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Holidays at the Beach

A day at the beach is better than a day at home — and that’s doubly true during special times of year.

Beach towns do relaxation better than anywhere else, so perhaps it’s no surprise that these coastal escapes know their way around a holiday celebration or two. No matter the season, there’s a beachfront holiday gathering that groups will love — and they just might have so much fun that they’ll want to return year after year.

When you’re planning your next group getaway, consider venturing to one of these holiday parties in paradise.

Nights of Lights/Winter Holiday Season

St. Augustine, Florida

St. Augustine, Florida, is the oldest continuously occupied city in the U.S., and many of its attractions are a nod to its past. With a 328-year-old military fort, cozy 16th-century streets and, of course, a beautiful beach, its well-preserved slice of history is a great gathering place for groups. St. Augustine takes its charm to the next level each November when it launches its annual Nights of Lights celebration. For nearly two months, the city’s buildings, homes and palm trees glow with holiday lights.

“There are more than 3 million tiny white lights that line the trees and buildings,” said Barbara Golden, communications manager at St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra and The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Nights of Lights, and St. Augustine’s season is packed with memorable events. December begins with the St. Augustine Annual Christmas Parade, followed by Colonial Night Watch, a history-inspired torchlit parade in 18th-century Colonial attire. At the annual Regatta of Lights, illuminated boats cruise along the bayfront in a competition for the best light display.

St. Augustine also hosts a lighthouse illumination, a tree lighting on the Atlantic Ocean and a live nativity event. What many visitors love most, however, is a simple scavenger hunt: the search for the one bulb among the Nights of Lights decorations that stands apart from the others.

“A fun thing that’s a little bit of behind the scenes is that as people walk through the plaza, there is one red light up in the trees that people can look for,” said Golden. “One red light out of millions.”

Tour providers range from large trolleys and trains to more intimate walking tours and even guided journeys through town on electric cars modeled to look like historic vehicles. There’s an experience for every group’s interests.

Fourth of July

Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts

Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, personifies summer with its quaint New England charm, and its Fourth of July celebrations are no exception. A hallmark of the holiday is the Edgartown Fourth of July Parade, where about 1,000 participants gather on homemade floats. The parade is followed by live music courtesy of the historic Vineyard Haven Band and a spectacular fireworks show.

The island also hosts a Fourth of July barbecue, harbor cruises and a beachfront reading of Frederick Douglass’ vital 1852 speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” delivered by cherished members of the local community.

“First-time visitors should spend the day at the beach, then check out our parade, have dinner at one of our top-notch restaurants, and then settle in on a blanket by the beach and watch the fireworks over the harbor,” said Carolina Cooney, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce.

Winter Holiday Season

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

Part of South Carolina’s marvelous Grand Strand, a 60-mile stretch of beaches along the Atlantic, Myrtle Beach may be known for spring break and long summer weekends. But each holiday season, the Grand Strand transforms into a (beachy) winter wonderland.

In downtown Myrtle Beach, guests can participate in a tree lighting, holiday market and regular live entertainment. The North Myrtle Beach Sports Complex holds a Great Christmas Light Show, which features a two-mile drive past millions of lights and 500 displays.

The season provides an opportunity to see the iconic Spanish moss and historic architecture of the South — a place so often associated with sweltering summer days — from a whole new angle. The magical display at the Grand Strand’s award-winning sculpture garden is no exception.

“Heading into December, visitors and locals alike can attend the enchanting Brookgreen Gardens’ Night of A Thousand Candles, which is one of my personal favorite events,” said Denielle Van Dyke, public relations manager at Visit Myrtle Beach. “You can grab a cup of hot cocoa, listen to carolers sing and stroll around the gorgeous sculpture gardens full of live oaks covered in beautiful lights.”

The season also brings exciting holiday-themed programming at the area’s musical revue theaters.

Winter Holiday Season

Norfolk and Virginia Beach, Virginia

Norfolk, Virginia, holds the distinction of being home to the largest naval base in the world, and nearby Virginia Beach holds a world record for the longest pleasure beach in the world (a whopping 35 miles). When the winter holidays roll around, Norfolk and Virginia Beach take that notable presence into festive mode.

“Norfolk is a great place for the holidays,” said Paige Hawsey, communications manager at Visit Norfolk.

In downtown Norfolk, the holiday season kicks off with the Grand Illumination Parade, and the following week, a holiday yule log bonfire and holiday market keep the cheer going. Norfolk’s waterfront maritime center, Nauticus, decorates its battleship, USS Wisconsin, with over 1 million lights for its annual WinterFest on The Wisconsin event.

Visitors can enjoy activities including light shows, fireside snacks at the illuminated Mistletoe Marina and a dazzling sailboat parade. The nearby Hunter House Victorian Museum shares festive reenactments and a glimpse into Victorian Christmas. Norfolk Botanical Garden transforms each night into an immersive light show, and its location right beside Norfolk International Airport makes it perfect for a last stop on the way home.

Twenty minutes east in Virginia Beach, travelers can take in a colorful light show right on the oceanfront. The lights illuminate a 600-foot tunnel, ocean creature designs and an iconic surfing Santa. Nearby, the Founders Inn and Spa, a group-oriented hotel that doubles as a conference center, lights up its English gardens with over 100,000 white lights.

Halloween/Fantasy Fest

Key West, Florida

Key West, Florida, has always been its own little universe, in the best of ways. Once home to Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and, of course, Jimmy Buffett, this paradise at the bottom of the U.S. dances to its own beat — especially when Halloween creeps up on the calendar. Every October, Key West hosts Fantasy Fest, a 10-day celebration of creativity, costumes and unabashed joy.

“In 1979, Fantasy Fest was created by a group of local business owners to entice visitors to Key West and kick start our ‘winter season’ a bit earlier,” said Nadene Grossman-Orr, festival director of Fantasy Fest Key West. “With an eye on Halloween, they created a fanciful costuming celebration and threw a parade the last week in October.”

The plan worked: Since the ’70s, Fantasy Fest has become a legendary event. Every day of the fest brings an array of parades and parties to choose from. Favorites include a vibrant Bahamian street fair called the Goombay Festival, the annual Zombie Bike Ride and a Royal Coronation event, where guests vote for the king and queen of Fantasy Fest. Locals join in on the festivities to bring the fun to life.

“Our residents work for months building floats, perfecting costumes, and decorating their homes and businesses for our Key West Chamber of Commerce Fantasy Façade Competition,” said Grossman-Orr.

The party culminates in an epic final weekend that centers on the Fantasy Fest Parade. Handing out Halloween candy at home is quaint, but it doesn’t hold a candle to taking to the streets of Key West alongside 70,000 creatively costumed new friends.

St. Patrick’s Day Parade

Montauk, New York

Located on Long Island’s South Fork with nothing but ocean to its east, Montauk, New York, is sometimes referred to as “the end of the world.” This beautiful beach town is known for its breathtaking ocean views, top-notch fishing and unmatched hospitality. Every March, when other Northern beach towns are sleeping, Montauk hosts one of the most unique and vibrant St. Patrick’s Day parades in the country.

The celebration has been a local favorite since 1963.

“The first parade was just a few guys,” said Brian Matthews, president of Montauk Friends of Erin, the charitable organization that organizes the parade. “It’s gotten bigger since then and has become the biggest parade in the state outside of New York City.”

The parade is the culmination of three days of festivities on the last weekend of March. An estimated 40,000 spectators cheer on the celebration. To keep crowds warm, the Montauk Chamber of Commerce famously serves mugs of hot soup made by local restaurants.

For groups seeking a bright spot on the tail-end of the chilly months, this event is an ideal mood lifter.

“In Montauk it gets a little cold and sleepy in the winter,” Matthews said. “So as a town that is heavily dependent on tourism and tourist dollars, it’s a great way to get everybody out and about and to let everybody stretch their legs after a long winter.”