Columbia State Historic Park, a restored Gold Rush town in the Sierra foothills, holds quirky, old-fashioned events each season, including a Fourth of July watermelon-eating contest and a poison oak floral arrangement show in the fall. The Christmas season is no different; activities are lined up each weekend: Lamplight Tours (Dec. 1 and 2, $25) with costumed docents, a Miner's Christmas (Dec. 9 and 10, 16 and 17; free), featuring roasted chestnuts and a visit from Father Christmas, and a Christmas Equestrian Parade (Dec. 10) . The tab: A balcony room at the City Hotel costs $115 on a weekend night, lunch at Columbia Kate's Teahouse was $74 for my family of four, and our Old West photo session cost $60.
If you want to stay within the park, your options include the City Hotel (nine rooms) and the Fallon Hotel (14 rooms). The hotels are run by the state, and rooms can be reserved by calling (800) 444-7275 or visiting reservecalifornia.com. Rooms have antique furniture, pine floors and a toilet and sink (with a shower down the hall). The City Hotel has a restaurant and bar downstairs. The Fallon Hotel shares its building with a historic playhouse that's performing Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" through Dec. 17. There's even an ice cream parlor that serves sundaes during intermission.
Columbia has plenty of charming places to eat, including restaurants, saloons and a coffee shop. At Columbia Kate's Teahouse, my wife and I drank a pot of Oh My Chai, while our kids sipped Berry Blast herbal tea. Our multicourse feast featured homemade scones, broccoli and cheddar soup, Hidden Treasure Mixed Greens Salad and a variety of tea sandwiches (cucumber, chicken salad, turkey, egg salad and hummus with red bell pepper). So how did we top off a meal like that? With a chocolate torte, French macaron and bread pudding covered with rum sauce, cranberries and cream, of course.
Visiting Columbia is like taking a step back in time: panning for gold, candle dipping, street musicians, a blacksmith, horse-drawn carriage rides and more. A fun stop was Kamice's Photographic Establishment, where you can get your picture taken dressed in 19th century costumes such as an outlaw, saloon girl or miner. For our family photo, my toddler son and I dressed like cowboys; while my wife and daughter were bandidas. Each photo session includes costumes, props and "Hollywood Photoshop treatment." We bought a print of the photo as well as a disc to make our own. I'm thinking they'll make some pretty amusing Christmas cards: "Happy Holidays From the Wild West."
The lesson learned
Don't miss Nelson's Columbia Candy Kitchen, where candy canes are handmade in the store's front window each weekend until Christmas. Visitors can watch through the window and even try warm samples, and there's a lottery drawing for people who want to participate in the process. It's full this year, but those interested can send a postcard before Labor Day to be entered in next year's drawing.
Columbia State Historic Park, 11255 Jackson St., Columbia; lat.ms/columbiashp. Wheelchair accessible
City Hotel, 22768 Main St., Columbia; lat.ms/cityhotel. Not wheelchair accessible.
Fallon Hotel, 11175 Washington St., Columbia; lat.ms/fallonhotel. One wheelchair-accessible room.
Columbia Kate's Teahouse, 22727 Columbia St., Columbia; (209) 532-1885, columbiakates.com
Kamice's Photographic Establishment, 22729 Main St.,  532-4861, photosincolumbia.com