SOMETIMES you go on a journey of self-discovery. Sometimes you just go someplace to sleep in a caboose.
My family went to Strasburg, Pa., to stay at the Red Caboose Motel, a hotel whose rooms are converted cabooses. We found a trainload of fun.
If you ask my kids, Daniel and Nora (ages 6 and 3), it would have been enough to spend the night in a bunk bed in a real caboose. Or just visit the toy train museum. Or just take the ride on the coal-burning antique train and ride in an Amish buggy. Or just go to the petting zoo and the Shindig in the Barn. But all of them? Woo-hoo!
On the outside, each room of the Red Caboose Motel looks like the real caboose it used to be, company colors and logos in place. The 25 cabooses are lined up on railroad ties, as if the right engine could pull you all to dreamland.
Inside, the "parent half" of a typical family caboose contains a double bed, a desk, a chair and a TV sitting on a non-working pot-bellied stove. The shower, toilet and sink take up the middle, and on the other side of a curtain are four bunk beds with sturdy wooden sides. Some of the cabooses have small refrigerators and microwaves.
The hardest thing about going to such a cool motel room is that the kids don't want to settle down. They want to climb up and down the ladder to the bunk beds. They want to try out each bed. They want to find all the light switches on the cute little lanterns that serve as lights and turn them on and off, pretending it's lightning.
On Saturday the kids woke to the sound of a rooster crowing, which made them almost as happy as the bunk beds.
After Mickey Mouse-shaped pancakes in the Red Caboose's dining car, we found the rooster strolling near the petting zoo, a small collection of farm animals.
(Aside to parents: Bring quarters. You'll need them for the ice machine, the vending machines with animal feed and the mechanical rides on the motel office porch.)
Next, I intended to head to the National Toy Train Museum, which is right next to the Red Caboose Motel, but we didn't get past the small, wooden train at the edge of the property, a playground set common in Strasburg.
Strasburg is a train-intense place: The Red Caboose Motel is in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most cabooses on private property of anywhere in the world.
While we were on the train play set, small, black Amish buggies drove by. They aren't a train-oriented activity, but buggy rides start from the motel, and Daniel begged, so we took a 20-minute circle through Lancaster County farm country. The driver let my son hold the reins to the one-horsepower buggy, a thrill Daniel kept asking to duplicate the rest of the day.
"You got here by car, you slept in a train and now you're in a buggy," pointed out the driver -- a convivial, semi-retired man. "You're headed backward through time."
By the end of the buggy ride, it was nearly lunchtime. For the next stop on our train-happy trip, I planned to take the Strasburg Rail Road to the next town, grab some food and reboard the train, but I misunderstood the brochure. The train stops in Paradise, Pa., for only about five minutes to switch the engine to the other end. This is one trip you take for the journey, not the destination.
The 45-minute ride took us past cornfields being worked with horse-drawn equipment, the farmers raising their hands in greeting. We also passed the Maize Maze, a huge maze using corn for the walls. On the other side of the tracks was a huge, cheerful rainbow made of flowers.
Heading back to Strasburg, the train also stops at a shady trackside picnic area close to the maze, in case you brought a lunch.
Across from the station is the Pennsylvania Train Museum. You can see what the inside of a caboose really looks like when it hasn't been turned into a motel room. The caboose on display reminded me of an airline attendant's galley -- lots of drawers and compartments. The beds in the real caboose looked much less comfortable than those in our converted room.
Many antique engines, passenger cars and cabooses -- some of which you can board -- are housed in an enormous warehouse, and others are parked in the train yard behind. Upstairs in the museum is a toy train layout.
Finally we headed to the toy train museum. The sign out front proclaimed five working train layouts. But inside the small museum, about the size of a one-level rambler, we found floor-to-ceiling rows of toy trains surrounding five elaborate layouts, each of which held two or three or four trains zipping about. Toy trains ranged from Gauge G (big) to Z (tiny).
Toddlers can ride a Thomas the Tank Engine and peer into ground-level displays. For taller people, white buttons along the edge of the glassed-in layouts activate trains or accessories. Our favorite was the button that made tiny cattle move around in a stockyard. Be sure to find the one that illuminates the Seven Dwarfs working in a cave -- and then find Snow White.
While all the trains are whizzing by, a big-screen video in one corner shows old movies that feature toy trains. The only reason we left before the museum closed was because we were hungry.
After dinner we headed for the "Shindig in the Barn" behind the motel's petting zoo. Country bands play on weekends. I was disappointed that it was a geriatric crowd with few dancers. I had envisioned lively two-stepping to watch, but my kids didn't care. Daniel and Nora had to be dragged away from the toe-tapping music at nearly 10 p.m.
Regardless of the season, Strasburg is a good place to choose when the gang wants to make tracks for some Pennsylvania R&R.
RED CABOOSE MOTEL -- 312 Paradise Lane, Strasburg, Pa. Take I-95 north to Baltimore, I-695 toward Towson and I-83 north toward York, Pa.; then take Exit 9E for U.S. 30 east to Lancaster. Follow signs for Coatsville. At the junction with Route 896, turn right and go 2.5 miles to Strasburg. (Motel is about a two-hour drive from the Capital Beltway.) 717/687-5000. A family caboose for a Friday and Saturday stay ranges from $52 to $105 a night. For many weekends, reservations are taken for a minimum of two nights. Efficiencies, suites and farmhouse suites are available for an additional fee -- there's even one caboose large enough for a Cub Scout pack. A honeymoon caboose has a whirlpool. Special packages are also available for Easter, birthdays, getaway weekends, romantic weekends and New Year's Eve.
CHOO CHOO BARN -- Route 741 East, Strasburg; 717/687-7911. A 1,700-square-foot train display with 17 operating trains, more than 135 animated figures and vehicles. Open through Jan. 2 from 10 to 5 daily; last admission time is 4:30. $4 adults, $2 children 5-12; free for children under 5.
THOMAS'S TRACKSIDE STATION -- Route 741 East, Strasburg; 717/687-7911. More Thomas the Tank Engine stuff than you knew existed: clothing, party supplies, toys, die-cast and wooden trains. Open 10 to 5 daily.
RAILROAD MUSEUM OF PENNSYLVANIA -- Route 741 East, Strasburg; 717/687-8628. $6, $4 children, $5.50 senior citizens, $16 family. Open Tuesday-Saturday from 9 to 5; Sunday noon to 5.
STRASBURG RAIL ROAD -- Route 741, Strasburg; 717/687-7522. Web site: www.800padutch.com/srr. html. One of America's oldest short-line steam railways. You can pack a lunch and stop off at the family picnic grove alongside the tracks halfway on the trip to Paradise, Pa.
Call for schedule and to confirm availability of dining car and box lunches; they change each season. During the summer, the schedule generally starts at 11 and runs till 4; departures are hourly. $8.25, $4 children 8-11, under 3 free.
NATIONAL TOY TRAIN MUSEUM -- 300 Paradise Lane off Route 30, Strasburg; 717/687-8976. Open daily 10 to 5 through October and on weekends in April, November and December.
RAILROAD BOOKS AND VIDEOS -- Route 741 East, between Route 896 and Paradise Lane, Strasburg; 717/687-0464. More than 1,000 books and videos on trains and railroading. Open 10 to 5 daily, year-round.
STRASBURG TRAIN SHOP -- Route 741 East, between Route 896 and Paradise Lane, Strasburg; 717/687-0464. Scenery and building items for model trains. Open 10 to 5 daily, year-round.
PETTING ZOO -- At the Red Caboose Motel. Free.
SHINDIG IN THE BARN -- At the barn behind the Red Caboose Motel. If you stay at the motel, you get a $1.50 discount when you attend the country-western dance, 8 to 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through October. $6, $4.50 if staying at hotel, 15 and under free.
AMISH BUGGY RIDES -- At the Red Caboose Hotel; times posted at hotel. $8, $4 children 3-12.
STRASBURG INFORMATION CENTER -- Route 896/Historic Drive, Strasburg; 800/872-0201. Web site: www.800padutch.com/