Lake Chelan, Washington: Home for Hospitality
By Julie Snyder
You can go home again. Especially if that home is as magical as the region surrounding Lake Chelan, a 55-mile ribbon of crystal-clear, glacier-fed water tucked into Washington’s Cascade Mountains.
Just ask Heather and Dean Neff, owners of Nefarious Cellars, who apprenticed in the wine business in Oregon’s Willamette Valley wine country before returning to their roots to plant roots on a lakeview hillside in Chelan.
Or Kari Sorenson, who left her family’s fifth generation homestead for school in Seattle, then boomeranged back to join the family business, Blueberry Hills Farms, a “u-pick” berry farm with a fruit stand and a homey restaurant.
Or Chelan-born Mike Steele, who circled back to the region after political positions in Washington, D.C. and Washington State to serve as Executive Director of the Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce.
Or Timi Starkweather, who traveled the world with her Coast Guard officer husband before settling back where they started and launching Fromaggio Artisan Creamery & Bistro.
Whether they’ve left and returned or never departed in the first place, the residents of Lake Chelan are exceptional hosts. Wherever we wandered during our fall visit, we encountered an authentic pride of “ownership” in this close-knit community that translated into first-class hospitality.
Our first taste came when we checked into The Lookout, a hilltop village where colorful cottages—individually owned but many available for vacation rental—surround pockets of lush landscaping with croquet, tennis, swimming pool, playground and well-positioned Adirondack chairs. The phased build-out underway in this family-friendly community with a small-town feel includes Lookout Landing, a private, luxurious lakeside park with a 70-slip marina.
We lingered by an outdoor fireplace there one evening, sampling local red wines with S ‘mores (an unlikely but tasty pairing) before settling into our comfortable cottage named The Grapevine. By daylight at The Lookout, one couldn’t ask for a better view of the region’s natural centerpiece, Lake Chelan.
Nestled in a glacially carved valley in the heart of Washington State, Lake Chelan is fed by dozens of glaciers and streams, and plummets to 400 feet below sea level at its deepest point. The 7,000-foot peaks and evergreen forests that surround the tiny outpost of Stehekin at the lake’s northern headwaters ultimately give way to fertile lowlands where the communities of Chelan and Manson host the majority of the area’s activities and amenities.
Here the year-round population of some 6,000 can swell to 25,000 in the summer months, thanks to an abundance of second homes and vacation rentals and a wealth of diversions on lake and land. Only a quarter of the lake’s shoreline is accessible by road, all of it in the southern reaches, which makes getting to Stehekin an adventure by seaplane, private boat, or a scheduled sailing on Lady of the Lake.
We didn’t venture to Stehekin on this trip but discovered another excellent use for a seaplane—wine tasting! The Lake Chelan region is renowned for its fruit, most notably apples, berries and grapes. When the market for apples waned around in the late 1990s, farmers began replacing orchards with vineyards on hillsides above the lake and today Lake Chelan is an official American Viticulture Area (AVA) and home to some 20 wineries.
About that air limo to wine tasting. A 10-minute flight on Chelan Seaplanes’ banana yellow Dehavilland Beaver floatplane whisked us to Rio Vista Wines on the bank of the Columbia River, where John and Jan Little have created a vintage retirement enterprise in a idyllic setting. We sampled a tasty 2011 Tempranillo and other award winners, and played fetch with the resident dogs while our pilot waited to fly us back to Chelan. Very civilized.
For the rest of our wine tasting, we left the driving to Lakeside Limousine so we could savor the sipping, care-and-car-free. On our itinerary: Lake Chelan Winery, the first in the valley (I was a grape-stomping star); Benson Vineyards Estate Winery (their Sangiovese is delightful with lamb); and Cairdeas Winery (the yummy Nellie Mae was a Double Gold Award Winner at the 2014 Seattle Wine Awards). We didn’t have enough time to do justice to the local winery line-up. However, next trip, with planning assistance from the Lake Chelan Wine Grower’s website, we’ll pick up where we left off.
Though grapes have supplanted apples as the region’s favorite fruit, the apple business carries on with just-picked produce at local stands like Sunshine Farm Market, where you can also press your own cider. Manson Growers, an apple packing warehouse owned by a cooperative of local growers, runs over a million apples a day through its high-tech processing line, many destined for export. Though no longer the core of the region’s agri-business, apples certainly aren’t disappearing from the landscape. We took home a big bag of my new favorite, Sweet Tangos.
There is no shortage of fine food to accompany local wines—or local apple cider for that matter. Our most unique meal was at Fromaggio, where we literally “pigged out” on succulent pork carved off a whole hog as we watched. Two Lakes Catering and its mobile spit roaster makes regular appearances at the Manson restaurant, as well as bringing the party to private homes, where pig—or lamb, beef or salmon—is prepared in spectacular style.
Anchoring Chelan’s main street at lake’s edge, Campbell’s melds a modern menu of creative cuisine, lodging, spa services and other vacation amenities with more than a century of hospitality. Family-owned since 1901, the 170-room resort is now managed by fourth and fifth generations of the Campbell family. The Pub & Bistro menu goes local with dishes like Duck Nefarious, featuring Nefarious Cellars Syrah and local cherries, and a “Best of Washington” wine list with many regional entries. (Did I mention the superb Single Malt Scotch selection?)
For breakfast, the Riverwalk Café (try the raisin-walnut French toast and Blue Star coffee—or breakfast beer!) and Blueberry Hills Farms (exceptional Eggs Benedict) were favorites. When packing a picnic, don’t miss the Lake Chelan Artisan Bakery, with scrumptious fresh baked goods and homemade seasonal soups and salads.
While we fell for fall in the Lake Chelan region, the upcoming winter calendar may well entice us back. Particularly appealing is the 28th Annual Lake Chelan Winterfest, January 16-25, activity-packed with ice sculpting, a polar bear splash, wine walk and “snowga”—a snowshoe hike followed by hilltop yoga.
Or perhaps we’ll return for the Red Wine & Chocolate celebration., February 7-8 and 14-15, with decadent pairings of chocolate desserts and artisan wines, and Winemaker Dinners. Whenever we return, I’m confident that we’ll feel welcome. At Lake Chelan, home is where the hospitality is.