Four Great Christmas Destinations for the Holiday Season

My friend Mindy Bianca of Mindy Bianca Public Relations (MBPR) introduced me to hr newest employee, Jolly Jinglebutton (I don’t know where Mindy meets these characters), an elf who seems in the know for all things Christmas. And here, in his words, are some great holiday destinations.

Photo courtesy of Branson Convention & Visitor’s Bureau

Branson, Missouri

            In this Ozark Mountain town, moms and dads put the kids to bed on Halloween night, sneak some candy to get a little sugar rush, and then scurry around to transform Branson from fall to festive in a matter of hours. Poof! By the morning of November 1, Branson looks like the North Pole … minus the snow! Actually, this year they’re upping their game and transforming the historic downtown into a massive “winter wonderland” display – including hundreds of snowflakes suspended from the lampposts – so maybe it WILL look just like my home!

There are more than 1,500 beautifully decorated trees all around town, including a giant Community Tree whose themed décor changes each year. This year that tree is titled “We All SHINE ON!” and it will feature more than 200 super-sparkly LED stars in a variety of sizes, shapes and colors. The Community Tree display, which will stand nearly four stories tall, will be part of Branson’s holiday scene from November 1 through January 7. It’ll be positioned right next to the Branson Ferris Wheel, which itself is beautifully decorated with lights that “dance” to favorite Christmas tunes during multiple shows each night.

Photo courtesy of Branson Convention & Visitor’s Bureau

Though all the attractions around Branson get into the holiday spirit, the highest concentration of lights and décor can be found at Silver Dollar City, a legendary theme park that annually celebrates “An Old Time Christmas.” The park installs more than 6.5 million lights – that’s 680 miles of stringed bulbs! – as well as 1,000 decorated trees, 600 giant wreaths, 3 miles of garland, and 15,000 yards of ribbon. (Fun fact: That’s about 15,000 elves’ worth of ribbon, if we all laid head to toe.)

And perfect for a holiday visit: At the World’s Largest Toy Museum, you’ll find more than 1 million toys that represent pretty much everything that kids have been putting on their Christmas lists for the past 100 years. This museum sure makes me glad that Santa invested in all the new-fangled technology that relieves us elves from some of the most difficult toy-making tasks. (Don’t even talk about sewing on teddy bears’ noses. Ouch!)

Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

            We elves took a recent poll, and our very favorite human – ever – is Dolly Parton. There really isn’t anything she can’t do. She writes and sings songs, she acts (check out her Christmas movie on NBC later this year!), she helps finance COVID vaccines, she promotes literacy, and she owns a theme park in the middle of the Smoky Mountains so that visitors far and wide can learn about and fall in love with her Tennessee Mountain Home.

In fact, Dolly is so amazing that I’m not saying she’s an elf, but I’m not NOT saying she is one, either. Think about it: Some of the best elves I know are named Polly (last name: Peppermintstripe), Molly (Mistletoe), Holly (Hugsomuch), Folly (Funsmith) and Golly (Gumdrop). And then, of course, there’s me … Jolly. Do you think it’s a coincidence that Dolly’s name just SOUNDS elf-y?

Anyway, back to that incredible theme park, Dollywood, which has a tendency – like me – to go a little Christmas-crazy. Starting on the first Saturday of November, the park is completely transformed into a winter wonderland, coming aglow as more than 5 million gleaming lights sparkle across the property. (They have a team of humans here called “Lighting Bugs” who start stringing in the summertime! They started early this year so Dolly could film her Christmas movie last month!) A highlight of the décor is a 50-foot-tall, animated Christmas tree that comes to life via a synchronized light show throughout the evening.

And this is a theme park, so there are plenty of rides to enjoy, too! You get to race through the night sky while millions of lights twinkle below. I can tell you from first-hand experience that it’s a lot like how Santa feels when he takes his sleigh ride on Christmas Eve.

Frostburg, Maryland

            Photographer: Hassan Rasheed

Take a look at this tiny town’s name. You just know people here are going to make a fuss about all wintery stuff, right? Fun fact: Frostburg is not named for Jack Frost – which is okay with me, because I’ve always thought that guy was kind of cold. Instead, it was named for a family that was among the first settlers here on what they call “The Mountain Side of Maryland,” way back when this area was pure wilderness.

But that bristly Jack Frost does show up once a year, on the first Saturday of December (this year that’s December 3), for the town’s “Storybook Holiday” celebration. Old Jack pushes his way right to the front of the parade and tries to make it all about him. So typical.

Photographer: Janelle Muletz

But you know who it’s really about? The students from Frostburg University, who work with members of the community to raise money for the university’s Children’s Literature Centre. They all come together to celebrate books, reading and literacy. Kids show up to hear Christmas stories, meet authors, write letters to Santa, watch the parade and sip “Cocoa with the Po-Po,” which is hosted by Frostburg’s police department.

But the very, very best part is – wait for it – when the college kids compete in the Elf Olympics. Events include all the things I’ve spent my life perfecting: cookie tossing, package wrapping, tree decorating, toy creating and even song serenading. It’s so much fun to watch! I asked Santa if I can recruit the best participants for our North Pole team, but he said they probably exceed our maximum height limit.

Something else I love about Frostburg is that it gives me plenty of chances to support small, local businesses, including an independent bookstore, a shop that sells vinyl records, an old-fashioned theater that shows classic Christmas movies, and a café that serves an eggnog latte that I wish Spazzy Sparkleshots, my favorite barista back in the North Pole, could learn how to make.

Bellingrath Gardens in Theodore, Alabama (near Mobile)

            I think a lot of people equate Christmas with colder weather and forget that there are plenty of warmer places that really get into the holiday spirit, too. MBPR represents several destinations that prove you don’t have to freeze your jingle bells off to enjoy the holidays. So, I want to tell you about Christmas at Bellingrath Gardens & Home, which is near Mobile, Alabama. The place is named for Walter Bellingrath, who made his fortune owning the region’s Coca-Cola bottling franchise, and O, Christmas tree … do they go all-out when it comes to decorating his 65-acre garden estate!

            During the Magic Christmas in Lights event, which this year runs November 25 through January 4, the gardens are adorned with more than 1,200 handmade set pieces, 3 million glittering lights and 16 custom scenes that can be enjoyed on your own or via a guided group walking tour. And guess what? Everything is designed, welded, painted and lamped on site by three members of the gardens’ staff.

In December, this area boasts an average daytime high of 63 degrees and a nighttime low of 45, so it’s possible to experience the lights in a comfortable climate but also enjoy a little bundling up … and perhaps a sip or bite of something warm along the way.

In addition to the light displays, the garden hosts live choral performances nearly every night. I love to sing-sing-sing, so I go every night to show my support … and tap my toes in my little curlicued shoes.

Also – news flash! – there ARE flowers that bloom at this time of year. Bellingrath is home to one of the South’s most amazing collections of Alabama’s state flower, the camellia. That was Mr. Bellingrath’s very favorite flower … and it happens to be Mrs. Claus’s fave, too! The team here always lets me pick a few camellias and send them home with Santa, who presents them to Mrs. Claus as part of the elves’ Christmas gift to her.

Ahoy Maties: September 19 is International Talk Like a Pirate Day

No, I didn’t know there was an International Pirate Talk Like a Pirate Day (IPTLAPD for short) either.  Luckily Mindy Bianca alerted me that it was a global event and gave me some background. Created by two friends in Oregon back in 1995. I shiver my timbers (whatever that means) just thinking of all those IPTLPAD good times I’ve missed for the last 26 years.

               But not anymore! I’m up to date on IPTLPAD and Mindy has kindly pointed out places with historical ties to pirates as well as destinations which feature pirate-related events, tours, restaurants, and attractions.

               Mindy wants to assure anyone who asks that she knows that pirates aren’t good guys and gals.

               “They were scallywags who did things that would certainly not make their mamas proud, so we’re not here to celebrate their achievements … just to acknowledge their existence and the role they played in history,” she says, adding that pirates, no matter how bad they were, are certainly part of our pop culture.

               So all hands on deck as we get started with our tour of all things pirate with a look at coastal Louisiana where  pirate Jean Lafitte is legendary and intertwined with big moments in Louisiana’s history.

Not a whole lot is known about the early years of Lafitte, who claimed to be born in France–but can you really trust what a pirate tells you? We do know he ultimately made his way to the Gulf of Mexico with his brother Pierre to make his fortune—but not by hard work. Among his most horrible act was smuggling enslaved people.

“His bad behavior worked to Louisiana’s incredible advantage during the Battle of New Orleans, the final conflict of the War of 1812. Lafitte agreed to fight on the side of the Americans – General Andrew Jackson gave him the choice of assisting the American cause or going to jail – and the Americans were victorious against the British in great part because Lafitte and his buccaneers knew the bayous and waterways so well,” Mindy tells me. “It certainly didn’t hurt that they were no gentlemen; they ignored the established rules of engagement and used whatever means necessary to get the job done. The pirates led the British into the swamps, for example, and ambushed them or just let them get lost among the alligators and snakes.”

After all, pirates operate on the principle of “dead men tell no tales.”

Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve

Throughout Southern Louisiana

*Please note that this region was recently impacted by Hurricane Ida, so now isn’t the best time to visit. Please put these on your list to visit in the future!

In his later years, Jean Lafitte established headquarters in Galveston, Texas, so he spent some time near the southwestern part of Louisiana. But in his earlier years he dominated the southeastern part of the state, where today you’ll find four of the six sites of his eponymous national park. Two of those park sites are within MBPR’s client destinations.

The Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center in Lafourche Parish are also known as Louisiana’s Cajun Bayou. Though the center itself, located in the town of Thibodaux, focuses on the region’s Cajun heritage, rangers there tell us that Bayou Lafourche, the body of water for which the parish is named, was among Lafitte’s preferred smuggling routes. He’d load and unload his cargo at the mouth of the bayou. But he and his band of pirates also aided the U.S. by preventing the British from accessing the body of water during the Battle of New Orleans. It’s a job they took very seriously indeed.

Over in Jefferson Parish, in the little town of Marrero, the national park site is called Barataria Preserve and it offers an incredible peek inside the wild wetlands of Louisiana. The preserve features 26,000 acres of bayous, swamps, marshes and forests that are home to plenty of alligators, plus more than 200 bird species and an array of plants and wildflowers. Wander along its boardwalk on a self-guided tour or accompany a ranger on a Wetlands Walk (tours are offered at 10 a.m. every Wednesday through Sunday) and it’s easy to see how Lafitte and his hearties could easily vanish in these swamps.

The Town of Jean Lafitte

Jefferson Parish, Louisiana

*Please note that this region was recently impacted by Hurricane Ida, so now isn’t the best time to visit. Please put this on your list to visit in the future!

                Jean Fafitte is one of two towns in Jefferson Parish named for Louisiana’s favorite pirate (the other is just called “Lafitte.”) The region was a huge draw for Lafitte who found its bayous, swamps and waterways the perfect cover for his illegal activities. He favored places on Bayou Barataria, whose dark depths hide all kinds of secrets. Visitors can tour the region’s mysterious swamps (alligator sightings guaranteed!), enjoy some of the best seafood ever, and learn the history of the people who make their home here.

Jean Lafitte Harbor is one of the stops on the new “Soul of the South” tour itinerary, which was designed to help visitors learn the many untold stories of Native, Creole and African Americans in South Louisiana. The harbor is located along Lafitte’s favored smuggling routes.

Louisiana Pirate Festival – held annually in May

900 Lake Shore Drive, Lake Charles, Louisiana

                Lafitte was a busy, well-traveled guy who sailed along and through the waterways of the state’s southernmost reaches. Legend has it that as he and his band of buccaneers were making their way west toward Galveston, enemy ships gave chase. To avoid being captured Laffite and his crew hid amongst the waterways of what would become Lake Charles. According to legend, their very favorite hangout was a place now called “Contraband Bayou,” an apt name given that Lafitte and his crew were reputed to have buried a treasure trove of silver and gold there.

This legend is celebrated in early May with the Louisiana Pirate Festival, which takes place on both land and sea. A highlight of the event is the reenactment of Lafitte and his band taking over the city, complete with cannons firing and the mayor “walking the plank.” Costumes are encouraged, and the event features live music, plenty of rations and grog, carnival rides, and appropriately themed pirate booty for purchase.

Louisiana loves a festival, and the Louisiana Pirate Festival in Lake Charles is one of the best.

We’re changing course now, away from Jean Lafitte and Louisiana and sailing on to other parts of the country, not all of which have their own pirate history but do subscribe to the theory that it’s “a pirate’s life for me.”

Wilmington Pirate Festival – held annually in June

Wilmington, Delaware

                The Kalmar Nyckel is the official Tall Ship of Delaware, a sailing ambassador that serves as a floating classroom and encourages visitors to learn about the maritime heritage of Delaware and its historic ties to Sweden and Finland. The ship is a replica of the original Kalmar Nyckel, which was known as the “Swedish Mayflower” because it brought the settlers who founded the colony of New Sweden here in 1638 and thereby established the first permanent European settlement in the Delaware Valley. That wasn’t a pirate ship, but today’s Kalmar Nyckel hosts a Pirate Festival each June just for fun. Guests can climb aboard the ship for cannon and craft demonstrations and a variety of pirate-related activities. On select weekends when the ship is docked in Wilmington (it often travels throughout the Mid-Atlantic), visitors can also go out for pirate sails. This month’s 90-minute sails will depart on Sunday, September 19 (International Talk Like a Pirate Day!) and 26.

Pirates Ahoy! – held annually in July

Frostburg, Maryland

                We’re not sure that pirates knew anything about reading and writing then that the letter X marks the spot. But the tiny pirates you find in Allegany County, on The Mountain Side of Maryland, definitely enjoy a good book. This summertime event hosted by the Children’s Literature Center of Frostburg State University is expected to return to its usual roost along Main Street of Frostburg (in 2021 the event moved to a park as a COVID precaution) on July 6 next year. Full crews of costumed lads and lassies and their parents take part in all manner of buccaneer activities, including pirate-themed crafts and treasure hunts. A children’s book author is always invited to present a reading and book-signing of their pirate-themed book; the 2022 author has not yet been announced.

Just one of the crew of small pirates who descend upon Frostburg, Maryland for the adventure of reading.

Ahoy! Pirate Tour

Mobile, Alabama

              One of the oldest city’s in the U.S.  Mobile was founded three centuries ago, and as an important port on the Gulf of Mexico, it’s certainly seen a pirate or two. No make that a lot more. To prove our point, consider the following. In 1711, British privateers pillaged neighboring Dauphin Island. In 1815, Jean Lafitte (yep, him again!) and his brother Pierre sold their ship, the Adventurer, in Mobile. River pirates such as Paddy Scott raided cargo barges as they tried to make their way to and around Mobile. The stories of these 18th- and 19th-century pirates and more are recounted during a 90-minute walking tour around Mobile’s waterfront. A costumed guide offers guests a step back in time back, teaching them to talk like a pirate and sing a sea chanty while also giving them a few “pointers” in sword fighting.

Mobile

A Bounty of Pirate Activities

Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama

                Local lore tells us that the bays and coves on the north side of this part of coastal Alabama once provided shelter to pirates and privateers who sailed their ships into countless protected areas that hid them from view. Modern-day visitors looking for a taste of the pirate life can grab a bushwacker (a favorite local cocktail) and burger at Pirate’s Cove restaurant near the town of Elberta, which is about a 30-minute drive from Gulf Shores and Orange Beach and an even shorter boat ride. The dog-friendly atmosphere assures that your best first mate can come along on the adventure, too. Back in Orange Beach, the youngest swashbucklers enjoy climbing aboard the Pirate Cruise that leaves Hudson Marina at Skull Harbor. They take to the high seas with a crew in full garb and learn about the pirates who once sailed these waters. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, those lads and lassies might also appreciate the Pirates & Princesses Breakfast served at The Hangout, a legendary restaurant in Gulf Shores. For one of their famed cocktail recipes see below.

Pirates Voyage Dinner & Show, a Dolly Parton Company

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

                What’s Dolly Parton’s connection to pirates? Well, like Dolly, the swashbucklers in her employ are a fun-loving crew … multi-talented and great at keeping an audience entertained. The first Pirates Voyage Dinner & Show opened in 2011 in Myrtle Beach, which has plenty of ties to Captain Edward Teach, a.k.a. “Blackbeard.” At the dinner show, a modern-day Blackbeard leads two incredibly athletic crews, the Sapphire Pirates and the Crimson Pirates, who battle on deck, in the water and in the sky above a pair of full-sized pirate ships docked in a 15-foot indoor lagoon. The show features acrobatic competitions and an original music score by Dolly and Mark Brymer. The show also includes a four-course pirate feast. Who knew that pirates enjoy buttery biscuits and crispy fried chicken as much as landlubbers do? The Myrtle Beach theater proved so successful that in 2019 Dolly decided to bring the show to Pigeon Forge, already home to her Dollywood theme park. In November and December, the fun-loving pirates in Myrtle Beach truly get into the holiday spirit, adding a little “ho-ho-ho” to their usual “yo-ho-ho.”

Leaving the continental United States, we set sail for  the Caribbean.  

Sunset Resorts

Negril and Montego Bay, Jamaica

Pirates abounded in Jamaica in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. One, Henry Morgan, even became the island’s lieutenant governor. But perhaps Jamaica’s most famous pirate was “Calico” Jack Rackham, who’s credited with introducing the now-famous Jolly Roger flag. Jack, who is said to have earned his nickname because of his preference for calico clothing including his underpants, and his band of pirates made themselves at home in Negril while they pillaged merchant and fishing vessels along the north shores of Jamaica.

His crew included two female pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who were said to be much more ruthless than any of their male counterparts. Calico Jack and members of his crew were captured in Negril, which is where today you’ll find Sunset at the Palms, an adults-only, all-inclusive resort. Its family-friendly sister properties in Montego Bay, Sunset Beach Resort, Spa & Waterpark and Oasis at Sunset, share a campus that features a pirate-themed water park.

The Buccaneer

Christiansted, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands

This luxury resort on St. Croix gets its name from buccaneer Jean Martel, who in the early 1700s made his fortune hijacking ships in the waters surrounding Jamaica. When Martel traveled to St. Croix for supplies, Jamaican officials received a tip that he was in the Virgin Islands and sent a warship into Christiansted harbor to capture him. Trying to escape, Martel ran his ship aground just off Beauregard Bay, right where one of the resort’s beachfront restaurants sits today.

Martel along with some of his crew were able to escape in one of the pirate’s sloops, but others were forced to hide on the island as authorities confiscated their remaining ships. As for the gold? We don’t know as no record exists that it was ever discovered. But then would you admit it?

Anyway, for the last three centuries rumors have run rampant that the gold is buried somewhere on the island. When the Armstrong family opened The Buccaneer in 1947– the resort is still owned by the Armstrong family and is run by the third generation–guests often spent their days searching for the gold. They never found it, nor did the construction crews who built Beauregard’s on the Beach, the restaurant that sits where the treasure is said to have been buried.

And here’s a final entry you probably didn’t expect:

Pittsburgh Pirates Artifacts at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

Cooperstown, New York

Cooperstown has nothing to do with pirates … unless you count the name of one of the 30 Major League Baseball teams represented at its famous museum dedicated to baseball. But why are the Pittsburgh Pirates called Pirates? The team used to be named the Alleghenys, but according to Major League Baseball, it’s due to their habit of plundering players from other teams that they became informally known as “pirates.” The team officially took the name in 1891. The Hall of Fame and Museum is a treasure chest of baseball artifacts, and the “Starting Nine” is a collection of nine key artifacts from each Major League team. Among the nine items currently on display for the Pirates are Roberto Clemente’s retired #21 jersey; Willie Stargell’s 1979 World Series bat; and an incredibly rare Honus Wagner T206 baseball card, considered one of the “Holy Grails” among card collectors.

Avast, me hearties.  We hope you’ll celebrate International Talk Like a Pirate Day in style! Wear your calico bloomers, perch a parrot on your shoulder, watch a few of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise movies, and above all, avoid walking the plank.

Surf’s Up Cocktail from The Hangout

Yield: 1 serving.

Fill a 12 ounce glass with ice cubes. 

Add: 1 ounce Bacardi light rum, 1 ounce Malibu coconut rum and 1/2 ounces peach schnapps. 

Then carefully, to keep colors as separate as possible, pour enough pineapple juice in one side of the glass and cranberry juice in the opposite side to fill the glass. Top with a generous drizzle of Blue Curacao. Garnish, if desired, with an orange slice and a cherry, which you stick on the end of a straw.