Many people know I’m a hotel nut, i.e. someone who’s completely obsessed with hotels and the way they make you feel (Exhibit A: I have an Excel spreadsheet of 2,600 hotels around the world that I want to visit in my lifetime). Granted, it’s not the most noble passion, but it’s mine.
I’m a firm believer that a hotel is only as good as the people who work there and give it life. This time of year, I find myself stalking hotel lobbies to admire the decorations. I’m particularly drawn to the ones with larger-than-life gingerbread displays. But I’m not as interested in the biggest, best, and brightest as I am in the chefs behind the ornate houses. They’re the ones who spend months dreaming up new ways of making guests feel that holiday magic when they step through the door.
When I talked to chefs who have a hand in creating these fabulous displays, one thing became clear: Everything has to be edible. You never know when a curious toddler or famished adult is going to break off a piece of the house.
Here’s a taste of gingerbready hotel goodness from around the world:
Sea Island, Georgia
The Cloister of Sea Island is big on tradition. “It’s a place where families return to year after year,” says Kurtis Baguley, the resort’s executive pastry chef. To celebrate this loyalty, the team here has created a 12-foot replica of the entrance to the Cloister hotel made from more than 4,000 gingerbread tiles.
It took hundreds of pounds of key ingredients (including seven and a half pounds of cinnamon) and an incredible 120 man hours to mix, roll, cut, and bake the tiles. “I like to put some extra spice into the gingerbread because it’s not meant for consumption, but it makes that incredible smell even stronger,” Baguley says. Plus, he adds, there’s no better time to visit: “The Southern humidity is gone and it’s just a wonderful community [in which] to celebrate the holidays.”
An hour south of party-central Cancun lies the calm, sun-soaked Riviera Maya and the Fairmont Mayakoba. The hotel, known for its superior golf, food, and pampering, is also a favorite escape during the holidays.
To add some festive elan, a culinary team of 23 led by Jose Abelardo Gonzalez and Richard Silvester makes traditional gingerbread houses that resemble the layout of the hotel itself, which they fondly call the “Venice of the Carribean.” A choo-choo train chugs around the edible village, which includes a waterfall and a lake.
For those making gingerbread at home, the team recommends using a heavy paste of egg whites and white sugar for glue, which can also be used to create icicles along the eaves.
Peninsula Hong Kong
Most people don’t normally think of Hong Kong as a particularly festive destination. But Ludovic Douteau, executive pastry chef at the Peninsula Hong Kong, says the city really gets into the spirit of things. “There are lights strung across every skyscraper, Christmas decorations in every shop, and songs like ‘White Christmas’ playing in the background everywhere.”
The circa 1928 hotel is the flagship of the luxury Peninsula brand, and the kind of place where you wish you could be a fly on the wall just to hear all the high-powered conversations that must go on. This year, the team of chefs decided to base their gingerbread display on a Swiss mountain village, an undertaking that took more than 400 pounds of flour, eggs, honey, and spices, and more than three days to complete.
Colonial Williamsburg really does it up during the holidays, so much so that I wish I could go back in time for a day (then promptly return to the joy and beauty of modern medicine and Twitter). There are concerts and caroling, and events like holiday tea with Charles Dickens and a Georgian Christmas dinner.
The gingerbread village in the Williamsburg Lodge goes up the Friday after Thanksgiving, and requires more than 150 hours to create. The lodge’s pastry chef, Rodney Diehl, has spent more than three decades creating sweet treats in Williamsburg. “During the holidays, you walk down the street and smell the fires burning and the fresh pine, which has the fresh, clean smell of the woods,” he says.
One of my favorite hotels, The Williamsburg Inn, which has played host to Queen Elizabeth II and other heads of state, features a gingerbread replica of the inn in its lobby that has become a much-loved stop for family photos.
Chef Diehl’s tip for making DIY gingerbread houses? “There’s all different sizes and shapes of Kleenex boxes, so try using that as your base in creating the house.”