by Karen Rubin
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
I have so many fond memories of Christmases past, spent in charming, festive places that capture the magic and spirit of the season, and most importantly, bring our family together with experiences we share.
My criteria for great destination places to spend the winter holidays starts with charm, offers plenty to do indoors as well as outdoors that interests everyone in the family, is walkable to get around or at least offers great public transportation, perhaps even a cutesy trolley or something that is fun. Has great decorations, has a festive feel, and most important, doesn’t shut down and close up for the holidays.
Christmas in the Capital
Washington DC certainly fits this bill – you can spend all your time just on the National Mall, visiting iconic museums like the National Air & Space Museum (a major favorite for families, great café also)), the relatively new Museum of the American Indian, the even newer Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, National Museum of American History, National Museum of Natural History, the National Portrait Gallery, National Archives, and just across the avenue is the gorgeous National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden ice skating rink and charming café (also skating at The Wharf, Georgetown, and Capitol Riverfront). Go further afield to the Spy Museum and if the weather permits, the National Zoo (easy access by Metro).
Best way to take in the Capital city’s holiday lights is with these free offerings: Tour America’s historic train stations in miniature at Seasons Greenings: All Aboard! at the U.S. Botanic Gardens (thru Jan. 2); Smithsonian National Zoo dazzles with more than 500,000 LED lights, snowless tubing and more at ZooLights, 5-9 pm thru Jan.1, (closed Dec. 24, 25, 31); take in National Christmas tree in President’s Park on the Ellipse is attended by 56 decorated state and territory trees and Santa’s Workshop and enjoy nightly musical performances thru Dec. 31.
Also memorable: George Washington’s Mount Vernon celebrates the season with Colonial dancing, chocolate-making and caroling, Nov. 23-Dec. 31; candlelit tours run Nov. 23, 24, 30; Dec. 1, 7, 8, 16.There are Holiday in the Park thrills at Six Flags America with lights, rides and s’mores: Nov. 23-25, Dec. 1-2, 8-9, 15-16, 21-23, 26-31. Among the holiday performances underway: National Symphony Orchestra’s Handel’s Messiah (Dec. 20-23); at Warner Theatre, the Washington Ballet’s Nutcracker recasts the classic in the Lincoln White House (Nov. 29-Dec. 28); and Richly Dressed, A Christmas Carol (Nov. 15-Dec. 30) at Ford’s Theatre.
Find inspiration for memorable getaways on Destination DC’s holiday landing page on washington.org, and its Instagram and Facebook channels, including festive hotel packages, menus, holiday lights, ice skating rinks, gift markets, can’t-miss exhibitions and events across the city’s welcoming neighborhoods. Help with planning is available from a DC travel expert weekdays 8:30 am-5 pm, 800-422-8644.
To really get into the spirit, stay at the elegant and historic Willard InterContinental (it’s a stone’s throw from the White House and was where Abraham Lincoln stayed before his inauguration) which transforms into a holiday-inspired wonderland, a beloved tradition that both locals and visitors have come to anticipate each year, with its display of yuletide trimmings, musical fanfare and epicurean delights thru January 1. The centerpiece is the treasured Christmas tree, boasting decades of sentiment on each carefully curated branch. The Willard is the only hotel in Washington to feature the White House Ornament Collection, an initiative founded by the White House Historical Association in 1981: each ornament honors a different U.S. President or special White House event. This year honors Harry S. Truman, 33rd president, and the three significant changes made during his administration – one to the Presidential Seal and two to the White House itself. Another iconic facet of the hotel’s décor is their picturesque gingerbread display in the lobby that pays tribute to an iconic landmark in and around D.C. This year’s display pays homage to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and with a magnificent replica that will include all terminals, lighted runways, a control tower and even parts of the Washington Metro.
Turn your visit into a complete resort stay at the Gaylord National Resort which has its Christmas on the Potomac festival that is not to be missed (whether or not you stay), that includes ICE! where you walk through a winter wonderland carved from over 2 million pounds of ice, this year telling the holiday tale of A Charlie Brown Christmas www.ChristmasOnThePotomac.com. (https://www.marriott.com/gaylord-hotels/gaylord-national-harbor-christmas-on-the-potomac.mi)
Christmas in Newport
Newport, Rhode Island is always enchanting, but never more so than at the winter holidays, when, it seems, the entire town is one big festival. There’s a palpable elation throughout the City-by-the Sea during Christmas in Newport, a month-long celebration toasting simple traditions of the holiday season. For nearly 50 years, this event has made for an extraordinary holiday respite in a quaint New England coastal town. White lights illuminate homes, shops, restaurants and the bustling wharves in a ritual meant to represent candlelight from days gone by, when families would wait for their loved ones to return home from their seafaring adventures. Holiday events are tailored to entertain every age, including tree lightings, Polar Express train rides, historical tours, shopping strolls, concerts and dances like the Newport Nutcracker, Island Moving Company’s rendition of the classic holiday ballet, Victorian-era Christmas festivities, culinary fêtes, arts and cultural celebrations and more. (Where else but Newport can you gaze at a 16-foot working gingerbread lighthouse?) (See discovernewport.org, 800-326-6030, for trip planning help.)
Christmas at the Newport Mansions returns to The Breakers, The Elms and Marble House with newly imagined holiday decor thru Jan. 1. The three houses offer a total of 25 large decorated Christmas trees, plus additional smaller potted trees and topiaries. Windows in each mansion are lit with individual white candles. New this year, professional event designers will create contemporary holiday tablescapes in the dining rooms at Marble House and The Elms, and in the Breakfast Room of The Breakers, to provide inspiration and ideas to visitors for ways they can decorate their own holiday tables.
Holiday Evenings at the Newport Mansions recreate the ambiance of an evening soirée during the Gilded Age: at The Breakers are Saturdays, December 1, 8, 22 and 29, 6-8 p.m; On December 15, guests can visit both The Elms and Marble House for the price of one, 6-9 p.m. ($35 in advance, $45 day-of the event. Children 6-17 are admitted for $10 in advance, $15 day-of. Children under the age of 6 free. More information and tickets are available online or call (401) 847-1000.
The Breakers, The Elms and Marble House open daily for tours, except Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, through Jan. 1. Rosecliff will also be open in December, with a new exhibition, Bill Cunningham: Facades, featuring photographs by the late New York Times photographer. A Winter Passport ticket providing daytime admission to up to 4 houses can be purchased for $30 for adults, $10 for children 6-17. Children under the age of 6 are admitted free. Individual house tickets are also available. Tickets can be purchased online or at each property. (Program information at newportmansions.org.)
There are any number of marvelous hotels and inns to accommodate. We loved our holiday stay at The Vanderbilt, a historic boutique hotel a short walk (and what a rooftop view) to Newport’s delightful waterfront, which makes you feel like a Vanderbilt. In fact, it was originally built by Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, third son of Cornelius Vanderbilt II and Alice Claypoole Vanderbilt, who died heroically in the sinking of the Lusitania. The 1909 mansion has been restored to its former glory and is one of the few private homes of the era to operate for guests as a fully functioning luxury hotel in Rhode Island. The Vanderbilt offers 33 rooms and luxury suites, a lavish spa, indoor and outdoor pools, and a signature restaurant, The Vanderbilt Grill. A Grace Hotel, it is now part of the Auberge Resort Collection (www.gracehotels.com/vanderbilt/).
More Favorite Places for the Winter Holidays
Manchester, Vermont, a delightful New England village, hosts six weeks of holiday merriment, across the Manchester and the Mountains Region (a whole village of outlet shops, too!). There are tours of decorated inns, pub crawls with local restaurants offering special pairings, a Lighted Tractor Parade, and the Elf Express Train ride. A highlight of any visit to Manchester is a tour Hildene, Robert Todd Lincoln’s estate, festooned in Victorian finery, just as it might have been when they stayed for the holidays so many years ago. Take the self-guided tour; throughout December, talented musicians play Mary Lincoln’s Steinway and the vintage Aeolian organ (www.hildene.org). (Trip planning help at visitmanchestervt.com/merriment).
One of our favorite places to stay for the holidays in Manchester is the historic Equinox, where Mary Todd Lincoln would spend summers. The Equinox has since become a four-season luxury resort with every imaginable amenity including world-class spa, indoor pool, Orvis fly fishing school, a falconry school, Range Rover driving school. Besides outlet shopping and historic sites such as Hildene, the Equinox is also a short drive to superb downhill skiing at Stratton, Bromley and Magic Mountain (www.equinoxresort.com, 800-362-4747).
Woodstock, Vermont is the quintessential New England village, oozing charm and its centerpiece is the historic Woodstock Inn. An AAA Four Diamond resort, it is decked out in holiday finery and activities galore (Tubbs Snowshoe Adventure Center, cross-country skiing, luxurious spa and indoor recreation center with tennis, visits to the fascinating Billings Farm & Museum, downhill skiing at the resort’s own Suicide Six ski hill, with Killington just 25 minutes away and Okemo 40 minutes away. Founded by the Rockefellers, the Woodstock Inn & Resort is owned and operated by The Woodstock Foundation, Inc. Proceeds from Resort operations support The Woodstock Foundation and Billings Farm & Museum education and conservation programs. Find vacation packages and specials at www.woodstockinn.com.
One of my most memorable Christmases was spent in Wilmington, Delaware, the hub for nearby historic Newcastle and the whole Brandywine Valley Region. There are scores of holiday attractions and activities –Longworth Gardens, famous for its holiday decorations and enchanting Dancing Fountains (open even on Christmas Day), “Yuletide at Winterthur” Museum, Gardens and Library with its sensational holiday performances; the fascinating Hagley Museum and DuPont Mansion; the Brandywine River Museum of Art with its unparalleled collection of Wyeth family art and nearby historic towns of Old New Castle and Odessa (http://thebrandywine.com/attractions/index.html). See schedule at https://www.visitwilmingtonde.com/events/holiday/
Staying at the historic Hotel DuPont, makes it all the more special; that Christmas Eve we walked across the street to participate in the evening church services. (www.hoteldupont.com)
Victorian Cape May at Christmas offers six weeks of festive tours and events sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities (MAC) through Jan. 1.Take a guided, daytime, living history tour of the magnificent 1879 Physick Estate, Cape May’s only Victorian house museum, decorated in authentic Victorian style for Christmas, during Physick Family Christmas House Tours, presented from the viewpoint of a member of the Physick family in the early 1900s. The tour also includes a visit to the Carroll Gallery at the Emlen Physick Estate where you can see “An Old-fashioned Christmas” exhibit. Offered daily (except Thanksgiving and Christmas) through Jan. 1,; hours vary. Adults $12; children (3-12) $8. There are historic district trolley tours (many themed, like Ghosts of Christmas Past), house tours, Lamplighter Christmas Tours which are self-guided evening tours of Cape May’s inns and private homes, specially decorated for the holidays. Here, the perfect place to stay is in one of the historic inns (www.capemay.com/stay). For more information. Contact Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities (MAC), 609-884-5404 or 800-275-4278 or visit www.capemaymac.org.
Go back even further in time at Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, a living-history museum, fill out the visit with Busch Gardens Williamsburg and other attractions including the Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, where you will experience Christmastide in Virginia. (Dec. 20-31), offering a glimpse of 17th and 18th century holiday traditions including daily appearances by the Lord of Misrule at Jamestown Settlement and period musical entertainment at both museums. At Busch Gardens, enjoy Christmas Town (select dates through January 5) offers one of the largest light displays in North America with more than 10 million lights. New this year, Busch Gardens Railway turns into the Christmas Town Express, with caroling, 2 million lights, holiday-themed vignets along the 1.5 mile route around the theme park; plus 25 rides are open including InvadR and Verbolten roller coasters. (Planning help at www.visitwilliamsburg.com). Complete the magical experience with a stay at the grand, historic Williamsburg Inn, a full-service luxury (five Diamond) resort (www.colonialwilliamsburghotels.com).
St Petersburg, Florida affords the unparalleled opportunity to combine arts, culture, heritage with a glamorous, historic and grand beach resort, the DonCesar Resort, known as “the Pink Lady” (www.doncesar.com). St. Petersburg/Clearwater offers scores of special activities – lighted boat parades that take place at various times in small villages; outdoor carolers at the holiday market. The very special Clearwater Marine Aquarium (home of the Dolphin’s Tale stories) transforms into Winter’s Wonderland through Jan. 6; watch special Santa dive presentations at Mavis’s Rescue Hideaway (CMA holiday fun). The annual Holiday Lights in the Gardens has a million LED lights shining throughout the Botanical Gardens (from 5:30 p.m.; $5 suggested donation) through Dec. 30.Head to Christmas Town at Busch Gardens for some great thrill rides and to see the park transform into a holiday wonderland of Christmastime entertainment, holiday shopping and a million twinkling lights! (through Dec. 31). (www.visitstpeteclearwater.com)
San Francisco has so many amazing attractions and charms (I can’t get enough of the trolley cars or the trolley museum), but really gets decked out for the holidays when the entire city becomes a Gallery of Light Art. Now in its sixth year, “Illuminate SF Festival of Light” celebrates 37 dramatic, eco-friendly light art installations located throughout San Francisco. Located in 17 different neighborhoods, the works, by 30 local and world-renowned light artists, are accessible by public transport and many are free for all to view, thru New Year’s Day. The works come to life at dusk throughout the city with a luminescence that will turn any evening into an illuminating adventure, especially when combined with exploring San Francisco’s world-class museums performing arts and restaurants. The light art can be found in neighborhoods in the Embarcadero along the waterfront, in North Beach, Civic Center, Central Market, the Inner Sunset, South of Market (SoMa), Potrero, Mission Bay, Bayview, Golden Gate Park, Hayes Valley, South Beach, the Castro, the Mission District and even flying in or out of San Francisco International Airport (SFO). (The San Francisco Travel Association offers a guide to all of the installations and artists at www.illuminatesf.com; plan your visit at www.sftravel.com.)
Combine city and country with a stay at The Tenaya Lodge at the doorstep to Yosemite National Park. Families are delighted by the festive décor and special holiday activities, including gingerbread house and ornament decoraiting workshops, live lobby music, a Christmas Eve reading with Mrs. Claus, and Dinner with Santa. The resort has its own ice skating rink, sleds, horse-drawn sleigh rides, showshoes. And this holiday season, the resort is helping California wildfire victims by donating $25 toward CalFund’s Wildfire Relief Fund on stays booked with this offer where you also save 15% on holiday stays, Dec. 21 to Jan. 6, two-night minimum stay, promo: HOLIDAYS (www.tenayalodge.com).
Chattanooga, Tennessee offers a surprising array of extraordinary experiences: walk through a secret underground ice cave and see Rock City’s Enchanted Garden of Lights, explore a nocturnal fantasyland with more than one million twinkling lights high atop Lookout Mountain; hop on board a train for a North Pole adventure; sing Christmas carols and dance with Santa on a river cruise; meet coral reef Santa divers; build creative gingerbread houses; watch animals open their own Christmas presents when you visit the Children’s Discovery Museum and the Tennessee Aquarium. Get the full scoop on planning a holiday getaway in Chattanooga at www.chattanoogafun.com/winter.
The Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel offers an absolutely magical experience. The historic hotel (and member of Historic Hotels of America) is literally created out of the legendary railroad station, where you can stay in one of 48 Victorian train cars converted to the most delightful rooms, wonderfully furnished in period pieces (but with modern amenities like high-speed wireless Internet access), and the station serves as the hotel lobby (you can also tour some of the historic trains and meet the engineer). A free electric shuttle from the bus terminal next door takes you downtown. I don’t know when I have had a more enjoyable and interesting stay. (Chattanooga Choo Choo, 400 Market St., Chattanooga, TN 37402, 800-TRACK-29 (872-2529, www.choochoo.com.)
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