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Away From Home for the Holidays


Posted on November 15, 2016

Take advantage of some of Northern California's holiday hot spots with a road trip or two.


Sacramento has some fabulous holiday traditions: Run to Feed the Hungry, Sacramento Ballet’s “The Nutcracker,” the Fab 40s Christmas lights (complete with horse-drawn wagons), Cal Expo’s Global Winter Wonderland, even Black Friday at Roseville Galleria. But sometimes, getting out of town feels more festive. Maybe it’s a trip to the snow, up to Lake Tahoe for a sleigh ride atop the season’s first snowpack, then hot toddies by the fire. Or to the Mendocino coast, where the late-fall colors blaze well into December and the ocean bounces gray and choppy during an afternoon sunset—and a pretty inn dressed up with twinkling lights and pine boughs feels even more East Coast than ever. Come late November all around Northern California, the holiday decorations come out, shops come alive with warm fragrances and treats, and festivals crowd the calendar. Best of all, overnight rates at the most luxurious inns remain set at “off-season,” except perhaps during the weekend of Christmas itself. With holiday fun in mind, here are some reasons to leave town during November and December.

Big City Madness—Union Square, always a busy hub, explodes with festivity on Black Friday, with crowds mobbing in for early-morning deals, sticking around for special treats throughout the day (nibbles and drinks and gifts with purchase at stores on the square) and cheering as the switch gets thrown on the holiday tree that evening. Make sure to window shop at Macy’s, where displays include adoptable pets (lots of sweet kitties and dogs) from the San Francisco SPCA, with lots in the windows along Stockton Street’s Winter Walk pop-up plaza. Slip into the lobby of The Westin St. Francis to admire the holiday glam. Last year’s Enchanted Castle, a 12-foot tower of sugar art created by pastry chef Jean-François Houdré, included handcrafted ornaments, elves and candies, and this year’s masterpiece, yet to be announced, promises to be at least as grand. Across the street, the Union Square ice rink teems with skaters. If you can score a table at Bancarella or Emporio Rulli on the square, take a break and sip a latte or hot chocolate with mittened hands. Tip: To catch the tree lighting, leave the stores early and stake out a seat at The Cheesecake Factory on the top floor of Macy’s. Its outdoor seating area, complete with heat lamps, overlooks the square, ideally situated for a prime view. Union Square thrums with holiday activity throughout the season, including Hanukkah celebrations and a variety of live performances.

Make a weekend of it with a stay at the Stanford Court hotel on Nob Hill, walking distance from the gorgeous Grace Cathedral in one direction and the cable car line, which also serves Union Square, in the other. By staying off Union Square, you’ll get more sleep—Union Square is noisy, especially during the holidays—plus Stanford Court is reasonably priced (rates start around $150 a night), luxurious (feather bedding and cityscape views) and only a block or so away from The Ritz-Carlton, where afternoon tea awaits with plenty of crustless sandwiches. For visitors with children who like to dress up, The Ritz’s Teddy Bear Tea includes sweeter fare and Christmas-themed entertainment, and of course a teddy bear to take home.

Afternoon Tea at The Ritz-Carlton
Afternoon tea at The Ritz-Carlton

While you’re in San Francisco, take in one of the following holiday performance classics: San Francisco Ballet’s “Nutcracker” at the War Memorial & Performing Arts Center and the American Conservatory Theater’s staging of “A Christmas Carol.”

Turn Back Time in Yosemite—These days, you can buy tickets—no more excruciating lottery—to attend The Bracebridge Dinner at the historic Ahwahnee Hotel. (Whoops, now it’s the Majestic Yosemite Hotel since the legal drama over naming rights happened earlier this year.) Whatever it’s called, the venue is transformed for eight evenings during the holiday season, hosting on each night a three-and-ahalf-hour feast in the spirit of author Washington Irving’s 18th-century England. This year, the event runs every other night from Dec. 12 through Dec. 24, and Christmas Day.

Back in the ’20s and ’30s, shortly after the Ahwahnee opened, famous photographer Ansel Adams created the script that The Bracebridge Dinner still follows today—with horns trumpeting the opening of the doors each evening, and the music and theatrics that accompany each course of the meal. Today, a good number of the singers and court actors have been involved with The Bracebridge Dinner for 20-plus years, and the event has been heralded as “the world’s premier Christmas dinner” by The Wall Street Journal.

The pageantry and the stunning dining room, with its floor-to-ceiling windows and stained glass, steal the show, but the seven-course meal—which includes butternut squash soup, duck confit (The Peacock Pie) and beef tenderloin (Baron of Beef)—adds to the splendor. Cost for the event starts at $389 per person, not including alcohol.

The only way to do The Bracebridge Dinner right is to stay on-site, where you can stagger and roll back to your room. For the full experience, stay in a classic room. Those have the best views: Half Dome, Glacier Point, Yosemite Falls. Expect to get away from it all, as cellphone coverage is limited-to-zero, and Wi-Fi in the hotel is spotty. But it doesn’t matter because, baby, it’s cold outside, and inside, you’re warm by the greenery-festooned fireplaces that go as high as your head, and sipping warm drinks by the holiday tree. If you brave the crisp winter wonderland, bundle up and do a few laps around the ice-skating rink at Curry Village. (Whoops—Half Dome Village.) It’s dark and chilly on that side of the park, which lies in the shadow of Half Dome and ices up quickly when the temps drop.

Christmas Open House in Sutter Creek
Christmas Open House in Sutter Creek

Foothills Festivities—Head for the hills and discover plenty of holiday fun, as little Gold Rush towns deck out their downtowns, bring in Mr. and Mrs. Claus, roll out the horse-drawn wagons and ladle up the mulled cider. In Amador County, near the Shenandoah Valley wine country, the tiny community of Sutter Creek holds its annual Christmas Open House the first Friday and Saturday in December. It kicks off Friday night with Santa and Mrs. Claus lighting the community outdoor Christmas tree at City Hall, and continues on Main Street with late hours at the shops and lots of goodies. On Saturday, horses draw carriages full of riders along Main Street, and Charles Dickens characters stroll the streets, chatting with shoppers. That evening, the Las Posadas Candlelight Walk starts at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church on historic Spanish Street. Open to the public, the event—in which walkers carry candles to light the way—retells the story of Mary (on a burro) and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. For a less biblical celebration, Sutter Creek’s Parade of Lights happens the following weekend, on Dec. 10 this year. Cars, bicycles, dogs, school buses—you name it, it’s bedazzled with holiday lights and paraded down Main Street. It’s down-home fun, with local school cheerleaders, the marching band and dance teams. Revelers watch from curbs and upstairs porches.

Make a day of it by wine-tasting in the Shenandoah Valley—more than 30 wineries dot the rolling hills, and zinfandel tastes mighty fine on a cold day. Or turn it into a weekender with a stay at Rest, the new 16-room boutique inn in Plymouth owned by Tracey and Mark Berkner, proprietors of the renowned Taste restaurant two doors down.

Nevada City's Victorian City
Nevada City's Victorian Christamas

Nevada City, the little Gold Rush town tucked off Highway 49 about an hour from Sacramento, is the site of one of Northern California’s most celebrated holiday events: Victorian Christmas, held two Wednesday nights and three Sunday afternoons in December. You’ll find period characters, horse-drawn carriages, roasting chestnuts, bagpipes playing, minstrels strolling, the Christmas tree walking (yes, really!) and plenty of handcrafted gifts to purchase. The nighttime events feel a little more special, with the gas lamps lighting the wintery dark. Take the next day off from work and stay overnight at one of Nevada City’s historic inns. Emma Nevada House, an 1856 Victorian, is a favorite, and an easy walk from the madness downtown. It’s packed with antiques and 1800s charm, and would be the perfect addition to an old-time holiday celebration.

Just down the road from Nevada City in Grass Valley, Cornish Christmas happens every Friday night from Nov. 25 to Dec. 23. Started in 1967 as a method of preserving Grass Valley’s Cornish roots, the event closes Mill and West Main streets to car traffic and brings in carolers, cloggers, musicians, and a choir. Revelers, many of them dressed in costume for the occasion, gather around the fire pit for roasted chestnuts and then wander among booths selling arts and crafts, home decor, and food and drink. Bars and restaurants stay open—it’s a lively way to kick off a weekend of holiday shopping.

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