Flickering strings of lights, the chorus of a favorite song, a cup of hot cocoa next to a roaring fire — it can be pretty easy to slip into the holiday spirit at this time of year. But sometimes you need to go beyond the basics: smelling pine needles and a fresh-cut Christmas tree on a farm, or watching dozens of brightly decorated sailboats parade around a waterfront. Here are five itineraries that will kindle the holiday feeling in anyone.
Every year, there’s a reason thousands of people will be standing around Annapolis’s City Dock on Saturday night, braving the breezes blowing in from the Chesapeake Bay: Last December, it was a 14-foot high illuminated blue crab that opened and closed its claws atop a boat named Driftwood. The Eastport Yacht Club Lights Parade has been a holiday tradition since the 1980s, attracting dozens of colorful watercraft decorated to look like Santa’s sleigh, a pirate ship or the leg lamp from “A Christmas Story.” Boats make two circuits, at the City Dock and farther up Spa Creek, as visitors cheer from the Eastport Bridge or along the waterfront. Some favorites return every year, but there are always newcomers like Driftwood, which was named “Best in Parade” in its first year.
To make the most of the trip, leave time to wander and look at the historic city’s festive decorations, including the impressive tree outside the Market House, and pop into its boutiques before dinner. Hit Sailor Oyster Bar for a taste of the bay or head to Preserve, on Main Street, for clever farm-to-table cooking.
Eastport Yacht Club Parade: Dec. 8 from 6 to 8 p.m. Free.
As the temperature plummets, you might think you missed out on the ideal season to take in the sights of the Wharf. But head to the pier outside of the Anthem, and you’ll find one of the most scenic skating rinks in the area. Glide across the fresh sheet of ice, underneath a charmingly minimal light setup, and you’ll spy cars zipping across the nearby bridge, tour boats sailing and onlookers sitting in the bleacher seats at one end of the rink. Go at night, and the backdrop includes the illuminated marquees of new and long-standing waterfront businesses. If you need a bite in between laps in the rink, there’s a snack shack at the entrance, which dispenses the usual concession fare, including hot chocolate.
Once you’ve shown off your skating skills — or become too well practiced in graceful tumbling — take a stroll to the opposite end of the strip, if the warm glow of the permanent fire pit on the way doesn’t lure you in, and get cozy at Kirwan’s on the Wharf. One of D.C.’s best cracks at the Irish-pub formula, it scores points for mixed pints, bacon and cabbage and a bar nook tucked behind sliding liquor cabinets.
Wharf ice rink: Open daily through late February. $8-$12 for admission; $6 skate rental.
Multitasking is the reason to visit Wunder Garten this season. Sure, the three-year-old NoMa beer garden is the neighborhood’s best place for sitting around a fire pit with a mug of Irish coffee or hot chocolate spiked with peppermint schnapps, or just a local craft beer. (It’s also dog-friendly, making it a popular weekend destination for four-legged residents.)
But Wunder Garten’s Winterfest, which runs through Dec. 16, makes the indoor/outdoor bar much more of a holiday destination. Friday through Sunday, there’s a makers market with vendors selling clothing, cosmetics and gifts; a Christmas tree lot, with proceeds benefiting So Others Might Eat; food by Timber Pizza and CaliBurger; and a series of holiday events, such as an Ugly Sweater Party (Dec. 8) and pet photos with Santa (Dec. 16). Picking up last-minute gifts and getting a tree for your living room while also feasting on some of the city’s best pizza? Goodbye, holiday stress.
Wunder Garten: 1101 First St. NE. Winterfest market hours, through Dec. 16: Friday from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m.; Saturday from noon to 1 a.m.; Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. Free.
Leesburg’s historic downtown has all the charms you’d expect of a town founded in the 18th century, and at this time of year, the calendar is full of seasonal cheer. The town Christmas tree and menorah are lighted at 6 p.m. Dec. 7, soundtracked by performers from local schools. After the ceremony, dozens of shops, galleries and restaurants offer live music and deals as part of the community’s monthly First Friday.
On Dec. 8, the annual Christmas and Holiday Parade brings marching bands, floats and Santa to the main drag of King Street. The day’s festivities also include Jingle Jam concerts for adults and kids at the Tally Ho Theater. Pair your visit with dinner at Melt, which offers one of the finest cheeseburgers in the area, or Tuscarora Mill, also known as Tuskie’s, where grilled bronzini and shrimp and grits match an extensive selection of wine and craft beer.
The fun goes beyond this weekend: The garden behind the Loudoun Museum’s log cabin is filled with 1,400 colored lights that blink in time to holiday songs, and on Dec. 14, former “Dancing With the Stars” contestant and current Redskins cornerback Josh Norman makes an appearance in the Loudoun Ballet Performing Arts Company’s version of “The Nutcracker.”
Tree and menorah lighting: Friday at 6 p.m. Leesburg Town Green, 25 West Market St., Leesburg, Va. Free. Christmas and Holiday Parade: Saturday at 8 p.m. King Street from Ida Lee Drive to Fairfax Street. Free.
Cutting your own Christmas tree is an adventure: finding one with perfect shape, worrying how to saw it down without losing a finger, strapping the thing to the roof of your car. Mayne’s Christmas tree farm, in Frederick County, Md., has been open since 1977, making it a solid choice for first-time tree-seekers. Visitors are ferried out to the 50 to 60 acres of firs and pine trees on a tractor-pulled hayride before selecting a specimen. (If you don’t find the perfect one, or have trouble cutting it, the farm sells fresh-cut trees as well as wreaths and other decorations.) As a bonus: Mayne’s is open daily through Dec. 23, a good alternative to weekend-only tree farms. Pro tip: Bring cash to avoid the longer credit card lines.
After picking a tree, head north to Frederick, where holiday attractions include brightly decorated boats on the downtown canal; horse-drawn carriage rides through historic areas; Saturday shopping with musicians playing on street corners and outdoor s’mores and hot chocolate stations; and performances of “A Christmas Carol” at the Weinberg Center for the Arts. The town’s numerous boutiques and antique malls could make for a unique gifts. Volt, helmed by former “Top Chef” Bryan Voltaggio, remains one of the city’s finest restaurants, while the Wine Kitchen (near the art on Carroll Creek) pairs a farm-to-table bistro menu with a rewarding selection of wine flights.
Mayne’s tree farm: 3420 Buckeystown Pike, Buckeystown, Md. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Dec. 23. Trees are priced by species and size and range from $45-$170.