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Short Trips: Leavenworth - A new season to shine

By LESLIE KELLY
SPECIAL TO THE SEATTLE P-I

short trips leavenworth washington bed and breakfastDo you hear what I hear?

The sound of silence.

I recently traveled to Leavenworth in advance of the town's busy Christmas festivities, a monthlong event crammed with concerts and plays, sleigh rides, twinkling lights and holiday cheer. I was hoping to beat the rush and find lots of good things to stash under my Christmas tree, but I came away with something even sweeter.

This year, as the economy is tanking, the shoulder season has been especially quiet, prompting hotels and restaurants in the faux-Bavarian village to offer extra incentives to budget-wary visitors. Even the most deluxe spot for roughing it, Sleeping Lady, is shaving some off its high-end price tag.

But what this recent trip reaffirmed was the best reasons to visit this picturesque valley don't cost a dime.

I came to that conclusion, sitting on the banks of the Wenatchee River early on a Saturday morning, killing time before breakfast was served at All Seasons River Inn.

Fog shrouded the evergreens as the sun tried to break through. The gentle whooshing sound made by a small set of nearby rapids was like a balm on my stressed-out urban soul. I live on a busy street in Lower Queen Anne and keep a white noise machine inches from my pillow, the constant roar blocking traffic sounds and the commotion caused by the occasional drunk stumbling by after last call.

You don't realize how much you tune out the ever-present clatter of the city -- which I love, don't get me wrong -- until you're enveloped in a blanket of utter peace and quiet. If only they made a "sleep machine" with a Wenatchee River soundtrack.

When I went back inside to help myself to another cup of coffee, I discovered I wasn't the only early riser. I asked my fellow guest staring out toward the water if he thought it was chilly. "It's perfect," he replied without missing a beat. "This is heaven."

After a huge morning meal -- grapefruit, Swiss cheese frittata, banana bread, potato cakes and sausage -- I dropped my husband off at the Icicle Ridge trailhead just down the road. (Hiking is another great deal here; to learn about the best day hikes, pick up a brochure at the Forest Service office in Leavenworth.)

I've got gobs of family living in Leavenworth, so I visit several times a year. Yet I rarely venture downtown to mingle with visitors doing the Front Street shop shuffle. In summer months it seems everybody's licking an ice cream cone while exploring souvenir stores. When the weather's cool, coffee drinks are the favored companions.

Much of what fills the retail space in Leavenworth falls into the "never-knew-you-needed-it, but now have-to-have-it" category. I checked some stuff off my Christmas gift list by buying a "Lena Loves Lutefisk" Norwegian joke book, beer stein refrigerator magnets, kitschy shorts from a store called Fashion for $12.99 and super-cool lids from The Hat Shop. This teeny space is always crammed full of customers trying before they buy. ("Do you have anything with a turkey on it?" I heard one man ask in a British accent.)

The store management is not fussy about folks snapping shots in silly hats either, which makes me feel extra warm and fuzzy about them. There are even signs among the racks encouraging customers to download shots of chapeau-wearing exploits on the shop's Flickr account.

The town's not without its serious goods, though. I loaded up on stocking stuffers at All Seasons Bookstore, where they often feature authors signing their work. And my daughter got some bargain-priced yarn at Wooly Bully, a cozy shop where the motto is "Because Knit Happens." Wooly Bully hosts a free knitting night the third Thursday of each month, offering crafty tourists a nice chance to connect with locals.

Naturally, all this bargain hunting made me ravenous, and after catching a whiff of sausages sizzling on outdoor grills, I decided to do a taste-off to determine who had the best brats in town.

But first, how about a little cheese to take the edge off?

The Cheesemonger recently moved into more spacious quarters and it was doing booming business when I walked down the stairs to its basement location. The super-friendly crew behind the counter eagerly served up samples of dozens of imported and domestic cheeses. Maybe you'd be pushing it if you said, I'll have one of each, but the busy staff didn't seem to mind multiple requests.

I tried a few before buying some Drunken Goat -- cheese marinated in red wine -- and a hunk of Gruyere. As if I wasn't already impressed, the monger who rang up my order handed me the bag and said: "I've put some paper plates, a plastic knife and napkins in there for you."

While sitting at a chilly picnic table, waiting for my sausages to get grilled at Best of the Wurst, I nibbled on cheese and shivered. The grill cook got the hint and lit the outdoor heater. Ahh, much better.

This no-frills stand has been in the same spot for as long as I can remember and attracts a steady stream of customers by offering sausages from Bavarian Meats, a Seattle-based company.

I went hog wild for the mild bockwurst, a veal-and-pork-based sausage, and liked the spicy Polish, too.

Just a block away, the Munchen Haus is a year-round outdoor beer garden that has a lot more in the way of bells and whistles. A roaring freestanding fireplace glows day and night, surrounded by wooden benches and tables. A crowd of people broke into a round of applause when one of the servers added more logs to the blaze.

There are at least a dozen different mustards and an apple cider-simmered sauerkraut provided as embellishments, as well as dill pickle and sweet pickle relishes made in-house. A nicely spiced chili also can be ladled over any of the sandwiches.

For about the same price as an appetizer at an upscale restaurant in Seattle, I tried a currywurst, the Bob's bratwurst and a bockwurst while sipping a $4.50 pint of German lager as the sound system shuffled between traditional om-pah-pah and Euro-disco.

Good flavor, but the sausages were dry. I liked the offerings from Best of the Wurst better, despite its barebones amenities.

There was little doubt where I'd end up for dessert. Too cold for ice cream, I was enveloped in a spicy, warm scent after stepping into The Gingerbread Factory.

This time of year, the place really lives up to its name, as bakers shaped fragrant cookie pieces into holiday-themed houses, assembled in the middle of the store.

Even though my tree is overloaded, I splurged on ornaments shaped like gingerbread men and bought edible bling for this year's Christmas cookie decorating party. And when it comes to something sweet, you cannot go wrong when choosing an oversize cookie at the Factory, especially the adorable iced gingerbread men.

So, where to go to walk it all off?

How about a stroll around Blackbird Island, the city park surrounded by the Wenatchee River? There are easy, family-friendly paths and places to sit and soak up the blissful sounds of water flowing over rocks. Even when the town is packed with tourists, this pretty park is often nearly empty. You might not experience utter silence, but maybe a little bit of heavenly peace.

IF YOU GO ...

  • ·Rates at All Seasons River Inn, 8751 Icicle Road, range from $165 to $230, which includes a full breakfast. Comfy suites have gas fireplaces and decks that overlook the Wenatchee River. Five of the six guest quarters have oversize tubs with whirlpool jets. This season the Inn is offering discounts midweek. Reservations: 800-254-0555, 509-548-1425; allseasonsriverinn.com
  • To shop for discounts on lodging, go to leavenworth.org, which also has links to attractions and dining options and features a live webcam, so you know what to pack. Another good site: destinationleavenworth.com
  • For upcoming author events at A Book for All Seasons, 703 Highway 2, check out abookforallseasons.com or call 866-227-8747or 509-548-1451.
  • Beyond the swell sausages at Munchen Haus (709 Front St., 509-548-1158, munchenhaus.com) and Best of the Wurst (220 Eighth St.; 509-548-7580), I enjoyed dinner at Katzenjammers, an old-style steakhouse complete with salad bar (221 Eighth St.; 509-548-5826, 800-330-5826; katzenjammersrestaurant.com). Other venues on my must-chew list: Alley Cafe, Gingerbread Factory, The Cheesemonger, South, O'Grady's Pantry and The Tumwater, which proudly touts its history as the town's longest-operating restaurant.
  • ·Icicle Outfitters and Guides offers horse-drawn sleigh rides when there's snow on the ground. Shuttle service is available from downtown to the sleigh rides, which are $16.67 for adults, half-price for children. Reservations: 800-497-3912, 509-669-1518; icicleoutfitters.com/wintersleighrides.html