This December marks my third holiday season living in the South. And while I’ve already enjoyed seemingly countless new, exciting, and very different holiday traditions each winter here, there’s always something else I want to try, or add to my must-do list. Many of these events and outings are completely unique to Florida, Florida’s history, and, unlike Chicago - with the fact that bodies of water are not frozen solid, or on their way to be, down here in December - it means a whole lot of those holiday traditions involve the water in some way or manner.
St. Augustine’s 26th Annual Nights of Lights is one such event that I’ve incorporated into my holiday traditions here on the First Coast. And this year I planned my outing to be centered entirely around the coastal and inlet waters of Vilano Beach, Matanzas River, Anastasia Island, and the very historic city of St. Augustine itself.
I’ve seen the St. Augustine Lights each year here thus far. But mostly I’ve gazed at the lights just quickly touring or driving through, so this year I wanted to do things a little bit different.
Red Boat Water Tours - docked at the Vilano Beach Pier - hosts a nightly boat tour of the coastal waters which reflect the lights surrounding all the beauty in the city.
We booked our boat ride months in advance. The tour is so very popular it sells out way ahead of time for each evening they take on customers during the entire holiday season.
We had been on this exact boat tour during the day time with my family when they were in town for a visit about a year and a half ago now. We witnessed lots of dolphins swimming about during that ride, as we listened to the captain tell us many stories about the great history of St. Augustine. So I was pretty excited about gaining a different perspective of the city this year, at night, once the waters were completely dark, and with the lighthouse acting as a true beacon surrounding our entire ride, and all the magnificence of the lights display bordering the entire shore line.
Tours start at $40.00 per person, plus fees, and our original total came to over $90.00. However, since we had been customers in the past, they had offered us a repeat rider discount specifically for the Nights of Lights Tour, with fairly significant savings - it nearly halved our total cost. This repeat customer deal was better than any other sales/codes/online deals offered.
Honestly, the large discount is the only reason I booked the tour. I personally think we would never have paid this much to go back on the same boat we had already been on - as I tend to try different things each year, especially those that cost significant money. While tending to keep the traditions that cost next to nothing or are completely free. Sugar cookies, anyone?
I also planned for us to have dinner at Beaches at Vilano in advance of the tour. It makes sense to me to try a restaurant we’ve never been especially when we’re right there in the vicinity.
Our ride started at 7:15pm going through 8:30. Red Boat asks in the fine print for us to arrive about 15-20 minutes ahead of time. The restaurant is just opposite the pier and basically shares the same parking. So I planned our dinner for 5:30. That gave us enough time to work a full day, drive down, eat a leisurely meal, including time for a quick dessert, then head on over to our awaiting horse-drawn open sleigh upon the warm waters.
Dinner was just fine. I say that meaning there was absolutely nothing wrong with it, while at the same time it wasn’t the best meal of my life. It ended up being roughly half the cost as our anniversary meal at The Reef, which is located just down the street a bit… so the lesser cost was fabulous. And despite it not being the absolute best, I do recommend stopping in Beaches if you get a chance.
The atmosphere and the views are worth it alone. You will be transported instantly into vacation mode there - whether you’re on vacation, or not. And there are no complaints here about vacation mode.
At 5:30pm on a Tuesday, in December, they were quite busy. They had some very large parties already seated, mostly corporate and holiday parties going on, but each table was filled. They were busy enough that we were lucky to get seated right away, have our meal, with just enough time remaining for getting out to our boat tour immediately after. We had tried for reservations - but they do not accept. Make sure to allot for enough time if you are planning the same holiday outing.
I ordered a plain iced tea, skipped the soup, salads and appetizers, and had the flat iron steak with a side of broccoli - extra broccoli - skip the plantains, for my main course.
This is how I stay healthy or even somewhat healthy while dining out. I researched the menu in advance online. I logged into MyFitnessPal in the morning to plot out my calories for the day. And I knew exactly what I was ordering for dinner. After massive weight loss, I’m not about to go back to where I was. While I receive lots of questions asking me how I maintain the loss...it's a daily plan just like it was during the loss. Even more so afterward, I’d say, than during, sometimes.
Healthy decisions have to be part of the new and changed lifestyle. Wherever I am. Whatever options are available to me. And most especially when coming face to face with the almighty and highly coveted FRENCH FRY.
No, I never met a potato I didn’t like.
Don’t get me wrong, I still eat burgers and fries, just infrequently. The meal I selected for this outing is loaded with nutrients from the broccoli and is heavy on the protein from the steak. And nothing fried.
The protein helps the tummy feel full, and takes longer to digest, upping the metabolism. The harder the body has to work to process the food, the more calories it burns in the process. That’s why protein is a major perk to weight loss. And, the broccoli’s many and countless benefits will basically go without saying for right now and the purposes of this post, as the perks of eating it should be self-explanatory for most. Hence, the large plate of broccoli.
My only critique of this dish, at this restaurant, is that I would recommend the steak and broccoli be served on separate plates. The juices/sauces/butters/etc. from both dishes were already mixed together by the time my plate was served to me, and it didn’t take long for the entire dish to taste all the same. And when everything tastes the same, it’s becomes increasingly less appealing. Leading to less enjoyment from me, leading to my hubby’s meal becoming more and more appealing and quite tempting to me by the second.
Here is the hubby’s meal.
He ordered the burger with fries, and a side of grilled shrimp. He loved the shrimp, and everything else was exceptional. His margarita was just right.
We ordered the volcano cake with vanilla ice cream, berries, and topped with a berry sauce to split for dessert. This allowed us to still have a treat for the night, a special treat since we were out, but splitting saved on calories immensely as well as cost.
We received our volcano cake - minus the volcano. Sad face.
My husband didn’t know what a volcano cake was, so I was excited to split it open to show how the chocolate should pour out like lava, but, sadly, that did not happen. It was very, very dry. But while the cake was not as it should have been - it was still edible - it was C H O C O L A T E…. after all. No problem there - not a drop of it left by the end of the meal - we had the plate clean for them and ready to pop in the dishwasher, no pre-rinse needed.
After our dinner at Beaches was complete, we walked right on out to the very lonely looking pier.
It was dark. And desolate.
I instantly thought we had the wrong day.
I was just about to check my phone for information. But alas, we kept walking down toward the dock, and I could see red lights.Our Rudolph.
Our boat was there. Our Red Boat. It was just near empty and no one else was around - within an area that us usually fairly populated - any time of day.
Apparently, right before our arrival there was a miscommunication between tour boat companies and all the riders standing out on the dock waiting to board their respective boats.
Another tour company out of the same dock had some problems with their boat, sent everyone away, and when those people left, nearly all of the customers for our Red Boat left as well. So we were riding on a sold-out boat ride, and had most of the boat to ourselves. If you book this outing, don’t be afraid to call to verify if something’s up upon your arrival. And know there are many boating companies out in the area touring customers around. If one sends people away, confirm it’s your ride before leaving.
It was a lovely ride. A chilly ride. A dark ride.
With the sun long ago set, we were riding past all the low and tidal areas in the dark, with the lighthouse as a breathtaking backdrop in the black skies. Our boat captain told us some stories along the way. We learned of the ancient history surrounding Nights of Lights - something I had never heard before.
I knew there were many reasons floating around online of how the Lights came to be an annual tradition within the town 26 years ago. And that the story of the light in the window tradition had potentially dated back to ancient times. But I knew no real specifics.
Our boat captain told us his version… He said it all started with Jesus.
Jesus. As a refugee baby. No room at the Inn. In need of safe passage. Safe housing for the night. When the Spanish settled here on the historic First Coast hundreds of years ago, they put lights in their windows at night during the holiday season. To act as a beacon.
A beacon for weary travelers.
A light to welcome Jesus.
Jesus has room at their Inns.
A beacon of hope to the world.
Of all the stories I heard about the Lights, and why they exist, and why people still put candles in their windows to this day, I like the Jesus version. Baby Jesus… sleeping in the hay.
I’ll choose Jesus.
But regardless of why lights are put in the window displays, and which version and which stories are true, and which are legend in town… as the town itself has countless legends - the lights themselves are absolutely fabulous. You can choose which story you like. Which fits your reason as to why you light your way and what you choose to light your way with.
Just always choose the light - over the darkness - and you’ll be good to go.
They offered us heavy wool blankets onboard. They came in handy. We absolutely froze. I wore a turtleneck, the only long pair of pants I own, and one of the only closed-toe shoes I own, my new winter puffy down coat, plus ear muffs, gloves, hood, and brought two blankets of our own, as they served us hot chocolate. It was 53 degrees outside.
We both froze near to death. It had just been in the mid 80’s a second ago, this was an ice age. We laughed at ourselves as if we were delirious. 53 degrees in Chicago in December is a heat wave. Break out the ice cream and sit on the front lawn with it. Open the windows!
Now we were Floridian Fools covered in blankets. Not allowing our fingers and cheeks to feel the air if we can at all help it. I can already picture myself next year..., I’ll have the big Ugg boots to match. I already know it. How else can I get through another Florida winter? Either that, or we are moving to the Equator.
No other sensible or reasonable or sane-minded options exist.
I mentioned the cold makes us delirious now, right?
If you’re a local and booking this ride, dress appropriately. Bring blankets. Pack for summiting Mount Everest.
If you’re a tourist and here on vacation from anywhere up North, never fear, you’ll feel like you’re in the tropical paradise of your dreams as your boat captain plays ‘Pontoon’ from Little Big Town as you race off toward the lights of the night.
Know that if you are looking to obtain quality photos, they will be hard to come by. With all the movement, added into the darkness, even with my hubby’s better camera, we couldn’t really capture the moment digitally with any great detail. Our best photo remains at the top of this post. If the boat had come to a complete stop, plus a tripod, then, maybe, we’re talking. But some things can’t be caught on camera I guess. You know, like Santa Claus. I tend to never capture a great full quality image of him, but I know he’s out there.
If you are in the area, definitely check it out. It’s a holiday tradition and celebration in a beautifully historic town, for all to enjoy, regardless of background, beliefs, and a lovely addition to a family holiday tradition as well. After all, in constant learning about different beliefs and traditions and reasons why others might put candles in the window each December, we are reminded that while we are all different, we are also all the same. Everybody wants Hope. Everyone wants Light.
I’ll choose not to do the ride again as it was costly. But, next year, I plan to view the Lights on foot, in town… off from the water's edge... and on solid ground.
I’ll travel up close and personal.
I want to see the fire lamps.
I want to see the Christmas trees in the window displays. I want to walk the town and see the lights as close as possible. I want to listen for the sound of reindeer hooves on roof tops. And most importantly, I want to look for Santa Claus… I tend to believe he might be hanging around all the dreamy chocolate shops and gift shops and restaurants… blended in amongst the gorgeous and magical Lights of St. Augustine. Yes, those shops seem like a good place to start on my hunt for the big SC. But for now, I’ll enjoy my memory of a coastal Christmas holiday on the water’s edge. ~
On a hot Florida summer day, also our 16th wedding anniversary, we took a drive down south on A1A to have dinner at The Reef. Having driven this state route between Jacksonville and St. Augustine numerous times, I consider getting to The Reef a treat in and of itself. A quick glance out of the car window and I am treated to some of the most scenic coastal views around the entire southeast United States. Pelicans flying overhead, waves crashing on the shore line, much of the road bordered by a coastal reserve––it’s a breath of fresh air to drive through so much nature at its absolute finest.
Besides Vilano Beach, The Reef is one of the very few eateries to stop at when enroute between Jax and the nation's oldest city. There’s only about one other place to dine (Cap’s), which requires a turn off of A1A heading toward the intracoastal, as well as a gas station and convenience mart. So naturally, The Reef is in quite an ideal location to catch all of the many passersby and tourists who are hungry and aching for a break from the car.
Pulling off of the coastal highway and into the sandy parking lot overlooking the dunes and straight out onto the Atlantic, it never really gets old to see such a sight. The ocean water was changing color quickly that afternoon, along with the abruptly changing weather. Then, gazing upon The Reef, one must not be fooled by its low-key and rough exterior. The weathered, gray board and batten structure's exterior provides a casual, laid back and beachy vibe; however, walking in was a different story. The interior is really a place much fancier than I expected. The hostess took us to our seats and we walked past tables adorned with cloth napkins and table cloths, and for a moment wearing my sundress, I didn’t know if I was dressed appropriately? Was I underdressed?
We were seated at our table outside, as requested, on the waterfront. The location: most ideal. Service was quite normal––no rush, and not too slow either. The views: priceless.
I quickly stopped worrying about what I was wearing once outside. As more people were seated, some were dressed up a bit, and some dressed very casual. We began our meal with drinks and a shrimp cocktail. Cheers to another year of marriage!
While sipping our drinks the weather turned very quickly. The skies darkened and a brief late afternoon Florida rain storm came upon us. The staff suggested we move inside before dinner and right as our meal was served it started pouring.
We watched the storm chase people off the beach from the window of our new candle-lit table. Our main courses were steaks with seasonal vegetables. The meal itself was a bit pricey to me for what we got but no real complaints at all. We ended with a very tiny vanilla ice cream scoop and a key lime pie tart to share for dessert. While sipping our coffees we witnessed the sky turn blue and clear up just in time to watch the sun go down.
While the restaurant was a little expensive in my view, the drive to get there was definitely worth it to pull over and enjoy a meal on the coast any day. And sometimes a restaurant experience actually isn’t about the food itself or how much we paid, or how good the meal was; it’s about the experience of getting there after sixteen years of marriage and dreaming of what’s to come next after that shared meal together.
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