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The sign tells you that you could "win a house" by filling out the form and dropping it the box as you enter the Choo-Choo Barn. And what you win is, indeed, a house (the house you currently live in, in fact, but in miniature), but you can't take it with you. Instead, the replica gets a place of honor in the huge diorama on display in the shop that is the epitome of this little Pennsylvania Dutch town. museuThat's the kind of place Strasburg, self-styled rail capital of the northeast, really is, at once whimsical and a little bit over the edge.

There's no other place I have visited where you can board an old train and travel slowly through rolling hills and mellowing plains catching rare glimpses of the local Amish go about their business in clothes that might seem strange in most places across this country.

There's a Train a Coming, and Then Some!

Two main attractions should not be missed--one static, one rolling. The former is the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, opened in 1975 when the state decided to accept the bankrupt Pennsylvania Railroad's magnificent collection of old engines and cars. The new Rolling Stock Hall, completed in 1995, houses much of the collection, but is also home to a group of 17 historical zones depicting railroading history, including an early 20th-century passenger depot, an interactive railway education center and a restoration shop. There are more than 100 historic locomotives and railcars, and more than 250,000 smaller items, including tools, uniforms, photos, art work, tickets, signage, telegraph equipment and the like. Unusual for most museums, this place honors the ordinary workers in the industry, with a Railroaders' Hall, where individual name plaques of present, retired and deceased employees can be seen. Contact the museum on Route 741, east of Strasburg, phone 717/687-8628, Web site www.rrmuseumpa.org. It made the National Register of Historical Places for the rolling stock (not the new building housing it). Closed certain holidays and on Mondays from November through March. Admission is $7 for those aged 13 to 59, $6 for seniors, $5 for children 6 to 17, under 6 free.

The Strasburg Rail Road, whose station is just across the street from the Railroad Museum, operates from mid-February through December 31, charging as little as $9 a ride, though you pay more for open-air cars, the dining car, deluxe lounge car or first-class parlor car (the latter being $13). Children aged 3 to 11 pay from $4.50 to $9.50, kids under 3 are free in coach, $1 to $4 in other classes. There are special trains for the Easter, Halloween and Christmas seasons, as well as in summer. It's a fun ride, so be sure to take your camera. Contact them on Route 741 East, Strasburg, phone 717/687-7522 (dinner train reservations 687-6486), Web site www.strasburgrailroad.com. (Inside tip: If you want to ride all day, just pay double the adult fare!)

In a complex called Train Town, the Choo Choo Barn reigns supreme. Lancaster County in miniature, spread out over 1,700 square feet (and enclosed, mercifully), this Train Town USA is operated by the family of George Groff, whose now outsized collections started when he bought an ordinary train set for his family after returning home from his World War II service. There are over 150 animated figures and vehicles, 20 operating trains, a Ferris Wheel, churches, baseball diamond, bridges, and a house on fire (which miniature firemen quickly extinguish). Included also are an Amish barnraising, the Strasburg Rail Road and more. For its 40th year, the Barn is offering a "free new house" to one winner of its contest, entered by filling out an application form upon entry. What you get is a miniature reproduction of your own home (you send them photos), which will be placed in the diorama. The next drawing is on January 6, 2003. Adults pay $5, children 5-12 pay $3, under 5 free. Location is Route 741, east of Strasburg, phone 717/687-7911, Web site www.choochoobarn.com.

Next door is Thomas' Trackside Station, featuring hundreds of items related to Thomas The Tank Engine, who may be the modern version of The Little Engine That Could. Route 741 East, Strasburg, phone 717/687-7911 or 800/450-2920, Web site www.ttstation.com. Parents of 3-6 year-olds can't go wrong here.

Right next door to the Red Caboose Motel is the National Toy Train Museum, a really large exhibit of toy tin plate trains that your ancestors (or maybe you) played with. It's owned and operated by The Train Collectors Association (founded 1954), a non-profit, charitable, tax exempt organization, and is located in their national headquarters building, opened in 1977. There are original trains from many manufacturers, from the 1800s to the present. Hundreds of locomotives and cars are on display, and there are five big operating layouts with push buttons to let you control the toys. There's also a continuous video with educational and comic films about toy trains. For membership information in the association, write to them at Box 248, Strasburg PA 17579. Admission to the museum is $3 for adults, $1.50 for kids 5 to 12, $2.75 for seniors, free under 5. Open daily May through October, weekends in April, November and December. On Paradise Lane, Strasburg, 717/687-8976, Web site www.traincollectors.org.

Where to Rest Your Head

Historic Strasburg Inn is the name of this elegant 1795 landmark in an estate-like setting. Fine dining in its restaurant, very comfortable and cozy rooms, the latter (for two persons) starting at $159. 1 Historic Drive (Route 896), Strasburg, 717/687-7691 or 800/872-0201, Web site www.historicstrasburginn.com.

Amish Lanterns Motel, Route 896, Strasburg, has 33 modern units and is family-owned and -operated. Non-smoking rooms available, as are a heated pool and air-conditioning. Room for two from $65 and up. Phone 717/687-7839.

If the weather is good and you feel like a rustic experience, try the Beaver Creek Farm Cabins,

one and a half miles southeast of Strasburg on Two Little Beaver Road (Route 896). Phone them at 717/687-7745 or visit their Web site, www.beavercreekfarmcabins.com. Cabins for 2 to 4 persons start at $60.

Simple and Filling

Whether you plan a box lunch or want to eat at a spot near the Choo-Choo Barn, Isaac's is the place for you. Part of a well-managed and moderately-priced Pennsylvania chain, the Isaac's in Strasburg can feed you at the table or give you a box lunch ($5.95) with a choice of turkey, beef , ham or veggie sandwich, plus pickle, applesauce, bag of chips and a freshly-baked cookie. You should order the day before, if you can (they would like a week!). The boxes come with utensils, napkins, condiments and wet naps. Meals in the dining room are just fine, too, with sandwiches from $4.25, soups from $2.35 and a kid's meal from $3.49. Route 741 East, phone 717/687-7699.

Additional Information

For more information about Strasburg, contact the Strasburg Information Center, Route 896 (Historic Drive), Strasburg PA 17579, phone 800/872-0201, Web site www.strasburgpa.com.