14 great ways to get into the holiday spirit in the Southeast

Historic towns glisten as winter wonderlands. Trains whisk kids away to a Smoky Mountain version of the North Pole. You can even visit Santa with canoes and kayaks.

When planning your seasonal outings this year, consider these spots across the Southeast.

Train excursions

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad’s Polar Express: On the 75-minute journey through North Carolina, the windows frost over, signaling the faux North Pole getting closer. The ride is a popular attraction for kids, with more than 53,000 people on the Polar Express adventure in 2013. The ride, leaving Bryson City, N.C., mimics the holiday story, complete with chocolate chip cookies, hot chocolate, Santa’s appearance and kids receiving silver sleigh bells. Prices vary depending on the seats. 1-800-872-4681, gsmr.com.

Blue Ridge Scenic Railway: Holiday outings departing from the depot in the North Georgia town of Blue Ridge include the one-hour Santa Express, with carols, a reading of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” and a visit from Santa himself; or late afternoon excursions (four hours with a two-hour stop) to Santa’s Pavilion. Prices vary. 1-877-413-8724, facebook.com/blueridgescenicrailway.

SAM Shortline: Special holiday rides on the vintage 1949 train, leaving from the depot in Cordele, include the Candy Cane Express, and breakfast and supper trains with Santa. Prices and lengths vary. 229-276-0755, samshortline.com.

Candelight strolls

Candlelight Christmas Evenings at Biltmore House: The holidays cast a different glow on the Gilded Age estate in Asheville, N.C. Candlelight tours run through Jan. 3, with opulent decor that fits into the theme, “A Vanderbilt Christmas Celebration.” On the front lawn, a 55-foot Norway spruce tree will be lit by 45,000 white lights. Prices vary depending on the day of the week: $69 or $84 for adults; $34.50 or $42 for ages 10-16. Tickets include admission to the Biltmore gardens, Antler Hill Village (where Santa visits) and winery. 1-800-411-3812, biltmore.com.

Georgia State Parks: You’ll find an array of affordable candelight outings — for less than $10 each — at several Georgia State Parks on December weekends. Longtime traditions include the 33rd annual Plantation Christmas at Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation Historic Site in Brunswick Dec. 5-6, with candelight strolls and antebellum plantation house tour, Christmas carols and a Santa appearance. There’s also the Christmas by Candelight celebration Dec. 12-13 at the Chief Vann House Historic Site in Chatsworth. gastateparks.org.

Town fetes

Dahlonega’s Old Fashioned Christmas: Carolers in Victorian garb and Santa bring season’s greetings to visitors in the former gold mining town. The buildings, some of which date to the 1800s, will be adorned with lights; events include free entertainment plus theatrical performances, carriage rides and trolley tours (costs vary). Festivities run Nov. 27-Dec. 21. 706-864-3513, dahlonega.org.

Thomasville’s Victorian Christmas: For two nights, Dec. 11-12, this southwest Georgia town transforms its downtown area to the 1890s, with horse-drawn carriages, carolers, shopping, food and sweets. 1-866-577-3600, thomasville.org.

Light displays

Barnsley Resort in Adairsville: Decorations featuring more than 1 million lights will illuminate the 1800s manor house ruins and gardens, about 60 miles north of Atlanta. The official lighting is Nov. 26. Activities include wreath-making classes and a gingerbread workshop. barnsleyresort.com.

Dillsboro, N.C.: More than 2,500 lights and luminaries will line the mountain town’s streets during the first two weekends of December, along with carolers, and horse and buggy rides. facebook.com/MountainLoversNC.

If you’re heading that way, nearby Cashiers presents Christmas on the Green, with a Festival of Trees and other activities. villagegreencashiersnc.com.

Gingerbread houses

National Gingerbread House Competition: At the 22nd annual competition, being held at Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville, N.C., you can see — and smell — entries ranging from sugary castles to rustic cabins through Jan. 1. $10 parking charge for nonresort guests. 1-800-438-5800, omnihotels.com/hotels/asheville-grove-park

Ritz-Carlton Lodge, Reynolds Plantation on Lake Oconee: In the main lobby of the AAA, five-diamond resort, a massive gingerbread house is on display again this year. Pastry chef Pablo Colon and his culinary team use 180 pounds of candy and 480 pounds of icing on the house. Other activities include gingerbread workshops, ice skating, breakfast with Santa and story time with Mrs. Claus. 706-467-0600, ritzcarltonlodge.com.

The Hotel at Auburn University: Students in Auburn’s College of Architecture, Design and Construction create a gingerbread village, which adds a new building each year. Kicks off Dec. 4. auhcc.com.

Theme parks

Walt Disney World: The theme park continues targeting “Frozen” fans. At the Magic Kingdom, Queen Elsa will transform Cinderella Castle into an ice palace with 200,000 lights. Disney’s Hollywood Studios, which continues to have the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights, also is introducing “For the First Time in Forever — a ‘Frozen’ Sing-Along Celebration.” disney.go.com.

Offbeat option

Hop in a canoe or kayak with jolly old St. Nick at F.D. Roosevelt State Park’s Lake Paddle With Santa Dec. 13 in Pine Mountain. You’ll get basic paddle instructions, plus hot chocolate and cookies. Registration required; $15 plus $5 parking. 706-663-4858, gastateparks.org.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.