By T. WAYNE WATERS
Temperatures continue to rise all over the nation, so it might be difficult right now to think about escaping winter’s icy grip. But winter will come and it’s the prime time for business meetings in many Southern destinations, where mild temperatures, reasonable rates and the prospect of no mosquitos (not to mention no snow) draw meeting-goers toward Southern latitudes.
In the South, planners are fortunate to have many great locations for keeping Ol’ Man Winter at bay. Looking ahead to the cold days of winter, ConventionSouth has picked out a nice-’n’-toasty mix of hot spots highly suited for winter meetings: a couple of dependable big city go-tos; a few medium sized destinations that might not be foremost in mind; and a few smaller destinations with surprising meeting and recreation profiles.
San Antonio, Texas
From inside the historic, hot-blooded heart of Texas, Ol’ San Antone beckons winter meeting participants. Spanish Colonial missions, including the famous Alamo, offer interesting and unique adventures outside the meeting venues. At the Alamo, originally built in the mid-18th century, guided tours and history talks are entertaining and informative. Special-event space is available at Alamo Hall, a converted 1922 firehouse and the only indoor event center within the Alamo walls, which also features adjoining outdoor event space.
Almost as iconic for San Antonio as the Alamo, the city’s extraordinary River Walk is lined with all types of restaurants, bars, art galleries and exceptional shopping. It’s as fine a city stroll as you’re ever likely to find. For a real treat, take a narrated River Walk riverboat tour or arrange a dinner served on a private barge! Also, some of San Antonio’s best festivals take place during the winter season, including the sensational Luminaria, an evening public arts festival, held in late October.
(Photo: River Walk — Credit: San Antonio CVB)
Located just 10 miles south of downtown Houston, Pearland is the fastest-growing city in the Houston region and a great hub-and-spoke spot not only for H-Town but for the entire Texas Gulf Coast region. It’s home to a University of Houston satellite campus, 11 major brand hotels and several small meeting spaces at several event/conference centers. Pearland also offers three golf venues. The little city has more than 175 acres of parks and miles of walking, hiking, jogging and bike trails.
Pearland’s great winter weather allows it to offer a year-’round edible trail with information signage that makes for a pleasant group outing. Situated along Pearland’s Connectivity Trail from Centennial Park and continuing along Mary’s Creek, the fruit trail provides delicious kumquats, persimmons, jujubes, avocados and pomegranates during late fall and early winter. Pumello (or pomelo), and grapefruit are ripe for picking during late winter.
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Offering wonderful indoor attractions—including two major museums, several intriguing
political history sites and a first-class performing arts venue—Baton Rouge also pulls visitors outside, even in winter, to enjoy its Rural Life Museum and its zoo. Affiliated with Louisiana State University, The Rural Life Museum is a 320-acre outdoor museum where a collection of 32 buildings and thousands of artifacts demonstrate and interpret the 19th-century culture of Louisiana and the lower Mississippi River Valley. It has been called “one of the Top 10 outdoor museums in the world” by The British Museum of London.
For a little less culture and more pure fun, try BREC’s Baton Rouge Zoo. The Baton Rouge Recreation and Park Commission of East Baton Rouge Parish attraction sits on 147 landscaped acres about 15 minutes north of downtown and is home to more than 1,800 animals. Best of all, the entire zoo can be rented during the evening!
There aren’t too many places that are better to be in the dead of winter than a city situated at the head of a bay in an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico. One of the most arresting sites in Mobile is the USS Alabama, docked on the bay at Battleship Memorial Park. The battleship, last in duty during World War II, measures 680 feet from stem to stern, displaces more than 44,500 tons, and packs some huge guns. Individuals and groups may take self-guided tours of the behemoth or the ship may be rented for special events, with catered meals served onboard. Also at the memorial park: a WWII-era submarine, nearly 30 military aircraft, various other vintage military equipment and memorials.
Alternatively, the magnificent Bellingrath Gardens in Theodore, Ala., about a half-hour southeast of Mobile, offers 65 acres of year-’round floral enjoyment. Bellingrath’s display of cascading chrysanthemums is one of the largest in the U.S. and is on display well into the autumn. From Thanksgiving to Christmas, more than 3 million lights are on display at the gardens in the much-heralded Bellingrath Gardens and Home’s Magic Christmas in Lights. This far south, a variety of colorful camellias put on their own stunning show through the coldest months of winter. (Photo: Bellingrath Gardens — Credit: Mobile Bay CVB)
The GulfQuest/National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico is slated to open in Mobile sometime in 2015.
Jax is a great wintertime locale with agreeable weather throughout the winter. It offers the variety of meeting spaces, hotels and attractions you’d expect of a sizable city, as well as plenty of great year-’round, group-friendly activities. Part of Florida’s Golf Coast, Jacksonville is a golf haven, with more than 1,220 holes and 70 courses, ranging from those at plush, oceanside resorts to popular public courses. Many offer lessons and workshops all year long.
Another grand wintertime activity available in Jax is the three-hour guided kayak ecotour in the Timucuan Preserve Estuary. Groups can select from a half-dozen Kayak Amelia tours including the Marsh Tour, which follows Simpson Creek between Big Talbot and Little Talbot Island State Parks. Along the way, you’ll be sure to see some coastal critters and hear about the salt marsh ecosystem as well as local history.
(Photo: Kayak Eco Tour Credit: Ryan Ketterman/Visit Jacksonville)
Tampa Bay, Florida
Besides uncommonly great weather year-’round, the Tampa Bay area offers lots of maritime mirth in the wintertime. It’s situated on the west coast of Florida near the Gulf of Mexico, with the Hillsborough River running alongside Tampa, the area’s major metropolis. This mid-sized city, known as one of the most affordable locales for a business meeting, also boasts Busch Gardens Tampa, The Florida Aquarium and Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, just to name a few popular attractions. One special enterprise, eBoats Tampa, offers guided tours, such as the business-minded Insider’s Tour and the picturesque Sunset Cruise, as well as self-driven excursions. The electric boats are very quiet, comfort able, easy to operate and conveniently located at the Tampa Convention Center Docks.
Another winter treat is The Gasparilla Pirate Festival, one of the city’s great celebrations, which takes place in January. The festival is a colorful event that involves a parade, a street fair and an “invasion” by a fully rigged, amply flagged pirate ship.
(Photo: Gasparilla Pirate Festival — Credit: Visit Tampa Bay)
Outside of Macon sit the seven earthen mounds that make up the Ocmulgee National Monument. The mounds were built more than 1,000 years ago by Native American cultures and a highlight is the Great Temple Mound, the tallest of the bunch at 55 feet. There are six miles of trails in the park and the museum has more than 2,000 artifacts.
For something a little more citified, a stroll around downtown Macon lets guests enjoy the city’s typically mild winter weather while taking in its remarkable African-American culture, memorialized all around the city, but most notably at Cotton Avenue and the Pleasant Hill Historic District. The latter was one of the first black neighborhoods listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the childhood home of famed musician and Macon native Little Richard. Another Macon native and music entertainer extraordinaire, Otis Redding, is immortalized with a life-size statue at the city’s Gateway Park by the Ocmulgee River. The Tubman African-American Museum is the state’s largest venue dedicated to African-American culture.
Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
A barrier island on the Eastern seaboard in the lowcountry of South Carolina, Hilton Head offers more than 12 miles of beaches and every kind of water-related recreation you can think of, including fishing, boating, kayaking, paddleboarding and ocean-wildlife-viewing excursions.
There are 20 world-class golf courses in this extraordinary winter hot spot. For some visitors, the simple activities have the strongest appeal. One of the most popular Hilton Head activities is biking. Hilton Head’s 50-plus miles of paved paths have placed it among only three communities on the Atlantic coast designated as Gold Level Bicycle Friendly by League of American Bicyclists.
The Coastal Discovery Museum is another Hilton Head crowd-pleaser, offering trails, gardens
and massive live oaks on the 68-acre Honey Horn property, with several specialized walking
tours and Segway tours available. For something really different, learn the skill of casting a net
to catch seafood, as coastal fishers do, in small classes taught on the grounds year-’round.
(Photo: Biking — Credit: Hilton Head Island Visitor & Convention Bureau
Wilmington, the largest city along the North Carolina coastal area, is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the Intracoastal Waterway and the Cape Fear River, so it’s only fitting that on-water tours are a mainstay. Cape Fear Riverboats provide a great way to view the city, with special tours that include lunch as well as sightseeing cruises, dinner cruises, murder-mystery cruises, narrated Black River Nature cruises and specially arranged corporate event cruises.
On the Atlantic Ocean side, Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours’ 27-foot motorized catamaran can snake its way up shallow creeks and land passengers right on the shores of the area’s small islands.
(Photo: Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours — Credit: Wilmington and Beaches CVB)
Virginia Beach, Virginia
Warmed by the currents of the Atlantic Ocean, Virginia Beach offers many opportunities for
winter beachcombing and sightseeing. Hiking, biking and cruising on kayaks through scenic
marshes in the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge are all popular activities. At the Virginia
Aquarium and Marine Science Center, there are more than 300 marine life exhibits and a 3-D IMAX theater. A multi-level tree-canopy ropes course and sea adventures aboard
The AtlanticExplorer, a 65-foot catamaran, are popular for group functions. The Pleasure House Oyster Farm at the Lynnhaven River allows small groups to take a boat tour of the operation and experience a hands-on oyster-farming experience!