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07 Feb, Tuesday
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Montreal Families

Heading South for the Holiday Season

While the holiday season is supposed to be about sharing time with loved ones, many people will admit that it can be a very stressful time for families. Besides shopping for and wrapping gifts, there’s also baking, decorating, attending parties and maybe even trying to send out a holiday card or two. This hectic schedule leaves many of us overtired and cranky. Is it any wonder that some of us contemplate running away from it all?

Last Christmas, my husband and I, along with our three kids ages 10, 12 and 14, did just that. We boarded a plane and escaped to Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, renting an ocean-front condo and spending our days racing go-carts, taking strolls along the beach and soaking in an outdoor hot tub.

We said goodbye to what we felt was too much hustle and bustle and tried to refocus on what meant the most to us — sharing time with our children.

You might think I’ve always been a closet Grinch and that the decision to run away was easy. Not so. I consider Christmas a magical time of year, despite the stresses. I love sitting at night in a silent room, lit only by a Christmas tree, and then waking early on the 25th, clad in new pyjamas, to open presents and share good food with the family.

But two things happened to change my mind. On a lark, my husband did an Internet search for hotels in Myrtle Beach, a place we had visited in the summer and loved. He discovered that we could vacation in this popular tourist destination for a fraction of the cost in December.

Then there was a sense that our kids were growing up so fast, their interests and friends leading them away from home. We wanted more time to connect with them, to renew the bonds that made us a family.

Our computer query had revealed that we could stay at a number of upscale hotel condominiums situated directly on the Atlantic Ocean for between 50 to 70 per cent off the cost during peak seasons.

The reason was simple: the winter months are off-season for the Carolina coast. (This is in contrast to Florida when the December holiday season is very busy, with the prices reflecting that popularity.)

And though we would not have hot summer weather – the average outdoor temperature in December is 60 degrees Fahrenheit – certainly more temperate than Montreal’s weather.

After a unanimous family vote to “go for it”, we booked our hotel and flights. We ended up staying 12 nights at the Avista Hotel, a pair of high-rise towers in North Myrtle Beach that had heated in-door and outdoor pools, hot tubs and a river-like floating pool where you could drift on inner tubes.

Our one-bedroom condo, with a Murphy bed and pull-out sofa in the living room and a full kitchen, cost us just over $600 U.S total for the entire stay. Talk about saving a bundle: we had stayed at the Avista the previous summer and paid triple that for just one week.

Our “running away for Christmas” plan included scaling back on holiday presents but treating ourselves to a plethora of things to do while on holiday.

The area was decked out with decorations and all the attractions were open. While admission prices were the same in the off-season, the time saved from line-ups meant we could do more than one main activity per day.

We booked tickets in advance for two holiday shows – the Carolina Opry Christmas Special and Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede Christmas Show, both popular across the state with visitors.

The kids loved the Dixie Stampede, a dinner-theatre, variety show with lots of live farm animals, horse stunts, ice skaters and singing. Calvin Gilmore’s Carolina Opry Christmas Show, on the other hand, was a more dignified affair, held in an opulent theatre. The variety show featured a cast of incredible singers and comedians, delivering more than two hours of spectacular holiday songs, comedy and dance.

We also went to the IMAX theatre and Ripley’s Aquarium, an 87,000 square-foot sea life display. Both were located at Broadway at the Beach, a popular Myrtle Beach boardwalk destination known for shopping, a host of restaurants and nightclubs.

We were particularly delighted to have lunch at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville restaurant. In the summer, it’s a wildly popular spot, with wait times of up to four hours in the summer. This time, we walked right in and snagged a table.

We also enjoyed racing zippy go-carts at the NASCAR SpeedPark. Having tried it in the sweltering summer heat, family at christmasI can tell you that the cooler temperatures of December make it much more fun.

Other than that, each day included walks on the beach, usually in jeans and sweatshirts (but also in shorts on warmer days), swimming in heated indoor pools and soaking in outdoor hot tubs.

Christmas day was a quiet affair. We had purchased a small tabletop Christmas tree that lit up, rotated and played music when plugged in. We decorated it our first night in Myrtle Beach with a few ornaments.

We had packed the kids’ Christmas stockings and continued our tradition of giving a gift of new pyjamas on Christmas Eve.

We gave each other a few special gifts and spent the day watching a new DVD, playing games and just relaxing.

I cooked a small turkey in our little oven and served it after a long walk on the beach, the fresh air having whetted our appetites. Did we miss our family and friends as well as the holiday hustle and bustle? Yes. But it was offset by the pleasure of reconnecting with our kids. It felt good to pare down the gift list and just enjoy each other’s company.

Would we run away every year? Probably not. But when we talk about the time we ran away for Christmas, we remember it fondly. It was special to be with each other and experience the quiet side of a well-loved destination. So maybe one day, we’ll pack our bags again and hit the road for a run-away Christmas together.

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