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Orlando, St. Augustine among best Christmas destinations in the South

With Thanksgiving behind us, it's full-steam ahead to the twinkle season. But let's face it, some places shine more than others when it comes to Christmas decorations and overall jollyness. If you've got the time this month, a holiday-hunting road trip is a nice way to spend a long weekend.

The following 10 places, stretching from Miami to Mobile, Chattanooga to Charleston, are dripping with lights and other decorations now through New Year's Day, some even later. The closest spot is Orlando, which has so many holiday attractions you could spend a week there and not see anything twice, and the farthest is Asheville, N.C., which transforms into an enchanting Christmas village in December. The mileage from Tampa International Airport is courtesy of Mapquest.

So if the holiday lights on your street aren't quite enough for you, gas up the car and ho, ho, ho.

Janet K. Keeler, Times food and travel editor

Orlando

Miles to downtown from Tampa airport: About 95

Between Universal and Disney World, there are lots of special holiday events, including parades and plenty of light shows at the two monster entertainment complexes. But look beyond the theme parks and Gaylord Palms' annual ICE! event and you'll find a couple of new-to-you attractions. No matter the temperature, snow falls four times every evening in the Disneyfied town of Celebration. (Take U.S. 192 east off Interstate 4 near Kissimmee.) The lights are strung across Market Street and plenty of people walk about, enjoying the fake flakes from 6 to 9 p.m. nightly through Jan. 2. The street is blocked off to make room for carolers and an ice skating rink. Information at celebration.fl.us.

Another event that is often overshadowed by the theme park extravaganzas is the University of Central Florida's annual holiday event, Light Up UCF, which runs through Jan. 6. Light shows, a nightly holiday movie, ice skating, a Ferris wheel and other activities are held in the center of the campus just east of Orlando. "50 Nights of Music, Ice and Lights" is open late on weekends. For a schedule and more information, go to lightupucf.com. Tickets are $12 to about $20, depending on if you are skating.

St. Augustine

Miles from Tampa airport: 190

America's oldest city is festooned with thousands of twinkle lights through Jan. 31. A long weekend there should include a B&B stay and a trip around town on foot or a guided tour on Santa's Big Red Christmas Train. You can also hop on a horse-drawn carriage for a romantic night-time ride. If you want more wintry activities, the St. Augustine Amphitheatre (winterwonderlandfl.com for times and prices) has ice skating, sleigh rides and an elf village. The igloo ski lounge offers some respite for the over-21 set. Information about St. Augustine's holiday activities at floridashistoriccoast.com.

Miami

Miles from Tampa airport: 280

If rides are your thing, head to Santa's Enchanted Forest (7900 SW 40th St.) where there are more than 100 carnival thrills and "the world's tallest Christmas tree." There's a petting zoo and bungee jumping, plus plenty of opportunities to get photos taken with Santa. Nightly shows through Jan. 6 include circus acrobats and something called the "Grizzly Experience." This event is sort of state fair meets North Pole, which isn't necessarily a bad thing but you need to know that going in. Adults might get Christmas-light overload but kids will love this place. Put the Enchanted Forest on your agenda if you're headed south to visit family. Tickets are about $19 to $27 and more for food and games (just like the fair.) Information and tickets at santasenchantedforest.com.

Lookout Mountain, Ga.

Miles from Tampa airport: 583

You'll find more Christmas enchantment at Rock City atop Lookout Mountain with 30 holiday scenes that turn the gardens into a fantasyland nightly beginning at 6 p.m. through Jan. 6. Santa and his elves will greet visitors, who can also enjoy hot cocoa near a roaring campfire and nightly entertainment. Rock City is just 6 miles from Chattanooga, Tenn., so on a clear night, you should be able to see the city lights, too. On selected evenings Dec. 3 through 18, $37.50 will buy you a buffet dinner with Santa Claus. Tickets are about $10 to $22 for entrance to Rock City and its geological wonders. Information and tickets at seerockcity.com.

Chattanooga, Tenn.

Miles from Tampa airport: 580

If you've gone as far as Rock City's Enchanted Garden of Lights at Lookout Mountain, Ga., you might as well continue the few miles to Ruby Falls, America's largest underground waterfalls. The state name is different but the mountain is the same. The falls are a year-round attraction, but on Friday and Saturday nights in December, horse-drawn carriage rides, live music and craft displays celebrate the season. Did we mention snow? Even if Mother Nature doesn't cooperate, there will still be powdery stuff flying around the castle. Plus, Mrs. Claus reads 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. The visitors center castle is lit dramatically, too. Tickets are $16 to $18. For more information, go to rubyfalls.com.

Pine Mountain, Ga.

Miles from Tampa airport: 425

Callaway Gardens' Fantasy in Lights brings you close to Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park and the Little White House, north of Columbus. There's plenty to see in this area over a long weekend, but Fantasy in Lights at the botanical gardens, through Dec. 30, is the primary holiday attraction. There are something like 8 million lights in 15 scenes and the whole extravaganza has been named one of the world's "Top 10 Places to See Holiday Lights" by National Geographic Traveler. It's even open Christmas Day, though Santa Claus makes his last appearance on the 24th. Tickets are $11 to $25. Information and tickets at callawaygardens.com.

Charleston, S.C.

Miles from Tampa airport: 440

The 23rd annual Festival of Lights is at James Island County Park through Dec. 31. Most people drive their cars through the lighted displays, but you can bundle up and walk. Afterward, drink hot chocolate and take part in a marshmallow roast. There's also a Christmas village and a chance to visit with Santa, a very busy man indeed this time of year. Cost is $12 per car. Beyond this activity, Charleston is decorated in glorious style, with many historic places offering special events. Some of the city's charming inns are offering special holiday meals through Dec. 21 in a citywide progressive dinner event. There are holiday exhibits at the Nathaniel Russell House and Aiken-Rhett House museums. Or, you can just walk around the city's many squares and take in the holiday splendor. Horse-drawn carriage rides, too. For information about the many events, go to christmasincharleston.com.

Sumter, S.C.

Miles from Tampa airport: 485 miles

On Saturday, the 150-acre Swan Lake Iris Gardens attraction gets its Christmas on with more than a million lights and 150 lighted figures. The nighttime attraction has a Santa's Village on Friday and Saturday evenings where kids can say "hey" to the jolly man and get their photos taken. There is also a Poinsettia Festival from Saturday through Dec. 14. Not too far from Sumter, the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in Columbia hosts a "Light Before Christmas" event. For more information on both events and many others in the area, go to discoversouthcarolina.com.

Asheville, N.C.

Miles from Tampa airport: 647

They call it Asheville but it might as well be named Christmas Town because it's so quaint and lovely at this time of year. The Biltmore Estates is festooned in red and greenery; the national gingerbread house competition comes to town and a Dickens Christmas Village is a Victorian marvel. Asheville is arguably the most festive city in America in December. The Grove Park Inn displays the best gingerbread work, entries that defy logic and resemble castles, bird cages, tree houses and even Fabergé eggs. Plus, art, theater, shopping, lots of interesting restaurants and even a chocolate festival on Dec. 8 make for a sumptuous array of choices. On Jan. 1, you can take the polar plunge at Lake Lure. For information on many events, go to romanticasheville.com/holidays.htm or exploreasheville.com.

Mobile, Ala.

Miles from Tampa airport: 520

Stroll by 3 million lights at the 650-acre Bellingrath Gardens and Home through Dec. 31. Lights are dripping from the tall trees and positioned artfully amid the many different gardens. Nightly choral concerts enhance the event for many visitors. The home along the Fowl River is also festooned for the season with decorations and dozens of poinsettias. If you happen to be leaving for a cruise out of Mobile, go a night or two early to explore the area, putting Bellingrath on your list of places to see. Tickets for the gardens are $6.50 to $22, mostly depending on age. For information, go to bellingrath.org.

Orlando, St. Augustine among best Christmas destinations in the South 11/24/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 20, 2012 6:31pm]

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