Let's face it: Southern California doesn't have quite the Christmas charm of those snowy Norman Rockwell villages scattered throughout the hills and forests of New England and other locations to the north.
But you don't have to head north or even leave the state to find that same look and feel -- just drive to about 7,000 feet elevation, where you'll usually find all the snow you need.
In Southern California that means a trip to the Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear vacation areas, where you leave balmy temperatures and swaying palm trees to climb into mountains where there are real pine forests and a chill in the air that always makes you wish you had brought heavier clothing.
In summer, the transition takes you from hot to comfortably warm. In winter, it's more dramatic, taking you from the 70s to temperatures cold enough to keep the snow on the hills. It's all accomplished in about a 10-mile grade from San Bernardino on up to the edge of the world where, looking down, you see miles and miles of flat Southern California real estate stretching almost to the sea.
On our pre-Thanksgiving trip to Lake Arrowhead, the mood was already Christmas -- even though the snow had not yet made its first appearance of the season. The Lake Arrowhead Village seemed almost like a little Santa's Village by the lake and families of all sizes were enjoying the carousel, go-karts and many toy shops concentrated in this picturesque little shopping area tucked behind the Lake Arrowhead Resort.
We had come up for a quick overnight stay at the resort. A favorite of business people who find the location ideal for conferencing, the dramatically situated lakefront resort also offers one of the best lodging opportunities for leisure travelers in the Lake Arrowhead area. This resort is easy to reach -- a bit faster to reach than Big Bear -- and has a full menu of resort services such as a spa, state-of-the-art exercise center and fine dining.
There are plenty of small, resort-style touches in the larger-than-usual rooms, and the dramatic lobby with its rock-covered walls and suspended walkways makes the 177-room resort seem bigger than it actually is.
We could only imagine how invigorating this location would be once the snow was on the ground. Even in late fall, the lake view from our room was spectacular. Fascinating shops, interesting restaurants and Christmas activities are close by in the Village.
In fact, the Village seems as if it was created for children. They can do things like custom make their bears at the Wishing Bear, or visit the Arrowhead Children's Museum. It all seemed an ideal spot for a Christmas shopping adventure for the entire family.
But there is much more to see and do in the Arrowhead/Big Bear area. There are small towns located throughout the forest, each showing off a bit of California history with their vintage buildings and unique businesses.
At Blue Jay Village you can visit Jensen's, an updated version of the original town store dating back to early 20th century when the town was founded. One of the oldest restaurants in town is the Royal Oak. Or, over at Cedar Glen, check out the Cedar Glen Trading Post, a true general store just like you see in the Westerns.
In Twin Peaks -- no, not that Twin Peaks -- the Antler's Inn is one of the area's most historic buildings. Now the place is known for its prime rib and the bands that play there every Thursday through Saturday nights. The market next door also is a historic lodge-style building.
These small towns can be visited on the way to see other sights in the Lake Arrowhead area. If you're bringing the kids for your Christmas shopping getaway, take part of an afternoon and drive up to the Children's Forest, about five miles from Running Springs, where it's possible even in winter to get out and enjoy the mountain's woods and trails. A fire came through the area in 1970 and, when locals decided to replant some of the area, they also put in a three-quarter mile asphalt trail and some signs along the way to point out to kids such things as ant trees and large rock formations, all in the interest of educating kids about the Great Outdoors.
Drive further east from Running Springs and it's less than a half hour to Big Bear Lake, the famous resort area that is loaded with restaurants and accommodations and that takes Christmas very seriously. Christmas and toy shops abound and there are many specialty stores as well. The town's decorations -- not to mention the likely prospect of snow -- set the stage for another holiday experience to be remembered.
Big Bear lights, decorations and Christmas trees go up right after Thanksgiving and that signals several weeks of special seasonal events. Two traditional tree lightings occured Thanksgiving weekend; another tree lighting will be on Dec. 3, this time on the other side of the lake, in Fawnskin. Then, each weekend night through Christmas, Big Bear will have a variety of Christmas activities including strolling carolers and photos with Santa Claus. "A Christmas Carol" will be presented several times in the local theater.
Chocolate-lovers will want to circle Dec. 9-11 on their calendars because that's when the first annual Big Bear Loves Chocolate Weekend will showcase chocolate in many different forms -- in shirts, candies, cookies, cakes, lotions, fountains, hot drinks, family activities and the list doesn't stop there. Visitors will get a Big Bear Chocoholic Guide that will show them the way around town to all the businesses featuring anything chocolate.
Need a little exercise to work off all that chocolate? Snow sports such as snowboarding, downhill and cross-country skiing are all available in the Big Bear area.
Animals, kids and Christmas just seem to go together so, while in Big Bear, be sure and stop by the Moonridge Animal Park. This fascinating facility is tucked into 2.5 wooded acres near the Big Bear Ski Resort and is one of only two alpine zoos in the country. Animals housed at the park, which is gradually becoming better known as the Big Bear Zoo, are primarily native to the San Bernardino Mountains or would normally live in an alpine setting. That means that zoo visitors will get an up-close and personal look at such endangered species as grizzly bears, timber wolves, fishers and bald eagles -- 80 species of animals altogether.
On weekends during the Christmas holidays, a zookeeper will lead a tour around the zoo grounds, stopping at many exhibits to feed the animals and offer insights about their behavior and circumstances.
Whether you spend time at Lake Arrowhead or Big Bear, the snowy mountains and forests most of us associate with the holidays are much closer to the palm trees and beaches of Southern California than you might think -- around 7,000 feet in elevation, to be precise.
AT A GLANCE
* Where: Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear are located about two hours east of Los Angeles and reached by driving a scenic, albeit curvy, highway northeast out of San Bernardino.
* What: Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear share the same woodsy feel and plunging winter temperatures. Arrowhead is smaller, a bit quaint and is a quiet romantic getaway. Big Bear offers a larger city, but many more choices for dining and lodging. Both offer a variety of shops and boutiques.
* When: Year-round. The shoulder seasons are less crowded, but both summer and winter are popular because of the area's many outdoor activities.
* Why: A complete contrast from the Southern California climate and lifestyle, yet just an hour or so from balmy places like Palm Springs.
* How: For more information on Lake Arrowhead, contact the Lake Arrowhead Chamber of Commerce at (909) 337-3715 or visit www.lakearrowhead.net. For more information on the Lake Arrowhead Resort, phone (800) 800-6792 or visit www.laresort.com. For more information on Big Bear, phone (800) 4-BIG-BEAR or visit www.bigbear.com.
For more information on travel in California, please visit www.californiaweekend.com.