By Jill Cowan
7:14 PM PST, November 24, 2012
File this one under "only in California ..."
Newport Beach's Island Hotel staff kicked off seasonal festivities by constructing a full-sized gingerbread lifeguard tower, which took shape in the hotel's lobby this weekend — steps away from a tall evergreen, already done up for the holidays.
"Usually it's a cabin in the woods, or snow," said assistant pastry chef Andy de la Cruz, who helped head the project. "So this year, we thought of the lifeguard tower," as a nod to Newport's place as "the center of coastal luxury."
It helped, de la Cruz added, that he started planning the holiday gingerbread display on a hot summer day, so his thoughts drifted to the beach.
The tower stands about 9 feet tall from gumdrop-bedazzled base to cookie-scalloped roof, and required 300 pounds of gingerbread dough, 200 pounds of icing and about 200 pounds of candy.
Hundreds of cinnamon rolls, waffles and danishes were also baked in-house for the display.
By weekend's end, de la Cruz said, the final touches — including a surprise scene inside the tower, which will be visible through a working window, along with sand and a wooden fence bordering the display — should be in place.
Saturday afternoon, several hotel staffers attached candy and pastries to the lifeguard tower's plywood base as visitors paused to watch or ambled to the supply table to grab a crisp, gingery star for snacking.
Compared with the miniature gingerbread villages he's worked on in years past, de la Cruz said the tower presented a "whole different challenge."
"One challenge was doing it live," he said.
And while visitors from drier inland climates may see Newport as a beachy paradise, the humidity in the air can actually make for some soggy building material.
"We have to do a lot of touch-up," he said. "Things get soggy, things fall off."
Nevertheless, hotel General Manager Donald Stamets anticipated that the display will be "a showstopper."
"Comments from customers have been way over the top," he added.
Indeed, said Newport Coast resident Rick Sherman, who stopped on his way through the lobby to marvel at the real cinnamon rolls decorating the structure.
"I think this is going to be one of their best efforts. It'll be fun for kids," he said. "Look at all the gumballs!"
That, de la Cruz said, is one of his favorite parts of the job.
"I like to see the reactions," he said. "It's kind of a surprise."
Guests and local residents are invited to check out the display and sample (unattached) gingerbread cookies through December. The hotel will also be posting a time lapse video of the display's construction on its website.