I was headed to Frankenmuth, Michigan, for what must have been the 17th time. No need to punch in directions from our house to the city; I knew the route like the back of my hand. I’d been visiting Frankenmuth since I was four years old—first with my parents, then most recently introducing my husband, Ben, to its charms. More than a dozen visits—but this was the first with our daughter, Charlotte, who was in kindergarten and was about to enjoy her first spring break.
I knew how Frankenmuth looked in my eyes—a gorgeous, German-settled city that felt like a home away from home. I only hoped that Charlotte would find the same magic I did when I was her age.
“She’s going to go nuts at the water park,” Ben said with a grin.
“Think she’ll be able to handle the Christmas store?” I replied. The excited energy from my husband and me was lost on Charlotte, who dozed in the back seat. A moment of calm before a weekend of joy.
Frankenmuth is a bit of Bavaria in the crook of the Michigan mitten, just south of where the thumb meets the palm. Old World architecture is everywhere you look—buildings generally have multiple peaks on the roof, and intricate detailing along eaves, windows and doorways. It felt like every time we came to Frankenmuth, Ben and I found a new nook or cranny to admire.
Charlotte was still half-asleep as we began to wander through downtown, so it took a few minutes before she piped up and said, “These look like fairy houses, Mama.” Her eyes dashed from one building to the next, taking in all there was to see.
In spring, Frankenmuth is a playground of blue skies, green grass and fluffy trees along the Cass River. My mom once told me that when we were visiting for the holidays, I’d said the snow-covered city looked like it was made up of gingerbread houses. One of the most famous gingerbread/fairy houses of all being Bavarian Inn Lodge: a combination of arcade, water park, hotel, restaurant and outdoor mall.
Once we pointed out the Bavarian Inn as our first stop, a fully awake Charlotte dashed to the front doors and waited for Ben and me to catch up. When we walked inside, it was like stepping into a dining hall in Munich.
There are several dining areas spread across three floors. The hostess, dressed in a cardinal red dirndl, guided us with a smile to the Edelweiss Room. As we took our seats, Charlotte took in the yellow-, green- and red-patterned carpet, the paintings on the walls and the dirndl- and lederhosen-clad employees.
Charlotte buzzed as we waited for our food. “Did you see the ice cream?” she asked Ben. “I like her dress best!” she told me, about a server in her favorite color, green.
I was thrilled when the restaurant’s accordion player came to our table, tapping out a traditional German tune. On my seventh birthday, the musician belted out “happy birthday” in German. Maybe a possibility for Charlotte’s sixth birthday? She seemed delighted enough!
Our food arrived and Charlotte’s jaw dropped just a bit more with each plate that was set down. While the crispy chicken was incredible, the sides are not easily forgotten. We munched on buttered noodles, coleslaw and one of my favorite delicacies: potato puffs (deep-fried mashed potatoes with cheese).
Frankenmuth is my happy place, and I was ecstatic to see Charlotte having fun here. A sign outside of the Frankenmuth Bavarian Inn states that the city began as a German community in 1845. I imagine it will have the same character and will carry on its traditions for many more generations to come.
Energized from our meal, we headed to Zehnder’s Splash Village. For all of the German-inspired architecture, food and attractions within Frankenmuth, Zehnder’s Splash Village is a surprising departure (yet fitting all the same).
Sticking out of the multi-tiered building, a gigantic blue and green twisty tube slide let us know we were in the right spot in a big way. Inside, an equally impressive pink and purple slide seemingly invited us to play. Because of Charlotte’s age, we mostly stuck to the dragonfly pond, a small, kid-friendly section of the water park with a lazy river that twists past a magical village filled with cartoon-like mushrooms, tall daisies, friendly ladybugs and miniature cabins.
The magic I hoped Charlotte would find? Judging by her pretending to be “Her Majesty Queen of the Ladybugs” with her dad as court jester, I’d say she found it.
To me, it wouldn’t be a vacation in Frankenmuth without a stop at Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland, the world’s largest Christmas store. Twinkling lights and gigantic jingle bells hanging from the ceiling meant that even though Christmas was months away, we felt the holiday spirit.
Charlotte, Ben and I strolled past miles of ribbon, lingered looking at dozens of angel tree toppers and rocked around tons of Christmas trees. The ornaments stopped us in our tracks more than once. Glittery ones, red ones, green ones, orbs, miniature nativity scenes—hundreds! Charlotte kept coming back to an arctic blue-and-white shimmery snowflake.
“Do you want to take that one home with us?” I asked her.
“Yes, please!” she replied. “And we can get that one next time,” she said, pointing to a snowman dressed as a traditional caroler, complete with songbook and candle.
A few months later, Charlotte, Ben and I were headed to Frankenmuth for the second, fifth and 18th times, respectively. As we drove into the city—Michigan transforming into Bavaria with each mile—I looked at Charlotte in the back seat.
This time, her eyes were open wide and she was smiling. It was her sixth birthday, and she’d chosen Frankenmuth to celebrate. On the agenda: a German happy birthday greeting with an accompanying accordion, a ride on the big, pink slide, and a snowman to add to our tree. The second ornament from our new Frankenmuth tradition.