A big part of my job is where I spend the night. I’m a self-proclaimed luxury traveler, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t spent my fair share of nights in somewhat unusual locations. Even though I love fluffy pillows and private butlers, there’s something so memorable about a strange night stay and these five are amongst my favorite unconventional lodging experiences.
1. Hobbit Hotel – New Zealand has found itself permanently linked with J. R. R. Tolkien, thanks to Peter Jackson and the movies but also because New Zealand is a perfect fit for the imagination of the great fantasy master. New Zealand is extreme in every way and is probably the most beautiful place I’ve ever visited, from soaring mountains to hilly pastures. In was in the latter setting where I found myself checking into a strange room for the night, a hobbit hole. The property in question isn’t the famous hobbit hotel, but rather an unusual farm in Waitomo, home to the famous glowworm caves. Woodlyn Park has a penchant for the odd, as evidenced by the hotel choices on his property: A plane, train, battleship and of course my hobbit hole. The room was built into the side of a hill as any good hobbit abode should be and the rounded door told me immediately that I was home for the night. Sitting on the porch of the hole, looking out across the shire I couldn’t help but want for a long pipe and some wizard friends to stop by. By far one of the strangest places I’ve stayed, but also one of the most fun.
2. Bedouin Camp – Sometimes the room you sleep in isn’t a room at all, as was the case when I visited Wadi Rum desert in Jordan. Wadi Rum has long fascinated travelers both due to its rich history and the sheer beauty found there. Movie crews from around the world use the strange canyons and hills as stand-ins whenever extraplanetary footage is needed, and it seems like another world when you first lay eyes on it. The one night I had in the desert I spent as the guest of a tented Bedouin camp, a rich experience if there every was one. As soon as I arrived and checked out my private tent, I jumped on the back of a beat-up Jeep to explore the desert. Later that night I sat around the camp fire exchanging stories with other guests and later with our Bedouin hosts. The best part of the evening though was walking out of the safe confines of the camp onto the flat, moonlike plain and looking straight up into the heavens. I didn’t need an iPhone app to tell me what was what, it was enough to just stand there in total and complete awe of the heavens and to once again thank those lucky stars for granting me such a unique experience.
3. Prison – I haven’t always been a luxury traveler, it’s a travel shift that has taken years to happen as my partner and I grew older and advanced through our respective careers. When I was younger I was a hostel-goer, like so many of that age and one of my most unique budget experiences was in Prague where I spent the night in Vaclav Havel’s old jail cell. Before the fall of the Soviet Union, what was then called Czechoslovakia (Wow I feel old) was one of the many Soviet satellites and as such existed in a state of fear and repression for decades. The leader of the resistance, the man who spearheaded the Velvet Revolution and the first President of the newly minted Czech Republic was Vaclav Havel, and he was not popular amongst the secret police. He spent tie imprisoned in what later because Unitas Hotel, a budget pension. When I stayed there the property was clean, quiet and stark, very stark. The rooms were former cells and it wasn’t hard to imagine what they used to look like. Since then the hotel has transformed into a more luxurious hotel, but you can still stay there and you can still say you spent the night where the famous Vaclav Havel was once imprisoned, if not in slightly better accommodations.
4. Floating Hotel – Much of Sweden’s national consciousness is tied to the sea, as well it should be. As a country that counts Vikings, fishermen and sailors in its family trees, the sea and its bounty is seen every day throughout the nation. That’s why I was surprised when I checked into the Salt & Sill hotel; not that it was a floating hotel, but that it was the first in Sweden. Located on the quiet island known as Herring Island (Bet you can’t guess why) the Salt & Sill isn’t a boat, but truly a floating hotel. Built in 2008, the hotel features a few dozen rooms on giant floating platforms, permanently moored to the dock. Walking into the rooms though, the hotel feels more like a ship. The rooms are comfortable but about the size of a cruise ship berth and the fact that everything is nailed down completes that perception. At night the hotel moves ever so slightly and I found myself quickly lulled to sleep with the gentle motion of the sea. The best though are the views; walking out onto the deck and watching the sun rise over the rocky and austere island isn’t just a nice moment, but one that grabs you by the lapels and screams SWEDEN in your face.
5. Riverboat in a Game Reserve – I’ve been on several cruises in all corners of the planet, but that’s not exactly what my experience aboard the Zambezi Queen in Namibia was. Permanently moored in the middle of vast wetlands and a natural preserve, the ship welcomes a select few guests for the experience of a lifetime. Getting there is no easy feat; four national borders have to be crossed before the final boat ride transports eager passengers to the ship. The accommodations are all first class and imminently comfortable, but that’s not why people stay there. They stay for the once in a lifetime experience of living in the middle of a rich tableau of wildlife. Mere feet from the ship on the river’s island were dozens, hundreds probably, of elephants, peacefully eating and generally minding their own business. Still closer to shore were an equally impressive number of hippos, grunting at each other in the cranky way only a hippo can do. Sitting on the back deck of the Zambezi Queen at sunset, watching the animals interact and play was truly an experience I will never, ever forget. At night instead of a white noise machine, I was lulled to sleep by the barks and grunts and splashing hippos, obviously busy at night. During the day staff take guests out on game trips and by the time you leave you will have a list of wildlife viewings that will surely impress everyone. But it’s a personal experience ultimately and one that is all too rare in a world of fast paced interactions and frenetic vacations that aren’t really vacations at all.
These are some of the most unusual places I’ve stayed, what are yours?