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Putting Rudolph to shame

Millions of lights, loads of food, fireworks. Local resorts pull out all the stops. Take a peek, and be glad you don't have to see the electric bill.

December 02, 2007|Valli Herman | Times Staff Writer

Until you've been enveloped in the glow of 3 million red, white and green Christmas lights cast from the Mission Inn in Riverside, you haven't had a quintessential Southern California holiday experience.

At the historic hotel, strands of brilliant lights cascade from balconies, twist between the bougainvillea and ivy, wrap around tree trunks and wink from pine garlands. Scores of animated costumed figures wave and nod from balconies, courtyards and walkways.

Amid the hysteria of shopping, baking and partying, Southland hotels represent one of the few low-stress opportunities to engage in a holiday ritual. It's no wonder that when hotels embrace the glittery winter holiday spirit, they appeal to guests who want to immerse themselves in the season, whether it's a day visit, overnight or just for brunch.

The period between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day may be the most popular time for families to cross the threshold of local luxury hotels to experience for themselves what's usually left for tourists. Inside, they often find glorious, glamorous expressions of festive food and decor.

Several Southland hotels are especially good at creating the kind of holiday awe that can make you feel like a kid again. Here are some of our favorites.

MISSION INN

The Mission Inn, a 104-year-old national landmark, is internationally recognized and locally treasured for an elaborate light festival that has become a centerpiece of holiday celebrations, particularly in the Inland Empire.

When Riverside resident and entrepreneur Duane R. Roberts bought the hotel -- appropriately enough, on Dec. 24, 1992 -- he pictured it as a winter wonderland.

Drawing on his own experiences, Roberts recognized that the hotel could again become a holiday centerpiece of civic life, plus a beloved destination for tourists and locals.

"When I was a little kid, the neighborhoods would be lit up at the holidays . . . and my parents would take us and we'd visit them and make a night of it," he said. He wanted to provide that kind of experience again.

"All my management people thought I was crazy," he recalled. "It was going to cost a lot of money, so why do it? I thought eventually it would pay off."

The multimillion-dollar decorations have grown more elaborate and include an international array of costumed characters and Christmas trees flanking priceless paintings.

The crowds keep growing too. Roberts said about 50,000 showed up on Nov. 23, when the first lights of the season were switched on and fireworks were shot from the roof.

"We have something like 3 million lights and 350-plus characters," Roberts said, "everything from Santa to angels to elves."

The display, which runs through Jan. 2, takes six weeks to dismantle, inventory and store, he said. By then, Roberts estimates that 350,000 people will have seen the spectacle and the adjacent street fair.

During the event, the hotel will serve as many as 1,900 holiday meals and double its revenue, but profit isn't the point.

"It's very gratifying [when] you see people who are a little more pressed economically and you see them all excited," Roberts said. "And this is a major attraction and event that they're able to enjoy without necessarily staying or eating at the Mission Inn.

"This is something we do to make it a little more special for families to get together."

Info: (951)784-0300, www.missioninn.com.

RITZ-CARLTON, HUNTINGTON HOTEL & SPA

The Ritz-Carlton, Huntington Hotel & Spa, the 1907 Pasadena landmark, has decorated in the classic, lush style for the holidays with Christmas trees, yards of garlands in pine, velvet and brocade, and of course, a king's ransom of gilded ornaments.

(The hotel has been sold recently and will reopen as the Langham on Jan. 8, but this will not disrupt its holiday schedule.)

With the arched ceilings, plush carpets and period furniture, the Huntington is Southern California's closest approximation of a Victorian Christmas -- the kind that has captured popular imagination.

The hotel pays extra attention to kids, who can drool over the 8-foot-tall gingerbread village and sign up for the popular $55 Teddy Bear Tea with storytelling and Bob Baker puppet show from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, next Sunday, plus Dec. 15, 16 and 20 to 23.

Special holiday dinners, buffets and breakfasts ($30 to $150 per person) are scheduled for Christmas Eve and Day, and New Year's Eve in the Dining Room and the Terrace Restaurant, including a $110 Christmas Day buffet with caviar and Dom Perignon in the Terrace Restaurant. (It's $35 for children.)

Info: (626) 568-3900, www.ritzcarlton.com.

ST. REGIS RESORT MONARCH BEACH

Orange County's St. Regis Resort Monarch Beach brings back an only-in-California tradition: a sand sculpture.

This, however, is not just any sand castle, but a 9-ton porous piece of artwork depicting a group of carolers, just as you enter the lobby.

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