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.”
This AAA Five-Diamond resort in the Northstar ski area is a kid-pleaser year-round, thanks to the acclaimed Ritz Kids program and in-house arcade. During the holidays, though, the hotel ramps up the VIP-style perks, from the holiday buffet feasts to in-room surprises and treats, story times, and craft-making sessions with Santa and Mrs. Claus.
That also means fun activities for all ages, like family movie nights and Santa’s Gingerbread Workshops. 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.
The Lake Tahoe ski resort has an obvious advantage when it comes to holiday getaways. “The resort itself looks like a winter wonderland with all the festive decor and beautiful scenery,” says the resort’s communications director, Kristin Yantis. That scenery includes ski-in/ski-out access to Squaw Valley USA, an ice rink, and a kids program that includes sledding, broom ball, and snowshoeing.
Inside, the hotel also decks the halls. 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, and cookie decorating throughout the season. Yantis admits the staffers may enjoy part of the holiday season a lot too. “Thousands of pounds of candy go into making the Gingerbread Village,” she says, “and a few hundred pounds disappear into the mouths of the chefs as they work.”
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.
This 500-acre property on the Monterey Peninsula 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, like Santa scavenger hunts, caroling, and the 12 Days of Holiday Cookie Decorating for kids (one day Mexican galletas, another Italian Raisin Twists), and wine tastings and mixology classes for the grown-ups.
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 bee hives.
This sprawling resort on manicured lawns, which first opened in the early 1900s, is the picture of traditional elegance—which, combined with L.A. County’s balmy weather, makes for sunny holiday bliss. Inside, the resort pulls out all the stops: It’s known for its Teddy Bear Tea throughout the season, where young revelers and the snuggly of their choice can sit down to a fancy tea on Wedgewood china, paired with story times, photos with Santa, and a marionette puppet show.
For big feast days, choose from dining options like the Thanksgiving buffet, a Christmas morning brunch, or dinner in the 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 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.
This Rancho Palos Verdes resort—tucked into the bluffs of the Los Angeles County coastline—feels much farther away from the city than it is. The family-friendly hotel offers kayaking, surfing lessons, guided bike rides, whale-watching tours, and even a falconry program.
The hotel also loves to make the most of holidays 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 NYE. Its foodie-focused holiday dining—many of whose ingredients come from the resort’s own garden—includes lavish Thanksgiving feasts or Hanukkah dinners at its four on-site restaurants. Elves abound in December, whether they are doing tuck-ins for the kids or reading stories by the lobby fireplace. The biggest treat for families may come on New Year’s Eve, when the evening festivities include free kids club events so that parents can toast the holiday on their own.
Staying at this historic cruise liner permanently docked in Los Angeles County makes for a unique getaway just in terms of its year-round ambience—with its Art Deco–style cabins (including operational portholes), interesting tours (like looking for ghosts), and an on-site spa.
Stay here from late November through early January, though, and the hotel transforms into CHILL, a small holiday theme park with an outdoor ice rink and a 135-foot Glacier Glide Ice Tubing Luge. Each year has a theme, too, like a retelling of Alice in Wonderland with icy landscapes and silky glowing lanterns. 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, this Inland Empire resort is your dream hotel. The registered National Historic California Landmark, which dates back to 1876, exudes old-world grandeur with its turrets, domes, and flying buttresses. But the ambience goes up a few more notches during its annual Festival of Lights, which features four million lights and 400 animated figures (come for the season’s “Switch-On Ceremony” in late November and you’ll get fireworks too).
For the rest of the resort’s five-week 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 blanketed in decor, from lights to baubles and strolling characters. And for anyone who would rather ride the Mattherhorn 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—from the ocean-themed Christmas tree at the Paradise Pier Hotel to the enormous Arts-and-Crafts–style gingerbread house and Santa-letter-writing station (with expedited delivery to the North Pole) at the Grand Californian Hotel & Spa. 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.
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 Queen Anne–style hotel boasts of having the first electrically lit outdoor Christmas tree, back in 1904. The 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 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 does the hotel’s beachside ice-skating rink, only available this time of year (and accompanied by the requisite coffee and cocoa stand).
Indoors, the resort offers Victorian-style teas during the holiday season, as well as kid-friendly Polar Bear Tea with stuffed animals and live entertainment. At bedtimes, elves can come to your room to read a story and tuck in the kids.