As the holiday season gets going, we typically think of spending time in a winter wonderland with frosty air and snow-covered landscapes. But down on Alabama’s Gulf Coast, the milder climate allows you to celebrate the season without Jack Frost nipping at your nose.
If you love traditional holiday events like parades, ice skating, and festive parties, you can still experience all of these things on the Gulf Coast, but you get a break from frigid winter air and get to enjoy all that the coast has to offer. Plus, locals mark the season with unique events that celebrate life along the Gulf, like a boat parade and a party where you watch the marlin drop—rather than a lighted ball—to ring in the New Year.
If you’re looking for a new adventure this holiday season, or you simply need a respite from the extreme cold, here are six reasons you should head south to experience an Alabama Gulf Coast Christmas.
1. Holiday Parades
Almost every town across the Gulf Coast hosts a Christmas parade, but the most impressive one is the annual Chamber of Commerce Lighted Boat Parade, held in December. For more than 30 years, the parade has set sail from Lulu’s restaurant to float 15 miles along the Intracoastal Waterway, with yachts, fishing boats, and even kayaks lighting up the shimmering water. The flotilla passes the Wharf entertainment complex, Ono Island, and Perdido Key. Eventually, boats reach the Flora-Bama Ole River Grill, where the parade ends with a great party (and you can feast on tasty seafood).
2. Dazzling Light Displays
It’s not the holidays without lights, right? When you venture to the Alabama Gulf Coast, you’ll find the area ablaze with amazing displays, including Magic Christmas in Lights at Bellingrath Gardens in Theodore. The garden’s annual display is a full 65 acres to walk through. After you take a walk past the shimmering lakes illuminated by the dazzling displays, head inside the garden’s historic home to enjoy hot chocolate and even more decorations.
Mobile puts on a great display of lights at Mardi Gras Park, where a gigantic tree towers over the park and artificial snow falls lightly onto the grass. The lights are enhanced by the state’s largest building, the RSA Tower, that’s lit up like a Christmas tree on the skyline.
From the first weekend of November through New Year’s Day, the parking lot around Hank Aaron Stadium in Mobile is transformed into a winter wonderland with a glittering light show known as the Christmas Nights of Lights.
3. Historic Holidays
Over the centuries, the Gulf Coast has been influenced by a remarkable diversity of cultures, from the Spanish to the British. If you love to take in history and culture during your travels, the holidays are a great time to learn more about the region’s past. In December, step back in time to see how Christmas was celebrated through the ages at Historic Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island. During the Christmas through the Ages celebration, re-enactors, historical displays, and decorations detail how people celebrated the season from the 1700s to 1900.
Throughout December in Mobile, you can experience how the holiday was celebrated under each flag that once controlled the city—Spain, France, Britain, the Confederacy, and the United States—at the Conde-Charlotte Museum House. Then, experience a traditional Southern Christmas at the Bragg/Mitchell Mansion, which is adorned with stunning wreaths, greenery, lights, and ornaments.
4. Family Fun at the Wharf
If you still want to have a wintery experience, head to Orange Beach for Winter at the Wharf. You and the kids can ice skate on an outdoor rink, take photos with Santa, visit the petting zoo, take a horse and carriage ride around the complex, and see the spectacular Holiday Spectra Light Show. Winter at the Wharf runs the entire month of December, and skating is open through mid-January.
5. Midnight Mass at a Historic Cathedral
A family tradition for many is to attend midnight mass. Churches across the Alabama Gulf Coast offer services, but the mass at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Mobile stands out. Consecrated in 1850, this historic church has a remarkable interior with white marble floors and brass inlays showing the coat of arms for each Bishop of Mobile. As you sit in the impressive heart pine pews, gaze up at the vaulted ceilings to see hand-painted images of American saints. If you plan to attend midnight mass, keep in mind that the doors open at 11 p.m., and music begins at 11:15 p.m.
6. Ring in the New Year Gulf Coast Style
For a true taste of Gulf Coast culture, extend your stay to New Year’s Eve and join in the unique and unusual revelry. With a tip of the hat to the upcoming Carnival season, the city of Mobile (the birthplace of Mardi Gras) drops a 12-foot tall, 350-pound Moon Pie to ring in the new year. The city is buzzing along Dauphin Street where the bars offer up celebratory libations and food, while bands play throughout the night. At midnight, when the Moon Pie drops, fireworks light up the waterfront.
In Orange Beach, the Wharf entertainment complex gets the beach rockin’ with their annual Reelin’ in the New Year Street Party. The party begins at 5 p.m. and includes events for kids and adults. Local bands play the night away, and at midnight a spectacular fireworks display lights the sky while a giant marlin is dropped to usher in the new year.
To start the New Year right and cool down after a hot night out, join the throng at the annual Flora-Bama Polar Dip. A must-see Gulf Coast hot spot, the famous Flora-Bama bar and restaurant is located right on the border between Florida and Alabama. Participants are encouraged to wear costumes for the dip in the “frigid” Gulf waters. Ok, maybe not frigid, but the Gulf can still get pretty cold in winter.
Written by Joe Cuhaj for Matcha in partnership with BCBS of AL.