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Across the country, big cities and small towns alike have discovered that people long to be surrounded by the traditional trappings of an old-fashioned experience. Thousands of lights strewn along Main Streets, massive Norway spruces groaning under the weight of their ornaments in front of city halls, opera companies caroling through neighborhoods, themed concerts and pageants, brunches with Santa Claus and performances of The Nutcracker — all conspire to make for magical holiday memories.
Here are some locales, from the large and well-known to the tiny and off-the-beaten path, famous for transforming themselves into holiday havens.
New York Rockefeller Center, with its enormous Christmas tree, provides the ideal backdrop for ice skating and shopping, the quintessential New York experience.
Nestle all snug in your bed: The fairly new Rockefeller Center Hotel (25 W. 51st St., 888-660-0212, rockefellercenterhotel.com) is the place to be. But the views in the back of the place are terrible; if you can score a room in front, then your $300 a night will be worth it. And you'll be mere feet away from the ice-skating rink, the tree and pretty much everything.
Get your roast beast: Ellen's Stardust Diner (1650 Broadway, 212-956-5151, ellensstardustdiner.com) never closes. The waiters and waitresses sing holiday tunes, and the kitchen at this shrine to the 1950s serves up delightful versions of your favorite comfort foods — all roasted and sided with gravies and mashed potatoes. And you can bet the movies showing on the 1956 Predicta TVs all around the dining room are tuned to Miracle on 34th Street.
Do your last-minute shopping: First, go window shopping, peeking into the most elaborate displays in the country — Saks Fifth Avenue (611 Fifth Ave.), Bergdorf Goodman (754 Fifth Ave.), Barneys (660 Madison Ave.) Bloomingdale's (1000 Third Ave.), Lord & Taylor (424 Fifth Ave.) and Macy's (151 W. 34th St.). To see them all is about 2 miles of walking and takes about an hour and a half. Then, for great bargain- clothing shopping, hit H&M Herald Square (1328 Broadway) for couture knockoffs at regular-people pricing, or hop on the subway to SoHo and check out Uniqlo (546 Broadway) a sort of a Japanese version of H&M.
Humbug-free zone: It's hard to pick just one, because the city goes all out — The Nutcracker by the New York City Ballet is magnificent, the Rockettes performing a Christmas spectacular at Radio City is just that, and Lincoln Center has something going on about every 15 minutes. But only the Scroogiest of Scrooges could not be turned to mush by a concert at The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine (1047 Amsterdam Ave., 212-316-7490, stjohndivine.org), especially the magnificent Christmas Eve Choral Eucharist.
Fredericksburg, Texas This German-founded town goes all out, turning its famous Marktplatz, or Market Square, into a Winter Wonderland, complete with Eisbahn (ice skating rink) and enough lights to electrocute the Abominable Snowman and all his relatives. Located an hour from San Antonio and Austin, the Texas Hill Country burgstarts getting ready for the festivities early.
Nestle all snug in your bed: With a population of maybe 11,000, Fredericksburg seems to have a B&B for every 100 residents, many in very cool, old houses. A favorite is Camp David Bed & Breakfast (708 W. Main St., 830-997-7797, campdavidbb.com), mainly because it offers private cabins, filling breakfasts brought right to your door and is conveniently located. Rates start at $145 per night.
Get your roast beast: August E's (6204 U.S. 290, 830-997-1585, august-es.com) is well-known for its nouveau Texas fare and savvy service, and the staff keeps a smile on its face even while waiting tables Christmas Day. Settle into the warm decor, and tuck into filet mignon and oysters with a Texas twist.
Last-minute shopping: The Grasshopper & Wild Honey store (113 E. Main St.) has a staggering collection of Christian Ulbricht and Christian Steinbach nutcrackers for sale, along with antler pens, wood sculpture, shot glasses and beer steins, and many other collector's items for those hard-to-buy-for folks.
Humbug-free zone: Leading up to the holiday, the town offers a variety of events, including a parade, a festival, home tours and Hill Country wine tastings. But the real draw is the Marktplatz — Norman Rockwell-style fun with people bundled up in mufflers on ice skates.
Santa Fe, N.M. The colors of Santa Fe meld so nicely with those of the holiday, ristra red and piqon green — and don't forget red and green chiles. It's just lovely and quiet, a perfect place to celebrate peace on Earth and goodwill to everyone.
Nestle all snug in your bed: Las Palomas (460 W. San Francisco St., 877-982-5560, laspalomas.com) offers private adobe casitas tucked away two blocks from downtown. The one-bedrooms have pull-out couches in separate living rooms with cozy fireplaces. A very nice breakfast is included, and there's a hot tub. Rates start at $280.
Get your roast beast: La Posada (330 E. Palace Ave., 866-331-7625, laposada .rockresorts.com) is a beautiful, world-class hotel, and its Fuego Restaurant is as elegant as you'd expect. And because it's located in a hotel, it's open and serving on the holiday. In keeping with its station in life, though, Fuego goes the extra mile on Christmas, with impeccable service bringing a special menu of New American and traditional dishes; be sure to pick something from the lengthy wine roster.
Last-minute shopping: Case Trading Post at Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, (704 Camino Lejo) has something for everyone in every price range, from authentic pottery, rugs, jewelry and other American Indian artwork in the hundreds to thousands to reasonably priced art books and simple earrings.
Humbug-free zone: The holiday is kicked off each year with a film festival at the beginning of December, and moves into celebrations at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum (217 Johnson St., okeeffemuseum.org), Santa Claus sightings at the Palace of the Governors (palaceofthegovernors.org), on the Santa Fe Southern Railway (sfsr.com, 888-989-8600) and along Canyon Road. But the thing not to miss is Christmas Eve, when the plaza is lined with farolitos and the cider flows freely.
Fairhope, Ala. A village on a gorgeous bluff overlooking Mobile Bay, Fairhope starts at the beginning of December and doesn't stop until Mardi Gras, leaving the lights on the trees and keeping the party going.
Nestle all snug in your bed: It's worth the drive to Point Clear just a few miles south of Fairhope to stay at the genteel and romantic Grand Hotel Marriott Resort (One Grand Blvd., 800-544-9933, marriott.com); take the scenic drive to pass the antebellum mansions on the waterfront, where New Orleans aristocrats and Alabama timber barons summered. Be sure to have a mint julep on the lawn. Rates start at $169.
Get your roast beast: Seafood is the order of the day in Fairhope, which pulls fresh fish out of the Gulf of Mexico as if it were its own private stockpot. Old Bay Steamer (105 South Section St., 251-928-5714, oldbaysteamer.com) steams 'em, fries 'em and stuffs 'em, and is known for its holiday parties. When it's time for the big feast, though, there's no reason to leave the Grand Hotel, where the Grand Dining Room offers a seasonal menu of what's fresh that week, including plenty of seafood.
Last-minute shopping: Christmas 'Round the Corner (398 Fairhope Ave.) is a year-round shrine to the holiday, with ornaments, decorations, sweet gift items and collectibles.
Humbug-free zone: Christmas Open House finds the town merchants handing out cookies and punch with entertainment; they close off the downtown streets so people can stroll and shop. Also keep an eye out for "Christmas by the Bay," a holiday market that benefits the Humane Society, a great place to get in some extra shopping for original art and jewelry. The Magical Christmas Parade is the first Friday of December, featuring floats and marching bands.
Savannah, Ga. It all starts with the Holiday Tour of Homes, one of the most popular of such events in the country, and quickly moves on to the lighting of River Street and a tree in Forsyth Park as part of the Festival of Trees and Lights that leaves the city festooned with red velvet bows like a Victorian cake. Savannah may not have snow, but that doesn't stop it from celebrating Christmas with style.
Nestle all snug in your bed: The Marshall House (123 E. Broughton St., 800-589-6304, marshallhouse.com) has an old, aristocratic air about it; known as the city's first hotel, the grand dame is ideally situated between River Street and City Market, and the bar and dining room are so inviting it's almost unnecessary to leave. Rates start at $159.
Get your roast beast: You could just stay in at the Marshall, which offers the cozy 45 Bistro. Or try The Olde Pink House Restaurant (23 Abercorn St., 912-232-4286), a restaurant so old that rumor has it Sherman's generals ate there. The piano bar beckons, especially when it's playing Christmas favorites as a backdrop to she-crab soup served by candlelight on 18th century English antiques.
Last-minute shopping: There's something for everyone in City Market, the four-block section between Ellis and Franklin Squares at West St. Julian and Jefferson streets. Since its inception as a farmers market in 1755, the area has evolved into a funky collection of art galleries, shops and cafes. During the season, look for special events, such as "Christmas for Kids," with cookie decorating and ornament making while you shop.
Humbug-free zone: A Christmas Tradition at the Savannah Theatre (222 Bull St., 912-233-7764, savannahtheatre.com) has become a delightfully cheesy one, a revue of all things holiday.
Looking for a different way to see the area? If you have a week to spend, you can boat from Charleston to Savannah and Amelia Island with Smithsonian Journeys for "An Antebellum Christmas." Along the way, stop in the cities and see them decorated, then hop back aboard the 49-passenger American Glory (877-338-8687, smithsonianjourneys.org).