Warm-Weather Holiday Getaways

More than your heart will melt at these five balmy yuletide destinations.

Pensacola (Shutterstock)

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If you like nothing better than feeling your toes go numb and seeing your breath freeze as you shiver through the town square holiday tree lighting, then maybe you should read no further. For the rest of us, there’s a lot to be said for celebrating the season while wearing a light top or windbreaker, in a place where the coldest thing on hand is a nice frozen margarita.

Fredericksburg, Texas

December Temperatures: 50s-70s

The Weihnachtspyramide in Fredericksburg (Photo by Trish Rawls)

Under the dim light of a crescent moon, a rotating 26-foot-tall German Weihnachtspyramide (Christmas Pyramid) — populated by hand-carved Bavarian figures representing the narrative of the Nativity— rises from the small town’s century-and-a-half old marktplatz.

A few yards away, the octagonal Vereins Kirche (People’s Church) — its cornerstone laid in 1846 — stands silhouetted against the sky, the building’s modest details dimly visible thanks to the tens of thousands of holiday lights that sway in the branches of the town square’s trees.

And through the December air, from a choir of hidden loudspeakers, floats the sound of a timeless German Christmas hymn: O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum / wie treu sind deine Blätter…”

On this evening, I could at first blush be visiting any number of Germany’s Rhine River Christmas market towns. But from experience I can tell you I’d never be strolling through Heidelberg this time of year wearing a thin jacket and baseball cap.

Also, most likely the guy behind me wouldn’t be greeting a friend with the words, “How ’bout them Cowboys?”

Instead of Deutschland, I am in Texas hill country, specifically the town of Fredericksburg, settled by German immigrants nearly two centuries ago and still proudly Germanic in style and substance.

Scattered around the town of 11,000 decorated with wreaths and window candles, are a few dozen century-old “Sunday Houses,” modest dwellings — most with exterior stairways to their second-floor bedrooms. They were built by farmers and ranchers who came to town with their families for weekend services at the Vereins Kirche. Over time, that weekly influx made Fredericksburg the main shopping center for the region — and that’s why Main Street is lined with 150 shops in buildings that date back a century or more.

As I wander down Main Street — passing little establishments like Flying Cow Tallow and Caliche Coffee, their windows glowing with Christmas cheer — I notice there’s not a J. Crew or Old Navy to be found. In fact, no franchises of any kind are allowed in this National Historic District; all these holiday decoration-festooned shops are owned and operated by local merchants, many of whom trace their roots back to the town’s beginnings.

’Tis the season to the jolly, indeed.

Mobile, Alabama

December Temperatures: 60s-70s

Bellingrath Gardens (Shutterstock)

The Gulf breezes keep the temperatures decidedly un-Christmasy in this coastal city,  but that doesn’t prevent the genteel folks of Mobile from partying hearty Yuletide style. After all, they were celebrating Mardi Gras here decades before their friends up the coast in New Orleans followed suit.

Mobilians (that’s what they call themselves, honest) begin gathering around their enormous city Christmas Tree in mid-November. They like to dress up as elves and roller skate in Bienville Square — a tribute to Mobile’s late, lamented winter Elfapalooza, an annual attempt that tried for years (in vain) to break the Guinness World Record for people dressed as Santa’s elves.

There are more sedate Yuletide pleasures in and around Mobile. The Cascading Chrysanthemums at 95-acre Bellingrath Gardens may be fading after their November explosion, but they’ve been joined by some 3 million lights, 15 holiday scenes and 1,100 smaller set pieces. The garden’s centerpiece is the 15-room, 10,500 square-foot Belingrath Home, which decks its halls with boughs of holly, and a whole lot more.

St. Augustine, Florida

December Temperatures: 70s-80s

The Lightner Museum (Shutterstock)

They’ve been celebrating Christmas in America’s oldest city for 450 years or so, and maybe that’s why they’ve got so darned many decorations: The Nights of Lights display stretches some 20 blocks through St. Augustine’s historic district.

From Plaza de la Constitución to the Lightner Museum, some 3 million white lights frame colonial era buildings, wind up swaying palm trees, and play peek-a-boo in the shrubbery. The narrow streets can get a little mobbed on weekends, so one of the best views is from the Bridge of Lions, near the Bayfront. Or stop in for a drink with a view at The Casablanca Inn or Mehan’s, near the bridge. It’s a display that would make Clark Griswold proud.

Probably the best news is, there’s no rush: St. Augustine leaves their light extravaganza up all the way through January. You would, too, if you had to take ’em all down.

And, no, you’re not seeing things: People really are walking around with cups of hot cocoa, despite the temperatures. Some traditions die hard.

New Orleans, Louisiana

December Temperatures: 50-71

Large wood structures along the levees (Cheryl Gerber/NewOrleans.com)

There’s no way Santa misses New Orleans this — or any other — Christmas. Not with this annual array of blazing, sparking, crackling, 20-foot-high burning wood structures stretching for as far as the eye can see along the levees that (for the most part) keep the Mississippi River from rolling into town.

No one really knows how many families lug lumber up these riverbanks to construct elaborate wood designs — ranging from enormous pyramids to lovingly rendered alligators — on the levees’ crests. But for well over a century, from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, all along the Great River Road, the riverscape has become a festive inferno each and every Christmas Eve.

As the fires burn, the revelers wander from pyre to pyre, visiting and wishing each other Season’s Greetings. You can join them — or you can simply drive along the River Roads on either bank, soaking in the celebration and smelling the scents of the season.

Pensacola, Florida

December Temperatures: 50-75

Winterfest (Uploaded to YouTube by Winterfest Trolley Tours)

The first European settlers arrived in present-day Pensacola in August, 1559 — and abandoned it almost immediately, declaring it uninhabitable. Of course, had they stuck around until December, it might have been a different story. Today, thanks to its locale and mild winter climate, the town is downright irresistible, especially during the holidays.

These days, Pensacola’s Winterfest turns the whole town into one big theatrical experience, with rotating 25-minute shows that unfold on themed trolleys that travel the streets from scene to scene. Depending on the day, you’ll find A Christmas Carol, The Polar Express, The Grinch, and A Cajun Christmas tours leaving from the middle of town.

Plus, miracle of miracles, each tour ends up in a raging snowstorm. Not the real thing, of course, but Pensacolians take what they can get: the last time their city got two inches of snow in one day was back in 1954.

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