There’s no place like home for the holidays, ‘cause no matter how far away you roam, sometimes you need a place that actually encourages you to pad downstairs in your jammies and drink orange juice straight out of the bottle. But there are also drawbacks to home, most notably the fact that it’s not somewhere else – since being home always leaves us dreaming of somewhere else, and being somewhere else always has us dreaming of home.
When we want to be somewhere else for the holidays, or just want to be dreaming about being somewhere else, here are some the places in the U.S. we dream about most often. (The international version of our dream destinations is coming Christmas Eve, just in time for Santa.) Note: These also make wonderful après-holidays vacations, too, and great gifts. Hint. Hint.
Vail: Of all the western ski-resort towns, Vail is the one that gets it the most right. Yes, it’s nosebleed expensive, and yes, the skiing might be better at Snowbird or Whistler, but Vail is just what you want from a ski vacation. The runs are long and challenging no matter your skill level, the weather is rarely howlingly cold, and the scene is more than scenic, especially our Becky Swan’s favorite haunts: The Red Lion, Garfinkel’s, and Vendetta’s, where the Snow Pig is highly recommended. And, as this article in The New York Times points out, it only has to be nosebleed expensive if you want it to be. Staying at the Hotel Minturn a few miles off-piste (we only included that line so we could write “off-piste”) can shave hundreds off your bill, leaving you with more to spend at The Little Diner. We are Whistlerites from way back, but Vail keeps turning our heads.
Asheville, N.C./Charleston, S.C.: Everything we said here and here goes triple this time of year. Charleston at Christmas is every bit as charming as Charleston the rest of the year, only with slightly less humidity but more benne wafers and she-crab soup. Asheville is in the mountains, so snow is not out of the question, but that just makes the Biltmore sparkle a little more, especially at its Candlelight Christmas Evenings. Also, if we get there before Jan. 1, we can check out the entrants in the National Gingerbread House competition at the Omni Grove Park Inn. This time of year, we are all about that gingerbread.
Laguna Beach, Calif.: Say what you will about the essential wackiness of the California coast, but it’s a singularly blessed place. Laguna Beach may be the most blessed of the blessed, which helps explain the blessedly high prices. Still, who can say no to a couple of nights at the Hotel Laguna, a glorious example of Spanish California architecture which dates from 1888 and counts Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Barrymore, and Errol Flynn among its guests? And if not there then the Casa Laguna Inn and Spa, with its cottage-style rooms and luxurious amenities? Follow up your cabana massage with a truly local experience – dinner at the more-than-aptly named House of Big Fish and Ice Cold Beer a/k/a the Big Fish Tavern, where the locals go to feed their seafood fix. If that’s a little too proletarian for you, there’s always Three Seventy Common, where everything is exquisitely good and they throw out the menu on Sundays and cook a family-style dinner for all comers – only your family never ate as good as this.
Mobile, Ala.: The Alabama/Mississippi Gulf Coast is a fine destination this time of year, and a good strategy is to use Mobile as a jumping-off point. Stay downtown at the historic (and haunted) Admiral Semmes Hotel or the Victorian, century-old Kate Shepard House, a B&B where the second B is Pecan Praline French Toast, voted one of Alabama’s “100 Dishes to Eat Before You Die.” In fact, B, L(unch), and D(inner) are all great reasons to visit the Alabama/Mississippi Gulf, especially if you dig seafood. The coast is crawling with great seafood joints, ranging from local hangouts like King Neptune’s Seafood Restaurant to the semi-kitschiness of LuLu’s, run by Jimmy Buffett’s sister. A better bet is the Dew Drop Inn, home to the cheeseburger that supposedly provided the inspiration for Buffett’s classic song “Cheeseburger in Paradise” (though truth be told, the hot dog steals the show here). Wear off all that Southern cooking at Magnolia Grove, a three-course parlay on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. Ambitious sorts should tackle Crossings, while those looking for a whacking good time should try the Short Course, voted the best par-three course in America by Golf Digest.
Texas Hill Country: The weather can be variable this time of year (it’s currently 59 and clear, or “perfect,” as we like to say around here), but there’s never a bad time to visit the Texas Hill Country. The best way to describe the scenery is “non-Texas,” but after you spend a little time in the Hill Country (a triangle with San Antonio at one point and Austin at another) you realize it’s Texas, all right, just a little bit different – Doug Sahm rural as opposed to Bob Wills rural, if that makes any sense.
You’re going to need a place to stay. Anything by a river offered through Texas Hill Country Lodging will set you up just fine.
This is Texas, so naturally the food’s great. Have a meal at Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que in Llano and you’re pretty much set for your stay. The food’s that good and the portions are that massive. It really doesn’t matter what you choose; the brisket, cabrito, ribeyes, beef or pork ribs, and pork chops are all stuff of legend. This is a BBQ joint, so the lack of atmosphere is its atmosphere – did you expect to not be eating at picnic tables? – but who really cares? Nobody, that’s who.
Top it off with a night of nine-pin bowling at the Blanco Bowling Club Cafe, where the services of a pinsetter are included in the price – but not a slice of their mile-high meringue pies, unfortunately. That’s okay; you need to save room for breakfast at the Old German Bakery and Restaurant, where the German pancakes are so good you’d swear you’re in Milwaukee. Only the weather’s, like, perfect.