Nine Fabulous Christmas Destinations

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The New York Botanical Garden has its Winter Wonderland Ball on December 13, and its doors are open for its annual holiday train show.

But where else can people go to get a dose of color, flowers, Christmas decor and all the rest? Luckily, many cities have holiday flower shows, some of them dating back a hundred years, and almost all connected to legacy greenhouses from the Victorian era in Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Chicago and St. Paul. In addition there are fine mansions with garden shows, and mansions with interior decorations and greenhouses at colleges like Smith and Dartmouth (ski areas) that offer tropical warmth, brilliant blooms and humidity.


The Allan Gardens Winter Flower Show, Toronto, Canada

They believe in poinsettias in Allan Gardens’ six green houses, and will have 30 different kinds, but they have other things too: cyclamen, hibiscus, cactus, orchids, of course and, get used to this: a model railroad. This conservatory does have turtles, which will please the youngsters, who might be bored with bromeliads or spotting the occasional wooden reindeer. Check the schedule for carolers, horse drawn carriages and other special events. You can practice your Portuguese with this more-recent video. The Winter Flower Show runs through January 6, 2020.

The Chicago Botanic Garden, Chicago, Illinois

For the first year, the Chicago Botanic Garden is pairing with Sony Music to present Lightscape, a mile-long path through the gardens filled with lights, color and singing trees, even a waterfall of light, the “cathedral” shown above. To the best of our knowledge, no model train. And the indoor plants are not on the menu. But you will see the tulip, below, and there will be marshmallows at the end to toast over a fire. Admission, through January 5.

Como Park Conservatory Holiday Flower Show, St. Paul, Minnesota

People in Minnesota know what winter is like, and they need flowers. They want to see poinsettias, and since 1925 their beloved Como Park Conservatory has given them hundreds. This year the choice is ice pick poinsettia, the one that looks like a parrot tulip, along with the eye-popping kalanchoe cher, eucalyptus and the purple-foliage plant Persian shield, a combination that would keep someone warm in an ice fishing house without a heater. The show, which is Como Park Conservatory’s best attended every year – perhaps folks are just trying to get out of the cold – runs through December 31.

Phipps Holiday Magic: Flower Show & Light Garden, Pittsburgh, PA

Of all the winter holiday flower shows, this one is the biggie, with the admission charge and rules to match. Tickets must be purchased in advance, and are timed for entry, to ensure that everyone moves through smick-smack. There are holiday glasses that turn LED lights into snowflakes, ice towers, chandeliers, a winter light garden and critters made out of plant materials. A 22-foot tall Fraser fir is just one of the Christmas trees; this year is a festival of trees. There are also wreaths, poinsettias, amaryllis, orchids and … wait for it … a model railway train. It’s all very grand, and set in a nine-room conservatory that opened in 1893. The event runs through January 12.


Buffalo Poinsettia and Railway Exhibit, Buffalo, New York

The people at the Buffalo Botanical Gardens come right out and say it: poinsettias. And a model railway. There really is something about these conservatories and their model railroads. Is it that benefactors who contribute the money for great conservatories also have model trail collections, and nowhere to put them? That it’s tempting to run railroad tracks around all those plants? The poinsettias here promise to be lime green and magenta as well as the usual white, pink and red. Through January 5. Admission is charged, with December 27 a special $1 day.


                                  Indoor Christmas Decor

 A Longwood Christmas at Longwood Gardens, Philadelphia

Luckily, Longwood has an interactive map to help visitors navigate their way through their extended stay, which is well earned. Any visit might include illuminated trees for visits that stretch into dark, which seem to be the point; so many Christmas trees in so  many locations we’re not sure there is an actual count; a spectacular set design, with giant ribbons and ornaments, in the exhibition hall; a children’s garden; an outdoor tree house (one of three) decorated in Finnish style; metallic ornaments on the succulents in every room of the Peirce du Pont house; lighted boardwalks and a lighted fountain display; several dining options and, wait for it, a garden railway, weather permitting. Visitors should dress for the outdoors and wear comfortable shoes. There are many accommodations for the handicapped. Admission must be in advance and often sells out early. The Longwood Christmas event runs through January 5, 2020. Parking is available on site and there are shuttles from Kennett Square.

The Mansions at Newport, Rhode Island

In the excruciating language of the rich, these castles were called “cottages” and prized for their location near the brisk winds off Newport. Great for sailing, not so good for tennis, so they retreated to the Newport Casino for that. Four of them will be open for gawking until January 1, through the purchase of a “passport” from the Preservation Society of Newport County. Two of them were owned by Vanderbilts (Cornelius and William). The other two by a silver heiress from Nevada and a coal magnet from Philadelphia. Pretty much everyone agrees that the silver heiress, Tessie Oelrichs, built the prettiest, Rosecliff, which was designed by Stanford White. It is sited on the former home of a noted horticulturist who indeed grew roses there, and has been used as a location for several movies, including “The Great Gatsby” starring Robert Redford. Back to Christmas.

It has been estimated that the four mansions display a total of 1,000 poinsettias. The Breakers, seen at bottom, is no doubt the grandest. It was the home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, grandson of the founder of the dynasty. Cornelius and his wife had a home in New York City as well, a 130-room mansion at 57th and Fifth Avenue, where Bergdoft Goodman stands. The Breakers is the No. 1 tourist draw in Rhode Island.

This year three of the mansions, the Elms, the Breakers and Marble House, below, will have gingerbread house replicas on display. Instagram moment! (Rosecliff always seems to march to a different drummer.) Nighttime lighting is spectacular. This is a drive-it-yourself visit, and all four mansions are “partially handicapped accessible.”

Staatsburg – A Gilded Age Christmas

Overlooking the Hudson River, this mansion, which began life as Greek-Revival, was turned into Beaux-Arts when it was finished in the Gilded Age, in 1896. The Ogden Mills family combined money made in banks, railroads and mines, and the lady of the house was Ruth Livingston Mills, the Livingstons once being owners of a million acres in the Hudson Valley. This was just one house the Ogden Mills family owned, and they used it just in the fall, hunting season. But still it was large enough, with 65 rooms and 14 bathrooms, to entertain 80 guests. For Christmas, it is turned out as it would be for one of their late fall hunts, one approaching the Christmas season. It is open December 12 through 15, December 19 through 22, and December 26 through 31, from 11 am to 3 pm. Modest admission fee.

The Bartow-Pell Mansion, a Victorian Christmas in the Bronx

It is possible to visit a country mansion decked out for a Victorian Christmas, and stay inside New York City. The little-known Bartow-Pell Mansion sits on Pelham Bay, and has a history that goes back to the earliest settlement of New York. The Hutchinson Parkway is named for Anne Hutchinson, a martyred mother of 15 who was killed by a Native American tribe incensed by a misguided Dutch leader in New Amsterdam. Anne Hutchinson, a religious leader from Boston, has been called the most famous – or infamous – woman in English Colonial History. And the Lenape Indian who killed her in 1653 proudly signed the deed to this property, her property, over to Thomas Pell in 1654, oddly using a variation of her name.

The estate was originally 50,000 acres. By the time the Bartow in the equation came along it was a mere 220 acres. It was Bartow who built the existing Greek Revival mansion in 1842. New York City acquired the property, along with the acreage that makes up Pelham Bay Park, in 1888. In 1914, the International Garden Club took over the job of reviving and redesigning the gardens, which if there is no snow are beautiful even in winter. The garden and grounds are open daily from 8:30 a.m. to dusk

There is good news and bad news about the Bartow-Pell Mansion’s Victorian Christmas. The month of December is packed with special events: A chance to tour the mansion by candlelight with costumed docents highlighting 19th-century holiday traditions while Dickens Victorian Carolers sing and guests enjoy wassail and holiday snacks in the Conservatory; a teddy bear afternoon tea with a child-approved, holiday-themed menu, a sing-along and story time with the Bartow snow queen; plus another day when children, age 4 and up, can explore the mansion and decorate holiday cookies to take home.

The bad news is that those special December events are all booked up.

The good news is that there are many holiday trees decorated in Victorian style, and that the mansion is festive indeed. The mansion is open on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays from 12 to 4 p.m. Admission, $8, $6 seniors and students, children under 6 free. Guided tours are offered on weekends at 12:15, 1:15, and 2:15 p.m. It is located at 895 Shore Road, Pelham Bay Park, the Bronx. There is convenient parking, but no mass transit nearby.


Linda Lee

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