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A DRIVE INTO MICHIGAN LEADS TO THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS

Frankenmuth is a teeny speck on the Michigan map -- nothing more than a hollow circle off Interstate 75. But incredibly, there's nothing empty about this little town called "Michigan's Little Bavaria."

It's Michigan's No. 1 tourist attraction, home of the world's largest Christmas store and the location of the world's biggest family-style restaurant. There are more than 100 different shops and attractions, in addition to at least 25 tours and other things to do for visitors of all ages.

Neatly packaged in charming Bavarian ambience, Frankenmuth is so special it's worth stretching the limits of a One-Tank Trip into an overnight or weekend venture. Your efforts will be rewarded as you plunge headfirst into the spirit of Christmas, and some really great holiday shopping.

Always Christmas

Located on the edge of Frankenmuth, Bronner's Christmas Wonderland claims to be the world's largest Christmas store (no argument here) and is clearly the biggest shopping draw in Frankenmuth.

Bronner's even looks like the North Pole with its giant, outdoor Santas, heralding angels and snowmen that welcome visitors. (All that illumination comes at a steep cost: electric bills are $900 a day.)

Make the Christmas Wonderland your first stop in Frankenmuth. Arrive fresh and ready to go when the doors open at 9 a.m. for a few moments of crowd-free shopping. You'll need the time to soak in the marvelous, glittering Christmas splendor, including the "snow" that falls twice every hour, year-round, in the west lobby.

Bronner's is wonderfully overwhelming, like a snack of several Christmas cookies and gallons of hot chocolate before bedtime. The map supplied at the entrance is a lifesaver. It will guide you through the gigantic store, about the size of 5 1/2 football fields.

Even the most hardened holiday shoppers risk overload here. Thousands of ornaments, decorations, trees, lights, garland and more adorn every square inch of the place. Consult the map to keep from getting turned around in this sea of tinsel and trimmings.

From Old World Santas and traditional snowmen, to Elvis (in a variety of life stages) and SpongeBob, if you can't find an ornament at Bronner's, they probably don't make it.

The tree and light section provides more of the unexpected. Always wanted a frog Christmas tree? Buy your frog lights at Bronner's.

How about a lighted garland that changes color? They have it. Tall trees, skinny trees, bushy trees, fiber-optic tipped trees, woodland trees, garlands, wreaths, topiaries and more make it a forest that never ends.

If you make it out of the timberland alive, there's still a whole section of stockings, tree skirts, holiday cards, music, nativity scenes, miniature villages, Bibles, lawn inflatables, figurines and even Santa suits to wade through.

Bronner's personalizes more than 100,000 ornaments annually, and offers several collectibles, including Hummel, Lladro, Swarovski, Cherished Teddies and Precious Moments. In-house artist Connie Larsen designs the Bronner's annual ornament.

German heritage

Translated, the name Frankenmuth means "courage of the Franconians," a testament to the Lutheran German settlers that help found this town in 1845 along the Cass River.

It wasn't until 1959, however, that the town adopted its look, following the lead of the Fisher Hotel, which remodeled using the Alpine theme.

Now called the Bavarian Inn, the building features a 50-foot high imported German Glockenspiel with revolving figures that depict the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Listen for the beautiful sounds of the 35-bell carillon that plays at 11 a.m., noon, 3, 5, 6, 9 and 10 p.m. daily as the figures move.

If time permits, visit the Frankenmuth Historical Museum, located next door to the visitor's center and take the self-guided tour to learn about the Germans who built the town. The very personal tour provides a deeper appreciation for the town and its residents. There's also a nice museum gift shop.

On Main Street

Stores line both sides of Main Street, creating a special holiday shopping experience. While there are a variety of different gifts in the many shops, several stores really capture the spirit of the town's heritage:

Rau's Country Store -- This old time general store features barrels and bins of taffy, candy sticks and more. Kitchen replicas, license plates and retro lunch boxes are among the items lining shelves. There are hundreds of nostalgic die cast toys, including an entire room of John Deere tractors.

Zeilinger Wool Company -- Shop for handcrafted items like woolen comforters, mattress pads, pillows and beautiful yarns (wool, mohair, llama or alpaca). Factory tours are available from 1 to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Make arrangements by calling (517) 652-2920 or by e-mail to zwool@aol.com.

Frankenmuth Woolen Mill -- Beautifully knit sweaters, gloves, mittens, scarves and hats are this shop's specialty.

The Mill -- This cute gift shop is located at the site of the old flour mill. The many gourmet items include specialty pastry flour made by the Star of the West Milling Company of Frankenmuth.

Frankenmuth Clock Company -- You'll see more than 1,000 intricately carved Black Forest cuckoo clocks on display and several grandfather clocks.

Willi's Sausage -- The Bavarians love their sausage and you will, too. Bring a cooler to take some home. Stock-up on Bockwurst Bratwurst and Winterfest Sausage. And don't forget to grab Willi's own Bratwurst Sauce. You'll also find imported European food items here.

St. Julian Winery -- Sample and purchase wines from the state's oldest winery.

Frankenmuth Cheese Haus -- Fill your basket with cheeses, cheese spreads and even a chocolate cheese for upcoming holiday parties.

Dining

Frankenmuth Brewery

Instead of a sit-down lunch, consider a Bavarian break at the Frankenmuth Brewery bar. In operation since 1862, the brewery adheres to Reinheitsgebot, the German Purity Law of 1516 that requires all beer to be made from only malted barley, hops, water and yeast. Beer samplers provide a taste of several kinds.

Order a few appetizers, including the Three Cheese Fondue, which is a fancy name for a huge, soft pretzel with a beer and Bavarian cheese dip. Tours are available. Inquire at the front reception desk.

Zhender's Restaurant and Marketplace

What Bronner's is to the Christmas store, Zhender's is to the family restaurant: It's the largest family restaurant in America. There are several dining rooms, but without a reservation, you'll have a very long wait. Request the original dining room if you can. It's smaller and not as noisy as the other main dining rooms.

Zhender's claim to fame is its family-style, all you can eat chicken dinners. (The Bavarian Inn across the street also offers the famous chicken.) For $16.95, you'll receive noodle soup, cabbage salad, cheese spread, preserves, breads, relish, the famous Frankenmuth fried chicken, buttered noodles, mashed potatoes, gravy vegetables and ice cream. They'll keep bringing it as long as you're hungry.

After dinner, head downstairs to the Zhender's Marketplace, where you'll find an array of food and gourmet gifts. Grab a cup of coffee at the cafe or order a "bread of the month" or "sweet of the month" gift.

Holiday events

Frankenmuth is quite busy with holiday-related events in the upcoming weeks. Here are just a few:

Friday: Frankenmuth's annual Holiday Lighting Celebration (free hot chocolate and cookies).

Friday through Dec. 24: Santa visits Bronner's, Monday-Saturday.

Dec. 3-5: The Living Nativity, Immanuel Lutheran Church of Frankentrost. Call (989) 754-0929.

Dec. 4: Herbal Holiday Open House, Frankenmuth Historical Museum. Books on herbs, gardening and holiday gifts. Call (989) 652-9701.

Dec. 4: Holiday Flower Show, Zhender's. Create your own kissing ball out of greens. Breakfast and all materials cost $40. For reservations, call (800) 863-7999.

Dec. 4: Frankenmuth Holiday Home Tour. Visit five exceptional homes decorated for the holidays. Call the Frankenmuth Chamber of Commerce at (989) 652-6106.

Dec. 4-5: Meet Wally Bronner, Bronner's store originator

Dec. 5, 11, 12 & 18, 1-5 p.m.: Visit with Santa in Zhender's lobby.

Dec. 11-12 (various times): 54th annual Christmas at St. Lorenz Church concert. Call (989) 652-6141 or www.stlorenz.org.

Dec. 11: Kids cookie decorating at the Bavarian Inn

Dec. 13: Red Hat Ladies Day, Bavarian Inn. Cookie decorating, lunch, entertainment, fashion show. Reservations required. $18 per person.

Dec. 22-23: Wally and Irene Sing-Along at Bronner's. Wally Bronner leads everyone in singing a variety of favorite Christmas carols while Irene accompanies on an old-fashioned pump organ from 1:30 to 2 p.m.

If you stay

There are several options in Frankenmuth, including the Bavarian Inn Lodge, which features five indoor pools. Consider staying in the nearby Birch Run. It's only a few minutes away and the rooms are reasonable.

Birch Run is also home to Prime Outlets at Birch Run, the Midwest's largest outlet shopping center, with more than 170 stores.

For info

Frankenmuth Chamber of Commerce and Convention & Visitors Bureau: 635 S. Main St., Frankenmuth; (800) FUN-TOWN, www.frankenmuth.org

Bavarian Inn Restaurant: (800) BAVARIA or (989) 652-9941, diningreservations@bavarianinn.com

Bavarian Inn Lodge: (888) 775-6343, lodgeinfo@bavarianinn.com

Bronner's Christmas Wonderland: (800) 255-9327, www.bronners.com

Zehnder's Restaurant: (800) 863-7999, www.zehnders.com

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