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Campers pack Fort De Soto Park for Christmas

FORT DE SOTO PARK

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Christmas for Mary Madden last year was that only-in-America mix of Chinese food and the movies. But Atlanta was cold and not a little dreary, a tradition not worth repeating. So this year she drew up plans, packed her car and set off to Florida.

Christmas Day found Madden in Fort De Soto Park, where she and dozens of refugees from the North, along with a handful of locals, were roughing it. Instead of Douglas and Fraser firs, they had cabbage palms and sea grapes. Instead of the latest seizure-inducing LED display, they adorned their tents and RVs with twinkle lights. It was all more manger than Macy's.

Spending Christmas at the park isn't the last resort of people who can't find a hotel room or are avoiding relatives. Travelers from all over the country and beyond book campsites months in advance, and the walk-up line is long. This year, by Christmas Eve almost all of the park's 241 campsites had been claimed, 48 of them by Pinellas residents, according to park manager Jim Wilson.

He pulled up a list of other campers' origins: Sarasota; Sarasota — "Must know each other," he mused — Connecticut; Englewood, Fla.; Quebec.

The campground came to life on Christmas Eve.

Over at campsite No. 47, Madden hooked up speakers to her phone and played music from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. A neighbor had blasted Mannheim Steamroller's Christmas collection, and the two campers dueled throughout the evening, alternately turning down their music to listen to the other's.

Elsewhere, a roving band of teenagers sang carols, and raccoons made off with a family's entire bag of marshmallows. Then Madden brought out the real show: a "mondo box" of fireworks.

"I was lucky because a lot of them were green and red," she said. "I thought they'd be more red, white and blue." A dozen people came out of their tents to watch, forming a little ring behind her.

Come Christmas Day, campers stirred early, unzipping their tent flaps to a view of the ocean. At campsite No. 11, Xuandai Hoang of Tampa and her two sons ate barbecued pork and chicken, cooked over a charcoal grill by her uncle, the veteran camper of the family.

"Christmas at home is always nice, but we wanted a change," Hoang said. "We wanted to be in nature more."

Her boys had gifts waiting for them under the tree at home; Santa apparently has some difficulty with campground deliveries.

That wasn't the case at another campsite, where the Bérubé family was tearing into their gifts. Their drive from Quebec had taken them 25 hours and led them through freezing rain, but they were bent on reaching the campsite they had reserved six months ago.

For her boyfriend, Justin Bérubé, Emilie Provost, 20, produced a stack of wrapped boxes that revealed themselves to be lip balm (an "inside joke"), a stuffed animal and a hypoallergenic mattress covering, which she pronounced "boring but useful." Bérubé, looking bemused, reached into a Kleenex box and pulled out a bag of Belgian chocolates hidden there.

His father, Mike Bérubé, surveyed the growing collection of shiny wrapping paper at his feet. The day's agenda included a few more hours on the beach and then a Christmas dinner of steak, for which they would need a respectable fire.

"Well, we'll have plenty of paper to burn," he said.

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at aphillips@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779.

Campers pack Fort De Soto Park for Christmas 12/25/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 25, 2013 10:09pm]

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