At first glance, Iowa doesn’t seem like a likely holiday vacation destination. It’s a small state in the middle of the country, covered mostly by corn. However, the Hawkeye State has lots of surprises in store for holiday tourists looking for an unforgettable getaway. Settle in at one of many incredible vacation rentals in Iowa, then head out for a night on the town and attend a few Christmas events. Here are seven of the hidden Christmas gems Iowa has to offer.
1. Villages of Van Buren
Villages of Van Buren make up a small constellation of towns in an elbow of the Des Moines River, far over toward the southeastern part of the state. Each year, the local authorities stage a Festival of the Trees that the public is invited to attend with children of every age. After the festival, and some piping-hot cocoa from local vendors, you’re free to take the leisurely Enchanted Forest Walk, a self-guided tour of lights, live performances, and general holiday festiveness that has a different theme every year.
2. Mount Pleasant
Mount Pleasant is not a sprawling metropolis, which gives it the small-town charm it shares with many other communities in Iowa. Unlike other communities, however, this tiny whistlestop has a train. Every Christmas season, the Mount Pleasant Christmas Train takes kids and their parents — who are having just as much fun — on a trip to the North Pole, where Santa is taking requests for the Big Day ahead. The holiday train runs from just after Thanksgiving until the middle of December, when Santa has business to look after back in the shop, and families are encouraged to call ahead for schedules and fares.
Anamosa is much bigger than it looks on a map. That is, while the town is geographically small, some of the architecture in the tiny downtown area wouldn’t look out of place on Fifth Avenue in New York. Huge brownstones and vacation rentals hug the edges of the pavement here, a relic of the olden days when even small provincial towns lavished attention on private homes. These great hulking houses possess a peculiar beauty when they’re lit up for the season, and walking tours of the built-up areas pass by most of the older manses. Another festive stroll, the annual Christmas Tree Walk, takes visitors past dozens of lit and decorated Christmas firs, many with unique themes such as “the beach” or “Charles Dickens.” This event is held indoors at the Lawrence Community Center, and everyone is welcome.
4. Storm Lake
He gets around, but there’s only one place Santa Claus really feels comfortable calling home: Storm Lake, Iowa. Here, the Elf Himself lives in a large and festively decorated castle on the grounds of the Carnegie Library where you can visit with the kids between Thanksgiving and the end of December. Hours vary by the day, especially close to the Christmas deadline, so guests are asked to be discreet, check ahead for access, and let the man take the afternoon of December 25 off. He’s earned it.
5. Orange City
Orange City was founded partly by Dutch-speaking immigrants and spent a century largely cut off from the world beyond its local farmland. That isolation is over now, but while it lasted, it preserved a kind of fossilized Dutch culture from the early 19th century that, unlike the Dutch culture of Europe, has largely held on to some of its quaint older customs. In this town, for example, there is no Santa Claus, but his older, more traditional forebear, Sinterklaas, delights the town every year. No reindeer pulling a sleigh for him; Sinterklaas traditionally arrives on the back of a wit paard (white horse) with a sack full of snoep (candy) for the kinderen (children) who komen early to verwelkomen him every jaar on the first Saturday in December. After Sinterklaas passes by, kids enjoy puppet shows and traditional Dutch games that go back centuries.
Christmas trains are a fun and popular way to get outdoors and celebrate the winter holiday without giving up your comfortable upholstered seat or mug of hot cocoa. It is in that spirit that the Boone & Scenic Valley Railway operates its annual Santa Express train schedule. This 90-minute ride whisks you and the family along at a brisk jogging pace while you enjoy stories, cookies, and a visit with Santa, who just manages to make the trip each year, despite all the other places he’s expected to turn up in Iowa. Unlike most family adventures, you’re not expected to ride this train in business casual; from the toddlers to the grandparents, it’s strictly PJs and footies are optional.
7. Le Mars
Eleven months a year, Le Mars is mainly distinguished by its self-appointed status of Ice Cream Capital of the World. Each December, this popular vacation destination diversifies a bit and holds public marshmallow roasts and s’mores feasts in the Pioneer Village Christmas Wonderland at the Plymouth County Fairgrounds. Visitors to this attraction are invited to enjoy open sleigh rides, a live nativity, and — incongruously, given the live nativity next door — a rocking outdoor concert that’s open to the public. This event has open campfires, which means there are also firemen on scene to keep an eye on things. If your kids are especially polite, one of them might get to wear a firefighter’s helmet for a minute.
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