A night behind bars, eating with giraffes or luxury in the Gobi, some hotels stand out more than others, writes Matthew Link
Travel writing is the ultimate glamour job - or so everyone who is not a travel writer tells me. But there must be a better way to make a dollar than waking up jetlagged in an achingly nondescript hotel room, unsure of what day it is or what country you are in.
Writing about a generic chain hotel can have its challenges. How do you describe the omnipresent colour of hotel beige that forms a great global smear of blah from Bangkok to Bogota? Every now and then, however, I will discover a truly one-of-a-kind lodging. It's travel gold and the review effortlessly writes itself.
Here is my personal collection of distinctive accommodation from around the world that, with one easy swipe of a credit card, will lift your journey from tedious to transformative.
Plush yurts in the emptiness of the Gobi Desert
With 1.3 million square kilometres of infinite barren rock and nary a raindrop nor human in sight, the Gobi is Asia's largest desert and the last place on earth you would expect to find any semblance of luxury. Yet, there I was on the desert's northern edge in the Gurvansaikhan National Park, sipping fine French wine at the luxe Three Camel Lodge listening to the glorious warbling of a traditional throat singer reverberating through a faux Mongolian temple.
My spa reservation was being set up as I gazed out to the Gobi Altai Mountains. Tomorrow I would be galloping across Mongolia, the birthplace of horseback riding. And then I would witness a demonstration of grown men in colourful briefs practising open-air wrestling. But tonight I would be retiring to my classy ger (a circular tent house better known as a yurt), kept toasty warm with felt coverings and a wood-burning stove.
I smothered my dry skin with camel milk lotion before putting on my felt slippers and Mongolian bathrobe. Buddhist symbols handpainted on wooden beams overhead sheltered me from the winds sweeping off the steppes. As I drifted off to sleep, I decided the life of a nomadic herder wasn't so bad after all.
A night in a cosy jail cell in the Swiss Alps
The smiling Alpine fairy-tale town of Lucerne - with its 700-year-old watchtowers and wooden bridges framed by snow-white lakeside peaks - isn't such a bad setting to spend a night in prison. The intriguing (and, it must be said, creepy) Jailhotel Löwengraben was built in 1862 and housed criminals up until 1998.
The hotel's blunt tagline is "May we lock you up?" The significance of those words hit home as a heavy wooden door with steel plates closed with a heavy thud. Travel companion Wayne and I stared at each other as we sat in a four-by-six-metre cell/guestroom.
"This is cosy, to say the least," Wayne quipped while gazing at the cell's bare walls and the ominous bars over a tiny lookout window. Outside, the laughter of passersby seemed to mock us.
The next morning, we swapped notes on the disturbing dreams we both experienced. Maybe we should have checked out the Jailhotel's more spacious suites, fashioned out of the prison's former library, warden's office and visitors' room. Each comes with large arched windows letting in freedom-loving streams of sunlight, but don't offer nearly as good a travel story to take home.
Giraffes drop in for breakfast in the hills of Kenya
Have you ever stayed in a two-storey 1932 manor house modelled on a Scottish hunting lodge and thought what this place really needs is a giraffe poking its head through the window? No? Well, too bad,
because that wish has come true at Giraffe Manor.
This stately mansion, built by a member of the Mackintosh family of Mackintosh's Toffee fame, lies
at the feet of the tranquil Ngong Hills, 20km outside Nairobi. Fifty or so hectares of green countryside act as home to endangered Rothschild's giraffes - eight of them, to be exact.
Those creatures treated me like I was their personal waiter. They are the tallest of all giraffes, with some more than six metres. So the French windows of my upper-floor room were fair game for these animals, and I felt obligated to repeatedly hand over nuts from a bowl every time a pair of huge eyelashes batted at me.
Even in the downstairs breakfast area, a giraffe tongue darted out and nearly snatched the croissant in my hand. I saw another bending its neck down trying to fit through the manor's back door. But my spotted adversaries couldn't reach me within the lodge's candlelit dining room as I enjoyed bacon-wrapped figs and gourmet beef Wellington.
Watch ice melt from your private Greenland igloo
When someone mentions Greenland, your mind probably pictures nothing but ice. And you would be correct. I stared out across the Arctic Ocean eyeing icebergs larger than a cubic kilometre float past like a parade of frozen skyscrapers. I was on Greenland's western coast witnessing global warming busily melt away the 40-km Ilulissat Icefjord.
More than 20,000 tourists a year come here to view this Unesco World Heritage Site, with the fishing village of Ilulissat (appropriately meaning "iceberg" in Inuit) acting as their base.
And, of course, when one is watching ice, one should have an igloo. Ilulissat's 87-room Hotel Arctic claims to be the most northerly four-star hotel in the world, and from May to October you can check into one of its five modern aluminium-sided igloos.
The shiny two-person dome I had came with electric heating, a shower, radio, TV and telephone. But TV was a pale comparison to the hours I spent bundled up on my igloo's wooden deck watching Mother Nature's reality show. To avoid frostbite, I would stroll over to the Hotel Arctic's restaurant Ulo. After I perused the menu of local specialities, I would casually ask the waiter: "Is the braised shoulder of musk ox as good as they say? Or should I just stick to the Greenlandic salmon?" Just because one lives in an igloo, one needn't know how to hunt whales.
Rock-a-bye in the Northern California trees
Big Sur, a 1960s legend, is a refuge for beatnik poets, nudist artists and hairy hippies. Perched atop dramatic seaside cliffs and backed by towering redwood forests, Big Sur has retained its geographical glory, but nowadays rich reclusive estates easily outnumber free-love hippy communes.
I was lucky enough to experience the perfect hippy-meets-yuppy hybrid here: a modern luxury tree house. I climbed its elegant wooden stairs and entered my stylish abode hovering on stilts three metres above the forest floor.
The wooden structure came complete with fireplace, skylights, sundecks, modern art and thread-count sheets. I had never seen a children's tree house with mood lighting and oceanview windows. The deluxe tree fort was one of several at Big Sur's five-star Post Ranch Inn. In addition to more than 30 guest suites and two rental homes, the property has a spa, gourmet restaurant and a cliffside swimming pool.
This being California, complimentary morning yoga and mindful meditation classes are included, but shaman appointments for "soul retrievals" or "drum journeys" cost extra.
A grounded aircraft in Costa Rica
It wasn't the drunk tourists that caused me to nearly drive off the coastal highway that leads to Costa Rica's famed rainforest at Manuel Antonio National Park. I had swerved after sighting a large US military cargo plane casually sitting alongside the road. I peered in the fuselage, and inside a large group of young travellers were holding beers and laughing. "Come on in." they beckoned. "We think the plane is grounded."
The decommissioned C-123 Fairchild aircraft had found new life as the El Avion bar and restaurant, part of the 12-hectare Hotel Costa Verde beachside resort. But the plane I ended up sleeping in that night was the hotel's vintage 1965 Boeing 727. Painted bright red and dangling over the hillside, the aircraft's air-conditioned interiors were bathed in local teak panelling. It must have carried more than 150 passengers back in the day, so it was no wonder there was enough space for two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchenette, dining foyer, oceanview balconies over each wing and hand-carved Javanese furniture.
It was so large that I felt lonesome inside a commercial aircraft for the first time in my life. But the squirrel monkeys, howler monkeys and white-faced capuchins climbing all over the roof made sure I had company throughout the night.
HOW TO GET THERE
Three Camel Lodge – there are regular flights from the capital of Mongolia, Ulan Bator, to the town of Dalanzadgad, which is 540km to the south. www.threecamellodge.com
Jailhotel Löwengraben – a daily direct 40-minute rail journey from Zurich Airport to Lucerne. www.jailhotel.ch
Giraffe Manor – a 45-minute taxi or shuttle ride from Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. www.giraffemanor.com
Hotel Arctic – a five-minute shuttle from Ilulissat Airport, which has daily 45-minute flights from Kangerlussuaq and a weekly flight from Reykjavik, Iceland. www.hotel-arctic.gl
Post Ranch Inn – a 45-minute drive south from Monterrey Regional Airport, which has daily flights from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas. www.postranchinn.com
Hotel Costa Verde – a 20-minute taxi ride south from Quepos Managua Airport, which is serviced by multiple daily non-stop flights from the capital San Jose. www.costaverde.com