, Maifest, Octoberfest and the Christmas Lighting Festivals, it seems people are after a Bavarian cultural experience in the heart of the Pacific Northwest. Leavenworth now attracts over two million visitors annually
Sleeping Lady Resort
For a complete change of pace from quirky to peaceful serenity, we’d organised to stay overnight at the Sleeping Lady Resort. A ten-minute drive from Leavenworth’s main street. Sleeping Lady was created by local identity and environmental activist, Harriett Bullitt. A longtime owner of a neighbouring property, she purchased a parcel of 67 acres of land in 1991, to preserve the land from overdevelopment. She renamed it Sleeping Lady, after the mountain profile above the valley.
Nestled into the forest on the banks of Icicle Creek, after leaving the glitzy lights of Leavenworth driving into the entrance of the resort is like entering a peaceful haven. The snow was falling and apart from our footsteps crunching in the soft snow, there was not a sound as we made our way to the reception to check-in.
To stay only one night in this beautiful resort is not doing it justice. There is a fully stocked library, a gymnasium, an outdoor pool (obviously not in use in winter.)
Walking around the property was a surreal experience. I was after a fully immersive snow experience and here I was 100% in it! Harriett Bullitt, at age 96 (in 2019) understandably is winding down her involvement in managing the property. On January 1st, 2019 the ownership of the business was handed over to the Icicle Fund a non-profit organisation established by Harriett to give back to the local community and support wildlife and conservation in the area.
I didn’t meet Harriett but I did hear her on the phone talking on the verandah of her cabin. Her dog bounded through the snow to come and check me out.
The entire Leavenworth experience was beyond memorable. I have written a few stories and could write many more on this remarkable pocket of the Pacific Northwest.
Huge thanks to Sue Coliton for suggesting we go see this place. I met Sue seven months earlier on a seven-day hiking tour on Scotland’s Isle of Skye. When she said she was from Seattle I said I may be coming to visit!