Every year I was in high school, the German club went on a field trip to Frankenmuth, Michigan, or Little Bavaria. I was in French, however, so I never went. I have heard a damn lot about Bronner's, having lived in Michigan most of my life, which is - and I completely believe this claim - the largest Christmas store in the world.
The reason that Frankenmuth is called Little Bavaria is because it was founded by Bavarians (Franconians, technically, but Franconia became part of Bavaria quite a while ago) and remains true to its German heritage in both architecture and food. I've been to Bavaria, so I can vouch for both of these things. Though I didn't see any beer gardens, we did stop in at the Frankenmuth Brewery where the beer was was pretty good, but the root beer was a little disappointing. (Click here for my thoughts on microbrewed root beer.)
Our first stop in Frankenmuth was Bronner's where I jokingly suggested we play "count the Jesuses," which are everywhere in all shapes, colors, sizes, and styles. We lost count soon after entering the building. Bronner's is not only Christmas themed, it is religiously themed. Their ornaments are of every variety imaginable and then some, but at Bronner's Christmas Wonderland, there is no forgetting to which religion Christmas belongs.
Another German tradition one finds in Frankenmuth are gnomes. There is, in fact, a gnome hunt that reminded me of the fairy doors of Ann Arbor and Northville. Hidden all over the city are little garden gnomes, each with a unique name. We managed to find just a few of the little guys as the hunt was much harder than I thought it would be. In one novelty shop we found Lester the Gnome in his own little hide-away above the cashier and also a "whistling gnome" that one could place by his front door so that it would whistle every time someone walked by it.
Another shop had a little gnome that very much reminded me of David the Gnome, one of my favorite TV shows as a child, and nearby a store was selling gnome doors that again made me think of Ann Arbor's and Northville's fairy doors, though they bore more of a resemblance to the latter's.
A must-stop in Frankenmuth is the Cheese Haus on Main St. It's hard to miss. There's a statue of a giant mouse and a giant wedge of cheese right next to it. Also a TV that talks to you. Revel in the delicious cheesy samples. We tried three different kinds of chocolate cheese - yes, chocolate cheese! It has the texture and almost the same taste as chocolate fudge. The cheese spreads are the smoothest I have ever had and all so tasty. Mmm... My mouth waters at the memory.
After whetting our appetites at the Cheese Haus, we headed over to the Bavarian Inn and Oma's Restaurant, a place I had read about online and wanted to check out. It turns out we picked an interesting night to be there. Since there was little seating, they put us in the adjoining lounge area where they were apparently celebrating Chinese New Year, despite that particular holiday having been held weeks before. There were tons of little kids coloring dragon masks, face painting, games, and a guy in a dragon suit wearing lederhosen. All of the waiters were also wearing lederhosen and the women wore dirndls. (The same was true for most of the working people we'd seen that day.)
If you live in Michigan and you have never been to Frankenmuth, it's worth a visit, cheesy as it may sound. The architecture is quite marvelous, and the food is really quite satisfying (at least it was for me - try the fried chicken; they're supposed to be known for it). You have to at least stop in at the brewery for their Oreos fried in donut batter and served with ice cream. I'm told the beer is good, too. Something about voted some of the best in Michigan. Whatever. I'm from Kalamazoo, home of Bell's and Olde Peninsula (yeah, baby).
Anyhoo, I will leave you with this one final image, which I think sums up everyone's first reaction to Frankenmuth. My roommate, ladies and gentlemen: