For most people across the country, boat shows take place inside convention centers and arenas during the longest part of the winter, when cold, rain and snow dominate the forecast and make dreams of cruising difficult. But for the ambitious boater, the waning heat and refreshing air of autumn is the perfect time to float down the East Coast to some of the oldest and most respected waterfront boat shows in America. From the Newport International Boat Show in September to the St. Petersburg Power & Sailboat Show in December, these five spectacular events are set in five equally spectacular cities, all with fabled and thriving boating cultures.
Your journey begins in Newport, Rhode Island, a historic town featuring an architectural panoply ranging from preserved colonial buildings (the most in the U.S.) to the decadent summer cottages of the Gilded Age. And, as a New England coastal paradise, boating is a big part of the local vibe. One of the largest in-water boat shows in the country, this event draws a who's who of boating's elite along with more than 750 exhibitors from around the world displaying many different styles of boats (up to about 85 feet) and any sort of boating-related equipment or gadget you can imagine. Each day brings high-profile events, seminars, parties and awards celebrations at multiple waterfront facilities on America's Cup Avenue, including Newport Yachting Center, Oldport Marine, Bannister's Wharf, and Bowen's Wharf.
Held annually at Norwalk Cove Marina (203-838-2326, norwalkcove.com), this is the most popular in-water boat show in the entire Northeast. Set in a picturesque location at the mouth of Connecticut's Norwalk Harbor off of Long Island Sound and alongside the town of South Norwalk, it attracts visitors from all around the state's eastern shoreline as well as the Greater New York City area, which is only an hour's drive away. As a major regional show, there's a real emphasis given to boating education, entertainment and all kinds of attractions, such as on-water demos, boathandling clinics and special activities for kids. But there's another reason folks flock to this part of Connecticut at this time of year: the seafood, especially oysters, which are farmed throughout the area.
It's only natural that the home of the U.S. Naval Academy puts on one of the biggest and most visually stunning in-water boat shows in the country. Featuring a huge variety of boat types, from luxurious motor yachts to high-performance racers to the latest in offshore fishing vessels, the U.S. Powerboat Show is a feast for the eyes and the perfect spot to quench your thirst for all things nautical. And with hundreds of exhibitors offering an incredible assortment of innovative boating gear, the latest fashions and high-tech gadgets, you could literally spend days trying to see it all. The crisp fall weather, with its warm days and cool evenings, is the perfect complement to lovely downtown Annapolis, right on the Chesapeake Bay. Everything seems to have been built especially to show off the rich maritime history of the area. While you're in town, don't miss the USNA Museum or the final resting place of Revolutionary War naval hero John Paul Jones.
Settling into the Fort Lauderdale area during boat show week lets you instantly know that you've made the right move heading south at this time. With a constant breeze and relaxing tropical sunshine, along with a city plan that appears to be designed around a boater's every need, you'll feel at home from the moment you tie up at the dock. In fact, it's much easier to get around Fort Lauderdale by boat than it is by car on some days, with miles of canals and plenty of on-water amenities. As one of the best big boat shows in the world, FLIBS has a jaw- dropping yacht everywhere you look. Although it's spread out a bit, you can easily cover all the show's locations with convenient water access.
The final destination on your fall cruise is the largest boat show on the Gulf Coast, the St. Petersburg Power & Sailboat Show. And what's not to love about St. Petersburg, Florida, in December? Set in a wonderful and walkable downtown area that's the perfect mix of nostalgic Old Florida along with magnificent culture and kitsch (like the Salvador Dali Museum and the Shuffleboard Hall of Fame), this show is located in a yacht basin complete with a park, a huge pier and even the marvelous Progress Energy Center for the Arts and Mahaffey Theater. Visitors can enjoy an impressive selection of powerboats and sailboats in water and on land, including a 40,000-square-foot tent housing all types of marine gear.