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As fall turns to winter in the Upper Midwest, options for weekend getaways dwindle, as many tourist destinations shut down for the season.
Luckily for those of us with cabin fever between Thanksgiving and New Year's, the House on the Rock, just south of Spring Green, Wis., not only stays open, but gets decked out for the holidays.
And once you check the house off your list, you can spend more time when the weather warms up checking out Spring Green's two other major attractions: Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin and the American Players Theatre, which performs plays in an outdoor amphitheater and an indoor theater.
Experience the "Christmas Experience": From Nov. 9 to Jan. 6, House on the Rock gets into the holiday spirit, with 6,000 (you read that right) collectible Santa Clauses placed throughout the home.
Most of the property remains open, so you should allow at least two to three hours for your self-guided tour.
Bundle up. You'll be walking outside to get from the house itself to the various exhibit buildings, and some of the indoor spaces are unheated. Another tip: Purchase plenty of tokens, which you'll need in order to operate the music machines and other mechanical devices (more on that in a minute).
As delightful -- or kitschy, depending on your point of view -- as the Santas are, it's the house itself that steals the show. A little background: A Madison man by the name of Alex Jordan built the house atop a 60-foot rocky pinnacle overlooking the Wyoming Valley as a weekend retreat. The house has a Japanese flavor to it, but you also feel as if you're exploring a series of snug, furnished grottos, with their low ceilings and stained-glass lamps.
The very private Jordan opened his house to the public in 1960, 15 years after starting construction. He poured most of the proceeds back into the house, amassing collections of artifacts that captured his fancy and embarking on an obsessive building spree that lasted until his death at age 75 in 1989.
Today, the House on the Rock receives about half a million visitors a year. I advise starting in the Alex Jordan Center, which contains displays about the history of the site and background on its colorful creator.
To be clear, there's the house and then there's a complex of buildings that contain Jordan's eclectic collections -- music machines, ship models, scrimshaw, mechanical banks, circus miniatures, suits of armor, to name a fraction of the stuff. My 9-year-old was disappointed that the dollhouse collection wasn't on the holiday tour, but there was plenty else to see.
One highlight is the Infinity Room, which juts out more than 200 feet over the valley. Floor-to-ceiling windows give the illusion that the space goes on forever. The view of snow-covered pine trees below was lovely.
The music machines also were a lot of fun. You stand in front of a room filled with string instruments, woodwinds and percussion, drop in a token and, thanks to the magic of pneumatics, enjoy a short concert.
One display plays "The Blue Danube Waltz" while another, dubbed "The Mikado," has a lifelike Japanese figure playing a drum.
What I found remarkable is that much of what you see was built in an on-site workshop. That includes the carousel -- billed as the world's largest, with more than 200 hand-carved animals -- music machines and the Streets of Yesterday, re-created 19th-century storefronts and homes.
Perhaps the most impressive display, in scale and vision, is the enormous sea creature (part whale, part shark?) that occupies a room of its own. This was Jordan's last major addition, opening a year after his death, and quite a way to cap his entire chef-d'oeuvre.
After the tour, shop for holiday presents in town. Check out Arcadia Books, an independent bookstore with a café and an impressive collection of titles (102 E. Jefferson St.; 1-608-588-7638). There's also the Spring Green General Store, which sells fun jewelry, gifts, games and artisanal cheeses (137 S. Albany St.; 1-608-588-7070).
The Shed offers homemade pizzas, soup and salad bar and a selection of wines and tap beer (123 N. Lexington; 1-608-588-9049). The Spring Green General Store is located in a former cheese warehouse and is a great place for a hearty breakfast (not to mention shopping -- see above), including a Cajun cheese curd scramble.
House on the Rock Inn is a four-story hotel near the attraction that features an indoor pool and a play pool with a 45-foot-long submarine in a coral reef, waterfalls and short slides (3591 Hwy. 23; 1-608-935-3711).
House on the Rock Resort is where we stayed. The rooms were comfortable, the indoor pools weren't fancy but did the job, and the views of the snow-covered landscape lovely (400 Springs Dr.; 1-608-588-7000).
The house, on Hwy. 23, south of Spring Green, is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Rates for Christmas Season visits: $19.95 for adults; $18.95 for seniors; $11.95 for ages 4-17, and free for ages 3 and under.
Elizabeth Hayes is a freelance writer based in Winona, Minn.