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Travelers spending Christmas away from home

Every year at Christmas, Santa pays a visit to the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport, Maine.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Every year at Christmas, Santa pays a visit to the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport, Maine.

And if his jingling sleigh bells should wake up any of the children staying at the hotel, that's OK. It's a reassurance that Santa hasn't forgotten them, even though they're spending Christmas away from home.

To the grown-ups, inn owner Chip Gray makes a small confession.

"The sleigh bells we shake at about 1 a.m. outside are the same ones my dad fooled us with when we were little," he says.

These days, rituals like this are becoming as common at hotels as they once were at home.

"Once upon a time, big family holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving were stay-at-home traditions," Gray says. "Over time, with the faster pace of today's world, we have seen the trend of families coming here to stay and eat, so the stress of cleaning and polishing and preparing for a huge formal dinner and visit doesn't wear out Mom or Grandma. Now they come and enjoy the holiday as well as the rest of the family."

About one in 20 Americans spends Christmas away from home, according to a Maritz Research Poll that has come up with the same results three years in a row. This year's poll of 2,007 randomly selected adults was conducted by telephone in October, and while 16 percent said they travel over the holidays to get away from relatives, nearly 50 percent said they travel in order to get together with extended family.

Three generations of Karen Parrott's family were among those spending last Christmas at the Biltmore Inn in Asheville, N.C., where the staff helped hide presents for the children.

"They went running through the hotel in their bathrobes and slippers," recalled Parrott, who lives in Spartanburg, S.C. "There was a first-grader in the group, and it was very real to her, but I also have a 16-year-old who played right along. We all had that childish wonder that morning."

The only stressful part, she recalled, was getting the gifts there in secret. "My sister shipped hers to us, and my husband had them crammed into his car, which we hid until Christmas Eve," she said.

But once they all arrived, "it was quite a treat. Someone else was making up my bed and cooking wonderful meals, and we got to focus on being together."

That's a sentiment Mark Neubert, general manager of Hotel Andalucia, in Santa Barbara, Calif., understands. His guests, by "letting the experts spoil them, forgo the stress of spending the holiday season - the drama, the extra cooking! - with family."

For some families, Christmas away has become as normal as going to Grandma's house. Every other Christmas for a decade, two dozen members of the Follansbee clan have gathered at The Asilomar Conference Grounds hotel in Pacific Grove, Calif., coming from as far away as New York and Florida.

"The simplicity of the locale, in a facility without televisions, radios, or phones in the rooms, allows for the family to focus on the gathering, and not be distracted in ways that we face daily the rest of the year," said Stephen Follansbee. "We can have fun together, walking, talking, eating, working on puzzles, and playing on the grounds, or at the beach."

Rebecca Barfknecht spent last Christmas at The Asilomar with 12 others. They decorated a small tree in a living room reserved for their family, and later roasted marshmallows over a bonfire. "It was a nice, relaxed place to be together," she said.

For guests at the Biltmore Inn, one of the biggest draws is the nearby Biltmore House.

Thousands of visitors pour in to see the holiday decorations at the historic home, a virtual castle built in 1895 for George W. Vanderbilt III.

But guests at the inn, which is located on the grounds of the estate, have exclusive access to the Biltmore House on Christmas Eve from 3:30 p.m. on.

"The fireplaces are lit, and we have a candlelight tour of the estate," said Marjorie Snook, who will spend her third Christmas at the Biltmore this year. "It's cold outside, and we go for a buggy ride. They have Christmas trees all over. We don't feel like we're missing a thing."

David Workman of Winter Haven, Fla., enjoys traveling over Christmas because his son is off from school. "That's our midyear vacation," he said.

They've spent Christmas at the Biltmore, in Alaska and in Utah, but they always exchange gifts with other family members beforehand. And even though they're going away, Workman's wife and son insist on putting up a tree and lights.

"I tried to get out of that last year," Workman said, "and they were going to throw me off the moon."

If you go:

: Pacific Grove, Calif.; (831) 642-4242. Room rates for 2006 begin at $121.

; (800) 624-1575. Holiday packages start at $219.

: Freeport, Maine; (800) 342-6423. Room rates, $119-$249.

: Santa Barbara, Calif.; (877) 468-3515.