Many Happy Returns
In wintertime, when a hankering for tradition crops up in the human heart, some families travel to the same beloved hotel—and to the same guest rooms, restaurants, beaches, mountains, or horseback riding trails—year after year. Let others strike out for new territory; these loyalists revel in the tried-and-true. Here, 16 clans who have hit on crowd-pleasing resorts and rituals. For them, familiarity breeds contentment—and a seamless family vacation.
WHO The Hause Family
WHERE The Ahwahnee, Yosemite National Park, California
YEARS GOING 58
George Hause was three years old when he spent his first Christmas at the Ahwahnee lodge in Yosemite National Park. His mother had just died, and his father and grandmother took him there as a distraction. He still has the 1934 telegram Santa sent to all the children at the hotel: "To Master George Hause," it reads. "Meet me at 4 p.m. under the Christmas Tree in the Great Lounge."
George, a retired sound mixer for films and television, has kept the appointment for the better part of seven decades. "We don't even think about it anymore," he says. "We just go. The Ahwahnee is home, and we know every crack in the building." A 1927 lodge clad in granite boulders, the six-story structure is as rough and textured as the surrounding Sierra Nevada. There are 123 guest rooms; public spaces have raftered ceilings and soaring leaded-glass windows.
After marrying in 1960, George had to persuade his wife, Joan, to go along—she believed in spending the holidays at their home insouthern California. A single trip converted her. Their two daughters, Carolyn Hause and Karen Hause Setzer, have never known another kind of Christmas. Now the Hause party includes son-in-law Barry Setzer and the three Setzer children: Nicole, five, and twins Ryan and Kyle, 21/2.
Karen remembers how as a child she'd rush in on arrival to see the 20-foot Christmas tree in the Great Lounge, which has German Gothic iron chandeliers that look like wagon wheels. Today the lounge is in fine renovated form, with original Colonial-style furniture around the walk-in fireplace, and vintage photographs of Yosemite's wonders.
Guests spend days hiking, ice-climbing, and cross-country skiing in the park. The Hauses' favorite exertion involves the Curry Village outdoor ice rink in the shadow of the rock formation known as Half Dome—a massive sphere sliced down the middle. But sports aren't the point for them. When all the Hauses arrive on December 23, they lug ornaments, stockings, and presents to their five adjacent rooms, one of which has been transformed into a living room with a tree supplied by the hotel. That evening they throw a party, for friends who also return every year and for longtime staff.
On Christmas night the hotel throws the party: the fanciful Bracebridge Dinner, based on a Washington Irving sketch of Christmas in 1718 at Squire Bracebridge's English manor. This pageant features more than 100 costumed actors and hotel regulars performing Renaissance music, dancing, storytelling, juggling, and jesting.
George Hause's granddaughter Nicole has been in the pageant since she was literally a babe in arms. "A babysitter steers her down the aisle so that she can't see us," George says. "It would be all over if she started yelling 'Mommy!'"
559/252-4848; www.yosemitepark.com; doubles from $357; reservations taken a year and a day in advance. Bracebridge Dinner (eight shows Dec.15-25; reservations taken from mid-May), $275 per person.*
A CARIBBEAN CHRISTMAS
WHO The Flynn Family
WHERE The Buccaneer Hotel, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands
YEARS GOING 31
What the Flynns of New York City crave at Christmastime isn't snow or the skaters at Rockefeller Center—it's tilted palms and beaches where they can swim with a hawksbill turtle or glimpse a leopard ray flying like an underwater angel.
And for more than 30 years, the family has found such attractions at the Buccaneer Hotel on St. Croix. Situated on an 18th-century sugar plantation between green hills and the Caribbean, the Buccaneer encompasses a 25-room pinkgreat house with Danish-style arches that's surrounded by pink cottages and high-ceilinged villas. The 340-acre property also has three beaches, two pools, tennis courts, a golf course, four restaurants—and countless gardens.
These days, the resort's offerings are enjoyed by three generations of Flynns: Donal, a retired television executive; his wife, Joyce, a former soap-opera actress; their grown daughters, Nancy Flynn and Kathryn Flynn Michaels; Kathryn's husband, Lawrence; and the Michaelses' daughter, Serena, five. When the Flynns aren't snorkeling over coral reefs off Grotto Beach or swimming and snacking at the open-air grill on Mermaid Beach, they like to collect shells on remote Whistle Beach, with its craggy cliffs, big waves, and pelicans nesting on a high promontory. "Basically, we live in bathing suits and beach robes," Joyce says.
The resort was founded 55 years ago, and in the old days, guests—referred to as continentals—came for the whole winter and hunted boar on the property. Bringing children wasn't allowed. Today the Buccaneer is extremely family-oriented and has an all-day kids' program. Serena's favorite activity, though, isn't on the schedule; it's simply having breakfast on the great house terrace and leaving trails of sugar for lizards and bananaquits, the black-and-yellow birds that come to call.
The Flynns always look forward to the rollicking cocktail party held for guests on Tuesday nights in the original stone sugar mill. There's a steel-drum band, rum punch, and Mocko Jumbies, dancers who dress in vivid feathered and beaded costumes and leap about on stilts—a centuries-old island tradition by way of West Africa.
Many evenings the family heads out by rental car to explore the island's restaurants (Kathryn recommends West Indian barbecue night at the Mermaid). They'll also leave the resort for a kayak adventure on the Salt River, where Christopher Columbus once landed, or a catamaran jaunt to Buck Island, an underwater national park, where they snorkel past parrot fish and brain coral (it's labeled). And they're not above stopping at Mont Pelier Domino Club, a bar with a beer-drinking pig. But on Christmas morning, the great house, where Santa hands out presents, is the place to be. "In the afternoon, the steel-drum band plays on the beach," Joyce says. "Music wafts over the water, and we have sandwiches under the palms."
800/255-3881; www.thebuccaneer.com; family suites from $500.
ALL SKI TRAILS LEAD TO HOME
WHO The Schroeder Family
WHERE Vista Verde Ranch, Steamboat Springs, Colorado
YEARS GOING 10
Not one for lazy pleasures, Kihm Schroeder, a telecommunications specialist from Austin, Texas, doesn't like beaches or cruises, or even sitting through a movie. "But if you wake him in the middle of the night and tell him it's snowing, he'll put skis right on," says his wife, Tricia, a former kindergarten teacher.
Back in the early nineties, the Schroeders began searching for a snowy Christmas vacation spot where Kihm (it's an old German name) could ski his heart out and the rest of this sporty family—Tricia, son Jared, 25, and daughters Erin, 21, and Amanda, 15—could do as they pleased. In 1993 Kihm and the kids made a trial visit to Vista Verde Ranch in the Colorado Rockies, 25 miles north of Steamboat Springs. The family hasn't missed a year since.
The big draw in winter is off-trail cross-countryskiing. But the Schroeders are also smitten with the ranch's good-natured staff; its sophisticated local fare (think pepper-seared venison loin topped with poached pears, blue cheese, and a port-wine demi-glace); and its packed program of igloo-building, ice-climbing, dogsledding, and hot-air ballooning so high you can see Wyoming.
The Schroeders stay in one of nine hand-hewn log cabins with wood-burning stoves and doughy down comforters. Upon arrival, Tricia takes a walk around the property to catch up with returning families and staff. Kihm and the kids waste no time strapping on skis. Soon they're up to their knees in powder, revisiting silvery aspen groves and alpine lakes. Elk, snowshoe hares, ermines, and ptarmigan (those grouse-like birds that turn miraculously white in winter) make cameo appearances.
The family sets aside a day to go skiing together, and after dinner all of them enjoy the sing-alongs led by two madcap musicians in the lodge. The rest of the time, Kihm and the kids are apt to be exploring the backcountry while Tricia reads in the hot tub on their porch, rides horses, or cross-country skis on groomed trails.
One year, the Schroeders arrived before Christmas and joined staff and other guests snowshoeing into the forest to cut down a fir tree, which they brought back to the ranch to decorate withcranberry garlands they'd made the night before. But the family's enduring tradition is to head to Vista Verde a few days after Santa's big night. That way, they don't miss the New Year's Eve dinner, when everyone skis or rides on a horse-drawn sleigh from cabin to cabin for appetizers such as salmon tartare "ice cream cones," served with champagne by candlelight. Final stop: the main lodge for an opulent dinner. En route, caroling and plumes of white breath fill the night.
800/526-7433; www.vistaverde.com; cabins from $1,200 per person for a three-night stay, including meals, ski rentals, and ranch activities.
HOLIDAY ON HORSEBACK
WHO The Behrens Family
WHERE Tanque Verde Ranch, Tucson, Arizona
YEARS GOING 16
As the Behrens family of San Diego drives to Tanque Verde Ranch, their excitement mounts just outside Tucson, where the highway turns into a two-lane road that dips and rises. "Our stomachs do acrobatics," Adrienne Behrens says. "And we know we're almost there. Then we breathe in the fabulous mesquite smoke."
The Behrenses take their weeklong December trip in part to escape the Christmas hoopla. It's also a good time for Sanford Behrens, a physician, to steal away from his practice, and for the kids, Rochelle, 21, and Michael, 23, to take breaks—this year, from college and a new job, respectively.
Spread over 640 acres, Tanque Verde sits high in the Sonoran Desertamid the foothills of two mountain ranges. It's a lush area where Pima Indians once lived and pioneer farmers ran their cattle. Founded in 1868, Tanque Verde has been taking in guests since the mid-1920's, but it remains a working cattle ranch. Stucco casitasare sprinkled across a hillside, close to pools, tennis courts,riding arenas (there are 150 horses), a lake, a spa, and an adobe main ranch house with huge eucalyptus trees on its lawn.
The dining room has floor-to-ceiling windows and a latillo ceiling—pine beams alternating with tight rows of dried cactus ribs, all of it dribbled with adobe mud. Since some of the tables seat 10 or 12, the Behrenses often join other families at mealtimes. The ranch's hearty standards, such as roast prime rib and baked orange roughy, are served up alongside gamier items—buffalo kebabs or ostrich piccata. And if this isn't Western enough, there are cowboy barbecues in a grove of cottonwoods, with Tom Chambers, a local rancher, strumming and singing "Happy Trails," "Home on the Range," and other tender Old West songs.
All the Behrenses learned to ride at the ranch. When the children were small, they participated in the kids' program (swimming, hiking, and horsemanship), but nowadays the family saddles up together. Soon after sunrise, they arrive at a corral straight out of High Noon. Wranglers in tall hats, chaps, and fancy belt buckles lead the way. The horses clop along 300 miles of trails on ranch property and in the Coronado National Forest and Saguaro National Park —a desert landscape with outlandishly tall, lanky saguaro cacti.
On breakfast rides, they stop at an abandoned stone homestead on a hilltop. Ranch owner Bob Cote flips blueberry pancakes and serves upchile, eggs, and bacon fried in the open air. "It's breathtaking," says Sanford. "Tucson is visible in the distance, but for the most part it looks like nothing has changed since the beginning of time."
14301 E. Speedway, Tucson; 800/234-3833; www.tvgr.com; doubles from $415, including meals and all ranch activities; children from $105 each.
MIMI READ writes for House Beautiful and Martha Stewart Living.
SAME TIME NEXT YEAR
12 More Favorite Winter Resorts and the Families Who Are Faithful to Them
By Emily Holt
Wilderness Lodge at Royal Gorge
The Swiss-style lodge near Lake Tahoe holds teen cross-country ski races; on the kids' trail, snow bunnies glide past four-foot cutouts of Sesame Street characters. WHO GOES The Wongs, from San Francisco YEARS RETURNING 10 THE DRAW "This is an eating tour in disguise," says Carleen, mother of 14-year-old Natalie. But consider braised lamb shanks and saffron risotto fuel for your moonlit ski around Kilborn Lake.
Soda Springs; 800/500-3871; www.royalgorge.com; cabins for three from $249 per person, including meals.*
Boca Raton Resort & Beach Club
On December 26, 15 tons of snow are dumped under the palms at this pink Art Deco resort, then fashioned into snowmen. WHO GOES The Goldfarbs of New York City YEARS RETURNING 7 WHERE THE KIDS ARE The three younger girls join the resort's kids' clubs, but the Goldfarbs' 15-year-old prefers the unofficial teen club in the lobby. "They've colonized the sitting areas for hanging out," says Cori, her mother.
Boca Raton; 888/491-2622 or 561/447-3000; www.bocaresort.com; doubles from $215.
Follow the lead of early snowbird families such as the Rockefellers and Carnegies and head to this 107-year-old landmark. WHO GOES The Hammerschlags, from Greenwich, Connecticut YEARS RETURNING 30 POOL PAL All four Hammerschlag kids learned to swim with head instructor Helena Khoshnevis, who has taught at the hotel for 20 years.
Palm Beach; 888/273-2537 or 561/655-6611; www.thebreakers.com; doubles from $450.
Kona Village Resort
This 125-cottage enclave is built on an 1801 lava site; the beach sand ranges from black to bright white. WHO GOES The McIntyres of Palo Alto, California YEARS RETURNING 5 THEY'VE GOT IT COVERED Every year, Lucianne McIntyre embroiders a new table-cloth on which the family scribbles the week's mem-ories—snorkeling, scuba diving, and fishing contests.
Kailua-Kona; 800/367-5290 or 808/325-5555; www.konavillage.com; doubles from $515, including meals.
Kahala Mandarin Oriental
Forget reindeer—the lagoon of this 364-room hotel is home to five bottlenose dolphins. WHO GOES The Rossons, from Los Angeles YEARS RETURNING 25 HOW TO SPOT THEM They're the group of 40 (their family of four, plus five other clans befriended over the years) gathered together on the crescent-shaped beach.
Honolulu; 800/367-2525 or 808/739-8888; www.mandarin-oriental.com/kahala; doubles from $295.
Lone Mountain Ranch
One night a week, Belgian horses pull sleighs full of guests through the woods of this 33-room ranch to the North Fork Cabin for a prime-rib dinner. WHO GOES The Fosters, from Memphis YEARS RETURNING 14 FROSTY THE BISON Cross-country skiing through Yellowstone's thermal basins is a must, say the Fosters. Watch for grazing bison and elk in frost-covered coats.
Big Sky; 800/514-4644; www.lmranch.com; cabin for four from $4,350 per week, including meals.
This 1936 mom-and-pop lodge, at the base of Black Mountain, is ideal for an old-time ski holiday. WHO GOES The Hofmannsof Barrington, Rhode Island YEARS RETURNING 3 I SEE YOU "From the window of your room," says Jeff, a father of four, "you can watch your kids' lessons."
Jackson; 800/677-5737 or 603/383-8916; www.thewhitneyinn.com; doubles from $125.
A powder playland at 8,600 feet, Alta is known for the tribelike regulars that pack its 57 dorm and suite rooms. WHO GOES The Netters, from New Haven, Connecticut YEARS RETURNING 42 HOW THEY GOT STARTED Inclined to leave on arrival in 1961, they were stopped by a storm. Now three generations of Netters come for the holidays no matter what.
Alta; 800/707-2582 or 801/742-3500; www.altalodge.com; doubles with private bath from $324, including breakfast and dinner; kids five and up from $42.
Trapp Family Lodge
The halls are alive at this 96-room mansion founded by the Sound of Music von Trapps. WHO GOES The Kerrigans, from Boston YEARS RETURNING 10 BOOK CLUB The library is stocked with the latest best-sellers for guests like Maryjane Kerrigan, who lounges indoors while her husband and two kids take on the slopes of Mount Mansfield.
Stowe; 800/826-7000 or 802/253-8511; www.trappfamily.com; doubles from $195.
Guests of this 142-room inn ski at nearby Suicide Six, home of the first motorized lift in the eastern United States. WHO GOES The Melignanos, from Weston, Massachusetts YEARS RETURNING 10 DEAR DIARY Vita, a mother of three, keeps a Woodstock journal about what she, her husband, and their daughters do at the inn. Entries: Bingo at the New Year's party, the chimes of the Revere Bell Ringers, and napping by the parlor fireplace "for hours on end."
Woodstock; 800/448-7900 or 802/457-1100; www.woodstockinn.com; doubles from $199.
A 646-room refuge for all vacation tastes—ride a horse throughEl Yunque rain forest or learn to cha-cha at the resort. WHO GOES The Schwartzes of Wayne, New Jersey YEARS RETURNING 18 WHY THEY GLOW Last year, all six family members went on a guided kayak tour of a nearby bioluminescent bay.
San Juan, Puerto Rico; 787/721-0303; www.caribehilton.com; doubles from $175.
Petit St. Vincent
No phones at this island resort—just flags on bamboo masts outside 22 stone cottages: yellow means you need something; red is "Do Not Disturb." WHO GOES The Bosses, from Narragansett, Rhode Island YEARS RETURNING 30 FREE TO BE Happy without TV's or even a pool, the Bosses sail to the Tobago Cays, picnic on Mayreau Island, and watch six grandchildren splash at Kiddies' Beach.
The Grenadines, B.V.I.; 800/654-9326; www.psvresort.com; doubles from $910, kids 6-16 $110.
Sixteen more hotels with die-hard family followings during the winter holidays
By Emily Holt
HOPE VALLEY, CALIFORNIA
The 33 log cabins at this Sierra Nevada resort are surrounded by aspens. Book one and have yourself a holiday of sledding and backcountry skiing.
14255 Hwy. 88; 800/423-9949; www.sorensensresort.com; cabins from $95.*
Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort
It's a cowpoke Christmas at this 10,000-acre working cattle ranch outside Santa Barbara. Saddle up for a morning ride, jump into a canoe on Alisal Lake, say howdy to the ducks and goats at the petting zoo, or just hang tight near the fireplace in the lodge with resident cowboy poets and singing wranglers.
1054 Alisal Rd.; 800/425-4725 or 805/688-6411; www.alisal.com; two-room suites from $465.
JEKYLL ISLAND, GEORGIA
Jekyll Island Club Hotel This century-old Queen Anne-style resort off Georgia's coast is a golfer's dream: four of the nation's best public courses are on the property. Off the green, you can take in the island's historic cottages and salt marshes by bike, or by horse and carriage. J.P. Morgan's former quarters, one of hotel's 33 suites, is ideal for families.371 Riverview Dr., 800/535-9547 or 912/635-2600; www.jekyllclub.com; family suite (for four) from $219.
SUN VALLEY, IDAHO
Sun Valley Lodge
Photos of famous guests line the hallways at this 148-room Sun Valley mainstay, a favorite with families since 1936. On Christmas Eve, celebrities and citizens alike gather on the terrace to take in the local ski school's torchlight parade.
1 Sun Valley Rd., 800/786-8259; www.sunvalley.com; doubles from $229.
Four Seasons Chicago
Tis the season to splurge. Pick up last-minute gifts on Michigan Avenue, then gather with your kids for the hotel's Storytelling Tea: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cocoa, cookies, a present, and a visit with Santa. (Adults are treated to a classic high tea with all the trappings.) On Christmas Eve, a stocking filled with chocolate and toys is delivered to each child.
120 E. Delaware Place; 800/332-3442 or 312/280-8800; www.fourseasons.com; doubles from $395, kids under 18 stay free; Storytelling Tea $40 per person.
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
Windsor Court Hotel
Christmas presented with traditional Southern drama: fresh garlands, velvet bows, trees two stories high, model trains, and lots of, "How y'all doin?" Don't worry about bringing Chips Ahoy to leave for Santa on the big night-the hotel sends up freshly baked cookies with milk expressly for that purpose.
300 Gravier St.; 800/262-2662; www.windsorcourthotel.com; doubles from $175.
NEW PALTZ, NEW YORK
Mohonk Mountain House
The Mountain House is a 251-room Victorian castle-with a well-planned kid's program, and 21st-century rates. Every December 24, guests competing in the annual Yule Log Hunt venture into the woods to find the timber with a red ribbon on it. Whoever brings back the ribbon gets to light the Yule log in a ceremony before Christmas dinner. The outdoor fun also includes hiking in the surrounding Shawangunk Ridge (aka the Gunks, a famous rock climbing locale), and skating in the resort's own pavilion.
1000 Mountain Rest Rd., New Paltz; 800/772-6646 or 845/255-1000; www.mohonk.com; doubles from $358, kids $76.
Stowehof Inn & Resort
Located on 30 acres in Vermont's Green Mountains, this 46-room inn has few frills, but is minutes from Stowe's 200-year-old downtown and its ski mountain.
434 Edson Hill Rd., 800/932-7136 or 802/253-9722, www.stowehofinn.com, doubles from $83, kids ages 6-13 $16
Fairmont Le Chateau Montebello
Beginner bilinguists gather to hear Christmas stories read in French and English at this 211-room chalet on the Ottawa River. Troop across the street to the Golf Club House for folk music and chocolate fondue. Be sure to stop at the teepee en route to warm up by a log fire.
392 Rue Notre Dame; 800/441-1414 or 819/423-6341; www.fairmont.com; doubles from $143.
The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge
Active broods will feel right at home at this 446-room resort in the Canadian Rockies, exploring the largest ice field south of Alaska, ice skating on Lake Mildred, or downhill skiing at nearby Marmot Basin in Jasper National Park.
1 Old Lodge Rd.; 800/441-1414 or 780/852-3301; www.fairmont.com; doubles from $145, kids under 18 stay free
CARIBBEAN AND MEXICO
NEVIS, WEST INDIES
Four Seasons Nevis
Steel drum-playing carolers join the ubiquitous Evian-spritzing pool butlers during the holidays at this 196-room resort on the Caribbean Sea. Tennis and golf clinics are held on site. Most families are happy to never leave the property—the farthest many they get are to the picnic tables at the beach café next door.
Pinney's Beach, Charlestown; 869/469-6238; www.fourseasons.com/nevis; doubles from $425.
Half Moon Montego Bay
Guests indulge in biweekly barbecues at this 419-room Montego Bay mainstay. Watch for the room service staff riding bikes to suites and villas, while balancing trays on their heads.
Rose Hall, Montego Bay; 800/626-0592 or 876/953-2211; www.halfmoon.com.jm; doubles from $390, kids under 12 $60.
Inn at Robert's Grove
The barrier reef in the waters bordering this 32-room eco-resort on a peninsula in southern Belize offers some of the world's best snorkeling and diving. Families venture into the nearby jungle to see howler monkeys, toucans, and scarlet macaws. Don't miss the area's Mayan ruins. Consider spending a night in a wooden cabana hoisted on stilts on Ranguana Caye, the inn's two-acre private island a short boat ride away.
Placencia; 800/565-9757 or 501/523-3565; www.robertsgrove.com; doubles from $165
OAXACA, MEXICOCamino Real
A 16th-century former convent turned hotel with a pool makes the perfect homebase in this spirited Mexican city, famous for its zocalo and crafts. Insiders know to queue early for prime viewing of giant radishes carved by locals into dancers and mariachi bands at the Radish Festival, December 23 and 24, in the zocalo. Be sure to catch the Christmas Eve candle-lit posada through the square.
300 Calle Cinco de Mayo; 52-951/501-6101; www.camino-real-oaxaca.com; doubles from $205, kids under 12 stay free
*Prices throughout this story reflect winter holiday 2003/2004 rates. Kids stay free unless otherwise noted.