Celebrate the holidays: festive holiday travel

Enjoy the Festival of Lights at The Mission Inn in Riverside. PHOTO COURTESY MISSION INN

This year, celebrate the season with a new family tradition: taking a vacation that makes the holidays feel like a vacation again. That means a holiday, whether it’s Christmas, Hanukkah or New Year’s Eve, where the cooking, light-hanging, or sometimes even the package-wrapping is done for you.

This is the kind of holiday with enough time to build a gingerbread house (and have someone else clean up afterward), take the kids to meet Santa, and then step outside to ski, or, depending on your destination, even stroll on the beach. 

Indeed, a holiday vacation to California adds some serious seasonal cheer. Choose a resort in the Sierra mountains for an instant winter wonderland as well as ski-in/ski-out access, VIP-style amenities (like spiked eggnog at turndown), or enjoy a balmy winter holiday, learn to surf at Hotel del Coronado, or drink a hot cocoa and skate at its seasonal beachside ice rink. 

Head inland to Riverside and take your stand under what may be the world’s largest mistletoe, surrounded by five million holiday lights at The Mission Inn Hotel & Spa.

Some of the annual holiday events at California hotels have been around for decades, making them family traditions in themselves. The Fairmont San Francisco has been constructing a life-size, two-story “gingerbread mansion” for more than a century.


Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens

18220 CA-1, Fort Bragg

Info ardenbythesea.org

Want a break from the holiday crush? Rediscover the magic of a simple Christmas in the village of Mendocino. Many of the shimmering historic buildings are filled with local crafts and art. Just north of town, the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens comes alive on weekends with music and lighted displays

Mammoth Lakes

The Village at Mammoth Lakes

Info illageatmammoth.com

 A true winter wonderland. Hit the slopes for world-class skiing and snowboarding at Mammoth Mountain, then get into the holiday spirit at The Village at Mammoth, where the kids can visit Santa. The Christmas lights you’ve seen elsewhere are nothing like the annual fireworks and torchlight parade during Night of Lights, put on by the Canyon Lodge. 

Big Bear Lake

With holiday lights aglow in the village and snow falling on the pines, Big Bear Lake offers a classic Christmas escape just a couple hours from the Santa Clarita Valley.

“Christmas to New Year’s, our town transforms into a place of yuletide cheer,” said Dan McKernan of the Big Bear Visitors Bureau. On weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas, let the kids say “hi” to Santa and Mrs. Claus at the town’s Christmas tree lot. Or you can cruise Big Bear Lake with Santa and look at snowcapped peaks during “Sail With Santa” excursions held Saturdays before Christmas in December.

Tahoe wonderland

It’s one of your best bets to enjoy a “White Christmas” with beautiful, snow-blanketed mountain scenery. A stay at the Resort at Squaw Creek includes ski-in/ski-out access to Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, an ice rink and a children’s program that includes sledding, a mini-rail Polar Express around the Ice Garden, broom ball and snowshoeing.

Take advantage of complimentary horse-drawn sleigh rides or go Disco Tubing down snow-covered lanes with nighttime multicolored lights and live DJs. Santa Story Time gatherings, caroler performances, ice sculpting demonstrations, a giant Gingerbread Village, a Grand Tree Lighting ceremony, live music, Santa breakfasts, photos with Santa and cookie decorating throughout the season.

The Inland Empire

Mission Inn Hotel & Spa

3649 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside


Riverside’s Mission Inn Hotel & Spa goes all-out for the holidays. If you enjoy holiday lights, The Mission Inn Hotel & Spa is your dream hotel. The Inland Empire resort, the largest Mission Revival–style building in the U.S. and a registered National Historic California Landmark, dates back to 1876 and exudes old-world grandeur with turrets, domes and flying buttresses.

But the ambience goes up a few more notches during its annual six-week-long Festival of Lights, which features five million lights and 200 animated figures. You’ll get fireworks, too, if you plan your visit during the annual “Switch-On Ceremony.” Take horse-drawn carriage rides, check out the live reindeer milling around the grounds or stand under the world’s largest man-made mistletoe (measuring roughly 8-by-12 feet). 


Hotel Del Coronado

1500 Orange Ave, Coronado

Info oteldel.com

Experience a uniquely SoCal holiday at Hotel Del Coronado and enjoy ice skating by the sea. The Hotel Del Coronado boasts of having the first electrically lit outdoor Christmas tree, constructed back in 1904.

The Queen Anne-style resort still takes its tree very seriously: Once the two-story evergreen goes up in late November, it becomes the focal point for nightly light shows, which project from the hotel’s balconies.

Take the family on one of the resort’s evening bike tours around Coronado Island, or make “jingle s’mores” in the fire pits out on the sand. Throughout the holiday season, The Del invites guests to celebrate the season with Skating by the Sea, a seaside ice-skating event lit up by the thousands of white lights that adorn the hotel’s Victorian outline.

Guests can reserve a rink-side table at Frostbite-A Place to Chill and enjoy comfy seating around a blazing fire pit. Or book what’s known at the Del as a Jingle Roast, an on-the-beach bonfire with sand chairs, blankets and tasty treats. Indoors, the resort offers Victorian-style teas during the holiday season, as well as kid-friendly Polar Bear Tea in the ballroom with stuffed animals, cookie- and cupcake-decorating, a craft table, live entertainment, and story time with Mrs. Claus and the North Pole Elves.

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