On Christmas morning 14 years ago, a frozen fog penetrated by the first rays of sun shrouded the countryside around Bath, England, in a silvery shimmer. It seemed a perfect holiday atmosphere for those of us on the front steps of Lucknam Park, an 18th century country mansion converted into a hotel.
We -- British and American guests -- were waiting for the arrival of Father Christmas -- better known here as Santa Claus. By tradition, he did not arrive down one of the hotel's chimneys during the night, but by Victorian-era carriage on Christmas morning.
The clip-clop of hooves from the carriage hidden by the fog heightened the excitement of children bouncing from one part of the hotel to another and promised relief for parents. The Americans, of course, had never considered that Santa would come when they could see him.
Out of the tinsel-like fog, Father Christmas arrived, bearing gifts for all. Though there was mulled wine and a huge Christmas lunch and another day to go, this was the highlight of the three-day "Christmas Break."
Christmas breaks were a tradition in Britain long before I discovered them.
Families went away for three days to celebrate: Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and "Boxing Day," Dec. 26. Boxing day is a term that dates to Victorian times when the aristocracy would box up leftovers the day after Christmas and deliver them to servants who, of course, were "in service" on Christmas.
But since my time at Lucknam Park, when the dollar was strong and hotel prices low enough for middle class families to afford them, Christmas breaks have been embraced by luxury hotels targeting the super rich and the merely rich.
The popularity has spread from Britain to the rest of Europe and beyond, to the United States and far flung places like Bora Bora and New Zealand.
Why the popularity? Rachael Hill of Lucknam Park says Americans who visited last Christmas for the third time used two words: "Truly traditional."
There may be other reasons. Family heads busy making money don't often have time for their families. This is one brief solution and doesn't face the two-week booking policy of most luxury Caribbean and Rocky Mountain resorts. And many families these days don't have a family tradition of Christmas, so why not connect with traditional trappings in a hotel?
A French Chateau in the Heart of Yosemite
In California's Yosemite National Park, that is exactly the luxury Christmas experience offered by Chateau du Sureau.
A member of the Relais and Chateaux group, it may be the closest thing to a French chateau in America. Trees decorated with antique glass ornaments tower over the table where a six-course Christmas eve dinner is served.
Diners serenaded by carolers in English Dickens-era costumes feast on roasted goose, Viennese Sacher Torte, French buche de Noel and rum ice cream -- all for a mere $600 a night. Christmas Eve dinner is $95 per person, not including drinks, wine or tip.
That, of course, is a bargain compared to prices in Paris.
With the euro hovering around $1.30, Christmas Eve dinner at Le Meurice, one of the most elegant Parisian hotels near Place Vendome and with rooms overlooking Les Tuileries, is $520. That includes tax, but not beverages.
The menu is nine courses starting with canapés, followed by goose foie gras with smoked eel, then shellfish mariniere with spinach and truffles, bass and kernel of scallops, cutlet and saddle of lamb, small ice cream log with pralines and of course, a tangy rose iced mousse with red berries.
Rooms at the Meurice for a three-day break begin at $767 a night, but that includes breakfast, tea on Christmas afternoon and chocolates for children.
A Family-Run Hotel in the Austrian Alps
In Lech, Austria, one of the premier ski resorts in the Alps, there is a Christmas break that harkens back to an earlier century and a time when hotels were run by families.
The Gasthof Post is a hotel that dates to 1650 and sits along what was once a pack horse track through an Alpine pass. It has been run by the same family since 1937.
The staff performs a nativity play on Christmas Eve by a roaring fire and Sandra Moosebrugger, wife of manager Florian Moosebrugger, reads the Christmas story from the Bible.
And of course, there's a brass band and huge traditional meals. Christmas Eve includes asparagus aspic, saddle of lamb, pickled ox cheek, smoked breast of pigeon, venison, cheese and rhubarb and curd.
But all of this comes at a price -- with or without snow. A double room is $741 a night. Christmas Eve dinner is extra.
Despite the prices, hotels find themselves fully booked for Christmas. Even the rooms at the Huka Lodge near far-off Wellington, New Zealand, are full.
Sitting near a roaring waterfall, Huka Lodge was founded in the 1920s by an Irishman named Alan Pye, who discovered the hotel's setting. Then, it was an informal hunting and fishing and sleeping lodge with canvas tents.
Today, it is all about luxury.
The three-day Christmas break -- including meals -- costs $5,100 for two. There is hiking, trout fishing, tennis, soaking in hot pools, horseback riding and helicopter rides to the Kaimanawa mountain ranges. Fishing in the mountains is followed by another helicopter ride to Lake Taupo, where lunch and a chilled bottle of New Zealand wine await. And then there is the gourmet food in the lodge's dining room.
By the way, prices don't include airfare.
'A Family Event' at $2,200 per Room
A little bit closer to home, in the French region of Beaujolais, the Chateau de Bagnols is becoming increasingly popular with Americans.
"In our opinion, Christmas is no longer the religious event it used to be, compared to Latin countries where it is still a family event," says Sarah Ansari, the Chateau's front office manager.
Chateau de Bagnols offers a visit to the Christmas market in nearby Lyon, champagne and jazz on Christmas Eve and a seven-course Christmas dinner. That meal includes scallops, winter vegetables with truffles, roasted turbot, traditional Christmas turkey from Bresse, a selection of fresh and mature cheeses and dessert.
The cost is approximately $2,200 per room.
The hotel is part of the Rocco Forte group. In its Cardiff, Wales, hotel alone, it estimates they will cook 240 turkeys ranging from 16 to 22 pounds.
London's century-old Ritz Hotel, a jewel on Piccadilly next to Green Park, offers a three-day break for those who want to spend most of their time indoors.
It all starts on Dec. 23 with champagne and canapés in your room, a chauffeur-driven car to take you to the theater, and then a post-theater dinner in the Ritz restaurant.
There is a Christmas Eve dinner dance and transportation to midnight mass at Guard's Chapel, Wellington Barracks, near Buckingham Palace.
On Christmas Day, there's a full breakfast, traditional six-course lunch (with timeout for the Queen's Christmas address) and entertainment from a caricaturist. Then Father Christmas arrives and then, later, dinner.
On Boxing Day there's breakfast and lunch.
The price of nearly $4,000 for a deluxe room doesn't include the theater tickets.
Back at Lucknam Park, where a Christmas break reservation is difficult to get, the three-day holiday begins with a traditional English tea on Christmas Eve, followed a bit later by champagne in the library while listening to carols sung by the choir of the local church.
That is followed by a multi-course dinner, and the day finishes with midnight mass in a historic stone church in the nearby village of Colerne.
On Christmas Day, there is breakfast, Father Christmas and a traditional lunch with everything from turkey to roast beef. A scavenger hunt is followed by a light dinner.
On Boxing Day there is shooting, horseback riding, swimming and other activities followed by a black-tie dinner dance.
The cost? About $4,750 with the British pound at nearly $1.90. Wine, by the way, is not included.