Sunday, November 23, 2014

Frankenmuth - it hasn't changed much and that's a good thing

When I was younger, one of the things my parents would do is visit Frankenmuth Michigan during the holidays. We didn't go every year but we went often enough that it was a big part of my childhood and is always a strong, happy spot, in my holiday memories.

A couple weekends ago my wife and I made the trip up I-75 North and headed back to Frankenmuth. 

The two of us were trying to figure out how long it had been since we were last in Frankenmuth. Neither of us had been over the border for a long time. We've never brought the kids there, so it was before they were born. Between the two of us we figure it was at least 8 years ago. Amazingly not much has changed since then.

That's really "The Thing" about Frankenmuth. Along with the whole Bavarian thing, Frankenmuth is pretty much a town that time forgot. This is intentional. A big part of the whole appeal of the area is that old town (or should I say towne) feel.

For as long as I can remember every trip to Frankenmuth must start with a stop at Tony's I-75 Restaurant. Tony's is actually in Birch Run. Birch Run is the small town you pass through on the way to Frankenmuth. 

There's one reason you stop at Tony's and that reason is bacon! Tons of bacon. Everything you order at Tony's that comes with bacon, you get a pound of the delicious stuff. 

Not only do you get a ton of bacon at Tony's, it's also awesome bacon. The best bacon I've ever had bacon. It's thick cut, cooked just right and so good. We had so much left over bacon that I was snacking on it through the whole trip. Get up in the morning grab a slice of bacon. Stop in at the hotel for a bit, grab some bacon. About to go to bed, just a second, need some bacon.

While in Birch Run it's worth stopping at the Birch Run Premium Outlets. This is a real outlet mall. Not like, Windsor Crossing, the sad excuse for an outlet mall that we have here. This outdoor shopping area has 145 stores. These are actual outlet stores with actual good deals. 

My wife and I aren't big shoppers but even we enjoy checking out Birch Run Premium Outlets. I managed to find some golf shirts, my wife found some socks, we found books and some gifts for the kids. There's even an OOPS! store that had some good deals on board games. We also picked up some snacks from Harry & David to eat at the hotel room (in between the left over bacon).

Between the drive, Tony's and shopping at the outlet mall, most of our first day was gone. I couldn't help but wonder how the heck we managed to fit it all in, in one day, when I was a kid. I guess it was a good thing we were staying two nights.

For dinner and entertainment that first night we checked out The Frankenmuth Brewery

The brewery is a huge brew pub overlooking the river. Tons of seating, a solid pub menu and a great selection of beer

They have 8 very different beers on tap which included 6 regular rotation beers and 2 seasonals. It was impressive to see such a range of different beers in one place. Pretty much a beer for every taste.

As an added bonus, we happened to be there Sunday night so we also got all you could eat Pretzel balls. These were awesome and we snacked on them all night as we ate our meals and sampled the various beers.

Of all of of the beers I tried, the Hefeweizen Ale was my favourite. It was very refreshing and had some really nice banana notes in the flavor. The seasonal Christmas Town Ale was also very good and memorable with a nice mix of spice and malts. 

The food was good and the service was great, My only real complaint about the place is that it was very loud. It's mainly a big open area with a very high roof and sound really carries. It was a bit hard to hold a conversation near the start of the night when the place was packed.

I also thought it was very cool that the front of the restaurant was a gift shop and a place where you could buy their beer. The beer was sold in cases, growlers and even a mixer pack with one of each of their beers.

For this trip we chose to stay at the Bavarian Inn Lodge. This is right downtown just across the river from the Bavarian Inn itself.

When I was a kid I only remember staying there once and all I really remembered about it was that it was well decorated for the holidays and that you had to go over a wooden covered bridge to get there. 

For this return trip I felt that staying at The Lodge was a must. 

Yet again, nothing has really changed. Actually, based on the room we were in, I have a feeling the only thing that really changed is that the hotel offered free Wi-Fi. 

Day two started with breakfast at Oma's Restaraunt. The food was great. My wife enjoyed it so much she insisted that we return there the next day before going home.

The banana bread french toast I got was really good. Though the bacon it came with paled in comparison from the stuff I got from Tony's the day before. I have to remember that after I eat at Tony's to not bother ordering bacon anywhere else for at least a week.

Our second day in Frankenmuth was spent shopping. Yes, I know I said we aren't much for shopping but, shopping in Frankenmuth isn't normal shopping. It's something different. It's The Largest Christmas Store in the World and it's very cool quaint shops with a very cool mix of stuff you don't see anywhere else. It's specialty shops and not big brands. 

The Largest Christmas Store in the World is Bronner's. This place is insanely huge. Ridiculously huge. It took us over 4 hours to get through the place and we weren't going slow. If anything we rushed through some parts of the store.

If you like holiday decorations at all, you owe it to yourself to get to Bronner's at some point during your life. It's an amazing place. I'll even say it: there's something magical about it.

Normally I'm a bit of a humbug but, for some reason, I really dig and get into the Winter Holidays. Nothing puts me into that spirit better than Bronner's. 

On previous trips to Bronner's we would mainly browse and maybe pick up an ornament or two. I don't know what it was, maybe the holiday spirit hit my wife as hard as me this year, but we spent a small fortune at Bronner's this year. They have so many cool and unique ornaments and we bought a cart full.

If there's a theme you can think of, Bronner's has decorations in that theme. While walking around I was very tempted to do a Cthulhu/Mythos themed tree. It sounds nuts but you could totally do it with stuff you can buy here There were tentacles everywhere. 

We picked up an ornament for each of the kids (their "mom and dad were on vacation without you" gifts for when we got home), we picked up some for gifts (I think my brother in law is going to really dig his) and we picked up far too many for us. While we were there, my wife must have asked me: "Can we put the tree up when we get home" at least four times. 

There's one other cool thing at Bronner's. They have a light show every night. This trip we didn't get around to checking it out, but it's something I remember from past trips and I was pleased to see that it's still there. Yep, yet again something that hasn't changed.

From Bronner's we checked out the Frankenmuth River Place Shops. The last time we were in Frankenmuth this area was brand new. If I remember correctly it was still under construction. 

This is an area of 40 shops just on the edge of town. It's set up... I'm not sure how to say it... interestingly. There's public areas, winding paths, lots of decorations. It's just, kind of neat. It's a fun area to walk around.

We were disappointed to find that two of the stores we really enjoyed last time were gone. I guess a few things do change. To make up for it though there were some really cool new shops. 

Like all of the shops in Frankenmuth, these aren't the kind of stores you find in your regular mall. This is what makes shopping here fun. There aren't big brand stores. Instead it's small locally owned specialty shops. 

Our first stop was the SugarHigh Bakery. This place was featured on The Food Network for a cupcake contest so we chose it for a mid day snack and weren't disappointed. I was tempted to try their chocolate covered bacon, but passed. Had I actually had too much bacon over the last couple days? 

There was one store that I really wish I could have brought my oldest daughter to: The Enchanted Forest a place that specialized in fairies, dragons and gnomes. Other highlights included the Funky Skunk which claims to have Michigan's largest selection of Guinness merchandise, Our Mother Earth Toy Jungle a uniquely themed toy store and Great Lakes Olive Oil Co which had some of the best balsamic and oil that we've ever tried.

For dinner that night we did something I've been wanting to do for over 10 years, maybe even more. We ate at The Bavarian Inn. Though we had been to Frankenmuth more recently it wasn't often that we did the full dinner at the Inn. This is something that, to me, is a big part of any trip to Frankenmuth.

For those who haven't tried it, the Bavarian Inn dinner is an all you can eat roasted chicken dinner. Along with what many consider to be the best chicken in the world, you can also add a variety of meats. For me this is schnitzel. You must add schnitzel to your meal if you eat at the Inn. 

Along with your meats you get some starter salads and then a ton of sides. There's mashed potatos, stuffing, these really good egg noodles in butter, seasonal vegetable and more. 

I always remember the Bavarian Inn dinner as being truly amazing. Not only a highlight of past trips but one of the main reasons to make the trip in the first place. Thankfully this was something else that hasn't changed. The meal was amazing. So good. The best schnitzel ever. 

I even tried the chicken this time. Everyone is always talking about how good it is, but I'm not a huge chicken fan. In the past I just stuck to schnitzel, it was time to finally try the chicken. You know what? That's some damn good chicken!

After dinner we decided to check what else the Barvarian Inn Lodge had to offer. 

The hotel has something like three swimming areas including a couple water slides. Cool but not really for us. They also have an arcade in the basement. I had to check that out, but was disappointed to find that it's one of those Chuck-E-Cheese style redemption arcades. With everything else being stuck back in the 70s and 80s I was really hoping to get to play some Dig Dug and Moon Patrol.

Eventually we ended up at the Lorelei Lounge & Schnitzelbank Beir Garden

We had heard good things about this pub. While the beer selection was great (actually the beer selection is great everywhere in Frankenmuth) the place was packed with a large group on some form of business trip that was very loud and very drunk. Not really the pubs fault though.

The most memorable part of that night (well, after the amazing meal) was singing the Schnizelbank song.
"Ist das nicht eine schnitzelbank?"
"Ja! Das ist eine schntzelbank!"
So now we are two days in and we still haven't even seen downtown (except for a quick walk by on the way to the brewery). I don't know if I'm getting older and slower, if my parents were just crazy fast or if Frankenmuth has gotten much bigger. I think it's probably a bit of everything. I know that my wife and I were spending more time taking everything in. Plus we made quite a few stops and breaks to try out local beers or treats.

Our final day started at Oma's (remember I mentioned that my wife insisted that we go back). From there we checked out the main downtown of Frankenmuth. Like the River Shops, the downtown is filled with awesome small town, mom and pop specialty stores. There's a good four or five blocks of some of the neatest stores you will ever find. 

I probably shouldn't have been surprised but most of the shops I remember from our last trip and from trips before that were still there.

The Frankenmuth Cheese Haus is still going strong. Though it seems to have given up on beer and gone to wine. I used to love stopping in to pick up some rare beers. Instead now they have all kinds of wines. I guess wine and cheese just makes sense though I would prefer beer.

The Little White House is still there. I can't count how many gifts I've picked up for my mom there over the years. Though we didn't actually stop in, it was cool to see the Frankenmuth Clock Company still standing. We even ended up picking up a great looking board game (Battle Sheep) for the kids at the Toy Company & Kite Craft store, an awesome educational toy store. The general store is still there and is still huge. I swear that place is part TARDIS as it keeps getting bigger every year. My wife spent a huge amount of time browsing the doll house furniture in the basement. 

Mixed in with all of the great shops are small cafes and bars. This means it's a great area to walk around for a bit and then stop in somewhere to take a break, get a snack and grab a drink. The front of the Bavarian Inn was always a popular spot for my Dad to stop and have a beer. We stopped in ourselves and were pleased to find that they now specialize in Michigan Craft Beer. 

Our last stop before heading home was Zehnder's. This one was interesting for me.

Over the many years, going to Frankenmuth with my parents, we never went to Zehnder's. We never even set foot inside. I honestly have no idea why. Every trip to Frankenmuth we always went to the Bavarian Inn for dinner or just ate at Tony's. I remember asking my parents about it they just brushed it off with a: "we don't eat there, we eat here"

When I noted online that I was heading to Frankenmuth everyone who commented noted that we were lucky to be going to Zehnder's for chicken. I noted that we would be going to the Bavarian Inn instead and everyone was like: no don't do that go to Zehnder's. What's the deal here? 

I guess there's a not so friendly competition going down in Frankenmuth between a couple of cousins. It's a long competition that actually started with a couple of brothers and goes back to when the Zehnder family first set up shop in Frankenmuth. Based on what we heard, The Bavarian Inn (and associated hotel, etc) has been competing with Zehnder's (and their hotel's, water park, etc) for years and years. It's kind of sad actually.

Putting that family feud aside, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I was finally going to try Zehnder's (sorry Mom and Dad). 

You know what's odd? It's basically the exact same meal. It's the same deal you get right across the street. You get all you can eat chicken. You can add your choice of meats. The same choice of meats as across the street. You get potatoes and stuffing and seasonal veg. There's the same style of fat egg noodles in butter. It's pretty much the same thing. How odd. It reminded me of the Coke/Pepsi thing. Two meals that were almost identical but that have generated a huge amount of fan loyalty.

Between the two I liked the sides better at Zehner's but the chicken better at The Bavarian Inn. They weren't all that different though. I would happily eat either meal. Zehnder's had a bit more modern high end feel, where as The Bavarian Inn has that: "hasn't changed in 50 years", feel. Both have their place. If someone were to ask me which they should go to, my suggestion would be for the one with the shortest wait.

Overall our last day spent downtown, and our last day in Frankenmuth was just as cool, fun and interesting as I remembered it being.

That was pretty much the theme for the entire trip. Everything was as good or better than I remembered from past trips. Not much has changed at all, and that is not a bad thing in this case. I really enjoyed this trip. I now regret waiting so long to go back and don't plan on making that mistake again.

I think next time we will bring the girls. Start to re-create the traditions I remember so fondly from my childhood with the next generation. So that in 10 years time, Frankenmuth will mean as much to them as it does to me. I have a feeling in 10 years time, not much will have changed.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Windsor Craft Beer Festival year 2. Great event but skip the VIP pass

Back on October 17th my wife and I attended the 2nd annual Windsor Craft Beer Festival.

We went to the inaugural event last year and had a fantastic time. Such a good time actually that we decided to go with the VIP tickets this year. That may have been a mistake.

Don't get me wrong, the event was awesome. We had a great time and I will be attending next year, but I just don't think that the VIP passes were worth it. At least not for us.

My biggest complaint with the VIP pass was that it gave us "early access" to the event. This meant that we got in half an hour early.

Expecting a line, my wife and I showed up about 15 minutes before opening (early access opening). We were the first people there. By the time the gates opened there was a crowd of 5 of us waiting to get in. I guess we didn't need to rush to beat the crowd.

This wouldn't have been a problem though, so what if we are at a near empty event? Just means more beer for us and no wait time, right? Nope. Sorry. 

We approached the first brewery we saw and asked what they were serving. We were told curtly: "we're not serving anything yet, can't you tell we are still setting up!" This same situation repeated itself at 6 other breweries. Here we are at the Beer Fest with our "early access" and we can't get any beer! 

So we thought maybe we should grab some food. Nope. Sorry. Food won't be ready until 5:30 (when the 'general public' gets in).

Eventually we did find someone who would serve us: Descendants. You can see our first beers there down and to the right in our VIP glasses. Glasses that weren't actually just for VIPs, you could just buy one at the gate. Which is probably what we will do next year.

Now another 'bonus' we got for buying VIP passes was access to special VIP only beers which changed every hour. I thought this was pretty awesome and was the 2nd reason I decided to go VIP. 

What I didn't understand is that it literally meant "access." I thought it meant we got to try each of these beers for each hour we were there. As in we got a sample to taste. What it actually meant is that we could buy beer that other people couldn't. That greatly reduced the value of my VIP pass (which I thought was getting me 5 free samples). 

One final complaint about the VIP pass: I'm a big dude (note the title of the blog), we also got T shirts. They didn't have a shirt anywhere near in my size. Now I'm not a huge dude, and I'm pretty sure I saw some other big dudes. You would think at a beer festival they would expect some larger people to be attending.

Okay enough negativity. I make the event sound horrible, and it wasn't. It was actually pretty awesome. I don't regret going at all. We had a great time.

One of the huge improvements over last year was the food. There was the Road Chef food truck that had this awesome Pork and Apple sandwich and some great fried mozzarella. Robbie's Gourmet Sausage was there as was Motorburger. This was so much better than the small appetizers supplied by St. Claire last year.

The beer was also great. There were more brewers than last year and I'm pretty sure the ones that were there were offering more options. There was Beau's, Broadhead, Descendants, Highlander, Hop City, Bayside, Lake of Bays, Mill St., Motor Craft Ales, Railway City, Samuel Adams, St. Ambroise, Walkerville and Wellington. There were also some representatives from a couple local brew pubs that are opening later this year. Based on the pamphlet we were given there were over 70 beers there to try (including the special VIP brews).

The only real complaint I have about the beer is the fact that due to the event being in the middle of October, every single seasonable beer was some form of Pumpkin beer, mostly Pumpkin Ales. I had so many Pumpkin Ales that they all ended up tasting the same. 

I had some really amazing beers. I should say we had some really amazing beers, as my wife is as much a beer fan as I am. Actually I can't think of a single one that I tried I would consider bad. They were all solid brews. Highlights for me were Nightmare on Mill Street from, you guessed it: Mill St. and Ramblin' Roads Dakota Pearl Potato Ale.

One bonus of getting there early was that there was no crowd. By about 9pm that changed. Man did it get busy. Then it rained. 

That leads me to another awesome improvement over last year's event: the tent! The middle of the 'fest area was covered in a very large tent that even had heaters under it. That was so much better than freezing out in the open last year. I will admit it got a bit crowded, especially when the rain hit, but my wife and I never had a problem finding a place to sit.

The weekend before this event there was another craft beer event. That one was in LaSalle and I  had heard a few horror stories. Stories about rude loud drunk patrons, fights and people demanding free beer. I saw none of that here at the Walkerville event. Everyone we met and saw was polite and just there to enjoy some good beer, just like we were. I don't think I heard a raised voice (well except for everyone trying to talk over the extremely loud music).

That was also a change from last year. Music. Loud music. Most of Friday night was a couple guys playing the same set of German drinking songs over and over each set. That was a tad annoying. The volume seemed way too loud as well. Kind of felt like I was in a bar and having a conversation with my wife meant shouting. These guys were replaced with a local bluegrass band that was fine. Take it or leave it, didn't seem to really fit the theme of the event. I would have personally liked to have heard some Celtic Pub songs. Say by, The Shannon Bros. 

Overall, if you like beer at all, especially good Ontario Craft beer, I strongly recommend checking out this event next year. I'll be there as will my wife. 

The only thing I do want to warn you about is that the VIP pass may not be worth it. It definitely wasn't worth it for us this year. Maybe next year they will offer something a bit better though.