A Pre-Christmas Story

Catch the spirit and some unparalleled chicken dinners in Frankenmuth, Mich.

12 Ways to Be a Tourist in Your Hometown for the Holidays

1. Take a cab.


2. Take your oldest relative to a place he remembers fondly and try to see it through his eyes.


3. Take your youngest relative to a place you remember fondly, then try to see it through her eyes.


4. Call a concierge at a hotel and ask for sightseeing advice.

5. Keep a travel log.

6. Go out to dinner at a restaurant in a part of town whose name begins with the word "Little" (Italy, Arabia, Vietnam).


7. Look up a childhood friend who's still a resident and meet at his favorite spot.

8. Photograph someplace you used to visit as a child.

9. Read a travel story about your home town, then retrace the author's steps.


10. Go to the library and skim through a local history book.

11. Take a walk downtown.


12. Find a streetlight and kiss someone you love under it.

— Jacqueline Marino

If You Go ...

Bronner's CHRISTmas Wonderland is located at 25 Christmas Lane in Frankenmuth, Mich. Its hours June through December are Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday noon to 7 p.m. Hours January through May are Monday through Thursday and Saturday 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Friday 9a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday noon to 5:30 p.m. Call 1-800-ALL-YEAR or visit www.bronners.com for more information.

Zehnder's Bavarian Haus Motel is at 1365 S. Main and the Zehnder's of Frankenmuth restaurant is at 730 S. Main. It's open seven days a week, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Call 1-800-863-7999 or visit www.zehnders.com.

Frankenmuth Bavarian Inn Restaurant is at 713 S. Main. It's open seven days a week, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Call 1-800-BAVARIA or visit www.bavarianinn.com.

I'm a sucker for anything kitsch. It's a family curse. As a little girl, my grandmother introduced me to Turkeyville USA and my mother took me to Florida's Monkey Jungle. One year, the three of us answered the call of innumerable peeling billboards and visited what's advertised as the world's biggest oyster in Cheboygan, Mich. But our favorite place, the mother lode of tchotchkes, is Bronner's of Frankenmuth, "the biggest Christmas Store in the World."

Frankenmuth, in southeast Michigan, is pure, blissful camp — the premier attraction spans more than five acres. The women in my family were never more indulgent than on these trips and, for me, Frankenmuth conjures memories of my first "big girl" purchases: ornaments that I would hang on my own tree someday.

All grown up, I recently happened upon Bronner's Web site, and the old siren song whispered in my ear. A few hours later, Mom and I cleared our calendars for a quick weekend trip. The plan: Revel in the cozy memories of Christmas shopping seasons past, pick up a few ornaments and grab some famous chicken dinners along the way.

As we cruise into town Friday evening, our first sight is the glittering oasis of Bronner's, rising from a sea of silent cornfields and tidy German houses. All year round, Bronner's yard pulses with a festive symphony of synthetic color. Gargantuan snowflakes lighted red, blue and green compete with glowing, life-size Nativity scenes and Santa's sleigh. Lights festoon the trees, bushes and signposts. The yard exudes a happiness matched only by that of the Frankenmuth electric company.

We wait out the long night before shopping can commence in Zehnder's Motel — the perfect place to plot our attack, since it practically shares a parking lot with Bronner's. Undergoing a multimillion-dollar renovation, Zehnder's will become more of a destination spot next summer with an indoor water park. But for us, for now, a basic, no-frills motel room is just fine. Bronner's offers all the excitement we need.

Less than an hour after we awake the next morning, we're inside the behemoth, breathing its spiced-cider air. One word resonates in our brains: ornaments! Bronner's boasts 6,000 styles. We don't rush right over to the ornaments section, though. First, we get our bearings in Section Eight (stockings and tree skirts), Section Six (Nativities and angels) and Section Five (steins and nutcrackers). We wander past a collector's paradise of complex town scenes and along a row of 8-foot nutcrackers. Finally, we take a detour into an alcove of Section Five: the world of M.I. Hummel.

Hummels are a big deal at Bronner's and at the Mathesons. It's a love that I, thankfully, did not inherit, since the tiny figurines are no longer made and retail for around $200 each. But my mother treasures her Hummels and searches in vain for a boy on a fence to match her fence girl. The impatient little girl in me comes out and I take my mother by the hand, dragging her through Advent calendars, Christmas cards and garlands, ignoring her pleas to "stop for just a teensy second." It's time for our shared passion: Sections 10a through 10e. Ornaments, at last.

Here, the lights get a little brighter and the choices more complex. We're confronted with a bevy of subsections, characterized by a color, style or material. My grandmother's favorites, the old-fashioned, handpainted glass ornaments, are the unequivocal stars of the show. At Bronner's, you can pick out new treasures to reflect your family's traditions and inside jokes. But do you choose a sale-priced $8 taco or a $17 beluga whale? Should you settle for the traditional Santa-head assortment in an affordable boxed set or individually tailored choices with less heed to price? No matter what direction your imagination veers, Bronner's has an ornament to match.

There's a whole wall devoted to my personal favorites: little birds that clip onto the tree. Out of the menagerie, I finally decide on a cardinal, a peacock with a real feather and a downy white baby chick. Gazing across the rows of decorations, I imagine how tickled my grandmother would be to see the $125 decorated palm tree in Section 14.

Woman cannot live on painted glass alone, however. And after a two-hour free-for-all shopping spree, we head to Main Street, less than a mile away. It offers the perfect complement to Bronner's: two grande dames of German cooking, Zehnder's Restaurant and the Bavarian Inn. Through time eternal the two old gals have faced each other in judicious harmony, offering up equally well-known $16.95 chicken dinners.

The biggest difference between the two is the exterior aesthetics. The Bavarian Inn smacks of authentic Germany, while Zehnder's is all sugarcoated confection, snow white with an expansive porch and detailing that calls to mind Grandma's lace doilies.

We eat at both establishments and an old feeling of revulsion washes over me as I realize my mom is gunning for the livers. Yes, folks, in Frankenmuth you can step right up to the table for fresh livers and, if you're feeling really "Fear Factor"-ish, giblets! As she settles into her chair at the Bavarian Inn, I know it's inevitable. Soon enough, the tiny organs are deposited on our table. My mother is delighted. The scene might have been repeated the following day at Zehnder's had we not witnessed a preteen girl lambasting her mother for ordering livers and declaring herself about to puke.

Thankfully, my mom deferred, worried perhaps that there still was a little of that nauseated preteen in me.

There is definitely something about Bronner's that makes me feel like a child again. Frankenmuth's tackiness, its high kitsch percentage, is conversational fodder for the road trip up. While I'm there, though, the pretension drifts away. I get caught up in the swirling interior of the never-ending snow globe. And I know that, come Christmas, all my friends will be really jealous of my tree.

Going West

The Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati captures the romance and realities of the American West in Frontier Memories: 19th and 20th Century Art of the American West, opening Dec. 3. Works include sculpture, paintings and watercolors from artists such as Henry Farny and George Catlin. The exhibit will be on display until Feb. 6, 2005. The museum is located at 316 Pike St., Cincinnati. For more information, call (513) 241-0343, ext. 36, or visit www.taftmuseum.org.

Getaway to the Chesapeake Bay

Winter fun comes in several packages at the Five Gables Inn & Spa in St. Michaels, Md. — none of which include playing in the snow. For instance, the two-night "His 'n Her Romantic Getaway" ($445 midweek, $545 weekends) features herbal baths, massages and in-room fireplaces and whirlpools. The "Just the Girls Slumber Party" ($515 midweek, $615 weekends) offers massages and facials, as well as easy access to the town's plentiful shopping, which ranges from antique to boutique. The Inn — really three 19th-century homes — is located at 209 N. Talbot St., St. Michaels, Md. For more information, call 1-877-466-0100 or visit www.fivegables.com.

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