Some of us still go over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving, but plenty of others choose to grab that precious four-day weekend for a mini-vacation. That often means ordering off a menu instead of sharpening the carving knife to enjoy Tom turkey (or lobster tail or prime rib or whatever suits your fancy).
The travel industry is aware of this trend, and fabulous Thanksgiving weekend offerings abound. Here are a few suggestions for celebrating the holiday weekend in very special settings. Some are traditional. Others are just about having a great time. But all deliver the goods—including turkey and stuffing—on that special day.
Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite National Park, California
For: grand dining, great outdoor activities and a heaping serving of tradition
You can’t get more all-American than the classic Ahwahnee Hotel, one of the prettiest of the national park lodges, in a setting that combines vast natural wonders—towering sequoias, graceful waterfalls, majestic rock formations—with lovely creature comforts.
The Ahwahnee’s Thanksgiving menu blends tradition with gourmet touches. The turkey isn’t plain old Tom. It’s local Diestel Ranch organic turkey. Roast prime rib, sesame crusted ahi tuna, country ham and wild mushroom and pumpkin ravioli are other options. Walk on your own to view the majestic Half Dome or take the two-hour, ranger-led Yosemite Valley Tour to Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, the sheer rock face of El Capitan (keep your eye out for climbers) and more vast vistas. If weather allows, you may be able to drive up to Glacier Point to catch the sweeping valley views.
Ashford Castle, County Mayo, Ireland
For: celebrating Thanksgiving like landed gentry, perhaps with wild Irish snow
From the East Coast, the overnight flight to Ireland is a fast seven hours, and you get to sleep while you make the journey instead of fighting holiday traffic. Your destination: Ireland’s ultra-elegant five-star Ashford Castle, which may (or may not) be trimmed with snow.
Guests who book the Thanksgiving Package can enjoy three nights in the castle for the price of two; hearty Irish breakfasts; a table d’hote dinner in the George V dining room one evening of the long weekend; and of course, a traditional Thanksgiving on November 28. The castle offers an abundance of activities as well. Depending on the weather, guests can go fly fishing, play nine holes of golf or (perhaps the most fun) visit the onsite school of falconry and even have a falcon zoom down to land on a gloved hand. If you want to sightsee, consider a drive to pretty Clew Bay.
Dunton Hot Springs, Colorado
For: a Rocky Mountain high Thanksgiving
Looking for an unusual Thanksgiving destination that will delight both kids and adults? Imagine taking the family to a Colorado mining town that became a ghost town but now has a third incarnation as a low-key, delightfully rustic yet high-luxury resort in the San Juan Mountains.
On Thanksgiving, kids, dads and moms can join the staff in a pre-turkey game of touch football. The less athletically inclined may opt to soak in one of the resort’s three natural hot springs: steamy, toasty, without smelly sulfur, and guaranteed to promote bliss. Football junkies need fear not, since the old town Dance Hall will project big Thanksgiving games all day. While cabin exteriors are what one might call sophisticated rustic, the interiors are all about luxury—some with stone fireplaces and each with its own history. Book a spa treatment or splurge and book the whole town for $27,000 per night.
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, New York City
For: a pre-feast chance to feel like a kid, even if you aren’t one
If anything marks Thanksgiving in modern minds, it is the lavish Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which has delighted New Yorkers for 87 years and the rest of the country since the invention of television. It starts at 9 a.m. in New York and airs on TV from 9 a.m. to noon in every time zone.
This lavish parade is all about super-sized balloons, floats, marching bands, clowns and other performers, with displays that grow more lavish with every passing year. New for 2013 will be a Cirque du Soleil float (Macy’s calls them floating stages) and the debut of a Royal Caribbean float. New balloons for the parade will include Snoopy from “Peanuts,” Finn and Jake from “Adventure Times” and favorite characters from "The Wizard of Oz.” If you are in New York, you can head up to Macy’s Thanksgiving Eve Balloon Blow-Up at 79th Street and Columbus Avenue (take the subway).
For: haute cuisine and great casinos
Somehow, Thanksgiving seems a bit dissonant with the neon-rich, gaudy and glitzy activity that is Las Vegas. Never mind. Las Vegas restaurants are featuring star chefs these days, and some of the best are doing Thanksgiving up with a vengeance—though some omit turkey.
Consider Charlie Palmer’s Aureole at Mandalay Bay. He has already posted his five-course Thanksgiving menu for 2013: winter black truffle scented Hudson Valley foie gras au torchon, followed by roasted butternut squash ravioli and confit chicken oyster on wilted bitter greens, then herb roasted striped bass with sweet potato mousseline. Those are followed by the star of the show—not turkey but chestnut crusted venison loin, with trumpet mushrooms and gin huckleberry sauce, topped by petit brown butter roasted apple with harvest fruit chutney and pecan praline ice cream. Book early for feasts like this.
Park City, Utah
For: getting a good head start on winter skiing or simple relaxation
Let’s face it. Skiers can’t wait to hit the slopes, no matter what holiday it is. The snow gods have blessed pretty Park City, Utah, and the skiing is already good at two of the city’s major resorts, Park City Mountain Resort and Canyons Resort. That means you can schuss down the mountain, pre-turkey.
End your day on the slopes with a hearty Thanksgiving dinner. Options abound, but Glitretind at Stein Eriksen Lodge in Deer Valley offers a lovely menu, starting with such options as scallop and lobster potato chowder, a choice of half a dozen salads, a smoked fish platter, turkey and other entrees and a “Grand Desert Display.” Achy muscles respond to the hotel’s excellent spa. Start Christmas shopping the day after in the town’s distinctive boutiques, and don’t miss the fascinating Park City Museum, which tells the story of this silver mining town and how it grew.
Plimouth Plantation, Plymouth, Mass.
For: gaining a real understanding of the first Thanksgiving
Every schoolchild knows the story of the first Thanksgiving, when the Wampanoag Native people joined their English neighbors in 1621 to celebrate a good harvest. Nearly four centuries later, modern-day pilgrims can journey to Plimouth Plantation to relive that event.
Visitors, who book as early as June, can enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving dinner at Plimouth Plantation. All seatings are sold out for this year, but the historic site is open. Modern-day pilgrims can step aboard the surprisingly tiny Mayflower II, a replica of the original. Visit the English village, circa 1627, where costumed residents will show you their simple frame houses, gardens and livestock. At the Wampanoag Homesite, costumed Native people, some descended from those who have lived in the area for 10,000 years, will show you a bark-covered long house and much more.
The Greenbrier, White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.
For: a totally traditional Thanksgiving and a chance to get a jump on Christmas
The classic Greenbrier Hotel, with its elegant columns, gardens and history dating from 1788, celebrates holidays with gusto. At 10:30 on the day, a Service of Thanksgiving is held in the hotel’s theater. Guests can then choose a lavish lunchtime Thanksgiving buffet or a formal dinner in the evening.
Activities for the weekend abound, truly providing something for everyone. Do the 5K Turkey Trot Run, participate in a family scavenger hunt, see the Milky Way Galaxy in an indoor planetarium, and enjoy music from the Greenbrier Entertainers. And don’t miss the nightly Greenbrier Champagne Toast, accompanied by a live performance of the original “Greenbrier Waltz.” Other fun: A chance to make a wreath, and on Saturday night to enjoy caroling and hot chocolate while waiting for Santa to arrive via horse-drawn sleigh to illuminate thousands of Christmas lights on the hotel’s North Lawn.
Romantic Danube Viking River Cruise, Hungary, Austria and Germany
For: a traditional Thanksgiving accompanied by a Danube Waltz
When it comes to travel and tourism, the whole world celebrates Thanksgiving. Viking River Cruises—offering sleek new longships on this route—has created a delicious, traditional Thanksgiving menu for passengers to enjoy as they float along the Danube at the end of European autumn.
What about the menu? Turkey with caramelized vegetables grown in Germany, clementines poached in red wine from Austria, pumpkin pie from pumpkins grown in northern France—and so it goes. Thanksgiving décor is de rigueur. And outside, a chance to explore Budapest with its graceful bridges; Vienna with its magnificent Schönbrunn Palace; the lovely Benedictine abbey at Melk; the medieval city of Regensburg; and Nuremberg with its many World War II sites, including the Palace of Justice where the Nuremberg trials were held. Bookings are coming in, so move quickly or perhaps plan for next year.
Walt Disney World, Orlando, Fla.
For: a bit of history plus fabulous fireworks with Thanksgiving dinner
The four-day Thanksgiving weekend provides a great opportunity to take the kids to Walt Disney World. And you can do that and still experience Thanksgiving in every way, from turkey with all the trimmings to some real, and really fun, focus on the story of America’s founding and development.
The whole family can experience the history of America’s founding through a half-hour stage show with 10 different sets, hosted by Benjamin Franklin and salty old Mark Twain along with 33 other Audio-Animatronics figures at Epcot’s The American Adventure. They relate America’s story from the landing of the Mayflower to the Declaration of Independence to the Great Depression to the Industrial Revolution and more. Later, head off to turkey with all the trimmings (book well ahead) at the California Grill atop Disney’s Contemporary Resort to get an-up close look at the Thanksgiving-night fireworks.