Spirit worth catching, sights worth seeing

From Rhode Island to Maine, making the holidays brighter

Kennebunkport, Maine, puts fine touches on it Christmas Prelude. Kennebunkport, Maine, puts fine touches on it Christmas Prelude.
By Hilary Nangle
Globe Correspondent / November 30, 2008
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Sure, you can watch reruns of "A Charlie Brown Christmas," "It's a Wonderful Life," or "White Christmas," attend a Christmas Pops concert or a "Nutcracker" production, and listen to yet another pop star's seasonal CD to get in the holiday vibe, or you can kick-start your flagging spirits with an immersion in sounds, scents, tastes, and sights that are distinctly Christmas.

Victorian splendor
When it comes to gilding the Christmas lily no one did it better than the Victorians, who were responsible for turning St. Nicholas into Santa Claus. For a mood-elevating dose of Christmas grandeur, step into one of these Victorian house museums, each decorated to the hilt.

No place showcases the gilded era better than Newport, R.I., where the Preservation Society of Newport County decorates and opens three humongous "cottages" for daily tours: The Breakers, The Elms, and Marble House. Few sights are as impressive as the towering Christmas tree made of poinsettia plants that this year will welcome visitors to The Elms, but for pure over-the-top extravagance, don't miss the Breakers, the 70-room, Italian Renaissance-style palazzo inspired by the 16th-century palaces of Genoa and Turin. Touring these properties with their ornamentation and festive trees is just a start. Plan a visit around one of the special holiday evenings, when a mansion is lighted for the celebration, has live holiday music, and offers sweets. Christmas at the Newport Mansions runs through Jan. 4.

Winter Passport ticket providing daytime admission to all three houses can be purchased for $25 adults, $9 ages 6-17. Purchased separately: Breakers $16.50, $4; Marble House, The Elms each $11, $4. Evening events $25, $10. 401-847-1000; www.newportman

Given the Astor family's prominence in US social history, it's no surprise that Beechwood won't let other Newport mansions overshadow it, even during the holidays. Visits are enhanced by members of the Beechwood Theatre Company portraying family members and domestics and end with a musical performance and dancing.

Tours continue through Dec. 30 and cost $20 adult, $8 ages 6-17, or $50 for a family of two adults and up to four children under 18. 401-846-3722; www.astorsbeech

In Maine, Portland's Victoria Mansion is a treat at any time, but at Christmas it goes beyond spectacular to stunning. The Italianate mansion drips with lavish ornamentation, architectural embellishments, and opulent decoration even before area florists and designers individually decorate rooms on the first two floors for the holidays. This year, Christmas at the Victoria Mansion, Nov. 28-Dec. 31, celebrates the theme "We Three Kings of Orient Are," and visitors can view the newly restored Turkish Smoking Room.

Self-guided tours available Tuesday-Sunday. Admission is $13.50 adults, $5 ages 6-17, or $25 for a family comprising a maximum of two adults and five children from the same household. 207-772-4841; www.victo

Christmas towns
Plenty of towns have holiday celebrations or special events, but two, better known as summer destinations, have become holiday hot spots.

Kennebunkport, Maine, sparkles during its annual holiday celebration, Christmas Prelude. The jam-packed schedule includes craft fairs, caroling, house tours, art shows, receptions, chowder suppers, tree lighting, live nativity, pancake breakfast, hand-painted card workshops, trolley rides, road race, strolling musicians, walking tours, cider and cocoa, a hat parade, lobster bake, breakfast with Santa (who arrives by lobster boat), children's activities, bell ringers, other live entertainment, and on and on. Although it stretches from Dec. 5-14, events are concentrated on weekends, with Dec. 5-6 the heaviest schedule. Many inns offer packages, but you can go just for the day.

Special events are individually priced. 207-967-0857; www.

Nantucket's annual Nantucket Noel celebration, Nov. 28-Dec. 31, drips with ribbon, garland, and good will. It lasts a month, but the biggest events occur over Christmas Stroll Weekend, Dec. 5-7, when the Clauses arrive on a Coast Guard vessel and both the Festival of Wreaths and the Festival of Trees brighten doorways and sidewalks. Throngs take to the streets, shopping craft fairs, sampling fare at the food tent, admiring the decorations, and enjoying the outdoor entertainment. There are holiday house tours, theatrical productions, guided walks, and concerts.

508-228-1700, www.nantucket

Treats and sweet ideas
Welcoming guests with a nibble and a warm drink is a New England tradition that goes hand-in-mitten with Christmas. Innkeepers know that to spread holiday cheer in a way guaranteed to make guests, family, and friends smile, it's best to ply them with home-baked goodies.

New Hampshire's Country Inns in the White Mountains Inn to Inn Christmas Cookie and Candy Tour, Dec. 13-14, is an opportunity to nibble your way through the Mount Washington Valley, from Chocorua to Hart's Location, and tour 15 inns, each wrapped up for the season like holiday presents. Not only do you tour and taste on this self-guided tour, you'll also pick up decorating ideas, view displays of handmade gingerbread sculptures, and receive recipe cards from each inn. Those who tour all 15 will receive a brass ornament, and all participants can enter a drawing for a $250 gift certificate at the participating inn of their choice. Many inns offer packages built around this event, but individual tickets are $27. Advance reservations are recommended.


In Vermont, the Historic Inns of Manchester Holiday Open House, Dec. 6 and 13, is similar, but less intense. Six area inns, each festooned for the season, will roll out the welcome mat and serve a taste of an inn specialty. Participants receive a goodie bag filled with special offers and gifts from local businesses such as Orvis, Hildene, and the American Museum of Fly Fishing. The inns offer packages. Individual tickets cost $12.50, and proceeds benefit the Komen Vermont-New Hampshire Race for the Cure.

800-670-2841, 802-362-1163; house.php.

Through a child's eyes
Perhaps the best way to rekindle the wonder of Christmas is to view it through the eyes of a child. One of the best family experiences is to dress the kids in PJs and answer the conductor's "All aboard" call for a journey to North Pole City aboard the Polar Express. The trip brings to life Chris Van Allsburg's children's book of the same name. Holiday decorations, hot cocoa and cookies, a reading of the beloved classic, a special gift, and, of course, a meeting with Santa are part of most trips. This is an especially popular event and sells out fast, but local accommodations often have tickets as part of packages. If you can't snag tickets for this season, plan now for next year.

Rides take place in Maine (Narrow Gauge Railroad, Portland, $30 adult, $24 child, 207-828-0814 info, 207-842-0800 reservations, www.; New Hampshire (Conway Scenic Railway, North Conway, and Hobo Railroad, Lincoln, $40-$60,; Rhode Island (Blackstone Valley Train, Cumberland, $35, 401-724-2200, and (Newport Dinner Train, Newport, $26.95 adult, $18.95 child, 800-398-7427, www.newportdin, and Vermont (Champlain Valley Flyer, Burlington, $18, www.vtchildrens

Hilary Nangle can be reached at

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