by Amanda Lea
JOLLY JAUNTS: Santa travels quickly all in one night, but you can take your time on a trip that’s merry and bright. Choose your own adventure based on how far you want to trek. Then hop in your sleigh, put on your favorite holiday playlist and hit the road for some festive sights.
Dates and details of events are subject to change. Be sure to confirm before venturing out.
driving distance: approximately 30 minutes
Christmas Town USA Dec. 1-26
In an annual tradition dating to the 1950s, thousands of twinkling lights illuminate the former Gaston County mill village of McAdenville. Drive along the 1.3-mile route (about 30 minutes, depending on the crowds) or park and stroll among the merrymakers. The celebration kicks off with a tree-lighting ceremony on Dec. 1 and continues throughout the season. At the annual Yule Log Ceremony on Dec. 15, children pull a Yule log on a sled to Legacy Park and a festival ensues, with music, a visit from Santa and more. mcadenville-christmastown.com
Holidays at the Garden at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden through Dec. 31 | 5-9 p.m.
Sparkling fountains and glittering gardens invite guests of all ages to grab a warm beverage and enjoy the festive holiday décor. Gather round the outdoor fire and get something to eat from one of the on-site food trucks. The garden is open Wednesdays-Sundays and will be closed Dec. 24 and 25. dsbg.org/visit/holidays-at-the-garden
driving distance: approximately 30-45 minutes
Speedway Christmas at Charlotte Motor Speedway through Jan. 8
Cruise the 4-mile course with hundreds of creative holiday displays. Four million LED lights are set to Christmas music in a display the whole family will enjoy. Fuel up beforehand with dinner at The Speedway Club and enjoy the view of the famous track. Dinner reservations are required, so be sure to book a table in advance. charlottemotorspeedway.com, gospeedwayclub.com
COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA
driving distance: 1.5 hours
Lights at Riverbanks Zoo, through Dec. 30, select evenings 5–9 p.m.
A holiday favorite for 35 years, this dazzling experience features 1 million lights and a slew of holiday-inspired activities. Discover life-sized illuminated animal lanterns, wander through the Winter Wonderland and ride the Candy Cane Carousel while the zoo’s inhabitants take the night off. riverbanks.org/events/lights-at-riverbanks
driving distance: under 2 hours
Chetola Resort Festival of Lights, through Jan. 29
Walk or drive through the resort and around Chetola Lake to view the annual display featuring nearly 30,000 lights. Revel in the sounds of the season as you stroll through the 78-acre resort adjacent to Moses H. Cone Memorial Park, or roll down your windows to hear some merry tunes. Younger visitors will enjoy the Winterland Kids Stroll, with activities along the way and a holiday treat at the end. The free light show is open to the public and illuminates at dusk each evening. chetola.com
driving distance: under 2 hours
Christmas Parade and Holiday Craft Market on the Green, Dec. 10
Home to one of the largest public garden railroads on the East Coast, Gibsonville is a quintessential small town with an inviting Main Street. The annual Christmas parade features floats, marching bands and, of course, an appearance by Santa. The Holiday Market on the Town Green from 1-4 p.m. boasts an array of offerings from local artisans. Stop by and see the Garden Railroad any time, but if you want to see the trains running, visit on the first Saturday of each month from April to December, 9 a.m.-noon. gibsonvillenc.org/events
GREENVILLE, SOUTH CAROLINA
driving distance: under 2 hours
Ice on Main, through Jan. 16
Live out your winter Olympian dreams — or just skate a few laps with friends — in the heart of downtown Greenville. The open-air ice skating rink is like stepping into a mini Rockefeller Center. Tree-lined sidewalks and twinkling lights pair perfectly with a warm cup of cocoa. greenvillesc.gov
The Very Merry Local Christmas Market at Travelers Rest, Dec. 10, 12:30-4:30 p.m.
Be transported to an era when Christmas was crafted and curated by the hands of friends and neighbors. Cups of cocoa and cider will keep you cozy while you visit the market stalls of local bakers, potters, jewelers, printmakers and more. visitgreenvillesc.com
Greenville Christmas Market at Grand Bohemian Lodge, through Jan. 1
Shop from a dozen booths featuring local retailers and artisans, enjoy live music and more while relaxing at the new seven-story Grand Bohemian Lodge overlooking Falls Park on the Reedy River.
Greenville Gingerbread House Contest, through Dec. 26
Nearly two dozen professional chefs will compete in this inaugural exhibit on view in the lobby of the Springhill Suites in downtown. oakandhoneygvl.com/greenville-gingerbread/
driving distance: under 2 hours
Home for the Holidays, through Jan. 1
Caroling, decorating contests and more encourage visitors to bask in the Blue-Ridge beauty of this mountain town. Yuletide activities are sprinkled throughout the season. Watch the Christmas parade on Dec. 3, or embark on the Peppermint Bear Scavenger Hunt through Dec. 23. While you’re there, pick out a tree or wreath at one of the local Christmas tree farms or greenery markets.
driving distance: 1 hour and 15 minutes
Festival of Lights at Tanglewood Park, through Jan. 1
More than a million lights shimmer at one of the largest holiday displays of its kind in the Southeast. Take in the sights from the comfort of your car while listening to festive tunes on the interactive musical displays. Or, take a horse-drawn carriage ride or tractor-pulled hayride for a unique viewing experience. Stop by S’moresville for a decadent treat that will satisfy your sweet tooth. forsyth.cc/Parks/Tanglewood
Holidays at Reynolda, through Dec. 31
Katharine and R.J. Reynolds, along with their four children, moved into Reynolda just before Christmas in 1917. Today, the tranquil 170-acre setting that comprises Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Reynolda Gardens and Reynolda Village honors the tradition of the season with holiday tours and events for the whole family. Sleigh your Christmas list with a trip to the museum store for some festive finds, like limited-edition ornaments and vintage Christmas cards. reynolda.org
Salem Saturdays, through Dec. 31
Begin with a walk under the Moravian stars at Old Salem’s Heritage Bridge, shop for gifts and ornaments at Moravian Book & Gift, and visit the Miksch House to learn how Christmas was celebrated in the town’s early days. No visit to Old Salem is complete without a stop at Winkler Bakery for sugar cakes, cookies and love feast buns. oldsalem.org
driving distance: 2 hours
Christmas at Biltmore Estate, through Jan.
Over 100,000 lights, 205 fresh wreaths and more than 13,000 ornaments are hung with care at the beloved Biltmore Estate. This year’s theme, “Winter Landscapes,” honors landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who was born 200 years ago. Choose from a daytime house tour or the Candlelight Christmas Evenings experience. biltmore.com
The National Gingerbread House Competition at the Omni Grove Park Inn through Jan. 2
The 30th year of the largest competition of its kind promises some sweet surprises and delightful artistry. Winning gingerbread houses will be on display for hotel guests and visitors to view throughout the season. omnihotels.com
Winter Lights at the North Carolina Arboretum through Dec. 31
This walk-through exhibit invites visitors to an enchanted forest bedecked with thousands of holiday lights. The 1-mile stretch of the 434-acre campus includes unique displays — like the famous 50-foot lighted tree — plus some new surprises.
driving distance: 2 hours, 20 minutes
A Small Town Christmas, Dec. 2-4
The Blue Ridge Mountains beckon for a weekend of old-fashioned holiday fun. The activities kick off with the lighting of the town tree and a holiday variety show performed at the Historic Banner Elk School. Warm up Saturday morning with the 5K Reindeer Run and grab breakfast with Santa, then choose from ornament-making, a candy-cane hunt, train rides through the park or a synchronized light show. bannerelk.com
driving distance: 3 hours, 15 minutes
The Polar Express Train Rides at the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad Depot, through Dec. 31
The holiday classic comes to life as pajama-clad passengers enjoy cookies and cocoa aboard the train while following along with the sights and sounds of The Polar Express movie soundtrack. New this year: While in Bryson City, check out the Smoky Mountain Christmas Light Spectacular, a drive-through light show that runs through Dec. 31. gsmr.com
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, WEST VIRGINIA
driving distance: 4 hours
Home for the Holidays at The Greenbrier, Dec. 23-28
The spirit of the season flows throughout The Greenbrier’s 11,000 acres. “America’s Resort” comes to life with a Christmas celebration that includes glittering decorations, tasty treats, merry music and more. Fun fact: The recent movie Christmas at The Greenbrier was filmed at the resort and features many of the treasured sights and sounds you can experience during your stay. greenbrier.com
driving distance: 6 hours
WinterLights, through Dec. 30
Take a trip to the coast for some holiday cheer. WinterLights on Roanoke Island is a 22-night event where The Elizabethan Gardens is transformed into a winter wonderland. Join the Jingle Jog Christmas Run on Dec. 18 and run oceanside through the quaint town of Southern Shores. Or be part of Santa’s unforgettable arrival on a firetruck at Duck’s Yuletide Celebration on Dec. 3. SP
Featured image of Charlotte Motor Speedway courtesy Explore Cabarrus