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Nearby destinations offer a change of scenery for the holiday season

Travel Editor Elizabeth Hansen shares some enticing local options for a not-too-far getaway


Most years we want to be home for the holidays so we can gather with family and hang our stockings in familiar places. But this year is different. Really different. After working from home and learning from home, what many of us crave is a change of scenery. In some parts of the country, that means getting on a plane or driving for days, but San Diego provides a range of options within a short distance.

Hot air balloon at Temecula's Carter Estate Winery
Temecula’s Carter Estate Winery

Holidays in the Mountains

The little town of Julian is located in the Cuyamaca Mountains less than 90 minutes from San Diego. Best known for apple pie, fall colors, and spring flowers, it’s also a beautiful winter destination, especially when snow falls and cozy fires glow in stone hearths.   

Weather permitting, hiking is a favorite activity in this area. The Volcan Mountain trailhead is just a couple of miles from town and other popular paths wind throughout Cuyamaca State Park and William Heise County Park. Having said that, what draws most people to Julian is the small-town ambience and natural surroundings. 

Orchard Hill Country Inn is my favorite place to stay. Proprietors Pat and Darrell Straub built this handsome retreat with its large stone fireplace 26 years ago. Today, they offer ten rooms in the lodge, as well as 12 cottage rooms and one penthouse just steps away. Guests love the location — close to town, but not in it — and the beautiful trees and mellow creek on the inn’s five acres.

Stargazing is a favorite pastime at Orchard Hill Country Inn
Stargazing is a favorite pastime at Orchard Hill Country Inn

Orchid Hill tariffs include a full breakfast and afternoon hors d’oeuvres and wine. The host loves holiday decorations and is planning “five or six” Christmas trees this year. COVID precautions include taking temperatures at check-in, social distancing, extra cleaning procedures, and providing hand sanitizer. orchardhill.com

Orchard Hill Country Inn
Less than 90 minutes from San Diego, Julian is a cozy winter destination

Holidays in a Vineyard

Only an hour from the coast, the Temecula Valley is home to more than 38 producing wineries. All of these offer tasting — outdoors with social distancing — and some also provide appealing dining and lodging options. Between sips, it’s fun to balloon over the valley or horseback ride through it.  

My two favorite places to taste, stay, and dine are the sister properties Carter Estate Winery and Resort and nearby South Coast Winery Resort & Spa. Carter’s spacious vineyard bungalows come with private patios, gas fireplaces, spa tubs, and early morning views of colorful airborne balloons. South Coast, named Best California Winery four years in a row, has a bigger swimming pool, a great restaurant, and a large spa. 

To have the best of both worlds, savvy guests stay at Carter Estate Winery and take the short shuttle ride to South Coast to enjoy the resort amenities and dine in The Vineyard Rose Restaurant. COVID restrictions limit the number of guests in pools, and Jacuzzis are off limits. In addition to special meals, the resorts also offer festive carriage rides. southcoastwinery.com, carterestatewinery.com 

Nearby Temecula is home to more than 38 producing wineries
Nearby Temecula is home to more than 38 producing wineries

Holidays at the Beach

For another change of scenery, drive north on Highway 1 to Laguna Beach and check into the charming Surf & Sand Resort, which, as the name suggests, is right on the sand. Almost all of the 167 attractive rooms have full ocean views, including the stunning one-bedroom Vista Suite with an oversized balcony. The windows in the hotel’s restaurant, aptly named Splashes, get wet at high tide (à la La Jolla’s Marine Room).

Laguna Beach is a great place to browse through art galleries and cute shops, hike in Crystal Cove State Park, and dine in a wide range of excellent restaurants. COVID precautions at the Surf & Sand include limits in elevators and restrooms, one-directional staircases, and outdoor spa treatment rooms. surfandsandresort.com 

If golf is your game, Monarch Beach Resort in nearby Dana Point might be the best place for you to hang your stocking this year. The 400-room resort on 175 acres offers an 18-hole ocean-view course, six restaurants, and three pools. The spa and kids club are not currently open, and the fitness center has been moved outside. Happily, the traditional Gingerbread Academy will take place again this year. Monarch Beach Resort operates a large private beach club that is seven minutes away by tram. monarchbeachresort.com

Monarch Beach Resort offers ocean-view golf and a Gingerbread Academy
Monarch Beach Resort offers ocean-view golf and a Gingerbread Academy

Most years we want to be home for the holidays, but 2020 is different. The comforts of home have been “comforting” us since March. This year, if there ever was a time, we need to give ourselves a mini-adventure and the gift of a new perspective.

Featured Photo Vineyard Rose Restaurant at South Coast Winery is a festive place to celebrate the holidays
Image Credits South Coast Winery Resort & Spa, Orchard Hill Country Inn, Surf & Sand Resort, Carter Estate Winery, Monarch Beach Resort: Courtesy Photography


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