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 Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, or New Year’s Eve—where the cooking, light-hanging, or sometimes even the package-wrapping are done for you. A holiday with enough time to build a gingerbread house (and someone else cleans 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 epic feasts, like the ones that have been held at The Majestic Yosemite Hotel since the 1920s. To 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. Or, head inland to Riverside and take your stand under what may be the world’s biggest mistletoe—surrounded by four million holiday lights at The Mission Inn Hotel & Spa.
Check out these California hotels, listed north to south, whose annual holiday events have become family traditions in themselves. The Resort at Squaw Creek has been staging its special holiday program—with Santa meet-and-greets, live music, and a huge Gingerbread Village, since the early 2000s. “We have returning guests who say they have been coming since the first year,” says the resort’s communications director, Kristin Yantis, “just because the celebration and feeling create such special memories for their families.”
Located mid-mountain at Northstar California, The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe is a AAA Five-Diamond resort and a kid-pleaser year-round, thanks to the acclaimed Ritz Kids program and in-house arcade. During the holidays, though, the hotel ramps things up with VIP-style perks, from elaborate holiday buffet feasts to in-room surprises and treats. Don’t miss the resort’s nightly Marshmology experience, which will enhance your appreciation of hot cocoa and s’mores: You’ll learn about the history of the confection and then toast some of your own at the hotel’s fire pit.
Another delectable event that will feed your imagination as well is the “Stars & S’mores” program. Guests are invited to gather at the resort’s Fireside Terrace to take part in a fun and accessible night of astronomy that includes a scientific approach to appreciating the stars and greater cosmos, as well as poetry readings and guided telescope viewings. All of which culminates, of course, with s’mores around the resort’s outdoor fire pit.
With all the snow, Lake Tahoe isn’t so much different from the North Pole during winter, making is a great place to have a chat with Santa and Mrs. Claus. They make appearances during the holiday season; kids can fill them in on their Christmas wish-lists, have photos taken, and even have a story read to them by Mrs. Claus.
The Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe teams up with Atelier Truckee, a local artists’ organization, to offer opportunities for crafty workshops to learn how to do things like design and hand-stamp your own wrapping paper, transform pinecones in waxed fire starters, and design waxed holiday ornaments using delicate mulberry paper.
The Lake Tahoe ski hotel Resort at Squaw Creek has an obvious advantage when it comes to holiday getaways—the beautiful, snow-blanketed mountain scenery. Those alluring surroundings include ski-in/ski-out access to Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, an ice rink, and a kids program that includes sledding, a mini-rail Polar Express around the Ice Garden, broom ball, and snowshoeing. A favorite of kids and adults alike are the complimentary horse-drawn sleigh rides; if you’re up for something a little more adrenaline-inducing, go Disco Tubing down snow-covered lanes with nighttime multicolored LED lights and live DJs.
The calendar of off-the-slopes activities is packed. The Merry Days and Holly Nights series of Squaw Valley events includes Santa Story Time gatherings, caroler performances, ice sculpting demonstrations, a performance of Handel’s Messiah by the Toccata Symphony Orchestra and more.
Inside, the hotel also decks the halls this time of year. Its Magical Memories program has been running since the early 2000s and includes a giant Gingerbread Village, a Grand Tree Lighting ceremony, live music, Santa breakfasts, photos with Santa, and cookie decorating throughout the season.
Topping it all off on New Year’s Eve is the World’s Largest Torchlight Parade, which starts at the top of the Gold Coast Funitel and lights up entire the 3.2-mile long Mountain Run with skiers and riders ages 5 and up carrying colorful LED torches. Whether taking part or viewing it from afar, it’s a sight to remember.
The stately Nob Hill hotel Fairmont San Francisco makes a strong first impression with its classic Beaux-Arts exterior, built in 1906 under architect Julia Morgan, of Hearst Castle fame. But during the holiday season the hotel has an over-100-year-old tradition that embraces Victorian architecture instead—and an edible form at that. Inside the lobby, the executive pastry chef and her team create a two-story Victorian gingerbread house, 22 feet high and 23 feet wide, made with more than 7,000 house-made gingerbread bricks covered with royal icing and candy decor. You can even book an afternoon tea or dinner for up to 10 guests inside the house, making for a truly memorable holiday experience.
The public can only view the creation during a few open houses, so another way to see it is to stay overnight (or even have dinner at) the hotel. If you plan to sleep over, consider the Santa Suite package—which includes a stay in the two-bedroom Napoleon Suite, decked out in Santa decor, and breakfast.
Or, partake in the lobby’s special holiday Champagne bar, or one of the daily Gingerbread Holiday Teas. Just remember to limit your gingerbread eating to the tea, and not while touring the house. “Kids and adults alike pick off bits, despite our signs asking to please refrain from eating the house, and so we have to replace bricks and candy daily,” says the hotel’s marketing communications director, Melissa Farrar. “These people are clearly on Santa’s ‘naughty list.’”
Winter in the Yosemite Valley means scenic opportunities to ski, snowboard, and snowshoe: the Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area has 90 miles of marked trails and 25 miles of groomed track. All of that, no doubt, will make you work up an appetite, which makes a holiday stay at The Majestic Yosemite Hotel, a 1920s masterpiece of alpine charm, a serious treat—especially if you come for one of the hotel’s Christmas Bracebridge Dinners, a unique seasonal offering that has been around as long as the hotel itself. The dinners turn the dining room into an 18th-century blowout, helmed by the fictional Lord Neville, Squire of Bracebridge Hall, first created by Washington Irving, the 19th-century author of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” fame. (Cool trivia: That role was played for years by photographer Ansel Adams.) The menu includes such irresistible classics as duck confit, beef Bordelaise, and plum pudding, accented by carolers and Renaissance performers.
The hotel knows how to make other holidays especially memorable as well. Spend Thanksgiving here and the five-course feast in the Majestic’s Grand Dining Hall—with sky-high ceilings and cathedral windows overlooking the snowy mountains outside—includes free-range turkey, prime rib, and Yorkshire pudding, as well as Yosemite-inspired desserts like the Chocolate Dome, with cappuccino mousse and raspberry sauce. Ring in the New Year here and you get a six-course dinner, live music, and dancing in the hall. Holiday festivities with a mountain flavor are also held at sister park venues the Yosemite Valley Lodge and Big Trees Lodge.
Sitting on a 500-acre property on the Monterey Peninsula, Carmel Valley Ranch is a classic family-friendly resort—the kind of place where daily activities include archery lessons, geocaching, and sunset hikes. During the holidays that schedule gets a festive spin, with diversions such as Santa scavenger hunts, caroling, and the 12 Days of Holiday Cookie Decorating for kids (one day Mexican galletas, another Italian Raisin Twists). Take a holiday craft workshop to make a bath bomb or tree ornament; afterward, the grownups can enjoy wine tastings and mixology classes.
At the annual Nutcracker Holiday Tea, you can meet the dancers of the Dance Kids of Monterey’s production of The Nutcracker, and even learn and perform a scene from the ballet (sword fighting optional). There’s also a nightly menorah lighting in the lodge lobby and a Hanukkah party open to all with latkes and other traditional treats. On New Year’s Eve, the Clubhouse Grill hosts a family-friendly party with dancing, a DJ, and a sparkling-wine or apple-cider toast at 9 p.m. for an East Coast countdown to the new year.
Year-round, the family can also play in a big saltwater pool, go horseback riding, hike the resort trails, or play on the tennis courts or 18-hole golf course. Adding a California twist, the resort is even home to a four-acre Pinot Noir vineyard, as well as a year-round organic garden with a chicken coop, a salt house, and a world-class apiary where you can don protective gear and safely check out the beehives.
For a healthy dose of sunny holiday bliss with a touch of the timeless, look no further than Los Angeles County’s The Langham Huntington. The resort, sprawled across manicured palm- and cactus-dotted lawns just south of downtown Pasadena, first opened its doors in the early 1900s and is the picture of traditional elegance. Inside, the resort pulls out all the stops: It’s known for its Teddy Bear Teas throughout the season, where young revelers and the snuggly friend of their choice can sit down to a fancy tea on Wedgewood china, paired with storytelling with one of Santa’s helpers, photos with Santa, and a marionette puppet show.
For big feast days, choose from dining options like the Thanksgiving buffet, a Christmas-morning brunch in the Huntington Ballroom with live entertainment, or dinner at the hotel’s own Royce Wood-Fired Steakhouse. “We carefully design our holiday programming to encompass all of the traditions celebrated during the holiday season,” says the hotel’s director of communications Susan Williger, “with a focus on family and togetherness.”
This is also a prime spot to stay for that pair of famous Pasadena events, the Rose Bowl and Rose Parade, if you plan to linger through New Year’s. For a decadent break from togetherness, don’t miss the seasonal offerings in the hotel’s Chuan Spa, like the Vanilla Sugar Cookie Body Polish or Scalp Massage treatments. Bonus: Sparky does not have to spend the holidays alone. Any time of year, pet guests get their own treats and amenities.
At Terranea, a Rancho Palos Verdes resort tucked into the bluffs of the Los Angeles County coastline, you’ll feel much farther away from the city than you actually are. The family-friendly hotel offers kayaking, surfing lessons, guided bike rides, whale-watching tours, and even a falconry program.
The luxury resort also loves to make the most of the holiday season through its long-standing Traditions program—starting in early fall with an Oktoberfest menu, and extending with Menorah lightings in the lobby, and parties for New Year’s Eve. Its foodie-focused holiday dining—featuring many dishes prepared with ingredients from the resort’s own garden—includes lavish Thanksgiving feasts and dinners celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas at its four on-site restaurants.
Elves abound in December, whether they are reading stories to the kids by the lobby fireplace, tucking little ones in at bedtime, or being searched for. With the help of daily clues at the Experience Center, kids can search high and low for Terra, the resident Elf on the Shelf. Another tradition is the Winter Workshop, which is held at the Tide Pool Kids Club and offers visitors the opportunity to build a gingerbread house, experiment with holiday crafts, or make presents for family and friends.
The biggest treat for families may come on New Year’s Eve, when children are welcomed to their own party at the Tide Pool Kids Club, where they’ll have a blast with all the games, crafts, and scavenger hunts planned, so that parents can toast the holiday on their own. And to guarantee a smooth start to the new year, the Kids Club adventure leaders will also whisk them away to their own breakfast the next day, giving parents the chance to catch up on some sleep.
Booking a stay on the Queen Mary, a historic cruise liner permanently docked in Long Beach, makes for a unique getaway. The year-round ambience—defined by its Art Deco–style cabins with operational portholes, period furnishings, and quirky, original features such as push-button light switches—is made all the more vivid when one considers the ship’s storied past. First setting sail in 1936, it wasn’t long before the Cunard liner was shuttling soldiers to and from Europe as a troop transport ship during the second World War; she then dominated the passenger transatlantic passenger market until the airlines took over in the late ‘50s.
Stay here from late November through early January, though, and the hotel becomes even more of a time capsule as the decks are adorned with vintage holiday decorations and the ship’s calendar of events is packed with Christmas traditions. Holiday treats, breakfasts with Santa, dinner shows, caroling, and more are all to be had, and charting the course for the North Pole from his Captain’s Quarters is none other than the Man in Red himself.
A VIP Grand Passport will provide access to loads of special activities for little ones, including an ice skating session, gingerbread making, stocking decorating, a meet-and-greet with Santa in his quarters, and a story time with Mrs. Claus.
Tours offered year-round on the Queen Mary include the Steam and Steel Tour, which winds down 25 feet below the surface of the water to explore boiler rooms, the engine room, and more. Another tour—Haunted Encounters—explores the haunted areas and paranormal hotspots that earned the ship a place on Time magazine’s 10 Most Haunted Places in America list. And if British history is more your thing, there are tours dedicated to Winston Churchill and Lady Diana.
While you're in Long Beach, don't miss a trip to the nearby Aquarium of the Pacific, an expansive kid-pleaser right on the waterfront.
If you like to spend evenings during the holidays driving around light-strewn neighborhoods, looking for those “wow” houses, The Mission Inn Hotel & Spa is your dream hotel. The Inland Empire resort, the largest Mission Revival–style building in the United States and a registered National Historic California Landmark, dates back to 1876 and exudes old-world grandeur with its 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 (come for the season’s “Switch-On Ceremony” in late November and you’ll get fireworks too). This beloved Riverside tradition has been named “Best Public Lights Display in the Nation” by USA Today and attracts more than 500,000 visitors a year.
Outside the hotel, the North Pole walkway will take you down the main pedestrian thoroughfare, lined with Santa’s elves filling his sleigh full of toys, a life-size gingerbread house, window displays, and more. Visitors have numerous opportunities to spend time with Santa, including breakfasts accompanied by a performance from the Inland Pacific Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker, and champagne brunches on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas.
Throughout rest of the resort’s holiday season, you can take horse-drawn carriage rides, check out the live reindeer milling around the grounds, or snap a couples selfie under the world’s largest man-made mistletoe (measuring roughly 8-by-12 feet). Each year has its own treats too—like a gingerbread-themed spa treatment, turndown service with boozy or non-boozy eggnog, or a special 12 Days of Holiday Cocktails Menu.
During the holiday season, the theme parks at Disneyland Resort are decked out in decor, from twinkling lights to baubles and of course, cheerful strolling characters. And for anyone who would rather ride the Matterhorn or go on the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage than spend the holidays cooking, there is no shortage of places around the theme parks and hotels to eat turkey and trimmings—even king crab legs, roasted Turkey Wellington, and countless pies and tarts.
The resort’s three hotels typically offer discounts on stays from Sunday through Thursday this time of year, as well as strolling carolers and their own special decor. The Paradise Pier Hotel gets into the spirit with its ocean-themed Christmas tree and shell-and-starfish garlands, while the Grand Californian Hotel & Spa constructs a giant gingerbread replica of the hotel, right in the lobby. It stands 7 feet tall and 12 feet wide, is made from 600 pounds of gingerbread, 600 pounds of powdered sugar, and features 25 hidden Mickeys. Little ones can send out their wish-lists at a Santa-letter-writing station (with expedited delivery to the North Pole). Nearby, you can grab a peppermint hot chocolate and a Christmas Cookie Box at the Holiday Cart to satisfy your sweet tooth in a Santa-approved way. Regulars also rave about the kitschy holiday decor and drinks (like the Mele Kaliki-Mocha and a Red-Nosed Zebra) at the Disneyland Hotel, at Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar.
As always, guests at all three of the resorts hotels can make the most of their holiday visit with Extra Magic Hour admission, which grants them entrance into the park one hour earlier than the general public.
Frank Capra is rumored to have written It’s a Wonderful Life during one of his many stays at this Palm Springs area resort. So every year the Spanish-style resort turns, as best it can, into a cactus-dotted version of Bedford Falls, the fictional town where Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey has his holiday awakening. Carolers stroll the grounds while revelers can stop and roast chestnuts at fire pits, look at the decorated windows, and listen for the occasional bell ringing. Or, watch the 1946 classic film, projected on an outside wall. The resort does not limit itself to Yuletide: There are nightly Menorah lightings in the lobby for all eight nights of Hanukkah.
The YMCA-run kids club at the resort, meanwhile, is key for keeping little ones occupied while parents do any last-minute holiday shopping, and this is also the prime season for making the most of the Palm Springs area, with its family-friendly activities such as the Living Desert, hiking trails, or the Aerial Tramway. To stay in the filmmaker’s favorite suite at La Quinta, ask for the Capra (once known as the San Anselmo), which now features a vintage typewriter.
The Hotel Del Coronado boasts of having the first electrically lit outdoor Christmas tree, constructed back in 1904. The Queen Anne–style resort in San Diego County 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 quaint Coronado Island, or make “jingle s’mores” in the fire pits out on the sand. During the day, the beach and surfing lessons beckon, but so do other activities only available this time of year.
Throughout the holiday season, The Del invites locals and guests alike 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 like s’mores and hot dogs to get sizzling over the fire .
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. In keeping with the spirit of the season, a portion of the proceeds from the Polar Bear Tea will be donated to charity.
On a more all-ages note, Sunday Brunches with Santa, held in the Del’s lavish Crown Room, are not to be missed—children can dine with St. Nick as he holds court and parents can partake of the bottomless mimosas and Bloody Marys.