It's that time of year again...where spirits are higher, people smile more, and winter takes on a wonderful, warm glow in which snow is beautiful rather than a bother. It really is the happ-happ-happiest time of the year.
And here are my five favorite places to get away from the crowds and celebrate in the season amidst stunning natural beauty in small-town America...
#5 - THE BENTWOOD INN, JACKSON HOLE, WYOMING - In the shadow of the stunning peaks of Grand Teton National Park, and the world-renowned ski village of Jackson Hole, the Bentwood Inn is a perfect Christmas hideaway. Situated by the Snake River, the inn is an eight-bedroom lodge surrounded by woods in which wildlife regularly roam (and with plenty of decks from which to watch them!). It's a place of serenity and beautifully-fresh air, and it's a true "Winter Wonderland" at this time of year. The lodge was constructed in 1995, with sustainably-harvested, 200-year-old logs that survived the Great Yellowstone Fire of 1988. Each guest room has a private fireplace and an outdoor deck. And you can really get into nature on jaunts such as snowmobiling, dog-sledding and sleigh rides.
#4 - FREDERICKSBURG, TEXAS - Fredericksburg, in the scenic Texas Hill Country, was originally settled by German emigrants in the 1850's, and the town retains German traditions, German architecture, German foods (and baked goods!), and a very special gemutlichkeit at Christmastime. There's a "Light the Night Christmas Parade" and a "Holiday Sharing Village" in the town square, called - naturally - Marktplatz. During the Holiday Season, the Pioneer Market features vendors selling hand-crafted gifts, special foods and holiday items. Fredericksburg sits in the middle of Texas Wine Country, and features dozens of first-class wineries. For most of this month, the Texas Hill Country Wineries association features "Christmas Wine Affair," with tastings at more than 40 of them. And let's not forget - German heritage or not, this is still Texas - which means you can pull on your boots and two-step under the mistletoe at the Luckenbach Christmas Ball!
#3 - LODI, CALIFORNIA - Back in the 60's, Credence Clearwater Revival made a song about being "stuck in Lodi again." The band later said they'd never been to Lodi; they just thought it was a cool name for a song. Today, nobody who goes here complains about being stuck. Especially at Christmastime. At this time of year, the sun is warming, the nights are cool and clear, and the spirits are sky-high. And it's a great place to celebrate a non-snowy Christmas. Make sure to check out the local wineries. Lodi is now California's largest appellation - more than 550,000 acres with more than 100,000 acres of vines (twice as much as Napa Valley), nearly 800 growers, and some 90 boutique wineries specializing in small-lot wines. Holiday decorations here sparkle in the California sunshine. And walking around town is a joy in itself...there's very cool period architecture, notable restaurants, and interesting shops, food emporiums and galleries. Christmastime activities include a Holiday Circus, Family Movie Night at Hutchins Street Square, theatrical productions and special band performances.
#2 - LANDS CREEK LOG CABINS, BRYSON CITY, NORTH CAROLINA - If you travel up the mountain overlooking the picturesque town of Bryson City, at the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, past the hollers (mini-valleys) with wooden houses all lit up for the Holidays and horses behind ancient stone walls, you'll come to Lands Creek Log Cabins. These beautifully-appointed cabins sit on the top, with spectacular views and beautiful Christmas tableaux. Owners Robin and Sue Fronrath have made sure that their homey cabins - with fireplaces and antiques and locally-made handicrafts and outdoor decks with hot tubs - are as comfortable as they are authentic. Here, if you walk through the woods to the summit, you can see down into Tennessee. If you sit on your deck at night, you'll see a dream-like sky-panorama with swirls of startlingly-clear stars. Here, when you retire for the night, you'll fall asleep to the sounds of rushing water right beneath you - because the cabins are built on stilts atop Lands Creek. And here, if you decide to leave this mountain paradise for a few hours, you can wander the streets of Bryson City, with atmospheric shops and outdoor-outfitters and interesting eateries.
And now, my top place in America to spend Christmas...
#1 - DOOR COUNTY, WISCONSIN - This beautiful peninsula is a Currier & Ives Christmas postcard come alive! This region is considered one of the most beautiful spots in America any time of year...so you can just imagine how it looks now. There are picturesque little villages with main streets lined with lights and one-of-a-kind handicraft shops and galleries. There are scenic little inlets and bays with spectacular views...and no one but you seeing them. There are silent forests where deer roam quietly, and where your footsteps in the snow will be the only sounds you hear. And there are memorable Christmas in colorful villages that seem as if they're back in a gentler time. Experience Christmas all along the peninsula with events such as "Christmas In the Village," in the historic town of Ephraim. Take part in family crafts and meet-and-greet with Santa and his reindeer. Discover Ellison Bay's Christmas-tree lighting celebration (at which you can warm up with a bowl of chili). Head over to Baileys Harbor, where you can celebrate the Season in cozy bars, coffee shops, restaurants, and gift shops. You can end the old year with fireworks at the Sister Bay Ice Rink. And you can start the New Year with a refreshing(!) swim with the Jacksonport Polar Bear Club in the icy waters of Lake Michigan!
There you have it...my top five places to spend Christmas. We'd love to hear about yours!