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Holiday Spots All Booked but Don't Despair

October 26, 1989|COLETTE O'CONNOR | Colette O'Connor is a free-lance writer

The holiday getaway season--Thanksgiving through New Year's--is fast approaching with such traditional resorts as Big Bear Lake and Catalina Island reporting heavy advance reservations.

Bookings are up over last year at this time for travelers who want to escape for a weekend to enjoy a white Christmas in the snowy mountains or to prolong summer in the desert, many of the resorts report.

"This year? This year's something all right. We're getting more than 1,000 calls a day for reservations, which is so many we've had to put in two extra lines and hire an extra girl just to handle them," said Donna Fernandez, office manager of the Big Bear Chamber of Commerce. Fernandez notes a 30% increase over last year's number of travelers clamoring for cabin, hotel and motel accommodations at the popular mountain resort about two hours from Orange County.

Reservations were booked six to 11 months in advance, and virtually 80% are taken by the end of September, Fernandez said.

"Everyone who wants a white Christmas and who last year came without reservations and got snowed-in--stuck in one of our overflow auditoriums--has finally caught on. If you want a nice room in Big Bear, you have to know early. Otherwise, if you head up here too late, you're insane! Not to mention out of luck," she said.

Other holiday spots also are filling fast. So fast that unless would-be travelers hustle to organize their plans, there is a good chance they will "lose out to all the competition out there that's on the ball," according to Sharon Heptner of Death Valley's rustic Furnace Creek Ranch resort. As Norma Milne, owner of the cozy Seacrest Inn on Santa Catalina Island, said: "Arrive too late and you get either the most expensive or least desirable room in the place."

But hotel and resort operators say those who know how to play the holiday accommodations game may still enjoy the mile-high splendor of Lake Arrowhead, the pleasures of Catalina Island, the tranquility of Mexico's Rosarito Beach Hotel or the New Year's Eve festivities in Las Vegas.

"Sure, weekends during the holidays are booked to the max," said Katie Smith, special events coordinator at the Hotel del Coronado, Victorian queen of the beach on San Diego's Coronado Island. "But people are putting in reservations all over--here, Tahoe, Mexico--and will decide later where to go. Just wait. One minute we'll be booked, the next, overbooked, then we'll have 100 rooms free. Anything can happen."

Indeed, the rules of this unspoken "room roulette" mean a well-timed telephone call--no matter how last-minute--may yield a holiday weekend away at even the most popular retreat.

"You'd be surprised how many people plan to get away over the holidays and at the last second realize their mothers will never forgive them," said Nikki Symington of the Rancho Murietta Hot Springs Resort and Health Spa in Murietta.

"Even if it's so late it seems hopeless, and at those places where it's very, very risky to set out without reservations, you never know when a lucky phone call will get you away. . . . It never hurts to try. Just keep calling," she said.

The overbooking problem extends to California's national parks, where cabins, motel rooms and camp sites are snatched "a good six months in advance for any holiday weekend," according to Ramona Goodge, director of sales at Sequoia and Kings Canyon Guest Services. "People who come for the holidays tend to do so year after year. They know the ropes and book the first day they possibly can," Goodge said.

Whether it is the 500 sites at Joshua Tree National Monument, the RV hookups at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park or backcountry campsites around Idyllwild, camping spots are often offered on a first-come, first-served basis, she said. Of course, some getaway destinations not only have plenty of reservations available during the holidays, but they work especially hard to woo guests with special events, reduced-rate packages and holiday feasts as well.

Places like Santa Barbara's Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel and Montecito's San Ysidro Ranch--where John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy honeymooned--feature Christmas parades and New Year's dances.

At some Palm Springs resorts, the holidays are traditionally slow compared with other times, so three-day, two-night packages and other discounts abound.

And at some Southern California locales, the holidays are prime time to enjoy the area's indigenous charms--attractions often obscured by summer crowds and high-season swelter.

"November and December are the perfect time to take advantage of the whole reason we live in California," said Brian McInerney, director of tourism for Mission San Juan Capistrano. "The visitors are gone, the weather's still beautiful, winter rates are in effect. And here, there are even a few swallows hanging around who forget to leave with the tourists."

Indeed, whether it is rodeo in Tehachapi, pheasant shooting at Lake Isabella, cattle roping at the Quarter Circle U Rankin Ranch in Caliente, whale watching off Redondo Beach or wine tasting in Ojai, less-obvious getaways await in the Southland's smaller towns and recreation areas.

"Everyone's looking for snow over the holidays so they don't think of all the great alternative getaways," said Penny Eliah of the Dana Point Resort in Dana Point, an oceanside inn like many dotting deserts, beach towns, foothills and mountains around Southern California. Just because Big Bear's about booked, she said, "there's no reason people can't have a wonderful time elsewhere."

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