On a recent Friday evening, a group of children skated around an ice rink surrounded by holiday lights and frosted Christmas trees as white flakes swirled around them overhead. Surrounding the rink, small groups of friends and family sipped mulled wine and dined on cheese fondue, enjoying the ambiance of wooden chalets where fire pits burned brightly.
Although this scene sounds more like a mountain ski resort than a Peninsula destination, this winter wonderland is taking place every weekend at Après Village & Skate Rink in East Palo Alto during the holiday season.
This year is the third time since 2019 the Four Seasons Silicon Valley hotel has hosted the seasonal pop-up on its outdoor terrace, transforming the space with semi-private wooden chalets, holiday foods, a sweet shop, fake snow and other holiday decor. This season, the European-style Christmas village includes a skating rink where 25 guests at a time can reserve a 45-minute session on the ice.
Adora Manalo, the hotel's general manager, said it's common for families to come to Après Village to take their holiday photos inside the winter sleigh and snow globe or in front of the 18-foot-tall Christmas tree, where a machine blows imitation snow flurries as an added touch.
"It's hard to believe we're in Palo Alto," said Joty Brar, a resident of the Emerald Hills neighborhood in unincorporated San Mateo County. Her husband, Nav Hayer, agreed. They came to celebrate her birthday as a family occasion, bringing along their two daughters, ages 4 and 5, for dinner and an evening of skating.
"Usually, our kids are tired of something after five minutes, but we've been here an hour now, and they're still happy," Hayer said, before returning to the rink to help his daughters.
Similarly, Roberto and Chelon Blanco traveled from San Jose to enjoy the experience of dinner and skating as a family, with their three children, ages 14, 12 and 10. Chelon learned about Après Village from her cousin's Instagram account and immediately booked a chalet, noting that the next availability wasn't until January.
"It's so cool to have this in the Bay Area. It's the same atmosphere as Tahoe but without the snow," she said.
Hotel manager Richard Lanaud, who was part of the creative team that launched the village concept, said many of the features here were inspired by memories of his childhood stays at resorts in the French Alps.
"We said, 'It's true that California is a magical place to live, but we are missing that snow feeling, that ski resort feeling,'" he said.
The staff worked together to create a ski resort atmosphere with heavy and warm comfort food and Christmas trees and lights.
Manalo said the skating rink seems to appeal to just about all of their guests, especially couples and families with young children.
Along with a sweet shop serving fresh doughnuts near the entrance, the pop-up features a full menu with family-style dishes like fondue and French poutine (cheese curds topped with a brown gravy) and desserts like made-from-scratch s'mores. All the items were designed to "bring the heart of the alps" to Après Village, chef de cuisine Eduardo Zerpa said. There's also a bar that serves holiday-themed hot beverages like mulled wine.
Lanaud stressed that the menu evokes the mountainside, ski-resort atmosphere.
"The food and beverage aspect is really what puts it together and puts you in where you are," he said.
Friends Victoria Most, from Oakland, and Anita Pidgeon, from Berkeley, were especially drawn to the decor and Alpine-inspired menu.
"We're ladies who fancy Christmas," Most laughed.
"We decided to try something new and kick off our holidays with a faux ski experience without having to actually ski," Pidgeon said.
"The atmosphere is great," Most agreed.
"And so is the food, which is surprisingly filling," Pidgeon added.
Zerpa said the menu is family-focused to encourage guests to linger and get the most out of Après Village.
"We want people to stay here and feel the warmth of the fire, feel the warmth of the food," he said.
Along with featuring mostly hot cocktails, Lanaud said, Après Village's emphasis on shareable meals makes for a cozy experience.
"It's not your traditional restaurant where everybody is going to pick an appetizer and a main course," he said. "One person at the table says, 'What are we trying today?'"
Lanaud said he hopes to add a market where visitors can walk around and shop at outdoor boutiques.
"I don't have everything drawn out on paper, but that is my next vision to bring (Après Village) one step closer to the perfection of a ski resort," he said. "That's what I'm missing."
From now through Feb. 25, Après Village will be open to the public from 4 to 9 p.m. Fridays through Sundays. Reservations are required. Skating sessions, which include the rental of a pair of skates, are $30 for adults and $20 for children between the ages of 6 and 12.
The village hosts private events during the week. Après Village's chalets are sold out through the end of December, but terrace tables are still available. For more information and to reserve an evening at Après Village, go to fourseasons.com.