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Photo contibuted / Juanita Barbee, left, and her grandson, Ricky Smith, in the British Virgin Islands.

Despite what we've heard from Perry Como every Christmas since 1954, there are places besides home for the holidays. And plenty of people seek them out.

The cozy image of hearth and home looms large for many families during the holidays. For others, Christmas is a chance to escape for a memorable adventure and, perhaps, start a new tradition beyond the confines of the customary.

That's the thing about tradition: By its very nature, it becomes routine. And routine can slide into rut as easily as a Christmas tune can morph from merry to monotonous between Black Friday and Christmas Eve.

So some families look for ways to energize their Christmas festivities. Rather than, say, socks and candy — gifts quickly opened and soon forgotten — some families give the gift of a getaway, where the experiences stretch for days and the memories can last a lifetime.

Increasingly, Santa's bag is filled with experiential travel, mirroring a general trend away from cookie-cutter itineraries.

"Travelers want their vacations to make a mark on their lives, to be memorable and engaging," says Paula Twidale, vice president of AAA Travel. "They want to embrace and interact with locals and immerse themselves in the culture by doing something authentic to the destination or learning something new."

Maybe it's a chance to mark a destination off the bucket list, or perhaps a desire to skip the gift exchange.

Scenery often plays a part in the decision, whether it's a ski trip to assure a white Christmas or a beach getaway to trade snow and ice for surf and sand.

But there's often more at play than the sights. A holiday getaway, whether solo or as a family, can provide memories that become a touchstone for all the Christmases to come.

Here are three such stories from Chattanooga-area families who travel at Christmas.

 

'A different kind of Christmas'

Trying to come up with gift ideas for her family, especially the younger members, led Emogene Lewis to an unexpected decision for Christmas this year.

"I have two teenage grandchildren," the Signal Mountain resident says. "What do you think I can buy that they don't already have that I could even pick out?"

She considered money, but handing over cash seemed too impersonal. "You get money and it's forgotten about. You don't even remember what you spent it on," Lewis says.

Mulling over her options, she decided on a family getaway to a ski resort in Park City, Utah. She and her daughter's family will leave Dec. 21 and return home Dec. 26.

"I just came up with the idea that this might be a really nice memory for them to go someplace they've never been," says Lewis.

She's paying the full cost, including equipment rentals, and says she'll feel no other gifting obligations, except for perhaps a little spending money for her grandchildren while they're there.

"No gifts," she insists. "This is the gift to all four of them. I feel like it's a nice gift."

The resort offers a range of amenities that should give everyone in the family something to do: skiing for her daughter, Jennifer Gess; cross-country skiing for her son-in-law, Pete Gess; and skiing and snowboarding for grandchildren Madeleine, 16, and Simon, 14.

"And there's always the hot tub for me," Lewis laughs. "Hopefully, there'll be no broken bones. I don't want to be blamed for broken bones."

Where to go

With travel agent Juanita Barbee for a grandmother, it’s no surprise Richard “Ricky” Smith is an inveterate traveler. He often joins the rest of his family for destination vacations at Christmas.

Here are three of his personal recommendations for those looking to start a new holiday tradition away from home.

British Virgin Islands

Need a break from the Tennessee winter but tired of the same old beach? Chartering a catamaran through The Moorings in the British Virgin Islands may be the solution.

After a short ferry ride following your flight into St. Thomas, you will find yourself in Road Town, Tortola, the capital of the BVIs. You will then set sail on an itinerary of your choosing. While you can choose to captain the boat yourself, I would advise new visitors and inexperienced sailors to opt for a professional captain.

Most islands offer an anchor location near restaurants and attractions. Make sure to bring or rent snorkel or scuba gear — the crystal-clear water offers some of the best reef viewing in the Caribbean. Spend a day at The Indians and The Caves off Norman Island for some of the best. If you are really looking to splurge, dock for the night at Scrub Island Resort for an off-boat luxury experience.

I also recommend making the sail out to Anegada. Rent a Jeep at the dock and explore the island’s pristine, undeveloped beaches. You will most likely have the beach to yourself. A Christmas dinner of grilled, fresh-caught lobster with your toes in the sand may become your new Christmas tradition.

Oaxaca, Mexico

For the more adventurous traveler, Oaxaca is a great destination any time of the year. People in this cultural capital of Mexico take genuine pride in traditional festivities. The holiday season is no exception. Parades and celebrations occur almost daily throughout December.

One notable festival, La Noche de Rábanos (Night of the Radishes), dates to 1897. Every Dec. 23, thousands of hand-carved radishes are displayed in the main square.

Oaxaca is home to some of Mexico’s best food. Although temperatures in December average in the 70s, warming up over a cup of locally grown hot chocolate or the more traditional tejate at the numerous stands around town is a must.

For a taste of true home cooking in town, visit El Escapulario. Despite being close to the trendy Plaza Santo Domingo, the food emotes the coziness of a family member’s house with its rich moles and stews. However, some ingredients may not bring back memories of your grandma’s sweet potato casserole or aunt’s stuffing. Multiple insect species are traditional to Oaxacan cuisine, and El Escapulario utilizes them flawlessly. Usually a variant of ant or grasshopper, they can add varying flavors, from a rich earthiness to a bright citrus bite.

If you do plan to travel to Oaxaca, ask Santa to bring you some Spanish language tools. Speaking at least some Spanish will definitely help.

New Orleans

If you are not looking to travel too far, New Orleans always knows how to party, and Christmas is no exception. While less than 500 miles away, New Orleans is a world of its own with endless good times to be had.

When visiting in the winter months, I never find myself missing the tropical heat and packed streets of the summer. The real city becomes more visible when the crowds dissipate.

During the holiday season, I recommend staying at the historic Roosevelt Hotel, as it has one of the best-decorated lobbies in New Orleans. Drink a Sazerac (some say America’s first cocktail) at the bustling Sazerac Bar in the hotel’s lobby.

Before you arrive, pre-purchase tickets to Preservation Hall’s Creole Christmas shows and be treated to your favorite Christmas songs played with classic New Orleans jazz arrangements. Make sure to end your night at Snake and Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge where they pregame Christmas all year. Buy Peeve the dog a shot for me.

The Gesses will have a traditional Christmas with Pete's parents when they return home to Little Rock, Arkansas.

"It's not like they're being deprived of Christmas," Lewis says of her grandchildren. "They'll still have the Christmas tree and the whole bit. They'll do all that when they get back."

Christmas 2019 marks a transition for Lewis. Her husband, Jim, who has dementia, moved to a memory-care facility about a year ago, and she has downsized to a condo. "I'm out of the house I've been in 42 years," she says. "It's going to be a different Christmas."

Lewis says she and her husband, a retired UTC professor, traveled extensively over the years, including trips to France, Italy, England, Scotland, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Germany and Greece. "Travel is the thing we've always loved the very most," she says.

Lewis sees this ski trip as a balm of sorts for the changes she's been through in the last few months.

"It will be a different kind of Christmas," she says, "which we all need."

 

'I just wanted to get away'

After her second husband, former Hamilton County Chancellor R. Vann Owens, died in March of 2018, Betty Aquadro Owens found herself adrift as Christmas neared.

"I love being home for Christmas, but not by myself," the 88-year-old says. "Last year, I decided I just didn't want to do that. I just wanted to get away."

Owens says she and her husband traveled extensively during their almost seven years together — a second marriage for both. They visited Europe several times in their mid-80s, including a train ride across Switzerland but most often sightseeing on river cruises.

some text Photo contibuted / Betty Aquadro Owens

Every Christmas, though, they made it a point to be home, and Owens' children would gather for a big family celebration.

She considered continuing that tradition last year. She is close to her stepchildren and enjoys their company, she says, but this was her first Christmas as Owens' widow. A weeklong diversion, rather than a single day of festivity, seemed like the better option.

"I don't like to be here alone during the holidays," she says. "Although I could be with them, and I always enjoy that, last year I just wanted to get away and see something different."

So she booked a river cruise along the Chesapeake Bay, bordering Maryland and Virginia.

"I know a lot of people can't believe that I would go up there by myself and get a stateroom by myself, but there were other singles also on the ship," she says. "I found some groups that played bridge, and just enjoyed their company. I met a lot of very nice people."

Owens has three daughters — Beth Johnson, Mary Caraveo and Martha Varney — with her first husband, Lincoln Aquadro. They were high school sweethearts in Chattanooga High School's Class of 1948 and were married for 51 years before his death in 2003. Living in upstate New York at the time, she eventually reconnected with Owens, a fellow CHS alumnus, and returned home to Chattanooga when they married in 2011.

She says she sees her daughters frequently during the year, but they live in New York, Louisiana and Vermont with children, grandchildren and their own in-laws to plan holiday schedules around.

However, this Christmas, Caraveo is driving in from Louisiana for a family reunion that she wants her mother to attend. Caraveo will pick up Owens in Chattanooga, and they'll continue on to the Washington, D.C., area to spend Christmas with Caraveo's children. Owens says the trip to the nation's capital will last until the new year, and they've planned more excursions after that to visit relatives in Georgia and Florida.

"I just like to keep busy at Christmas," Owens says. "That was always a big holiday for my family."

 

'The feel of the holiday'

Juanita Barbee has traveled extensively, so much so that her hobby eventually led her to open a local travel agency, Choo Choo Travel.

Many times, the trips coincided with Christmas in locales ranging from New York City to the Caribbean to Europe. She says she's never felt like she missed out by being away from home during the holidays.

"Usually everybody's celebrating there, too, so it doesn't matter," she says. "Like, for instance, I went to Jamaica at the Fourth of July. I stayed at a Secrets [resort]. They had a full-blown Fourth of July celebration, simply because there's so many Americans. You don't have to worry about not having the feel of the holiday."

Her traveling companions include her daughter and son-in-law, Debbie and Raun Smith, grandson Ricky Smith and his girlfriend, Betsy Ulmer.

"We've gone on yachts when another couple went with us," she says, "but normally at Christmastime, we just do family." This year's destination is New Orleans, and they'll be back before Christmas.

"It's just a small trip," she says. Which means: "I think we are giving presents to each other this year."

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