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Santa Seriously

Take the holiday spirit to the extreme

In Grapevine, Santa Claus scuba dives.

He also rides the train, hangs out atop Main Street shops and greets kids under a gazebo in the park. Miles of garland and lights and baubles adorn historic downtown. A near life-sized Nativity scene graces the lawn of the funeral home on Main Street, and the Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center boasts an even bigger one carved from ice.

In short, this town takes Christmas seriously—so seriously, it even snagged official designation as the Christmas Capital of Texas, so resolved by the Texas Legislature in 2009.

“Grapevine has a long tradition of Christmas events and celebrations, and as more were added, we began to think of ourselves as the Christmas Capital of Texas,” says Leigh Lyons, communications manager for Grapevine’s Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The wonderful thing about Christmas events is that they make a perfect place for families to create lasting memories.”

In addition to all of Santa’s shenanigans, Grapevine’s elves stage a lighted parade and Christmas movies at the Palace Theatre, as well as offer Victorian activities at Nash Farm.

I headquartered my experience at The Vineyards Campground & Cabins on Grapevine Lake, less than 2 miles from Main Street. In addition to RV sites, it offers two-bedroom cabins and features nature trails, disc golf and a playground that’s perfect to help the kids burn off all their excitement before bedtime.

Leonard “Junior” Hall, who works at the campground, pointed out decorations at the store and gatehouse and on many of the motor homes around the park. “One of the reasons people are here at Christmas is all of the activities going on in the town,” he says. “I’m fifth generation from the area and been here 74 years, and there’s nothing like a Grapevine Christmas.” As he rattles off a list of activities, I mentally compare it to my planned itinerary.

I started with a wine tasting. I left the driving to Grapevine Wine Tours, which picked me up for an evening tour. First up, Homestead Winery’s Victorian-style house turned into a tasting room to sample dry reds, including a tempranillo, a syrah and my favorite, Ivanhoe Knight, a blend of malbec and ruby cabernet. In Sloan & Williams’ lively, wine-bottle-bedecked facility, the 2012 Serendipity, a blend of carignan, cinsault, tempranillo, mourvèdre and cabernet sauvignon, topped my list. I picked up bottles of each for gifts. The evening ended at Winewood Grill, where I sampled a white and two reds along with a juicy, bourbon-glazed pork chop cooked over the open kitchen’s wood-fired grill. Grapevine Wine Tours offers three tastings on each lunch or dinner tour, rotating through a selection of local establishments that also includes Cross Timbers Winery, Su Vino, Delaney Vineyards and others.

Next morning, I headed a few blocks down Main to Vetro Glassblowing Studio & Gallery, where folks can join glass artists to create colorful Christmas ornaments. “Inviting guests to make their own ornaments started as a way to celebrate Christmas in our community, but what it really does is invite people into our world, to share our passion for glassblowing,” says studio founder David Gappa, who also helped start a glassblowing program at the University of Texas at Arlington. “The same people who start out helping our artists to make one Christmas ornament come back another time to learn more.”

I selected a mix of blues and helped melt glass in one of the 2,000-degree furnaces, then spun in the colors using a metal rod. I handed it over to the pros, who blew the molten glass into a beautifully swirled sphere and added a little dollop of glass at the top, shaped into a loop for hanging. I kept that ornament for myself but bought a few others as one-of-a-kind gifts.

Physician Sue Williams opened Dr. Sue’s Chocolate shop to encourage people to eat dark chocolate as part of a healthy diet, making hers without refined sugar and with all natural ingredients. She didn’t have to twist my arm. After sampling flavors such as blueberry ancho chile, cranberry orange, toasted almond sea salt and, appropriate for the season, peppermint, I checked a few more folks off my gift list with boxed selections. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the shop offers hot chocolate tastings every afternoon; mine included traditional, peppermint, and Hatch chile flavors.

Those hot beverages provided good fortification for the “ICE!” holiday display at the Gaylord Texan. A giant tent kept at 9 degrees holds 2 million pounds of the frozen stuff carved into slides, characters and holiday scenes, including a larger-than-life-sized Nativity. Staff members hand out fluffy blue parkas, but bring your own gloves and warm shoes. The festivities here include snow tubing, an enormous Christmas tree and a gingerbread house, as well as cookies and milk with Mrs. Claus. Nearby in the Great Wolf Lodge, snow falls four times a day in the lobby; families can dine in a life-size gingerbread house; and children can write letters to Santa and receive a response.

I wrapped up the day’s holiday festivities with a ride on the Grapevine Vintage Railroad. Each of the early 1920s Victorian-style cars sports twinkling lights, Christmas trees and a bar staffed by one of the area wineries.

Homestead Winery was aboard my car. “We enjoy helping everyone celebrate the holidays,” says winery manager (and daughter of the owners) Emily Parker McRoberts. “We have had a tasting room in Grapevine for 17 years, and the Christmas Wine Train is a great way to celebrate and introduce our wines to a wider audience.”

As I watched the town roll past outside the train window, Santa’s helpers passed out hors d’oeuvres, then the jolly old elf himself strolled through, posing for pictures. The railroad also offers North Pole Express rides on weekends for youngsters 13 months and older, with appearances by Santa, hot chocolate and onboard entertainment.

On my short walk from the train station to my room, I was treated to one of Grapevine’s signature Christmas touches, the Light Show Spectacular. This festive and colorful nightly synchronized light display runs 6–11 p.m. and features a singing Christmas tree and music.

The next morning, I took advantage of Main Street’s shops to finish off my gift list, making sure to be in position at noon for the Clock Tower Glockenspiel. Two 9-foot tall Would-Be Train Robbers, Nat Barrett and Willy Majors, emerge from the 127-foot tower at noon, 3, 6 and 9 p.m. daily for a shootout. Storyboards at street level give details of the fictional story around these two characters.

When it was time for lunch at Main Street Bistro & Bakery, I faced a challenge: choosing just one item from the menu. I settled on the pulled pork sandwich with mango salsa and homemade barbecue sauce but had to add one of the bistro’s famous croi-do-nuts, a deep-fried croissant shaped like a donut, filled with crème brûlée and covered in a glaze of salted caramel and chocolate drizzle.

At my last stop, standing in front of Sea Life Aquarium’s 160,000-gallon ocean tank, I watched a figure in a familiar red suit complete with white beard descend among the fish, sharks and sea turtles. Red hat floating straight up, beard swimming around his face, this underwater Santa waved at the crowd on the dry side of the glass, gave folks a thumbs-up for nice or thumbs-down for naughty, and posed for pictures. About the only thing I hadn’t seen old Saint Nick do in Grapevine was fly. I suppose he saves that for one special night.

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Melissa Gaskill is an Austin writer who specializes in travel and nature topics.