When it comes to holiday decorating, a handful of American hotels stick to the mantra “go big or go home.” Not content with just a lobby tree and a string of lights, these hotels stand out from the pack by upping the decorating ante, and adding millions of lights, outdoor skating rinks, and even ride-on trains. This is the time of year when a hotel’s pastry department can also showcase its talents by turning hundreds of pounds of sugar, flour, and chocolate into life-sized gingerbread houses and even a pirate ship. Here’s a look at some of the most festive hotels of the sea —Christina Valhouli
WHERE: Amelia Island, Florida
This Florida resort’s holiday claim to fame is the the world’s largest gingerbread pirate ship. Clocking in at seventeen feet long and twelve feet high, the ship dominates the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island. Every year, the pastry team adds a new crewmember to the ship, which includes pirates, cannons, and cannon balls. The recipe includes 1,200 pounds of sugar and 3,000 eggs, and it takes eight pastry chefs more than 350 hours to create.
Insider Tip: It’s no surprise that the Ritz-Carlton went with a pirate motif, as Amelia Island (and especially Fernandina Beach) was once a safe haven for pirates and hidden treasure.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Northeast Coast Travel Guide
Fairmont Scottsdale Princess
WHERE: Scottsdale, Arizona
This desert resort pulls out all the stops for the holidays with its annual Christmas at the Princess festival. One highlight at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess is the Desert Ice Holiday Rink, which is surrounded by saguaro cacti. Or hop on board the Princess Express Train to see 2.8 million LED lights on the lagoon, as well as swans and a pirate ship.
Insider Tip: Don’t miss Cecil, the resort’s resident desert tortoise, who lives near La Hacienda restaurant and apparently recognizes his own name. Visitors can also spot blue crane, ducks, owls, quail, and rabbit on property.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Phoenix, Scottsdale, and Tempe Travel Guide
WHERE: Aspen, Colorado
The St. Regis Aspen Resort kicks off the holidays on Thanksgiving, when it debuts a gingerbread replica of the hotel. The gingerbread house is made from 100 pounds of dough and 50 pounds of flour, and it takes more than 250 hours to build. To get guests into the holiday spirit, there’s also a 40-foot tree, appearances from Santa and his elves, cookies, cider, and a children’s choir. During Hanukkah there’s a daily lighting of the Menorah, and Santa reads The Night Before Christmas on Christmas Eve.
Insider Tip: The St. Regis Aspen continues a tradition started by John Jacob Astor, who founded the St. Regis New York in 1904. At 4:45 p.m. throughout the winter, guests gather for a ceremonial Champagne sabering—where a bottle of bubbly is opened using a saber—and receive a complimentary glass.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley Travel Guide
The Waldorf Astoria
WHERE: New York, New York
Arguably no other city is as well known for its holiday decorations as New York, and one hotel that adds plenty of sparkle to the mix is the Waldorf Astoria. This New York icon goes all out during the holidays, decorating its entire property with large trees and wreaths, hundreds of hand-blown glass ornaments, and thousands of sparkling lights on both the interior and exterior.
Insider Tip: Guests staying at the Towers of the Waldorf, a boutique hotel located within the Waldorf, can order a Christmas tree to be set up in their room, personalized stockings, and even a grand piano in case the urge to carol strikes.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s New York City Travel Guide
The Houstonian Hotel, Club & Spa
WHERE: Houston, Texas
Although the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center is arguably the most famous holiday tree in the US, The Houstonian manages to trump it by using 75,000 lights on its Grand Texas Live Oak tree—more than twice those used in New York. But it’s not the only tree on property. In the lobby's Great Room, a twenty-foot-tall tree is decorated with 1,000 ornaments. The pastry chefs also whip up ten six-feet tall gingerbread houses, and guests should keep an eye out for a train that loops through the mantel of each house.
Insider Tip: Look beyond the barbecue in Houston. This city is one of the best spots in America to sample authentic Vietnamese cuisine, due to its huge ex-pat population.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Houston and Galveston Travel Guide
Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center
WHERE: Nashville, Tennessee
Taking a cue from Dolly Parton’s look, the decorating theme at this hotel has a delightful “more is more” philosophy. The Gaylord Opryland goes all out for its annual “Country Christmas.” Visitors can gawk at more than two million outdoor lights, 200,000 indoor lights, and more than one million pounds of snow at the new six-lane Arctic Plunge Snow Tubing attraction. If that isn’t enough, 40 ice artisans from China will be creating colorful ice sculptures. Don’t miss a performance by the Radio City Rockettes at the Grand Ole Opry.
Insider Tip: One of the best ways to take in the views is by boat. Visitors can take a ride on a Delta riverboat along a quarter-mile-long indoor river through the hotel.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Nashville Travel Guide
Hotel del Coronado
WHERE: San Diego, California
This iconic Victorian beachfront hotel is the site where America’s first electronically-lit tree made its debut in 1904. Each holiday season, the Hotel del Coronado becomes a winter wonderland (despite the balmy So-Cal weather). The hotel is decorated with more than 100,000 white lights, and the center piece is an outdoor beachfront skating rink with views of the Pacific. Visitors can enjoy Santa’s Village, with games and prizes, performances by Coronado school children, and complimentary s’mores.
Insider Tip: The San Diego-Coronado Bridge, which connects downtown San Diego with Coronado, opened in 1969, and the first person to cross was Ronald Reagan.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Diego Travel Guide
Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort
WHERE: Orlando, Florida
During the winter, most of us like to escape somewhere warm, and apparently so does Santa Claus, who makes an appearance at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort. Each December, the hotel’s pastry team takes over the lobby with a chocolate display, which includes a life-sized Santa Claus, seven-foot tall nutcracker, a fireplace, a Christmas tree, and a toy train. The display takes about 400 hours to create and is completely edible, clocking in at an estimated three million calories.
Insider Tip: Guests staying at the hotel on Christmas Eve can sign up for a “Bedtime Elf Tuck-In.” A fully-costumed elf will deliver milk, cookies, and a toy, and then read a story and tuck children into bed before Santa arrives.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Walt Disney World Orlando Travel Guide
The Roosevelt New Orleans
WHERE: New Orleans, Louisiana
For a Cajun twist on the holidays, head to the Roosevelt New Orleans, a Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Its block-long lobby is decorated with a canopy of light-covered birch branches as well as a plethora of Christmas trees. Be sure to catch a glimpse of the gingerbread village depicting the “Cajun Night Before Christmas,” which includes Santa visiting the Louisiana swamp with his sleigh and alligators.
Insider Tip: Other Cajun versions of classic books include Goodnight NOLA, Three Little Cajun Pigs, and Cendrillon: A Cajun Cinderella who is helped by bayou creatures.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s New Orleans Travel Guide
WHERE: Atlanta, Georgia
If you’re craving a gourmet sugar rush while admiring holiday decorations, pop into the Mandarin Oriental Atlanta, which offers complimentary hot cocoa and samples of holiday-themed cupcakes, pie, and macaroons. The hotel’s pastry team is also busy whipping up a pagoda-style gingerbread house, which will be decorated daily with fresh pastries from local bakeries.
Insider Tip: One of the bakeries contributing to the gingerbread house is The Pie Shop, whose flavors include sweet potato with brown sugar streusel, watermelon chiffon, and caramel banana nut.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Atlanta Travel Guide