’Tis the season of ugly sweaters, white elephants and mixed emotions. According to a 2014 Pew Research survey, most Americans feel conspicuous ambivalence about holiday gifts. While 83 percent say exchanging presents brings them joy, more than half confess that it makes them feel financially stretched. Another third say the ritual stresses them out.
This story originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Living Intown magazine.
Holiday retail sales topped $600 billion last year, but recent research sheds light on the maxim that money can’t buy happiness. Studies have found that while satisfaction tends to fade with physical purchases, shared experiences have far more staying power. In other words, maybe money can buy happiness if you spend it on travel, meals, concert tickets or other experiential pursuits. This season, skip the Black Friday stampede and invest your hard-earned lucre wisely, giving travel instead of trinkets. Here are five luxurious getaways sure to bring the joy to somebody’s world.
Old Edwards Inn & Spa
Ideal for: Empty nesters trying out new traditions. Families too busy to decorate or cook
Who says there’s no place like home for the holidays? From Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, the lively calendar of piano music, games, wine tastings and movie nights at Old Edwards makes a staycation sound as fun as year-old fruitcake.
After years of renovations and expansions (costing more than $100 million, according to the inn), the much-acclaimed Highlands, N.C., resort now covers almost four city blocks. The complex encompasses cottages, shops, restaurants, a pool, a croquet court, a wine garden and an attractive 25,000-square-foot spa.
Accommodations in the 32-room inn include pleasing extras like push-button fireplaces and rainfall showers. Some have private terraces overlooking the commercial district, but it’s hard to beat the view of the mountains seen from the floor-to-ceiling windows in the spa solarium. Nearby, the Church Street Cottages provide a bit more room and privacy in stone-and-wood cabins adorned like English manor houses.
Old Edwards brings the North Pole to North Carolina by offering Elf Tuck-In services for restless tykes. One of Santa’s helpers will deliver cookies and milk to the kids then read them a bedtime story (for only $40 per room).
Cost: The two-night Comfort and Joy Package includes a three-course dinner for two, two 50-minute spa treatments and more. Available Nov. 2-Dec. 23, rates starts at $340 per night.
445 Main St., Highlands, N.C. 866-526-8008. www.oldedwardsinn.com
The Cloister at Sea Island
Ideal for: Fans of the Dowager Countess and other anglophiles. Couples craving “me time.”
When President George W. Bush picked a tiny private island 60 miles south of Savannah to host the 2004 G8 Summit, the reason most often cited was security. But seclusion is only part of the story on Sea Island: Bush’s parents celebrated their 1945 honeymoon at the Cloister, the opulent Mediterranean-style resort celebrated as one of the South’s most sophisticated tourist destinations.
It’s a different Cloister these days, literally. The historic 1928 hotel was demolished during a $350 million renovation in the early 2000s. A larger, even more luxurious Spanish-revival manor upped the ante on elegance while retaining stained glass windows and other details from the original.
This perennial favorite among the region’s well-to-do crams a mind-boggling blend of upscale amenities and diversions: tennis and squash courts, 5 miles of private beaches with cabanas, three golf courses, high-end restaurants and a 65,000-square-foot spa. Despite the surplus of activities, guests can still carve out some quiet time among the Spanish moss and salt marshes.
The Cloister’s 200 immaculate guest rooms radiate a polished, Old World elegance: fine wood furnishings, handmade Turkish rugs, lush fabrics. Look for the hotel to unveil 63 new rooms next spring.
An ambiance suited for the English gentry on holiday fills the grand lobby, ballroom and lounges, superb backdrops for the resort’s popular “Downton Abbey” weekend (Feb. 6-7).
Cost: The two-night Romance Package includes a free suite upgrade (if available), a bottle of sparkling wine, daily room service breakfast, $100 dinner credit per person, 90-minute couples massage at the Cloister Spa and more. Rates start at around $395 per night.
100 Cloister Drive, Sea Island. 855-714-9201. www.seaisland.com
Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort
Ideal for: Parents who want to be pampered (without hiring a babysitter). Backwoods Barbies needing a break from the 9-to-5.
This summer, queen of country music Dolly Parton opened a stunning, 300-room resort barely two doors down from her Pigeon Forge amusement parks. It’s no accident that the gleaming white mega-manse sits on a hillside with outstanding views of the Great Smoky Mountains. “One of the thoughts behind the design [of the resort] was to create the atmosphere of a farmhouse,” says publicist Ellen Liston, “complete with a big front porch where folks could rock in rocking chairs and look out on the natural beauty surrounding them.”
The 100-acre resort’s mission might be described as “affordable luxury,” taking care not to forget its core audience. Many rooms include bunk beds for kids. Family suites are arranged to give extra space to grandma and privacy to everyone. Evening storytelling and s’mores are among the resort’s most raved-about amenities, Liston says.
Even the spa is child-friendly. Kids as young as 4 can get manicures and pedicures; teens (with parent permission) can enjoy many more services. Staying at the DreamMore comes with free transportation to Dollywood and Dollywood Splash Country, deals on park admission and other perks.
Cost: The Pampered Couple Package, starting around $169 per night, includes a joint spa day featuring a couple’s massage and facials.
2525 DreamMore Way, Pigeon Forge, Tenn. 800-365-5996. www.dollywoodsdreammoreresort.dollywood.com
The Omni Grove Park Inn
Ideal for: Your favorite bookworm or foodie with a sweet tooth.
Visiting the Grove Park Inn can feel like slipping into a bygone era. F. Scott Fitzgerald passed two summers there. Other famous guests have included Margaret Mitchell, Helen Keller, Barack Obama and countless others.
The Asheville landmark opened in 1913. A century later, Omni Hotels & Resorts bought the 513-room property for a reported $900 million. Famous for its hidden elevators (look in the lobby’s majestic stone fireplaces), the inn has a long history as a rejuvenation destination. It’s worth the 3.5-hour drive to experience the subterranean spa. With cavernous rock walls, waterfalls and soothing mineral pools, the 43,000-square-foot wonderland feels like a mythical fairy fountain — albeit one that does facials and deep-tissue massages.
The inn has doubled down on Asheville’s world-class culinary scene. Guests can sample four distinct, locally sourced restaurant concepts — or drink like a Fitzgerald at one of the many cocktail bars.
Cost: The Gingerbread Holiday Package, available Nov. 15-Dec. 29, comes with a breakfast buffet and gingerbread cookie. Rates start around $229 per night.
290 Macon Ave, Asheville, N.C. 28804, 828-252-2711, www.omnihotels.com/hotels/asheville-grove-park
The Ritz-Carlton Lodge, Reynolds Plantation
Ideal for: The person in your life itching to be a kid again.
It may be favored for glitzy corporate powwows, but don’t let the cufflinks fool you: Reynolds Plantation gladly blends business with pleasure.
Located 75 miles east of Atlanta on Lake Oconee, the 30-acre grounds once surrounded a fishing and hunting retreat called Linger Longer. The name lives on in the upscale lodge’s family park. Elsewhere, a welcoming, genteel atmosphere echoes the subtle coercion to stay another day or two.
Guests may be tempted to do just that, taking time to sample the 99 (!) holes of golf nearby or indulge their inner adolescent with fishing trips, Segway tours, canoeing, kayaking and s’mores served nightly by the lake.
This spring, the AAA Five-Diamond resort finished a multi-million dollar renovation, which upgraded the meeting rooms, expanded the sundeck and introduced an eye-catching new infinity pool.
The project also gave the 27,600-square-foot spa a major facelift. In the fall, the lodge premiered a private spa area for men only. The Gent’s Place offers shaves with old-fashioned steel razors, haircuts, shoe shines, nail grooming — and, best of all, tastings of small-batch bourbons.
Cost: The Family Memories package includes breakfast for two adults and two kids, a welcome gift and a $200 credit for the spa or Ritz Kids Camp. Rates start at $369 per night.
1 Lake Oconee Trail, Greensboro. 706-467-0600. www.ritzcarlton.com/en/Properties/ReynoldsPlantation
For more ideas about gifts, decorating, where to eat and what to do, check out our complete Atlanta Holiday Guide.
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