A large map of the world, plastered with clusters of brightly-colored sewing pins, hangs in the home of 73-year-old Myrna Towers. Each pin marks a place that Towers, her husband, Dave, or one of their six children has visited. Myrna and Dave have traveled extensively, and have lived in Great Britain, Cambodia, and Hong Kong. What the map does not show, however, is where they have slept on their travels. A cabin on the African savanna, a chateau in the Alps, and a hut in Mexico are only a few. “If you stay in Best Westerns everywhere you go, you’ll have a very typical trip,” says Towers. They are always on the alert for rare lodging opportunities.
An internet search for “places to stay in . . .” will produce a long list of standard accommodations ranging from five-star hotels to low-budget options. Some people choose the more adventurous route of hostels, and search for clean beds and community perks on www.hostelworld.com.
Others look even further: asking locals, slipping the word “unusual” into their internet searches, and perusing the less-popular tourist guidebooks. For Towers and fellow travelers, looking beyond the standard hotels and hostels has led to very memorable vacations.
One of Towers’ favorite lodging experiences was staying in an old windmill-turned-bed-and-breakfast near the city of Prague in the Czech Republic. Originally built with wood in 1277, Pension Větrník (“Windmill Hotel” in Czech) was a working windmill for 500 years. Now the mill has been rebuilt in brick and stone, and the windmill blades are no longer on display, but patrons still experience the history of the place, as well as very personal hospitality from the owners. “We got there late in the evening and they still fired up the kitchen to fix us a tasty stew and homemade bread,” says Towers. “We loved the homey atmosphere.” There is also a bus stop within walking distance of Pension Větrník, so visitors can easily travel to the old city. Nightly rates vary from $60 to $125, depending on the season.
For younger travelers like 23-year-old Eden Cope, the best alternative lodging is whatever is least expensive. Often this means a sleeping bag in the airport, but tents are not out of the question. “There was a time when I camped in a tent in Höfn, Iceland,” Cope says. “The sky never got dark because it was June.”
Tents aren’t just for thrift, however. The ExplorTambos Camp Program near Iquitos, Peru, includes a special tent option for travelers. Visitors spend one night of their tour in individual or couple tents on the banks of the Amazon River. Because the primitive campsite is a two-hour walk from any buildings and surrounded by rainforest, guests have an excellent chance of spotting monkeys, anteaters, and other wildlife. The trip includes excursions through the jungle and on the river itself, swimming with piranhas, and searching for caiman (a cousin of the alligator). Meals are cooked over an open fire. The full five-day program (one night in tents, the others in ExplorTambos lodges) costs around $1,400.
Several years ago, Tom Monson, 49, spent one night on a junk in Halong Bay, Vietnam, with his wife and her parents. “It was probably the highlight of our Vietnam trip,” remembers Monson, whose favorite word to describe the fog-shrouded Dr. Seuss-like mountains is “magical.” Meals on the junk featured fresh seafood and the tour included a kayak trip to a neighboring cave.
“The accommodations were very rudimentary,” warns Monson. “Hard beds, leaky roof. But it didn’t even matter. You were there for the unique experience.” Junk tours cost anywhere from $40 to $150 depending on the tour company, the size of the group, and the number of nights. Monson suggests a one-night tour, especially if traveling with children, since activities on the boat are very limited.
In the Trees
With the rising popularity of treehouse hotels, anyone can have a “Swiss Family Robinson” adventure. One company, La Cabane en l’Aire, has a network of over 200 treehouses spread throughout France.
Some are accessed by rope bridges, some by ladders, and some even by zip lines. Treehouses range from just a few feet off the ground to over 60 feet (the average treehouse is around 30 feet). The luxury models have electricity and water, but some travelers prefer the rustic candlelight and dry toilets found in the more basic models. One night costs between $100 and $350, and each treehouse has specific age and capacity requirements.
On a recent visit to Matera, Italy, Kim Kitley, 42, and her husband, Tim, booked two nights in a cave. L’hotel in Pietra (“Stone Hotel”) was originally a cave church dating back to 1300. Now it is a luxury lodging experience, costing $80 to $215. Fresh air is pumped into the otherwise damp cave suites, making them just as comfortable as any standard hotel room and a lot more fun. “We were glad we made the effort to go to such a unique place,” says Kitley. “We would definitely recommend it to others.”
To save money and time, many travelers choose to travel while they sleep. Night trains are particularly popular in Asia, where travelers can choose to sleep sitting up in a standard railcar, or get a decent rest in a more expensive sleeper car with bunk beds—in essence, a hotel on wheels. Some young travelers in China buy the cheapest standing-room-only night train tickets and bring small fold-up stools to doze on in the aisles. Though not particularly pleasant, this last option is certainly a memorable experience and can be fun if traveling with adventurous friends.
Of course, a hotel on wheels can be more than time-saving transportation. Wanderlust’s Gypsy Caravans in the Cambria region of the United Kingdom offers unique “holidays” in traditional bow-top caravans called vardos. Guests ride in the horse-drawn caravan (and may even get a chance to take the reins) as a Wanderlusts owner leads them to a beautiful, secluded spot to spend the night. Each caravan has a wood-burning stove, and the campsites have open fire pits for cooking. The caravan holiday costs $102 per night for two people, with an extra fee for each additional child.
Exploring the internet is the best way to find memorable lodging. Just change the query “places to stay” to “interesting places to stay” or “unusual places to stay.” Once you find an option, look up reviews on a site like TripAdvisor.com to make sure your dream vacation spot is really as dreamy as it looks online. If you prefer travel guidebooks, choose a less-popular series (i.e., not Lonely Planet) to ensure that you won’t be crowded by tourists in the places you choose to stay. And of course, make friends when you travel. Locals and fellow tourists might know of places that you would never find in a guidebook or even on the internet.
You will likely stay in hotels or hostels more often than not, but be open to trying a new experience when you stumble upon it. After all, each new adventure is a sewing pin in your map of the world. Make it count.
Featured photo by Jake Hills.