I lived briefly on Nantucket in the early nineties, and for years afterward, friends I made there would ask in November if I was coming back for “the Stroll.” They were referring to the first weekend in December when the summer people return to the island to shop, drink hot toddies, and stroll the cobbled streets admiring the light show.
Nantucket in December is a far cry from the sun-drenched summer oasis many people know. On this small island thirty miles off the mainland, winter hits sooner and harder than it does in nearby Boston. Most hotels and restaurants shut down by October, but many reopen for the holiday season. It really is the quintessential Old New England Christmas experience, complete with top-hatted carolers and wandering musicians. If you can’t make the actual stroll, Nantucket Noel now lasts the entire month preceding Christmas. Carlisle House Inn is offering 20 percent off holiday rates if you book by December 10. — Cathleen McCarthy
Every year or two, I return to Cape May, NJ in winter— oddly tugged by its quiet promise of Victoriana gone mad, its nostalgic plea to remember ghosts of Christmases past (or, more likely, ones that never were). The town’s famed “painted ladies,” its bed-and-breakfast inns, virtually heave with gingerbread (this time of the literal variety), and the scent of pine and cinnamon, of nutmeg and peppermint permeates the ocean-chilled air.
This seaside town celebrates one last hurrah ’round about now before virtually closing down until Memorial Day. Once more, the fudge-samplers are out, the lanterns are lit, and the horsedrawn carriages clip-clop through darkened streets. Those rides, and the trolleys and the walking tours, come with holiday-tinged cant (the ghost story, the Victorian tales, the Christmas carols), but they never hit you over the head in Cape May. Not for this place, the garish, the commercial, the rowdy. Even the holiday parade, which starts a short walk away in West Cape May, is charmingly small-town. Strutting mummers, tooting fire engines, marching bands, and, yes, the lima bean king and queen, take part.
When the quaint and the Victorian get to be too too, I head for a Grand Marnier — usually accompanied by one of a roster of accomplished pianists — before the fireplace at the sophisticated and lively Brown Room in Congress Hall, Cape May’s classic hotel. As the wind roars outside, there’s an unspoken camaraderie that’s pretty hard to find in the loud jangle of so many other public spaces. It’s what I think the holiday season should be all about. — JoAnn Greco