Wandering Traveler

The majesty of Yosemite in Winter

The majesty of Yosemite in Winter


9005 Ahwahnee Drive
Yosemite National Park, CA 95389

Driving through snow-laced Yosemite Valley in Winter… there’s a quiet that is richly restorative. The sound of dripping icicles and waterfalls in the distance create a gentle hum as the backdrop to what is nothing short of Ansel Adams’ photos come alive.

Two grand pianos in the lobby for pre-dinner champagne & carols hour

Two grand pianos in the lobby for pre-dinner champagne & Christmas carols

A little fog in the valley creates a mysterious aura over every peak and pine. I’m immediately swept into the magic. There are no words for the beauty of Yosemite graced with snow. I’d venture to say, if you have not seen it in Winter, you haven’t fully seen it. Having previously been here in the dead-stop traffic, 100 degree heat, body-to-body nightmare of Summer, I felt as if I was seeing it for the first time this December.

In this cradle of beauty, comes a weekend of enchantment at The Ahawhnee, Yosemite’s one “luxury” hotel since 1927. The rooms are comfy and well-kept, if not necessarily outfitted with the latest, the heat cranks high and views from some rooms are stunning. The hotel’s Great Lounge is as killer as I remember, with giant fireplaces blazing, high ceilinged-chandeliers, couches, nooks, grand pianos and the Native American décor common throughout the hotel. I could happily be ensconced by the fireplace with a good book my entire stay.

The centerpiece of this trip was to attend Yosemite’s Bracebridge Dinner, a tradition since 1927, with Ansel Adams himself an early orchestrator of its music, costumes and format. At the helm is Andrea Fulton, who has been in the program since she was five years old, when her father was running it. Meeting Andrea in her hotel room was fascinating – she’s 65 with an overabundant amount of energy and wicked sense of humor. It’s inspiring (and exhausting) to see all she does for Bracebridge: directing, starring, choosing fabrics for their lush costumes, masterminding countless aspects of the production.

The head table at Bracebridge (photo credit: Lani Spicer of Andrea Fulton Productions)

The head table at Bracebridge (photo credit: Lani Spicer of Andrea Fulton Productions)

What is Bracebridge? You can read the history on their site, but I’d sum it up as a Medieval feast at Lord Bracebridge’s manor (very loosely based on Washington Irving’s, “A Christmas at Bracebridge Hall”), complete with concert, revelry and seven-course dinner. The price tag appears insanely high: $399 per person, or included in overall hotel packages if you stay at the Ahwahnee.

At this point in my life, going as press was the way I was able to enjoy this one-of-a-kind experience smack in the center of one our great national parks, putting me fully in the Christmas spirit. It’s the kind of thing you’d save up for or splurge on. The event continues to sell out, night after night. Years ago, there was a lottery to even have the chance to buy tickets until more performances were added – now there are even Christmas Eve and Day performances.

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Red carpet lined the middle of the dining room, wreaths hung on the windows, a grand head table sat under stained glass, and a radiant glow bathed the room. After a starter relish plate  and our first glass of wine (alas, wine is not included in the price so you have to order glasses or bottles separately when you pick up dinner tickets), the room hushed and in the darkness were voices singing “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”. The chorus of actors and singers entered slowly down the red carpet, uttering that memorable lyric.

Lord Bracebridge and cast (photo credit: Lani Spicer of Andrea Fulton Productions)

Lord Bracebridge and cast (photo credit: Lani Spicer of Andrea Fulton Productions)

As key members of the cast are opera singers (many from SF Opera), their vocal precision and perfection melded into a glorious, sometimes chill-inducing choir. As a life-long music lover from a musical family (and a humble singer myself), I was impressed by the  musical selection, certainly much of it in the Olde English tradition (“The Coventry Carol”, “Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella”, et. al.) There were a few originals, like the Disney-ish, “Be Our Guest”-reminiscent song about the food, sung by Andrea Fulton’s housekeeper character and the French chef. And there were classics like a duet of “O Holy Night” (Cantique de Noel) that induced tears around me.

The theatrics of the “play” aspect are somewhat grandiose and over-the-top, more proclamation than natural verse. With the Renaissance Man’s theater background and my love for great theater, it’s certainly not our preferred style. But it seems appropriate to the format – more family-oriented, not so much a play, rather a simulated historical dinner concert.

The seven-course meal is well-paced and quite tasty considering my lowered expectations from prior meals at the Ahwahnee. Certainly it’s not the caliber of meals I’m used to in the city, but it surprised me as better than expected and a seamless part of the event. In keeping with the original themes since the 1920’s of having courses like “Boar’s Head and Baron of Beef” and “Peacock Pie”, there was Angus Beef Tenderloin for the former and Moulard Duck Breast for the latter, though I couldn’t help but wish we’d actually dined on Boar’s Head and Peacock! Toasting Wassail (to a catchy song of the same name) over a dessert of Brandy-Apricot Pudding, was a festive ending – and a fine wassail, I might add, having grown up with it every Christmas.

Reindeer roaming the park

Deer roaming the park

Though it may be outside of many of our budgets, if you save up for this rare event, you will not soon forget the glow of the evening, one that lingers as the last strains of singing are uttered, entirely fitting for the setting:

“Now the joyful bells are ringing.
All ye mountains praise the Lord!
Lift your hearts like birds awinging,
All ye mountains praise the Lord!
Now our fes’tal season bringing

Kinsman all to bide and board.

Sets our cheery voices singing,
All ye mountains praise the Lord!”