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Christmas in St. Augustine

By Tom Neale, 12/27/2007


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Reindeer ready to head out fishing
Christmas on the water is special. It’s very different from the land side Christmas events of malls and streets. If you live in a waterfront area you know what I mean. If you’re underway during the Christmas season, as we usually are, you especially appreciate what I’m talking about.

Shoreside lights reflecting on the water at night are always beautiful, but Christmas lights are even more so. Over our years of traveling on the water we’ve seen more and more villages, cities, homes and marinas decorated with Christmas lights, some tastefully, some a little gaudy, but all “in the spirit.” Then there are the boat Christmas parades. Boat owners spend huge amounts of time and sometimes money to decorate their boats for a water parade which usually occurs in early December or just after Thanksgiving. Sometimes the decorations are only lights. Sometimes they include reindeer, Santas on sleds, nativity scenes and other symbols of the season. It’s special enough, just because it’s on a boat. But it’s also special because all the lights are reflecting on the water as the parade winds its way through anchorages and past piers. Many boats decorate even if they aren’t going to be in a parade. They turn the anchorages and marinas into a different world.

As I write this, we’re in St. Augustine. It’s the oldest permanent European settlement on the North American continent. Its aura is distinctly flavored by its Spanish heritage. During the famed Nights of Lights from November 17 to January 31 the downtown area is lit with over 3 million white lights. During this time they have the British Grand Illumination and Torch Light Parade. The white lights are on the buildings and are artistically arranged to reflect the lines of Spanish architecture. They also entwine the trunks of palm trees, from ground level to the fronds. They light the trimmed hedges and other foliage. They transform to a land of magic the gardens and paths in and around the Plaza de la Constitution which faces the harbor.

Christmas at sunset at Camachee Cove

St. Augustine has long been a seafaring town. Seafaring pursuits range from commercial and pleasure fishing, commercial shrimping, and boat building and repair. In older days this was a seaport for cargo and passenger vessels. For awhile it was the maritime jumping off point for people who wanted to get down to fledgling towns of Ft. Lauderdale, Miami and Key West. Going by boat was the only practical way to go, and usually the safest and most comfortable. There were no easy roads or railroads. In even older days St. Augustine was the scene of bloody pirate attacks and vicious sea battles between warring nations.

The huge Castillo de San Marcos guards the harbor. It was built from coquina , a soft natural mixture of broken shell and coral that was not only hard and durable, but also spongy when impacted by cannon balls. It was completed in 1695 and built to withstand attacks from pirates and British ships. And so it did. Its looming presence today, overlooking the harbor, lends impressive contrast to the millions of white lights and it helps to authenticate the historical tenor of the lights and other Christmas decorations. Boats anchored in the harbor bask in the glow from the shore, as well as from their own decorations. Boats in the marinas add to the scene with their reflections. There is a Christmas boat parade here too. Some cities have spectacular parades with boats elaborately decorated by corporate sponsors. For this Christmas parade, as is true of many in other locations, the decorations are by the owners and friends.

Christmas Cruising

1. If you go cruising, don’t plan to leave your traditions back ashore.

2. Many feel that the new lifestyle will make family traditions, such as, for example, Christmas and Thanksgiving, less relevant. The opposite is true.

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The Camachee Cove Yacht Harbor (800 345 9269) is a premier marina, not only in St. Augustine, but indeed on the entire US East Coast. Its Christmas décor matches that of the rest of the area, and then some. This year, there was a prize of $300.00 off the slip rental for the best decorated boat in the marina. Not that they wouldn’t be doing it anyway, but you’d be amazed at how that puts boat owners in the spirit to decorate for the season. There are also the lights circling up the trunks of the palm trees in the marina and on buildings, as well as a huge live Christmas tree in the main yachtsman’s lounge (there are 3 lounges in the marina). But there’s another event that, like so many other aspects of this marina, makes it very special at Christmas.

Each year, in early December, there’s a Christmas party. “So what?” you think. “There are Christmas parties everywhere.” Well, not like this. The marina grounds surround what is essentially an enclosed basin. Around much of the basin are many marine related businesses. These include a full service boat yard (904 823 3641) with a 50 ton lift, the headquarters for X-Change-R oil changing systems, First Mate which is a competitive and well stocked ship’s store and service center, a deli, a boat dealership, fishing charters, the area TowBoatUS headquarters, a sailing school, the popular Kingfish Restaurant and a marine insurance brokerage—and more. On the party night (always a Saturday) each of the businesses has an open house for marina customers and each out does the other with its own brand of offerings, including food (exceptionally good food), drink and sometimes live music. After celebrants wind their way around the docks, stopping in at party after party, they usually find their way to the main yachtsman’s lounge, below the marina office. Around the Christmas tree and throughout the room is an incredible selection of desserts (cakes, pies, candies etc.) coffee, and fancy after dinner liquors.

Center console heads out for the parade

It’s a huge marina, but there is a “marina family” spirit which is very tangible at this party. The marina founders and the owners and staff are there with everyone else. Everyone else includes sport fish owners and crew, mega yacht owners and crew, sailboat people, center console people, trawler people—the broad spectrum of pleasure boating.

We’ve been to a lot of very special places for Christmas, and a lot of very special Christmas parties up and down the coast and in the Bahamas. We love them all. But this one has got to be seen to be believed, and if you find yourself making your way down the coast one December, perhaps you should check it all out.

Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale