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5 unforgettable towns for a winter getaway

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Whether you are seeking a winter holiday getaway, or just a winter respite, here are five destinations, from across the country, offering unique adventures.

Charleston, South Carolina

Charleston, South Carolina


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For palmetto trees and pink and red camellias abloom in winter amid balmy weather, you can’t top Charleston for a gracious Southern Christmas, even if you didn’t know the poinsettia was introduced to the U.S. by a Charlestonian. The first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, an amateur botanist, found the red-leafed flower growing wild in Taxco in 1828. He brought it back to his greenhouses, and sent a cutting to a Philadelphia botanist, who named it after him and helped popularize the plant nationwide.

Founded in 1670, Charleston boasts a beautiful, walkable historic district with a wealth of well-preserved 18th and 19th-century Federal- and Georgian-style townhouses in brick or soft pastels, exquisite mansions with large porches to catch ocean breezes on The Battery and charming alleys like cobblestoned Longitude Lane. Shops for antiques, jewelry, clothing and local crafts like woven sweetgrass baskets abound, as do terrific restaurants for Lowcountry foods like she-crab soup and shrimp and grits.

Also read: Survey: half of Americans will travel for at least one of the winter holidays. Expect crowds.

A stay in the city’s inns in historic houses is an ideal way to savor the history of this jewel box of the South, named the No. 1 favorite U.S. city for 11 straight years by Travel + Leisure; perhaps an 18th century inn with lacy teal-colored wrought-iron balconies or an 1880s mansion decked with crystal chandeliers and marble fireplaces. Tours year-round range from house and garden tours, horse-and-carriage, food, Gullah history (African-Americans who have the best-preserved African cultural and language traditions in the nation), Jewish history (dating back to 1695) and crabbing.

A packed calendar of holiday tours and events includes candlelight house and walking tours, gospel, jazz and Gullah concerts and shows galore,

Getting there: Charleston is 12 miles from Charleston International Airport.

Leavenworth, Washington

Leavenworth, Washington, in winter


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You’ll feel you’re inside a snow globe in this adorable Bavarian-style town nestled in the stunning Cascade Mountains (just pretend they’re the Alps). Over 500,000 lights adorn Leavenworth from Thanksgiving through February, edging quaint half-timbered buildings with carved wooden balconies and muraled facades and illuminating huge trees in the village plaza in colors like red, purple and white.

Lighting ceremonies, accompanied by a choir singing Christmas carols, take place in the plaza on the first three weekends of December. Enjoy a sleigh ride through the snow-blanketed town, drink hot mulled wine or cider at over 20 tasting rooms in this town of 2,300. Thanks to “fire tables” in front of tasting rooms and restaurants like Rhein Haus, you can sit outdoors and sip, feeling fairly toasty.

You can also see gingerbread houses on display and the Nutcracker Museum’s global collection of over 7,000 nutcrackers, take guided winter nature walks, and eat bratwurst and schnitzel in the many German restaurants, followed by dessert at the bakery, The Gingerbread Factory.

At a reindeer farm under a mile from this town of 2,300, you (and delighted grandkids) can meet and feed the herd, and hear a talk about the animals that have (besides helping Santa) helped people in northern Scandinavia survive for centuries. (Reservations required – book far in advance.)

Related: Four travel destinations that will make you feel like you’re in Europe, without leaving North America.

A spectacular log home whose massive fireplace is built from river stone – and whose picture windows have views of Icicle Ridge – is the wine tasting room at Icicle Ridge Winery, 4 miles from Leavenworth. Guided snowshoe walks, followed by a meal and wine, leave from the winery, its founders’ 5,000-square-foot former home, in January.  

Getting there: Leavenworth is a 2½ hour drive from Seattle, or 3½ hours from Seattle-Tacoma Airport by bus to Peshastin, a town that’s a 5-minute taxi ride away.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Santa Fe, New Mexico


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For a high desert winter vacation spiced with a Mexican and Native American accent and lots of culture, Santa Fe is ideal. The tradition of walking Canyon Road at night on Christmas Eve past hundreds of little paper bags illuminated by votive candles filled with sand on streets and ledges, inhaling the scent of smoky pinon-scented bonfires, where people gather to sing carols and chatting with locals is simply magical.

Called the Farolito Walk (“farol” is Spanish for lantern or lighthouse), it’s inspired by the Mexican custom of symbolically guiding the Holy Family on their journey before the birth of Jesus. But you’ll also see farolitos in front of homes, churches and businesses — not just on this sloping street where over 80 galleries show contemporary, traditional, Western and Native American art and sculpture, as well as shops and restaurants, in a mere half-mile. Some Native American pueblos perform ornately-costumed dances in late December.   

Adobe architecture everywhere, in a pinkish-beige that’s either authentic or painted concrete, and New Mexican food are other distinctive features of this city at the foot of the snow-draped Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Green and red chile peppers are staples in basically everything, from chicken enchiladas and chile stew to chile rellenos. If you want a dish with both red and green chile sauce, ask for “Christmas” style.

You can find splendid shopping for Native American jewelry and pottery, locally-made art, textiles, Kokopelli figurines (a humpbacked flute playing deity and symbol of joy and fertility, seen in petroglyphs all over the Southwest) and “dream catchers” (circle-shaped talismans with feathers that prevent bad dreams and evil spirits from disturbing your sleep), both Native American traditions, from artisan sidewalk vendors in front of the Palace of the Governors, museum gift shops and local shops.

At a year-round Christmas store, you can buy unusual handmade tree ornaments and figurines in clay, metal, wood, paper and glass plus tin Mexican Nativity scenes.

Museums include the wonderful Museum of International Folk Art – which contains over 100,000 objects from over 100 countries, from costumes to handicrafts; the New Mexico History Museum – which covers 400 years of history, from indigenous, Spanish colonization to 20 joining the U.S. and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum (the Wisconsin-born artist lived for 40 years northwest of Santa Fe in Abiquiu).

Getting there: Santa Fe is an hour’s drive north from Albuquerque, or 1½ hours by train from Albuquerque or its airport to Santa Fe’s Railroad District.

New Orleans

New Orleans during the holidays.


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A spirit of perpetual festivity pervades New Orleans, but let’s count the reasons to visit during the holiday season. Free concerts in St. Louis Cathedral, from gospel, jazz, Christmas favorites to classical music. Carol-singing by candlelight in Jackson Square Park, in front of the historic church. Reveillon dinners, special four-course menus at many restaurants, derived from the Creole custom of having a big feast after Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve (the word derives from the French word for “waken”).

House tours in the French Quarter and Garden District, beautifully decorated for the holidays. Bonfires on the Mississippi River levees on Christmas Eve, some creative in their design, a Cajun custom to light the way for Papa Noel, whose sleigh, legend says, is pulled by eight alligators. (Most are about 30 miles north in St. James Parish, but Gray Line narrated bus tours leave from New Orleans.)  

Hotel deals up to 25% off are offered during the holidays. In City Park, Celebration in the Oaks means over one million colored lights drape live oak trees dripping with Spanish moss on 25 acres, shaped like dinosaurs, palm trees, fleur-de-lis and a menorah with dreidel. You can walk, drive or bike it, but advance online ticket purchases are required. A free outdoor light and technology festival in Ernest Morial Convention Center park, LUNA Fete, offers large-scale projection mapping on facades and light installations. (Attendees are encouraged to wear lights.)

Plus: Looking to unplug? Here are 12 peaceful towns great for going off the grid.

If you’re around New Year’s Eve, watch the giant fleur-de-lis drop in Jackson Square and watch fireworks over the river. January 6 marks the start of Mardi Gras season. That means both the solemn torchlit St. Joan of Arc procession on horses and in medieval-style costume, and time to eat King Cake, a rich coffee/cinnamon cake topped with purple, green and yellow icing, the colors of Carnival.   

Getting there: New Orleans is 15 miles from the New Orleans airport.

Cambria, California

You often see zebra grazing with cattle at Hearst Castle near Cambria, California.


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A small coastal town off scenic Highway 1 halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, Cambria holds a European-style Christmas Market from Thanksgiving until Dec. 23 that may well be the most spectacular you’ll ever see (but no snow). Two million lights adorn paths, rainbow-colored tunnels, tree ornaments a group can comfortably fit inside, animal shapes and Nativity scenes.

Vendor stalls sell handmade gifts both locally-made and imported from Germany. Foods from wood-fired pizza, pot pies to German specialties plus wine, beer and hot mulled wine are served. It’s held at Cambria Pines Lodge, a rustic lodge on 34 acres built in 1927 that’s up a 250-step wooden staircase (or a short drive) from Cambria’s East Village, a charming district of independently-owned shops like Cinnabar, which sells fair-trade crafts from around the world, and Ephraim Pottery and restaurants like Linn’s, famed for olallieberry pie.

Check out: 7 off-the-radar places worth stopping on a California road trip

In this town of under 7,000, the Market is such a big deal, they start building structures in summer. Tickets are $15-$35 (depending on the night), and overnight hotel packages are offered by Cambria Pines and its two sister inns.

A peaceful place to stroll and admire sunset on the Pacific Ocean, is Moonstone Beach Drive, a two-mile stretch of shoreline with a boardwalk. Bonus: Hearst Castle, the hilltop mansion of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, is just 6 miles away. Tours include art tours (art treasures from all over Europe are here, from a 15-century Spanish ceiling to 150 Greek vases) and holiday twilight tours. No, you’re not dreaming: those are zebras you see on the bus ride uphill from the visitor center, descendants from Hearst’s private zoo.

Getting there: Cambria is a four-hour drive south of San Francisco or north of Los Angeles, or a 45-minute drive from the San Luis Obispo airport or AMTRAK’s San Luis Obispo stop.

Sharon McDonnell is a San Francisco-based travel and food/beverage writer who’s whale-watched in the Azores, ridden a camel in Morocco, seen the Northern Lights in Alaska and taken cooking classes from India to Thailand. 

This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org, ©2023 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.

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