Every winter for the past 35 years, a gingerbread village, the only one of its kind in Alaska, slowly takes shape in a corner of Anchorage's Hotel Captain Cook lobby. Preparations start in August, with sheet after sheet of gingerbread baked and massive vats of chocolate mixed. In late November, with the help of 850 pounds of frosting, the pieces are assembled. Some 100 hours later, pastry chef Joe Hickel can finally relax and flip the switch, turning on the miniature ice skaters in his fantasy town of Marina's Village.

Chef Joe, the son of two-time Gov. Wally Hickel, didn't start out wanting to be a pastry chef. "I was doing construction for my dad, spending my money on parties and other things a 21-year-old likes to do. One day, he suggested I look at culinary school, and I'd never thought about that before," he said. "I guess he knew me better than I knew myself."

This year's village is the biggest he's attempted. "The mountains took six days to finish," he said. "After the third day, I couldn't do it anymore. I prayed to God to help me complete it, and he did. He sees it in my heart and gives me the inspiration to keep going."

Each building is named for friends of Hickel. There is the archbishop's house with a priestly figurine coming out of the door. The former owner of Green Connection, a local landscaping company, has his yard full of Christmas trees for sale. Friends stop by the hotel lobby, searching for their homes in the fantastically detailed village.

Hickel finished the piece on Monday, Dec. 2, and it will remain up through the holidays. To see a live webcam of the village and a time lapse showing its construction, check out the Captain Cook's Gingerbread Village online.

Contact multimedia editor Loren Holmes at loren(at)alaskadispatch.com