Florida's Holiday Forecast: Merry and Bright

    The Sunshine State's mild weather and diverse holiday activities make for a festive winter on all fronts.

    In a state where palm trees and sunny beaches are part of the winter landscape, our holidays may not be "white," as the famous Christmas song says. But they can still be merry and bright. This time of year, you'll find Florida aglow with holiday fanfare and winter fun for all ages.

    There's much to celebrate here in our diverse state – like a snowflake, each city is unique. If you're craving a winter getaway or want to get in the holiday spirit, take a look around Florida and uncover the season's best and brightest close to home.

    A Water Wonderland

    Don't miss the colorful nighttime boat parades that light up waterways around the state – several towns have their own, and they're usually free to watch. One of the state's largest boat parades is part of the 37th Annual Winterfest in Fort Lauderdale. Each December, more than a million people gather to watch decked-out boats cruise the 14-mile route – it's the seventh largest one-day spectator event in the country. As Reader's Digest said in a 2004 write-up, this parade has "floats that really float."

    Another boat parade to check out is the Treasure Island Annual Lighted Boat Parade, which wraps up near John's Pass Village & Boardwalk in Madeira Beach, in the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area. John's Pass is a waterfront complex featuring shopping, dining and sightseeing options perfect for couples and families.

    In St. Augustine, take a carriage ride or after-dinner stroll during the Nights of Lights celebration, which runs through January 31 this year. You'll see two million white lights twinkling around the historic district and reflecting off of Matanzas Bay.

    Lights and Holiday Sights

    On the water or inland, many Florida cities put on their own holiday celebrations and winter festivals. In Northwest Florida, Destin's Norman Rockwell Holidays shows it's possible to find nostalgia and classic holiday fun in Florida. The Rockwell-themed event features a 50-foot Christmas tree, an illuminated Main Street, holiday street lamp banners and life-size, interactive Norman Rockwell vignettes. It's all staged around Destin Commons, a lively shopping, dining and entertainment area on Florida's Emerald Coast.

    In Kissimmee, the Gaylord Palms ICE! attraction features two million pounds of ice shaped into beautiful, holiday-themed carvings, including a Candy Land and a life-sized walk-through igloo. There are even four ice slides that both kids and adults can try out. If you really want a taste of winter, this spectacle will deliver – it's kept at a chilly 9 degrees.

    In South Florida's Delray Beach, holiday festivities include the 15th anniversary lighting of a 100-foot Christmas tree (step inside to see animated elf scenes, model train layouts and more), ice skating, a holiday carousel and Friday Night Flicks, where you can watch movies under the stars (bring your own lawn chair or rent one for $2). Catch it on a cool night and it's a good chance to tap into that seldom-used winter wardrobe and bundle up.

    Signature Florida Gifts

    Shopping for friends and family is a popular holiday activity no matter where you live. So what's the ultimate Florida gift? Hint: you won't find it at any of the malls, outlet centers, shopping plazas or retail meccas that dot the state (although their options are tempting, too). It's Florida gift fruit – we're talking oranges, tangerines, grapefruit and more.

    Like just about everything else these days, gift fruit has gone high-tech. Festive, attractive packaging holds everything from juicy citrus to orange blossom honey to chocolate alligators. You can send a Kiss Box of Honeybell Oranges mixed with Hershey's Kisses, a tower of tangerines layered with nuts and candies or even a miniature Christmas tree made from a variety of fruit with jams layered beneath.

    For kids or candy-lovers of all ages, there's orange-infused chocolates, key lime cookies and citrus jelly candies that accompany a box of sweet navel oranges. Health-conscious relatives and friends will appreciate the classics – baskets of oranges, grapefruit and tangerines. There's even a fruit-of-the-month program so you can keep the good stuff coming year 'round.

    Whatever your fancy, you can pick it out, pay for it and ship it from www.pickFLA.com. It's convenient, thoughtful and delicious (and the fact that it supports our Florida citrus growers is an added bonus). It's budget-friendly too, with gift fruit packages starting at $25. If you're looking for a good way to spread some happy, healthy holiday cheer, this is it.

    In this land of mild winters and perennial sunshine, we shouldn't be surprised that some of the best gifts grow on trees. To find out more about great Florida citrus gift ideas for the holidays, visit www.pickFLA.com.