Snow much fun

Downtown Austin hot spot bubbles with rooftop igloos for festive winter transformation

Austin hot spot bubbles with rooftop igloos for winter transformation

Geraldine's winter rooftop igloo South Pole
The South Pole at Geraldine's, with private igloos and unique holiday drinks, is a big step up from noisy Christmas-themed bars. Geraldine's

Ah, December in Austin. It’s time to trick yourself into thinking you’re cold so you have an excuse to get cozy. A sparkly, transparent vinyl igloo should do it, right? This season at the Kimpton Hotel Van Zandt, the South transforms into the South Pole at Geraldine’s, with board games, festive drinks, and classic bites.

Heading into the hotel on Rainey Street, past a Dr. Seuss-like hydra of a lighting fixture with trombone bells for heads, there are but a few hints of the whimsy waiting on the roof. A wall of colorful birds spiral out of a phonograph. The sprawling lobby and central staircase — all right angles, industrial materials, and brass accents — simultaneously welcome and impose themselves on visitors, who, in fitting December dress, are often decked out in holiday sweaters and sequins.

On the fourth-floor roof, six igloos like clear, scaffolded camping tents sit cozily on the pool deck outside the moody restaurant. The body of water somehow recasts from a cooling oasis to a chic reflecting pool that seemed never to have served any other purpose. Behind it, a roaring log fire occupies a massive chimney, with projections of snowflakes complementing the windows of other Austin bars and apartments beyond.

It is almost imperceptibly warmer in the dome, with interior lights bouncing off the transparent plastic and obscuring the surrounding night for a surprising illusion of privacy (although, of course, anyone outside can very clearly see in). Each igloo caps out at six guests, so groups of up to three can lounge together on each of the igloo’s two couches, sharing a festive blanket and pillows that look like they came straight from a holiday catalog. The mugs, stockings, and vinyl records are similarly mismatched for the perfect aesthetic balance of interior design meets Grandma’s actual couch.

It does seem that every igloo has its own copy of “Candy Land,” that ubiquitous board game with little to no actual gameplay but the sweetest illustrations. (If during a spirited holiday outing isn’t the time to appreciate the vintage game, it never is.) For guests who do want a little more social facilitation, one tent includes Cards Against Humanity, and one has a similar matching game called What Do You Meme? Decks of Bicycle playing cards are also readily available. And for visitors wanting to step it up with a Cindy Lou Who level of taking cheerful initiative, this feels like a great opportunity to bring whatever games you have lying around that you always forget to break out at gatherings.

A record player sits next to an artificial (but still festive) tree. Even though, technically, December 1 is National Start Playing Holiday Music 24/7 Day, it can be a little daunting to know you are entering a two-hour session of the stuff. Thankfully, the playlist here is pleasant and not overplayed at all, while inside one igloo, visitors can regale themselves with Christmas albums from crooner Johnny Mathis and rock ’n’ roll revivalist JD McPherson.

A brand-new Christmas drinks menu from Geraldine’s ties everything together, with unique drinks like the Scottish Garland, a mix of Highland Park 12-year and Monkey Shoulder scotches with caramel and chocolate mole. The pineapple-forward Apple Chaider, a frozen island-y version of a spiced apple cider, is like the music: festive enough for the setting but fresh enough not to contribute to holiday burnout.

Another tea-inspired cocktail, the Proppa’ Cuppa’, blends rum, English breakfast tea syrup, and pear liqueur for a hot, wintery drink without any specific holiday connotations. The Cuppa’, for its lack of cinnamon and other Christmas drink convolutions, raises the bar for colder-weather drinks around Austin, regardless of the month or cuteness of the bar it’s served at. (It’s also served on a tray for four alongside cookies, making it both the most cost-effective, hand-warming, and heart-warming sharable on the menu.)

Waiters pass around some nibbles of items on the regular menu at Geraldine’s, including tiny pork ribs with piquillo caramel and tarragon, and a unique beet and yogurt salad. The Brussels sprouts are spectacular, their crispy leaves peeling open and dressed with sweet fish sauce, refreshing serrano slivers and oddly engaging crunchy almond pieces. 

Though reservations for the Geraldine’s igloos are hard to come by this holiday season, more are opening up on a rolling basis through Valentine’s Day week. Reserve an igloo for two hours ($50 per person, $150 food and drink minimum) on Eventbrite. Even if the igloos are reserved, some tables by the fireplace will be accessible with full menu service.