Dine inside a life-sized gingerbread house.
Between the barrage of sale emails hitting your inbox, the Christmas tunes taking over the airways, and your neighbor channeling Clark Griswold with those aggressive blow-up reindeers decorations—it can all feel a little … much. But one tradition manages to rise above the rest, and—no matter how over the holidays we are—continues to provide whimsy and delight without really asking for anything in return. We’re talking about the gingerbread house.
So much more than spiced cookies held together with white icing, these architectural wonders bring a little Willy Wonka fantasy to life. (Who doesn’t dream of ambling through an edible, technicolored landscape, plucking fistfulls of gumdrops off a candy-coated tree?)
Around the country, pastry chefs are masterfully spinning sugar into bonafide works of art. From one to-scale replica of a New Orleans streetcar to life-sized structures you can eat inside, read on for eight of the most spectacular gingerbread houses around.
The Ritz-Carlton (Naples, Florida)
Chef Sebastien Thieffine and his pastry team of ten begin the gingerbread-making process in early September, clocking in a whopping 600 hours of baking, building, and decorating from start to finish. Everything is done in-house, and the week before Thanksgiving, they begin the assembly process. This year, the team used 1,200 gingerbread bricks (made in-house with 48 pounds of ginger), nearly 400 pounds of icing sugar, and 60,000 pieces of candy to meticulously construct and decorate the 14-foot tall wonder, standing as the centerpiece of the lobby. “We have been creating magical memories for families—especially children,” says the chef, who sometimes strolls through the lobby to take kids on mini VIP tours through the structure.
Great Wolf Lodge (Pocono Mountains, PA)
The family of resorts is known for its 84-degree indoor water parks, but around the holidays, it transforms into Snowland, with the addition of daily snow showers in the lobby, visits from Santa, and a life-sized gingerbread house on display. Made from 1,290 pounds of gingerbread, 200 pounds of dark chocolate, and 700 pounds of icing, the sweet house has Rice Krispie-trimmed windows and is decorated with 200 pounds of lollipops, gumdrops, mints, and other colorful candies. For a $10 donation to the Ronald McDonald house, guests can dine inside the house, too.
The Ritz-Carlton (New Orleans, Louisiana)
New Orleans just marked its tricentennial, and to celebrate 300 years of the Big Easy, the historic hotel in the French Quarter just unveiled an homage to the city, made of (you guessed it) gingerbread. Built with help from the New Orleans Opera Association Scenic Studio, the to-scale replica of a St. Charles streetcar is decked with candy canes, twinkling lights, and the smiling faces of notable New Orleanians like Drew Brees and Hoda Kotb.
Westin Austin Downtown (Austin, Texas)
Inside this downtown Austin hotel’s restaurant, Stella San Jac, sits a giant gingerbread room, where up to twelve guests at a time can dine inside the display. (It’s double the size of last year’s set-up, which could only hold up to six!) 900 pounds of flour, 350 pounds of brown sugar, and 500 pounds of powdered sugar were used to make the spectacular exhibit, and the hotel will donate a portion of all proceeds from this year’s dinners to local nonprofit Back on Our Feet, which makes it that much sweeter.
The Ritz-Carlton (Sarasota, Florida)
Lyndsy McDonald doesn’t stick to the traditional house template for her sugary art pieces. In years past, the pastry chef at this seaside spot has crafted a gingerbread carousel, complete with painted fondant animals, a massive pirate ship with a mermaid figurehead and candy treasure-filled chest, and a summer house filled with a colony of playful penguins. This season, McDonald has answered the burning question about where Santa and his reindeer escape for vacation, with a gingerbread tropical vacation-themed display spanning 18 by 14 feet.
The Benson Hotel (Portland, Oregon)
The historic hotel in downtown Portland just unveiled its 47th annual gingerbread display, and this year’s masterpiece is an intricate replica of Romania’s Corvin Castle. In his 26 years of creating the hotel’s display, culinary artist and pastry chef David Diffendorfer has created everything from Santa’s North Pole to a detailed replica of downtown Portland. This year, the scaled-down, Gothic-Renaissance structure—including its signature towers and a moat—is made from over 150 pounds of house-made gingerbread, 50 pounds of marzipan, 20 pounds of chocolate, and buckets (buckets!) of royal icing.
The Niagara Falls Culinary Institute (Niagara Falls, New York)
Students of this culinary school in Western New York are charged with baking and constructing the annual Gingerbread Wonderland, featuring not just one life-sized house, but a whole village full of them, and using (no big deal) 5,000 pounds of gingerbread and 2,000 pounds of icing. On weekends now through December 22nd, kids can pop inside one of the houses for a visit with Santa, plus decorate cookies, have their faces painted, and take part in more holiday-centric activities.
Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Puerto Rico Golf & Beach Resort (Río Grande, Puerto Rico)
At this newly reopened beachfront resort on Puerto Rico’s northeast coast, the traditional gingerbread house display—currently in its tenth year—is actually a village of six large-scale houses. Made using local cloves, cinnamon, and ginger, it all takes a total of 36 hours for pastry chef José Tolentino and his team to whip up. According to the chef, it brings a little extra holiday festivity to the tropics. “As it’s a tradition for many of our guests to vacation with us for the holidays, we like to create moments that make them feel like it’s Christmas in the Caribbean,” he says.