You may think it’s hard to compete with winter traditions that include skiing down snowy slopes, hot chocolate that makes your breath fog and warming up before a fire. Winter holidays are mild in California but do they really capture the Christmas spirit? They do when you attend a holiday lights parade and there are many along the Southern Coast. Practice makes perfect but location does too and both are part of what makes the 110-year-old Newport Boat Parade the best in Southern California.

I’ve been attending boat parades over the past few decades and for this SoCal gal nothing is as fun as bundling up, (moderately – our blood is thin in these mild climes!) grabbing some pals and partying on the beach as we watch fantastical displays on equally fantastic vessels. Here are some of the contenders with Newport for the Best Boat Parade:

Grand Prize winner in the Naples Boat Parade 2018

Grand Prize winner in the Naples Boat Parade 2018. Photo: Alan Singer – Cerritos Bahia Yacht Club

Naples Island Boat Parade, Long Beach, California

Along this short route, small boats cruise through the narrow canals of Naples Island on their way to or from Alamitos Bay. Part of the glory is how the neighborhood gets into the party. Most of the houses have been decorating their yards for decades and there’s a lot of DIY energy in the mix. They’ve taken their time to get it right – Naples has just celebrated their 72nd Boat Parade.

Theme prize winner Naples Boat Parade - Santa's Tunnel, Ella Morales

Theme prize winner Naples Boat Parade – Santa’s Tunnel, Ella Morales

You can stroll the canal most nights between Dec. 1st to the end of the year to enjoy the home displays. It’s also the best way to avoid the crowds that pack the waterways during the annual parade. On the parade night, get there well before dark, park off-island and walk to the canals or park and watch along the shore of the Bay. There’s a theme each year and one of my favorite entries from the late ’90s was a group of swimming Santas. I’ll never forget watching a flotilla of wetsuit singers in the water, belting out carols and all wearing Santa hats! One parade watcher jumped from a low bridge to join them. I imagine there were many high-octane toasts before any of them got in that chilly water! This parade was my favorite until I saw the Newport Boat Parade.

San Diego Boat Parade

San Diego is my hometown, so you’d think I’d have a bias but I try to be fair. I’ve attended the San Diego Parade of Lights for years from a viewing platform on the Navy Base. It’s been a highlight of the year to enjoy dinner and then watch the boats. Other friends watch from bridges and beaches around the bay. There are also viewing parties along the waterfront downtown. Check out the Midway and Maritime Museums to register and sign up early as they often sell out. Watching from downtown is more affordable if you take the trolley or train instead of paying event prices for parking.

More boat parades have been scheduled over several nights and in San Diego, they schedule the boat parade for consecutive weekends. It makes it easier for crowd control and rain dates (yes, that can happen in our drought-ridden area.) The last few years added another viewing area in Caesar Chavez Park to help South San Diegans watch more easily. Still, getting in and out of the viewing areas takes patience as traffic around the bay can be formidable. Is the Parade of Lights a contender with the Newport Boat Parade?

Here’s what the Newport Boat Parade was like this year:

The Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade.

An Italian gondolier, John Scarpa and Joseph Beek, a developer behind the Ferry Line at Balboa Island, began the 110-year Newport boat parade tradition. Scarpa decorated his gondola with Japanese lanterns and led nine canoes around the bay for the first lighted boat parade. After a break for WW1 and the Depression, the Beek family ferry renewed the holiday boat parade tradition and it’s been growing ever since. For five nights before Christmas hundreds of boats decorated in fanciful lights cruise behind the Grand Marshall’s ship.

2018 Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade opening night party at Marina Park.

2018 Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade opening night party at Marina Park.

Check the map of Newport Bay and you’ll see that there are islands, beaches, and a peninsula for watching the boats. I discovered the parade on opening night in Marina Park and was charmed from the moment I was able to park across the street. (Arriving well before the 6:15 starting time was key.)

On the opening night of the 2018 Newport Boat Parade, Albert Pujols, First Baseman, MLB All-Star with the Los Angeles Angels received a Proclamation for his charity work and support of the community before he stepped onto the lead yacht to get the party started.

Families gathered around the bay and at Marina Park. The Young Americans song and dance troupe entertained, vendors offered food and drink and everyone enjoyed the warm-ish night singing along as the boats passed. The Newport Beach Boat Parade takes place nightly through December 23rd and raises funds for the American Childhood Cancer Organization.

Map of Newport Boat Parade Route 2018

Map of Newport Boat Parade Route 2018

Does Newport Beach host the Best Boat Parade?

For 2018 I have to choose the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade as the best in Southern California. However, I concede that there are other boat parades in Huntington Beach, Oceanside, as well as through the Venice Canals in Los Angeles that I missed this year. Perhaps you’ve chosen a different best boat parade? Leave a comment and let me know where and why. I love the holiday lights in Southern California and look forward to expanding my “research!”

Happy holidays!Best holiday boat parade Pin