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It is two days before Christmas and we couldn't be farther from a mall or a computer feverishly buying last-minute gifts. I'm not wrapping, cooking or hosting a crowd of out-of-town guests either.
Instead, my husband and I, our 21-year-old daughter, Melanie, and our friend, Enesi Domi, 14, who lives in the Bronx, are taking a leisurely walk in the snow in New Hampshire's White Mountains with other families -- micro crampons on our feet, an affable guide from the Appalachian Mountain Club's Highlands Center at our side, who is explaining the difference between spruce and balsam trees.
Did I mention that here we can borrow everything we need at no charge -- an extra layer of clothing, micro spikes that made hiking on the snow-packed trail a breeze, hiking poles and boots for the kids and backpacks to carry babies and toddlers. That's no small thing for a family like the Canes who come from Florida and "never have snow at home," much less winter gear, said 9-year-old Rayland Cane. He especially liked the chance to make "snow cream" and was excited for the big New Year's Eve bonfire.
No one cares that they share bathrooms or have no TV in the rooms -- it is part of the experience, they explain, gathering in front of the fire for a spirited game of Trivial Pursuit, or reading the kids a holiday story.
In case you are wondering, the needles on the spruce are spiky -- thus "spiky spruce" and the needles on the balsam are soft ("friendly fir"). After the hike, there's hot chocolate and holiday cookie decorating.
Some families gather somewhere like this every year for the holidays for a unique family tradition. Grandmothers whisper that they're glad for the respite from cooking and cleaning; Parents -- and kids -- are glad to focus on just being together.
Whether it is an annual tradition or a once-in-a-lifetime holiday, like the week one family I talked to spent at a Tuscan villa last Christmas (read what I wrote about that here), spending the holiday away from home together changes the focus from gifts to experiences and memories.
"Our investment counselor told us the kids won't remember how much money we give them but will remember what we do with them," said Cynthia Dunbar from Massachusetts, here with her husband Mark and their two grown daughters and sons-in-law.
"Great Christmas gift," offered their 24-year-old daughter Shayla -- the gift included spa treatments at the nearby Omni Mount Washington Resort.
"It's great you spend the time with the kids instead of running around shopping," said another mom from Boston I met at the Mount Washington Resort, a fixture here since 1902. The resort sits at the base of Mount Washington and is surrounded by the White Mountain National Forest and Bretton Woods, New Hampshire's largest ski area. "It totally de-stresses the holiday," she added.
It couldn't be prettier either -- the big white hotel at the base of Mount Washington, the chance to play in the snow, whether you want to ski, snowboard, cross-country ski or snowshoe or dogsled, courtesy of Muddy Paw Sled Dog Kennel. At Muddy Paw, a team of rescue dogs includes brothers Gonzo and Poncho. Gonzo is totally blind but runs beside his brother, who acts as his seeing-eye dog.
My family loved the Bretton Woods Ski Area Canopy Tour, which descends more than 1,000 feet across a series of treetop zip lines and includes two hikes across suspension bridges way up in the trees and a couple of rappelling experiences.
There are plenty of indoor activities for the kids -- candy bar bingo, music scavenger hunts, movies -- and for the adults wine tasting and a gargantuan spa.
For Billy Preti and his family the trip to the Mount Washington Resort was a way to celebrate the holiday without being sad that his father-in-law had died. "No one wanted to be home this year," he said. Instead, today he and his nephew were zip-lining while his son and brother-in-law were skiing and the women were at the spa. "It's a different Christmas," he said smiling.
And for Lorel Troy, who is from Southern California, it was a way to spend the holidays with her Boston-based son who didn't have enough time off from work to join the rest of the family in California. "This is much better than sitting around the house while they watch football," she said of her first visit to this area. "Everyone is having a good time."
How could they not? Families are relaxing in front of the fire in the lobby that is decorated to the hilt and posing for pictures in front of the Christmas trees. Luggage carts are piled with gifts.
There's an indoor climbing wall, indoor and outdoor pools, the chance to make your own snowflakes or pet rocks, even the chance (for a fee) to have elves tuck in the kids.
At the Bretton Woods Ski Resort families are congratulating themselves on escaping the holiday craziness at home. "Being here is our gift," said Miriam Fein-Cole, who is from Lexington, Mass. "It's nice family time."
"It's the first time we did this," said Lori Jameson, here with her husband and 11-year-old. "Next year we're going to do it again -- and stay longer."
We end our day with the oh-so-fancy three-course Christmas Eve dinner in the main dining room that is a throwback to earlier times. Everyone is dressed up -- little girls dancing with their dads and grandfathers, moms dancing with their sons.
Santa hasn't forgotten us, even away from home. When we wake up in the morning, there is a red stocking outside our room filled with treats.