Who says there’s no place like home for the holidays?
The sparkle of the season also comes from seeing and doing new things.
Maybe this is the year to jolly-up your traditions — after all, travel is Santa-approved.
Fall’s pumpkin spice gives way to full-on gingerbread in the mountains of Asheville, where you’re also most likely to encounter a white Christmas. Asheville is home to the annual National Gingerbread Competition, held at the historic Omni Grove Park Inn.
Ann Bailey of Cary is a two-time national champion in the contest, in 2012 and 2014, and is competing again this year in honor of the event’s 25th anniversary.
“The judges call out the winners from among the top 10, backward from third to second to grand prize,” said Bailey.
“It was an exciting atmosphere, with reporters wanting to interview us and cameras everywhere, from HGTV and The Travel Channel.”
Meghan Morris of Apex grew up visiting Grove Park Inn to view the gingerbread masterpieces, one of her family’s annual holiday traditions. She’s entered the competition each year since age 16, and last year landed in the adult division’s top 10 with her “Nightmare Before Christmas” themed entry.
“It’s so much fun. That’s why I keep coming back,” said Morris, now 21 and a college junior, majoring in biochemistry. “And I still return to see all of the entries after the competition, displayed all over the hotel. They’re incredible, unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
“It’s so much more than four walls and a roof. The pictures don’t do it justice,” she said. “People put hundreds of hours into these, and it shows.”
Morris has been working on her latest entry since July, with a science theme. She’s learning about blown sugar and experimenting with techniques to create faux granite.
“You play around to find what works and what looks good,” she said. “I’m hoping this is my year!”
You can view the gingerbread masterpieces — about 150 of them — at Grove Park Inn from Nov. 26 through Jan. 4, even if you’re not a guest at the hotel.
“The caliber of the entries continues to evolve,” said Tracey Johnston-Crum, director of Public Relations & Community Outreach for the inn. “Just when I think I have seen every new technique, the competitors amaze me with inventive ways to create these edible masterpieces.”
Build your own yummy holiday house, for Cary’s seventh annual Gingerbread House Competition! The deadline to register is Nov. 22; houses must be completed by Dec. 1 and will be displayed in Downtown Cary businesses on Saturday, Dec. 2, during the town’s Heart of the Holidays Celebration. Then, view the winners Dec. 5-15 at the Cary Arts Center.
The works are constructed of at least 75 percent gingerbread, with all-edible ornamentation, and are judged by a panel of culinary and arts professionals on appearance, originality, difficulty, precision and theme.
“The top 10 winners in each category will be integrated into our holiday décor,” added Johnston-Crum. “The remaining entries will be displayed on Level 7 of the Vanderbilt Wing, and at the Grove Arcade in downtown Asheville. We’ll also be showcasing a holiday tree decorated with ornaments submitted by past gingerbread competitors.
“The entries are genuine works of art, and you can lose yourself in the intricate detail and beauty of some of the pieces,” she said.
The Omni Grove Park Inn donates half of all parking fees raised during the holiday display to Western North Carolina nonprofits. Non-guests may view the gingerbread entries anytime Monday through Thursday, or after 3 p.m. on Sundays. omnihotels.com/hotels/asheville-grove-park
Also in Asheville:
Christmas at Biltmore
Dozens of evergreen trees bearing thousands of ornaments and miles of lights, ribbons and fresh garlands mark the extravagant celebration happening at Biltmore through Jan. 7. It’s a time travel of sorts, to the holiday ways of George Vanderbilt and family, who first opened their new home to guests on Christmas Eve 1895.
If you plan an evening visit, you can take a self-guided candlelight tour through Jan. 6, complete with luminaries and firelight, live music and wine tastings. biltmore.com
Winter Lights at the North Carolina Arboretum
This outdoor exhibit runs from Nov. 17 through Dec. 31, as a winter wonderland of nearly a half-million lights. Enjoy holiday tunes and cocoa, cider or beer while you stroll. ncarboretum.org
Beer bonus: Asheville is also home to the most breweries per capita of any city in the U.S., and many of them are family friendly. exploreasheville.com
Celebration of Seagrove Potters
Whether you go as a day trip or as a bed-and-breakfast overnighter, the Celebration of Seagrove Potters is a great way to “fire up” your holiday season.
Beyond shops, Seagrove is a vision of sugar plums offering the opportunity to stroll this historic area home to the country’s largest concentration of working potters, for behind the scenes interactions with the artists who create one-of-a-kind pieces from functional to folk.
Running Nov. 17-19, the Celebration of Seagrove Potters begins with a gala and auction on Friday evening featuring a 15-piece live jazz band, followed by a weekend of the Potters’ Market complete with food trucks, artisan demonstrations, children’s activities, silent auction and beer garden.
Can’t make it in November? Experience holiday decorations, warm fireplaces, refreshments and fun events each Saturday from Dec. 2-23, at Seagrove Potters’ Holiday Open House. discoverseagrove.com
Fire engine parade? Check.
Christmas cookie contest? Check.
Santa? Of course!
Southport WinterFest includes all of the above and then some, meaning you won’t miss a thing if you hang your mistletoe in this town known as the backdrop to more than 40 movies and TV shows, where the Cape Fear River meets the Atlantic.
“Festivities are centered in historic downtown Southport and kick off with ‘Christmas in Song’ at the Amuzu Theatre (circa 1912) on December 1, and continue with events for all ages through December 10,” said Karen Rife, marketing chair for Downtown Southport Inc.
Learn about Colonial holiday traditions — and the storm that almost stole Christmas — during free costumed tours at the North Carolina Maritime Museum.
Take the kids to Supper with Santa’s Elves and the annual Holiday Cookie Contest, or drop in at the Nutcracker Tea Party.
WinterFest’s final festive Saturday, Dec. 9, offers the chance to grab handmade and homegrown gifts at the Winter Craft Festival on the lawn of Fort Johnston Garrison, overlooking the river.
Stroll the Christmas Tour of Homes for a glimpse at the great history of Southport, and finally, spread your blanket beside the riverbank as boats of all sizes sail by in the night, dressed in their twinkling holiday best, at the Southport Christmas Flotilla. downtownsouthport.com, southportnc.org
Cape Fear Festival of Trees
From Southport, you can easily hop the Fort Fisher Ferry to catch the Cape Fear Festival of Trees, daily through Dec. 31. It’s free with a general admission ticket to the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher. The fest benefits the Lower Cape Fear Hospice Foundation. lcfhfoundation.org/event/cape-fear-festival-trees
Christmas Town USA
If the name alone doesn’t put you in the spirit … you may be a Scrooge!
Each year the town of McAdenville becomes a holiday wonderland, in a tradition that began in 1956. Walk or drive the 2-mile route from Dec. 1-26 to see nearly 400 decorated trees, more than 200 wreaths, and of course, Santa and his reindeer. McAdenville is located about 20 minutes west of downtown Charlotte. mcadenvillenc.com