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Nights of Lights St. Augustine

The 7 Best US Ports for Christmas and the Holiday Season

For those of you sailing your lives away finding the best US ports for Christmas can be a challenge. That’s why I took the time to come up with this list. There’s something about the holidays. There’s always a little cheer in the air and maybe an extra bounce in your step.


Maybe it has something to do with the bright lights or the fact that most people will take an extra second to smile and lend a hand when needed. There’s an extra reason to connect with friends and loved ones, lots of activities to participate in, and always good food to dive into.


No matter who you are, no matter where you are, it’s known as a time to get together with those you care about. In a nomadic life as I live, I can’t always make that part happen, but it still helps just to participate in any local festivities wherever I happen to be when the end of the year rolls around. It seems especially important while traveling away from home to keep some traditions alive.


I’ve talked to landlubbers and cruisers alike to see what harbor they like to drop their hook in when the holidays come around. Some of these areas are warm and will let you walk around in shorts and sandals, and others will have you bundling up for their chilly temperatures. One thing is for sure though; all these ports go out of their way to make the holiday season extra special.


From lights to enchanted walking trails; boat parades and pub tours; you won’t be able to escape the holiday spirit or the smile on your face giving you that rosy glow with this list of the best US ports for Christmas.


St. Augustine Nights of Lights.  Image taken from here.


Nights of Lights — St. Augustine Florida


It’s no surprise to anyone that has followed our blog for a few years that this spot would be on the list. After a not-so-happy shipwreck with our boat just outside the inlet to this town, coming into a harbor beautifully lit up and appearing as if it belonged in an idyllic postcard, was one of the few things to save my sanity at a time that was perfect for falling apart.


The entire city glows like a beacon in the dark, completely lit up with picturesque white lights. Streaming down from palm trees, around lampposts, and across trusses of buildings in the Oldest City in the US. Tour these lights by foot and stop off at any of the dozens of local shops, restaurants, and pubs when you need a rest and maybe a meal before getting back out again. 


Or enjoy a guided tour of the city and its lights by the Holly Jolly Holiday Trolly. On this ride, not only will you sing along with seasonal songs and view the lights with special glasses that give them an extra special twinkle, but you’ll also be served up homemade cookies and hot cider.


If you want to take your light viewing out on the water, make sure not to miss the Regatta of Lights. This free event will take viewers to the waterfront of Matanzas Bay where vessels of all shapes and sizes deck themselves out with holiday lighting displays. Traveling between the Bridge of Lions and Castillo de San Marcos, you won’t want to miss any of the sailboat masts decorated as Christmas trees, and other elaborate themes.


Christmas ports - Washngton DC
Washington Harbour Ice Rink.  Image taken from here.


Georgetown GLOW — Washington D.C.


What better way to experience the holiday spirit than in our nation’s capital, set in its oldest neighborhood. Already in its 4th year, this has become such a big event it has now been extended from a weekend promotion into a 10-day festival.


This historic city on the Potomac offers quite a number of activities throughout the month. Lace-up your ice skates and take a spin on the Washington Harbor Ice Rink, the largest in the region.


Once the sun goes down, take to the streets and experience the main event of the Light Art Exhibition. Featuring five artists and their projects, their muse is light, and you may find it displayed in the form of animated projection on building facades or illuminated wire sculptures playing out a love story.


Even a day of shopping is anything but ordinary as a group of small and/or regional businesses compete for the best window display. As this is the 4th year, presentations are growing grander and more imaginative as each location vies for your vote through the city’s Facebook Page.


Christmas ports - LA
Newport Boat Parade.  Image taken from here.


Queen Mary Chill & Christmas Boat Parade — Los Angeles, California


Think LA is all high rises and no community charm? So far from the truth! Just outside of this modern city you’re able to take a step back in time for an unforgettable Christmas experience. Throughout the month of December, you can do just this by taking part in the Queen Mary Chill.


This historic ship, with her maiden voyage in 1936, is transformed into a floating frozen celebration of events. Inside the Ice Kingdom — A Christmas Carol, ice carvers have turned a special space into a 13,000 sq ft winter wonderland where you follow Ebenezer Scrooge through the frozen streets of London in Charles Dickins‘ classic tale of discovering the meaning of Christmas.


Before stepping on shore again, make sure to hit up The Glacier Glide and feel the frosty air in your face as you whiz down from dizzying peaks in one of six lanes while ice tubing. Once you’ve gotten your toes cold and nose red, head from Long Beach down to Newport Beach just in time to see their 107th Annual Christmas Boat Parade.


For five nights, this harbor will light up the water. Anything that floats can enter, ranging from kayaks to megayachts, and everything in between. Some boats produce carolers, some have automated scenes, and others have spent over $50,000 for the event in the past to make themselves best in show.


Worried about where to find a seat? This tour winds through 14 miles of the harbor, giving viewers plenty of opportunities to find a place to gaze.


Christmas ports - Charleston
Lights of Charleston Bridge.  Image taken from here.

Charleston, South Carolina


We passed through this town, sadly a little too quickly, and it only took me one second to fall in love even though our stay was combined with cloudy skies and falling temperatures we were not yet prepared to endure. Add a few Christmas lights and caroling though, and I would have put up with snow falling on my uninsulated and unheated boat just to enjoy the festivities. This charming and historic city boasts an abundance of holiday charm and goodwill.


Just strolling the streets you’ll be able to take in any of the 750 glowing displays of their Holiday Festival of Lights. When your legs tire out, sit down and enjoy a ride on their Old-Fashioned Carousel; or if you’re ready to keep moving, amble along their Enchanted Walking Trail.


To bring out the real sailor in you, join in on their Holiday Pub Tour. During a 2.5-hour walking tour, you’ll gain a little knowledge of local history as well as some good cheer as this tour stops in 3-5 locations. Along with a few appetizers along the way, each stop offers you the opportunity to purchase any of the establishments’ hot holiday drinks or any number of local craft beers.


This is only a small taste of what Charleston has to offer around the holidays. For their full list of events, click here.


Christmas ports - San Juan Islands
San Juan Island Lights. Image taken from here.

Island Lights — San Juan Islands, Washington


A lot of the events listed above come from major cities, but sometimes you just need to get away from it all. Do you have wishes to combine mountainous scenery with the holiday spirit? The San Juan Islands are the place for you. Located in the Pacific North West just NW of Seattle, this archipelago consists of 3 major islands and 23 smaller ones.


It may not have all the fuss of some of the other destinations, but you also don’t have to fight the crowds to enjoy your time here. Take in a more authentic holiday experience when visiting either Lopez, Orca, or San Juan Island.


While taking in the stunning scenery that could alone leave one breathless, add the holiday spirit by visiting theater shows complete with music, galleries of precious and detailed ornaments, and a piano trio concert. Stroll the city streets and enjoy the brightly decorated buildings while maybe popping into a local pub for a hot drink.


Last but not least, don’t forget to welcome Santa’s arrival into town as he leads the holiday boat parade. Non-local boats are encouraged to participate and even receive free mooring on this special night. For a list of events, click here.


Christmas ports - St. Croix
St. Croix Christmas Carnival.  Image taken from here.

Crucian Christmas Carnival, St. Croix US Virgin Islands


Feel like celebrating Christmas in an entirely new way? Get out of the snow and surround yourself with white sand beaches and palm trees, yet still find that festive spirit. All you need to do is sail, motor, or fly your way down to St. Croix. 


Here you can join in on the Crucian Christmas Festival which spans from December into early January. Getting its start in 1952, this long-running festival Incorporates modern-day celebrations with long-standing traditions which date back to the early 1800s for the Crucians.


Let vivid colors saturate your eyes through the multiple Carnival Parades and have your ears be delighted through Latin music venues. From the Prince and Princess Show to St. Croix Carnival Queen, there’s never more than a few days between these parades through the streets.


Also, join in on food and art fairs as well as the opening of Main Village in Frederiksted on December 26th with plenty of food booths and music almost every night. This culmination of events will come to an end on January 2nd for the Adults Parade with dazzling but barely-there costumes. For a full list of Carnival events, click here.


Christmas ports - Sarasota
Fireworks in Sarasota.  Image taken from here.

New Year’s Eve Fireworks — Marina Jacks, Sarasota Florida


One of the top on my list for best US ports for Christmas is Sarasota. The season isn’t over yet until you’re ringing in the new year. Feel like going a little classy for yours this year’s celebration?


Make a stop at Marina Jack in the heart of Sarasota. This swanky little area boasts a night full of events you won’t want to miss. Located in the heart of Sarasota, this marina is known for its multiple restaurants and ample water views.


They’re doing it up right on this special night and have a host of events in all their areas. There’s live entertainment at their patio bar & grill as well as their piano bar, and a special four-course meal with a champagne toast at midnight in their dining room.


If you’d like to get out on the water for a tour of the harbor, they also offer a 4-hour celebration cruise with live entertainment, an open bar, and a front-row seat to the fireworks show. Or if you feel like making a casual evening of it, drop your anchor in the harbor and pour your own glass of champagne as you watch the lights explode above you from the comfort of your cockpit as the clock strikes midnight.


You can find their schedule of events here. Any of these spots would make me feel incredibly lucky to be there to spend the holiday season.  I know there are many more locations worthy of making this list as well, but I could only give a small taste.


I’d love to know your thoughts on where you enjoy spending the holidays, arriving by land or by sea. What do you think the best US ports for Christmas are?


What areas do you think should be added for next year? Where are your favorite ports?


Jessica is one half of the duo that makes up MJ Sailing. For the past 3 years, she and her husband Matt have been full time travelers, getting around the globe on their 34 ft sailboat. Now rebuilding an aluminum 37 ft sailboat, they'll soon be traveling again, this time through icebergs as they near the north and south pole.

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