5 Beach Destinations for a Winter Holiday

As the year comes to an end, the winter holidays emerge to tie a festive bow over the past 12 months. For many, this season signals a break from work and school, and one of the last opportunities to use your hard-earned vacation days.

Although mostly jovial, this time of year can be a tad taxing, with all its tasks, traditions and lists — but it doesn’t have to be. Throw your worries to the ocean wind and opt for a new tradition: a stress-free holiday beach getaway at one of these five destinations.

Miami, Florida

Start inland at Santa’s Enchanted Forest in Tropical Park, one of the world’s largest holiday theme parks, open from early November through about the first week of January. Filled with millions of lights and fun attractions — like Surfing Santa — it’s easy to catch this coastal town’s flair for the season.

Love a good festive glow? Drive to the Miami Zoo to see full-scale light displays of your favorite animals. During Zoo Lights each weekend in December, stroll the zoo’s grounds, ride the hippo slide or enjoy the bright views from a boat on Snowman’s River. For more sparkle, head to the Miami Lantern Festival at Miami-Dade County Fair and Exposition. From the end of November to mid-January, this celebration of Chinese culture boasts acrobats, scavenger hunts, opportunities to mine for emeralds and, of course, massive handcrafted lanterns.

Lantern Lights Made of silky cloth, lanterns at this Miami festival can range from 30 to 300 feet tall.


Maui, Hawaii

  • Closest Airport: Kahului Airport in Maui County, on the island’s north-central coast
  • Average Temperature Range: 69–82 F in November, 67–80 F in December
  • Best Beach for Relaxing: Ka’anapali Beach

Peak whale watching season in Maui kicks off in December — just in time for a family holiday getaway. Watch for these majestic creatures from the shore or sign up for a tour by boat. Consider a two-hour PacWhale Eco-Adventures cruise, which are led by naturalists and depart several times a day from Dec. 1 through April 30 from both Ma‘alaea and Lahaina.

Back on land in Lahaina, holiday vacationers are in for a treat at the town’s historic banyan tree. Planted in 1873 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first Protestant mission there, this massive tree in West Maui now sprawls over more than half an acre, its canopy decked out with 6,500 lights to show off its holiday best.

Catch Santa at Wailea, Ka’anapali and Polo beaches throughout the season, or watch underwater presentations during Scuba Claus dives at the Maui Ocean Center. Check the center’s event schedule for details on its special holiday-themed events.

Bonus: Maui doesn’t have a monopoly on the Rainbow State’s winter festivities. Consider turning your holiday vacation into a two-for-one. Fly into Kauai, Oahu or Hawaii (the Big Island), pick up your rental car and continue discovering Hawaii’s seasonal appeal and attractions, both on and off the beach. 

Sand Snowman Embrace the holiday spirit by building a sand-man on the beach; throw a lei around his neck to really capture your Hawaii holiday getaway.

 

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

There’s nothing like the warm glow of 4,500 hand-lit candles to get you into the holiday spirit. See this spectacle during Brookgreen Gardens’ annual Nights of a Thousand Candles, taking place most December weekends. Warm up with hot apple cider as you meander Brookgreen’s glowing paths and hear holiday tunes and classic carols. Tickets are available online and must be purchased before you arrive.

Carve out an evening for the Carolina Opry’s Christmas Special during your holiday getaway. Nicknamed the “Christmas Show of the South,” the Opry’s special serves a dose of seasonal spirit measured in music, dance and comedy. Bonus: There’s plenty of parking at the Opry, and it’s always free.

A fan of Myrtle Beach’s golf scene? The chances of nabbing a prime tee time drastically increase during the winter, when the area sees smaller crowds than in spring and summer. Many of the region’s more than 100 courses also offer deals and discounts during this off-peak season. From Myrtle Beach’s main boardwalk, drive up the coast about 25 miles to Tidewater Golf Club. Perched on a peninsula overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, with particularly noteworthy views at the par-5 13th hole, Tidewater is the spot to find your seasonal swing. Even better: Golfers 16 and younger play for free with a paying adult.

Holiday Lights over Pond Enjoy a charming and well-lit walk through Brookgreen Gardens’ annual Nights of a Thousand Candles, revered as one of the best Christmas light displays in South Carolina.

 

Galveston, Texas

A hub of education and amusement, Galveston’s Moody Gardens takes Texas winter to a whole new level. Trek from the North to the South Pole at the gardens’ Ice Land: Pole to Pole. Carvers etch these polar scenes from 2 million pounds of ice. Keep your eyes peeled for giant ice penguins, humpback whales and reindeer, then zoom down a glacier slide. Afterward, stroll the mile-long trail through Moody’s Festival of Lights, where you’ll discover an ice rink, food and live music in addition to the million lights brightening the gardens and Galveston Bay.

Travel to Victorian London without leaving this Gulf of Mexico beach town during Dickens on The Strand, in downtown Galveston’s historic district. Enjoy music, juggling, aerial acrobatics and other entertainment from six stages, plus holiday food and Victorian-themed crafts and gifts during this annual event in early December. Downtown Galveston dresses up for the holidays with lights and lanterns and a giant snow globe from late November through the year’s end.

Have little ones in tow? Drive to the Galveston Railroad Museum for a fun ride on the Harborside Express and for photos with the big guy himself during the Santa Train event.

Victorian Styled Women Roam Dickens on The Strand for Victorian-style gifts and entertainment, including the annual bed race, where teams — often dressed in 19th-century-style pajamas — shuttle a mattress and its occupant down the streets of Galveston.

 

Santa Cruz, California

  • Closest Airport: San Jose Airport, 33 miles north of Santa Cruz
  • Average Temperature Range: 45–67 F in November, 41–62 F in December
  • Best Beach for Relaxing: Seacliff State Beach

Experience the great outdoors in and around the California beach town of Santa Cruz. Holiday vacationers arrive in time to catch a free tour amid migrating butterflies at the Monarch Grove in Natural Bridges State Beach, about 3 miles from downtown. Tours are given on Saturdays and Sundays from October through December. Wildlife and nature fans can also order Santa Cruz County’s wildlife watching kit, which comes with birding and wildlife site maps, event lists and other resources. Make sure to order your kit four weeks before your trip.

Next up, head to Ano Nuevo State Park to watch thousands of elephant seals return to the beach. As males vie to become the alpha seals, lady seals come ashore to have their babes during this annual event that begins in December. Register for daily guided tours during breeding season at the park, about 20 miles north of downtown Santa Cruz.

Make time for a night trip to the Niles Canyon Railway and hop aboard the Train of Lights, a bedazzled locomotive that will take you through Niles Canyon. About 50 miles north of Santa Cruz, the train departs Niles every Friday through Sunday and Wednesdays throughout the holidays.

Savor the season and your new holiday tradition with a cup of craft hot chocolate, topped off with a homemade marshmallow, from Mutari Chocolate in downtown Santa Cruz. Sip away while walking along the shore, and enjoy every moment of your epic holiday beach retreat.

Seals on the beach Learn about the 10,000 elephant seals that return to Ano Nuevo State Park each year during a 2.5-hour guided tour.
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About the Author

Lisa Zimmermann is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and has previously written for Boston magazine, Boston Home, Boston Weddings, The Dallas Morning News, The Jersey Journal, New England Travel and Atlas Magazine. She adores the banyan tree and beach vacations. Follow her on Twitter @lisazimm or Instagram @lzloveslife.