Confession: I’ve been dipping into some Hallmark Channel “Countdown to Christmas” movies. Last weekend when I was in San Juan Capistrano in search of holiday spirit, I thought maybe I needed to pump the brakes on TV time. I had started to feel as though I were in an actual Hallmark movie. But then my husband, Dan, piped up. “I feel like I’m in a Hallmark movie,” he said. OK, so it was drizzling instead of snowing, but we agreed that San Juan might be the most old-fashioned, slow-rolling Christmas getaway SoCal can muster. The tab: $291, plus tax, for a one-night hotel stay, holiday tea and Capistrano Lights at Mission San Juan Capistrano.
The Best Western Capistrano Inn is really the only game in town for now. It was a bargain at $106 for the night I booked and was about one mile from Mission San Juan Capistrano in the heart of downtown. If you drive a few miles to Dana Point, you’ll find fancier hotel options with ocean views. If you don’t make it to San Juan until after the holidays, the Inn at the Mission San Juan Capistrano, a Marriott Autograph Collection boutique hotel, with hacienda-style guest rooms and luxury suites, is set to open in March.
The Tea House on Los Rios is gussied up for the holidays with twinkling lights, wreathes and stockings. We ordered the Christmas and Holiday tea ($60 a person through Jan. 12), which begins with a festive cranberry mimosa and ends with a fudgy flourless chocolate cake. In between are warm scones, finger sandwiches and your own pot of tea (Bourbon Street Vanilla for me, lovey). The house is truly a house, built in 1911, and the afternoon I was here each cozy room was packed with women, so reserve well ahead.
Although we weren’t sure whether it would be worth the money, we bought tickets ($13 each) for Capistrano Lights, a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony now in its second year at the mission. I didn’t know there also would be a harpist in the chapel, Victorian carolers, mariachis, a tamale stand and cookie tables. Everyone who entered was handed a battery-operated candle to carry or place at the ruins of the Great Stone Church, which has a life-size nativity scene bathed in candlelight. The courtyards are laced with twinkling lights, and the night I was here they were filled with families and couples in matching hats and scarves, holding hands and snapping photos. The tree-lighting ceremony and musical performances will repeat every night through Jan. 6.
THE LESSON LEARNED
Give yourself lots of time for lots of things. All along Los Rios Street, a charming stroll on the National Register of Historic Places, are holiday activities. We saw photos with Santa, hot cocoa and popcorn stands, buskers playing Christmas songs on horns and violins , even a snowman, although he was melting a little. Across the train tracks (you can take an Amtrak to San Juan if you want a break from driving) is Camino Capistrano, a short street lined with boutiques and spots to get a bite to eat or a glass of wine. I sprinted through the Old Barn Antique Mall in search of vintage ornaments (score!). As the night wound down we popped into the Swallow’s Inn bar for jukebox Lynyrd Skynyrd and whiskey. Then we slipped out the door and back into our Hallmark movie.
Best Western Capistrano Inn, 27174 Ortega Highway, San Juan Capistrano; (949) 493-5661. Wheelchair accessible.
Mission San Juan Capistrano, 26801 Ortega Highway, San Juan Capistrano; (949) 234-1300. Wheelchair accessible.
Tea House on Los Rios, 31731 Los Rios St., San Juan Capistrano; (949) 443-3914. Wheelchair accessible.