Chilling out at Lake Chelan
E-mail message sent to friends in Seattle who were riding out another wind and rain storm: "Made it to Chelan. No wind. No rain. Sunny. Going skiing ...
Seattle Times travel writer
Northwest Travel Guides
CHELAN — E-mail message sent to friends in Seattle who were riding out another wind and rain storm: "Made it to Chelan. No wind. No rain. Sunny. Going skiing."
All bets are off this year when it comes to weather predictions, but there's a reason the locals call this corner of Central Washington "America's Little Switzerland."
Nestled in the foothills of the North Cascade mountains, the Chelan Valley — including the towns of Chelan, Manson and Stehekin — surrounds 55-mile-long Lake Chelan, a glacier-fed, deep-water lake sheltered by snowcapped peaks, apple orchards and alpine firs.
This time of year, I like to think of it as a poor man's Aspen. A resort that draws those seeking water and warmth in the summer when daytime highs climb into the 90s, Chelan has hundreds of hotel rooms and condos that go begging in winter when temperatures dip into the 30s and the valley's population drops to 10,000 year-round residents.
Forget swimming, boating and jet-skiing and most of the other activities that draw summer tourists. This is the time to strap on your cross-country skis or snowshoes, linger at a winery, or mingle with the locals over blueberry blintzes at a mountain restaurant where lines stretch out the door in peak season.
Time-share promoters brag that Chelan gets more than 300 days of sunshine a year. Assuming the weather cooperates long enough for you to get over the mountain passes, chances are you'll see more of it here than in Seattle.
Here's the plan:
Midmorning Friday: Leave work early to arrive in time for a wine-tasting at Tsillan Cellars (open Wednesday-Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.) in a Tuscan-inspired villa perched over the lake's south shore, three miles from downtown Chelan.
Growers began pulling up apples and planting grapes after apple prices began to fall a few years ago. Plenty of apple trees still cover the hillsides, and there are now more than a dozen wineries. Most open their tasting rooms on winter weekends.
Tsillan (the native word for the lake, meaning "deep water," and pronounced the same as Chelan) is licensed to sell wine by the glass ($5.25-$7.50), and a cozy spot at a table by the fireplace is where I found Montana transplant Max Harshman relaxing on a Friday afternoon.
The winery's outdoor patio and bistro attract busloads of tourists in summer.
Lake Chelan winter
From Seattle, there are two routes: Take Interstate 5 to Everett and go east on Highway 2 over Stevens Pass toward Wenatchee, then northeast on Alternate Highway 97 to Chelan; or take Interstate 90 east over Snoqualmie Pass past Cle Elum, then follow Highway 970 to Highway 97 north over Blewett Pass. Follow signs toward Wenatchee, and then go northeast on Alternate Highway 97 to Chelan. Distance is about 180 miles.
• Best Western Lakeside Lodge & Suites, 2312 W. Woodin Ave. 800-468-2781 or www.lakesidelodge.net. All suites $69 in January and February. Includes breakfast daily and free soup and salad on Friday and Saturday nights.
• Campbell's Resort, 104 W. Woodin Ave. 800-553-8225 or www.campbellsresort.com. Rates range from $78-$178 now through March 29, including continental breakfast through Feb. 28.
• Wapato Point time-share condos on north shore of Lake Chelan. Rates through May 26 range from $75-$200 for units sleeping two to eight persons. 888-768-9511 or www.wapatopoint.com.
What to do
• Soak up the winter scenery on a lake cruise aboard the Lady Express. The boat departs Chelan at 10 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, returning at 3:50 p.m., with a 60-minute layover in Stehekin at the far end of the lake. Round-trip fare is $38. 509-682-2224 or www.ladyofthelake.com
• Go wine-tasting. Weekends are the best times to find wineries open in winter. See www.lakechelanwinevalley.com. Wineries will be open for two "Red Wine and Chocolate" events Feb. 10-11 and 17-19.
• Downhill ski, snowboard or go tubing at Echo Valley. Open weekends and holidays, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. through mid-February, depending on snow conditions. 509-682-4002 or www.echovalley.org.
• Cross-country ski at the Echo Ridge Nordic Area, a U.S. Forest Service facility two miles from the Echo Valley Ski Area. See www.chelanvalley.com/nordic.
• Snowmobile at Antilon Lake, Black Canyon and Echo Valley. Details at www.cometothelake.com. Maps and information available from the Lake Chelan Snowmobile Club at www.lkchelansnowmobileclub.com. Call 509-687-7669 for grooming reports.
• Campbell House Café and 2nd Floor Pub, 104 W. Woodin Ave. Pub open daily for lunch and dinner; cafe open for dinner Fridays and Saturdays during winter; lunch Monday-Friday and breakfast Saturdays and Sundays. 509-682-4250 or www.campbellsresort.com.
• The Hungry Belly, 246 W. Manson Road. Monday-Saturday for lunch and dinner. 509-682-8630.
• Blueberry Hills, 1315 Washington St., Manson. Winter hours: Wednesday-Sunday for breakfast and lunch. 509-687-2379 or www.wildaboutberries.com.
"They're usually lined up three-deep at the bar waiting," said Cynthia Einspahr, who handles tastings. But Harshman was her only customer this day, which meant she had plenty of time to give me a mini-lesson in winemaking, starting with an Alsatian-style riesling made from estate-grown grapes and ending with my favorite, a smoky 2004 pinot noir.
Friday afternoon: Check into a suite at the 95-room Best Western Lakeside Lodge, with a prime location next to 10-acre Lakeside Park at the foot of the lake.
Families pack this hotel in July and August, paying $279 a night on weekends for its lakeview suites, each of which comes with a kitchenette, microwave, two TVs, access to two swimming pools, two hot tubs, free breakfast and free soup and salad in the evenings.
In January or February, any king- or queen-sized suite goes for $69.
Who cares what the weather is like, I thought to myself when I saw these rooms. I could spend the whole weekend here, lounging around the heated indoor pool, soaking in the hot tub, taking walks along the lake or the nearby Chelan River, reading or watching movies.
Friday night: Ask locals where to eat, and most will recommend the Campbell House Café inside the historic lakefront Campbell's Resort in downtown Chelan.
Press them for something more casual and they'll send you to the Hungry Belly in a strip mall next to the Safeway.
At the latter, a chalkboard menu covering one wall lists 14 burgers ($6.75-$7.50); 15 stir-fry dishes ($6.50-$8), several pastas and nightly specials. Order, pay at the register and find a seat at one of the long, wooden tables.
Try the blackened salmon ($10) over fettuccini, and strike up a conversation by asking anyone what they think of the new Wal-Mart, a topic of local controversy. Afterward, take in a movie at the 93-year-old Ruby Theatre downtown on East Woodin Avenue, the town's main drag, or go for dessert, coffee and live bluegrass (no cover) next door at the Vogue cafe and wine bar.
If you're around on the first Friday of the month, poke around some of the shops that stay open late. I found deals on Christmas lights at Kelly's Ace Hardware long after the Seattle stores had sold out, and stopped in at the historical museum where the Three Amigos, a local clarinet trio, performed while visitors browsed photos recalling the valley's fur-trading and mining days.
Saturday morning: Skip the free hotel breakfast. It's ample, but this is your chance to walk in without a wait at Blueberry Hills U-pick blueberry farm and restaurant.
Country cooking and all things blueberry — jam, pies, blintzes, waffles, pancakes — are the Sorensen family's specialties. Hung from the ceiling of a barn built on the family homestead are 200 pairs of sunglasses, a bicycle, several sleds and tackle boxes daughter Kari found in her grandparents' apple-packing shed.
I thought I had the wrong place when I walked in and found several of the big round tables empty.
"How are you doing this morning?" a man wandered over and asked. He set down his cup of coffee and introduced himself as Roger Sorensen, the owner. I ate my blueberry blintz, and he told me how when the price of apples began to fall and everyone else was selling off their land for real estate or planting grapes, his family decided to put in blueberries and open this restaurant.
Business is good, and winter ushers in a welcome break from the crowds.
"They're usually lined up out the door," he said. "Sundays are the worst. We've had 'em lined up out to the highway."
Saturday afternoon: Skiers, snowboarders and tubers head for the Echo Valley Ski Area 3,000 feet above the lake in the hills between Chelan and Manson.
Mission Ridge it's not, but kids under 5 ski free, and $20 covers the price of an all-day lift ticket (three rope tows, one 1,400 foot Poma lift) also good for the four-lane tubing hill (tubes provided). There's also a Sno-Park that connects with 97 miles of snowmobiling trails.
Cross-country skiers consider the trails at Echo Ridge Nordic Area, two miles above Echo Valley, among the best in Washington. Twenty miles of groomed, gently rolling trails, many along ridges with views of the lake and mountains, and a day pass costs just $5.
I was surprised to find the trails smooth rather than icy-hard despite no new snow in Chelan the night before. At an elevation of 3,400 to 3,800 feet, a nightly surface frost or "cloud snow" dusts the ridge with a layer of fresh powder.
Saturday evening: Dinner can be a last-minute decision. No need for reservations this time of year at Campbell's, or take advantage of the Lakeside's free weekend soup and salad (rolls, fruit and cookies included) buffet. Soothe your muscles with a dip in the heated indoor pool or hot tub and settle in for the night with a rented movie.
Sunday morning: Gird for the drive home by filling up at the Lakeside's make-your-own waffle station. Check the pass reports. If all looks clear, get an early start. Otherwise, kill time wandering through the new Apple Annie Antique Mall in Cashmere, just east of Leavenworth.
Go ahead, splurge on that apple-shaped ceramic cookie jar. Think of all the money you saved going to Chelan, instead of say, the real Switzerland.
You'll be back in the windy city soon enough.
Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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