Winter’s a magical time of year for me.  The holidays.  Time to reflect on the past and upcoming year.  Family and Friends.  And most importantly, the cold weather brings about so many fun elements: warm snuggly clothes, fireplaces, hot toddy’s, and lots of heated blankets!  

Now, if we’re talking about traveling in the winter, especially around Christmas time, it has to be a Winter Wonderland type of trip.  Holiday vibes, snow, fun local seasonal events, and a big log cabin type of resort. 

Having traveled to Denver and the surrounding area so many times for work in the past 15 years, you may think I was crazy to want a Winter Wonderland vacation there.  After all, what’s left to see in a place that I’ve explored so many times?  

After having this discussion with a friend, I reflected on what my ideal getaway looked like, how bad I needed to unplug, and did some research on what Denver and the two-hour radius had to offer… Colorado, it is! 

On a full moon night in the Rocky Mountain Winter…My wine bottle’s low, watching for the snow, thinkin about what I’ve been missing in the city… And I’m not missing a thing.

– REO Speedwagon


Defining the Ideal Colorado Getaway

So, what does an ideal CO Winter Wonderland getaway look like to me?  Well, it definitely wasn’t staying in the city or any of the outlying areas I had previously visited on work trips; there’s nothing spectacular about that.  Flying into, and making the greater Denver area home, is logical since there’s a major airport (cheaper airfare than, say, flying into Aspen) and has extensive highway access to really anywhere.  

I wanted a wide variety of holiday-type activities to do and the ability to relax away from the noise.  Spa treatments, good restaurants, giant fireplaces, and snow.  Lots of snow.  

I recalled a Gaylord resort being built, that you could see landing/taking off from DEN and decided to start there.  JACKPOT!  This Marriott property is literally a giant Swiss chalet outside with mountain views, a log cabin inside, and had the typical holiday extravaganzas that Gaylord’s are known for.  And it was less than an hour away from the mountains.  Time to cash in some Bonvoy points!

Logistics and Excursion Planning

So now the planning process.  While some view this as a daunting task, trust me, it’s actually fun when you know the ins and outs.  Here’s how I navigate it:

  • Find a Marriott property that suits my desires for this trip (each of these wants must be checked yes)
    • Log cabin type environment
    • Onsite restaurants 
    • Spa services
    • Holiday events
    • Stay on points is available (it usually is, but once in a great while at certain properties, it’s not)
  • Check American Airlines‘ website for availability on points from my local airport (SNA) and LAX as a backup.
    • I prefer direct flights, but overall convenience and experience are HUGE.
    • SNA (Orange County to Denver via a layover in Phoenix was my choice)
    • Points versus dollars; this trip was on points as the rates were lower than paying cash.
  • Secure a rental SUV/Truck via Hertz
    • I rarely use points for rental cars as they don’t go as far with hotels and airlines.
    • Luckily Denver has an abundance of SUVs and 4WD trucks, especially this time of year.
  • Holiday excursions
    • Fortunately, the Gaylord’s holiday lineup of events was extravagant.  I was able to buy tickets to the onsite cirque show and ice skating.  The other events, including the holiday marketplace and Santa’s Village, didn’t require reservations.  Pictures with Santa did, but I didn’t want to steal time from the kids, ya know.
    • Find local holiday events.
      • Drive through Christmas light extravaganzas
      • Seasonal markets featuring holiday themes
      • Holiday light tours
      • Botanical gardens with holiday showcases
      • Holiday specials at local ski resorts, distilleries, etc.

Travel Day

The day is here; I’m packed up with cold-weather gear and ready to fly to my Winter Wonderland experience!  The “day-of” excitement is next to none for me.  After all of these years, I still experience extreme Wanderlust, and it makes sleeping 8 hours the previous night nearly impossible; think of a child the night before Disneyland.    

Uber to SNA, check!  TSA Precheck, check!  A quick stop in the Admiral’s Lounge for a bowl of oatmeal and coffee/Bailey’s, check!  Time to FLY!  Boarding first and flying in first class is second to none.  Unfortunately, that wasn’t my reality on this flight.  

American was having a web special for flights booked with miles, and I was able to score this flight, roundtrip, for 21,000 miles.  SCORE!  So, boarding in Group 3, thanks to my Platinum status, had to suffice.  In all honesty, it’s still a good flight experience, and I was grateful to be on quickly to get a pre-takeoff nap in.  

After a quick stop in Phoenix to switch planes and grab a martini in the Admiral’s Lounge, I got to enjoy the descent into Denver over the snow-covered Rocky Mountains.  Colorado truly is a beautiful state (insert heart emoji here).  Took my secret shortcut out of the airport and was at the Hertz President’s Circle lot within 10 minutes.  Secured a 4WD Dodge Ram pickup (which comes in handy later on the trip), took advantage of expedited checkout via Clear and was off to the Gaylord.  

Upon entering the resort property, I was amazed at how much more beautiful it is in person.  Like WOW!  All of the Christmas lights alone were amazing, but the overall size and grandeur made my heart skip a beat.  Valet was great, and since I packed all my goodies in a carry-on Tumi, no help from the bellmen was needed.  Walking into the lobby was even more beautiful than the drive-in.  

Floor to ceiling (and we’re talking 4 floors worth) glass with a serene view of the snowy mountain range painted by the CO sunset melted my heart and reinforced my decisions that this was the right resort for my Winter Wonderland dream to come true.  

Checked in via the Elite Status exclusive counter, unpacked in my upgraded mountain view room (which also happened to have a view of the ice-skating rink), and was ready for a nap.  But I couldn’t sit still.  The property and all of its Christmas activities had me so excited that I couldn’t sit still.  

Downstairs bound, I was to the lobby bar for a hot toddy and a seat by the 12-foot-tall fireplace to review the onsite holiday activities.  After making a few reservations and taking in the ambiance, it was time for some Z’s to recharge.

Play Time

The first day of vacation is always my favorite because I get to soak in a new place, new experience, and really decide what I want to do and when.  This was no exception… I eased into the day by thoroughly exploring the resort property and grabbing a coffee with Bailey’s.  Every resort is so unique.  They have their own culture, smell, unique treats and drinks, and more.  

Not that I post up and watch football, but the sports bar was impressive, sporting a 75-foot by 30-foot giant LED TV for football Sunday.   The spa was gorgeous and very cozy to match the Winter Wonderland theme.  It even had a cold mineral shower you can use to wake up after the sauna/steam room. The onsite steakhouse (Old Hickory), like the rest of my experience thus far, was outstanding.  Perfect high-end steakhouse ambiance and bar.  The martinis were phenomenal, the filet was excellent, and the dessert did not disappoint.  

Day 2 I was up early and full of energy.  I hit the road for Breckenridge in my 4×4 truck for some snow and Winter vibes.  One hour in, I was in the mountains, and it was GORGEOUS!  Snow, trees, clear blue skies, it couldn’t be any better.  Or so I thought.  Upon arriving in Breckenridge, I quickly realized this would be a day of breathtaking views.  

The first stop was Breckenridge Whiskey Distillery; what can I say, I love my hot toddy’s and touring local staples.  After a brief tasting and tour, I got a private tour of the behind the scenes distilling process.  When taking tours of anything, it pays to chat up the guide and show more interest than the others in your group (it has usually yielded something extra and memorable for me).  

Three hours later (they have a restaurant, I wasn’t just sampling whiskey the entire time), I was off to explore Breckenridge.  The distillery staff gave me some great tips on what to do, the first being the free sky tram up to the Breckenridge Ski Resort.  

Such a relaxed ride and gorgeous views.  It helped that the sun was beginning to set, and the snow-covered mountains reflected the colors of the Colorado sky.  After a quick drive-through of the town, it was time for my next adventure back in the Denver area.  I could’ve stayed on that mountain top forever; maybe it was the 9,600-foot elevation that mesmerized me or the three feet of fresh snow.  I don’t know, but Breckenridge still has a special place in my heart.

To finish off my day of Winter magic, I stopped in for a drive-thru holiday light festival before heading back to the resort.  Apparently, a large amount of Denver heard about the same event because it was packed!  After a 30-minute wait, I got to enjoy a 30-minute holiday experience that was well done.  The lights, the music, the man-made snow being blasted into the air… perfect end to a perfect day.

On day 3, I decided to stay at the resort and immerse myself in all they had to offer from a holiday perspective.  And it definitely did not disappoint!  It began with a Cirque show.  Yes, a Gaylord exclusive Cirque shows that was Christmas themed.  How FREAKIN COOL is that (clearly I like Cirque shows)?!  

The show was everything you’d expect from a Cirque show (AMAZING), including intermission and food/beverage counters.  Next up, Santa’s Village.  They literally took an entire hotel wing and turned it into an old-fashioned town with vendors, food and beverage, shopping, Santa for photos, and more.  Since I buy a Christmas ornament from each place I visit, this was right up my alley and put a massive smile on my face.

On the other hand, paying $20-25 per ornament is not so much of a smile, but well worth it.  After a nap, I finished off the day with another trip to the Old Hickory Steakhouse.  This time was lambchops and a great bottle of Zinfandel.  God, I love a good steak/chop dinner (drooling as I write this).

For my last day of holiday fun in Colorado, 12/22/2109, I decided to head downtown and check out the Christkindl Market.  If you’ve never been to a German-themed holiday market, I highly recommend it!  The food was excellent (I had schnitzel), and of course, they had spiced wine and cider.  

The polka band added to the ambiance and holiday cheer, but more than anything, it was the hustle and bustle of people filled with the Christmas spirit.  Next was the Hudson Gardens, an extraordinary botanical garden with acres of Christmas lights and holiday magic.  I was so filled with joy, I bought a light-up headband and a hot apple cider.  Acres upon acres of lights, ornaments, small decorated structures, Christmas music, and water features… It was truly unique.  

Even if it’s not the holiday season, I definitely recommend checking out Hudson Gardens if you’re in the Denver area.  I stopped at a diner close to the resort and pigged out to finish the night off.  There’s nothing like comfort food and pie when it’s snowing outside, and oh my, was I in foody heaven; think modern diner with a twist on classics).  

Final Thoughts

One year later, as COVID made holiday travel less appealing, I’m still daydreaming of my memories from this trip.  It was absolutely fantastic in so many ways.  Perhaps it was the combination of cold weather, a fabulous resort, and so many holiday activities.  

Or maybe it was just experiencing Colorado for the first time purely for vacation without a work event intertwined.  Whatever it was, whatever it still is, I highly recommend taking your version of this vacation in December 2021.  

Tips & Tricks


  • The elevation makes Denver a unique environment; bring some heavy-duty hand lotion, lip balm, and body lotion.


  • Traffic is now awful in the Denver area, so plan accordingly. 
  • There is a massive uprising of independently owned, niche restaurants, so the foody seen is UNREAL.  I recommend checking out Yelp and making reservations when possible.
  • There are several very trendy hotels in downtown Denver; even if you’re not staying at one, it’s worth stopping in to grab a drink or appetizer.
  • Union Station is a must-visit.  It’s a beautiful old train station that’s been transformed into a great dining and relaxing experience.  The Kimpton Hotel Born is onsite and a great option to stay if you need a room.
  • The elevation dehydrates you faster than expected, so stay hydrated!  I recommend bringing a packet of Liquid I.V. for each day you’re in CO.


  • Bring cash!  Holiday events with several vendors usually take credit cards now, but not all of them.  And if they do, there’s a 50% chance you’ll pay for a CC processing fee.  Plus, local vendors, now more than ever, need to retain as much of our spending as possible.

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