From boat parades to a holiday train, these coastal attractions celebrate the spirit of the season.
Newport Beach, California
Thousands head to Balboa Island every year for this century-old maritime tradition. Swanky yachts, small schooners, and even kayaks deck their hulls and parade through Newport Harbor. Landlubbers can catch the action from almost anywhere on shore. Reserve a table at Balboa Bay Club & Resort, The Chart House, or another waterfront restaurant for an evening of “light” dining. And be sure to catch the fireworks show on the final night of the parade; 949/729-4400 or christmasboatparade.com.
Charleston, South Carolina
James Island County Park lights up for this Lowcountry celebration. A three-mile driving tour passes millions of twinkling lights. Park your car and roast marshmallows around one of the fire pits, visit Santa’s Village for the Enchanted Walking Trail and a 50-ton sand sculpture, or take a ride on the old-fashioned carousel; 843/795-4386 or holidayfestivaloflights.com.
The Alaska Railroad welcomes the season with this excursion through Anchorage. Mr. and Mrs. Claus, carolers, and elves entertain passengers on their way from Anchorage to Indian; 907/265-2494 or alaskarailroad.com.
Shore Acres State Park, Oregon
Friends of Shore Acres had no idea they were starting a tradition 21 years ago when they strung a few lights on a blufftop park overlooking the Pacific. Today tens of thousands visit Coos Bay, touring gardens filled with holiday and maritime luminarias open from Thanksgiving to New Year's Eve. Among the highlights, an animated life-size whale and a formal landscaping display; 541/888-3732 or shoreacres.net.
New Orleans, Louisiana
This month-long Creole Christmas offers something for everyone: cooking demonstrations with area chefs, caroling in Jackson Square, Cirque du Soleil's Cirque Dreams Holidaze show, holiday home tours, and Reveillon dinners (an 1800s Creole tradition) at classic New Orleans restaurants. Christmas Eve highlights include a cruise on the steamboat Natchez and a Christmas Eve Bonfire Adventure. Insider’s tip: Look for “Papa Noel” discounted room rates at area hotels throughout the month; 504/522-5730, fqfi.org/christmas or neworleansonline.com.
St. Augustine, Florida
There’s no better time to visit the nation’s oldest city. Climb the St. Augustine Lighthouse for a bird’s-eye view of the town lit for Nights of Lights, a display of 2 million twinkling bulbs that remains through December. Enjoy caroling, hot apple cider and homemade cookies as you take in the glimmering show. Don't miss the Annual Christmas parade. It's one of the largest parades in North Florida complete with floats, marching bands, horses, and of course, Santa's arrival; 800/653-2489 or getaway4florida.com.
Each night from the end of November through December 23, Argosy Cruises takes passengers on a tour filled with music and cheer. Aboard the Christmas Ship, Argosy’s Spirit of Seattle, passengers visit with the man in red and sing along with carolers. The ship leads a fleet of parading vessels, broadcasting carols along the way. Visitors can also catch the concert on land at one of several viewing areas along Puget Sound; 888/623-1445 or argosycruises.com.
Punta Gorda, Florida
No white Christmas here. Instead, this town hosts a county-wide outdoor party with numerous activities throughout the month that take advantage of December’s mid-70s temperatures. Take a canal cruise to view docks and homes lit up for the season. Enjoy the annual Christmas parade and don't miss downtown's Holly Days celebration; 800/652-6090 or charlotteharbortravel.com.
In early December, this town on the southern shore of Lake Erie re-creates a Great Lakes tradition. The Christmas Tree Ship completes a voyage that ended in disaster in 1887 when a fishing schooner sank in a December storm. A local icebreaker unloads its cut-spruce cargo in historic Harbour Town. Pick out the perfect tree, then enjoy live music, lunch with Santa, and a snack of pumpkin rolls, a local delicacy made with pumpkin bread rolled around a sweet cream-cheese filling; 440/522-0433 or vermilionohio.com.
Photo: John Piekos via Flickr
Visit this Martha’s Vineyard town and you can’t help but get in the holiday spirit. Victorian inns trimmed in red and green hold open-house tours. Donaroma’s Nursery holds a wreath-making workshop for long-lasting holiday accents. Warm up with a hearty bowl at the annual chowder contest. Other highlights include the parade down Main Street, and tree lighting and carols at the Village Green; edgartownboardoftrade.com.