Ben Groundwater puts to rest the age-old notion that to backpack is to slum it with this list of 'poshpacker' hostels.
They're not just for backpackers. Not any more. The old cliche of the bedbug-ridden dorm rooms populated by travel's great unwashed is a thing of the past. The humble youth hostel is now anything but.
Things have been stepped up. In some hostels you'll find flatscreen TVs and all the mod-cons and gadgets. Others have artist-designed rooms and fancy furniture. Still others command the sort of views that normally come with five-star ratings and five-figure price tags.
Hostels these days are designed not just for backpackers but for poshpackers, flashpackers, greypackers and every traveller in between. They're for those who want to meet fellow wanderers while still enjoying a few of the finer things in life. They're hostels by name, but certainly not by nature. Here are my 10 picks of the world's best.
Travellers House, Lisbon, Portugal
There's something special going on in Lisbon. In last year's "Hoscars" — backpacking website Hostel World's annual awards ceremony — Lisbon-based hostels won all three major categories as best small, medium and large hostels in the world. Our favourite fell into the medium category: Travellers House, an establishment that seems to have picked up more awards than Meryl Streep. The hostel offers beautifully decked-out studio-style apartments, as well as the usual private rooms or dorms, while still providing the sort of social atmosphere that attracts travellers to hostels.
Travellers House's studio apartments are set in a separate, restored building on one of downtown Lisbon's pedestrian streets. The private rooms in the main area, meanwhile, are plush and modern, incorporating elements such as original tiled walls from this 250-year-old building. Dorm stayers get comfy beds, plus free use of lockers and locks, linen, breakfast, wi-fi and satellite TV.
How much? Private rooms from $48, dorm beds from $24.
Casa del Mundo, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
The decor? Nice enough. Quaint, you could call it. The rooms? Comfortable, without being modern or luxurious. But take a look out of your wood-framed window: that's what you're here for. Casa del Mundo is set on the hillside at Lake Atitlan, one of the world's most spectacular mountain lakes, and the views can't be beaten.
Huge volcanoes tower over the water on the lake's far side, while all around small villages cling to rugged shores. A stay at Casa del Mundo could easily involve nothing more than sitting on the tiled deck and staring out to horizons, day after day.
But there's plenty more to do. The guesthouse, which blurs the lines somewhat between hotel and hostel, is well known for its communal dinners, when guests from all over the world gather at a huge dining table to enjoy a traditional Guatemalan meal. (Given the nearest restaurant is a half-hour boat ride away, these dinners are always well attended.) During the day, guests can hike through the hills, climb a volcano, spend time in the villages or just cruise the lake in a local ferry. The other option, of course, is simply sitting and staring.
How much? From $37 a night.
Mikuniya Ryokan, Kinosaki, Japan
A Japanese ryokan experience is one every traveller should sample, but it comes at a price. These traditional establishments, often set in centuries-old buildings with tatami mat floors, paper walls, beautiful gardens and onsen spas, can set travellers back thousands of dollars a night. Mikuniya, however, bridges the gap to allow budget travellers at least a little taste of the luxurious good life. It's still not what you'd call cheap — but this is quite a place to stay.
Mikuniya has shared bathrooms and can be booked through the Hostel Bookers website, but that's where any resemblance to a normal hostel ends. Built in the 19th century, you'll find everything that makes a ryokan special, including immaculately clean, traditionally decorated rooms, a menu of high-quality Japanese food, and an onsen hot spring with private baths available for guests to hire. A stay here has nothing to do with the party atmosphere usually associated with hostels — it's all about tranquillity and calm. You can't help but soak the feeling up.
How much? $180 a night.
Sydney Harbour YHA, Sydney, Australia
A recent winner of the Qantas Australian Tourism Award - the hostel's 25th gong - the Sydney Harbour YHA has one serious drawcard: Sydney Harbour. From its location in The Rocks, the hostel's upper levels command views of the bridge, the Opera House, and the entire inner harbour. Now that's a good place for an evening drink.
While there's certainly more to the hostel's charm than the view, it's still the sort of postcard image that ensures a healthy flow of visitors from foreign shores.
It's not one of the fancier joints in the world, but inside the Sydney Harbour YHA has all the facilities you'd expect from a member of the hostelling chain, including private and dorm rooms, airconditioning, a communal kitchen, social areas and internet access. And if you ever get bored with that harbour view? Check out the archaeological dig going on right below the hostel, where remains from early British settlement are even now being unearthed.
How much? Private rooms from $79 a person, dorm beds from $49.
St Briavels Castle, Gloucestershire, England
Castles: they're for kings, lords ... and backpackers. Scotland's famed Carbisdale Castle YHA might be closed for renovations, but visitors to Britain can still bunk down in a proper mediaeval fortress. And as a bonus, St Briavels is supposed to be seriously haunted, which can only make your stay that bit more interesting.
The castle, set in the Gloucestershire countryside and still surrounded by a moat, was built as a hunting lodge for King John in 1205.
Guests now stay in the castle's towers and have the option of attending a mediaeval banquet in the mansion's dining hall. The hostel offers dorm rooms only and is far from luxurious, but you're not here for the luxury, you're here for the atmosphere and the history. And the occasional brushes with the paranormal.
How much? Dorm beds for $36 a night.
Bunc Hostel, Singapore
Wander into the lobby at Bunc and you realise immediately that this place represents the new age of hostels. No gaudy colours and second-hand furniture here — at Bunc it's all sleek design and clean spaces. Professional staff greet you at the counter, checking you in with the efficiency you'd expect at a fancy hotel. It's all seamless, and very unhostel-like.
Bunc's rooms are similarly high quality. Privates come complete with a flatscreen TV and a computer system loaded with movies and TV shows, while the dorms have been designed with privacy in mind — at least, as much privacy as you could expect when you're sharing a bedroom with strangers. There's airconditioning in the rooms, privacy screens on the beds, environmentally friendly soap in the showers, lockers under the beds, a female-only floor (including lounge), and even double beds in some of the mixed dorms.
How much? Dorm beds from $34, double rooms from $140.
America del Sur, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Buenos Aires has an ever-increasing and impressive array of boutique hotels, but those on a tighter budget aren't stuck for choice either. While the Hostel-Inn Tango City is an old favourite, the new kid on the block is America del Sur, Argentina's winner in last year's Hoscars. Set in the historic neighbourhood of San Telmo, America del Sur is anything but historic — it's a purpose-built hostel, with some fancy features.
Double rooms all have cable TV, telephones and private bathrooms. All dorms — the largest of which is a mere four-bedder — have en suites. All rooms have airconditioning. There's a communal kitchen that looks like it was designed for a restaurant, not for scungy backpackers trying to reheat last night's spag bog. There's free wi-fi throughout, a sleek entertainment room, and a rooftop barbecue area that's the ideal place to socialise your time away. Some of the boutique hotels can't even offer that.
How much? Private rooms from $80; dorm beds from $17.
Seven Hostel, Sorrento, Italy
How Seven even classifies itself as a hostel we're not sure. It has dorm rooms, but it also has the sort of sleek, modern design that would make it the envy of most hotels. Plus, its setting in Sorrento, with views to Capri, Naples and Vesuvius, is hard to top. If it's the flashpacker experience you're after, then this is your hostel.
Seven's rooms are immaculately furnished. There are privates on the top floor and dorms below. There's also every facility and service you would expect from a hotel: 24-hour concierge, a cafe on site, breakfast included, live music at the self-proclaimed "cool and trendy" bar, wi-fi throughout, cable TV and a library.
The piece de resistance, however, is the rooftop terrace, with its plush couches, sun lounges and views out to the Amalfi Coast. If all hostels looked like this, the big hotel chains would be out of business.
How much? Private rooms from $80; dorm beds from $23.
Daddy Long Legs, Cape Town, South Africa
Plenty of hotels and even some hostels like to throw the word "art" into their title — it seems to denote anything from a single painting on the wall to a whole gallery - but few commit themselves to the concept like Daddy Long Legs, in the heart of Cape Town. Each of the 13 rooms in this "travellers' hotel" has been designed by a local artist, poet, photographer, designer or musician — all of whom were given complete creative freedom to do as they pleased. The result is eclectic, to say the least. We're talking sculptures hanging from the ceiling, a karaoke room (complete with microphone in the shower), a wilderness room, a music room with CDs hand-picked by local artists, and a discombobulating sunset room. It seems a shame to choose only one.
Daddy Long Legs offers a few of the more traditional hostel comforts as well, including a cafe on the ground floor, and a communal lounge and bar. It's also set right on Long Street, the heart of Cape Town's nightlife scene, making it the perfect base for sociable travellers looking for something a little different in their accommodation.
How much? Private rooms from $71 a night.
Baxpax Downtown, Berlin, Germany
Arriving in arty, liberal Berlin, you might expect to find some interesting takes on the humble hostel, and you won't be disappointed. The Baxpax chain has three locations throughout the city: a "party" hostel in up-and-coming Kreuzberg, an "arty" hostel in trendy Mitte, and our favourite, the modern, downtown hostel near Friedrichstrasse train station, which once again blurs the lines between backpacking and flashpacking.
Baxpax aims at a specific clientele: young, creative travellers with the budget for something above the traditional hostel experience. The look is modern, with designer furniture, bright, airy spaces and arty installations. There are also facilities such as swipecard access instead of keys, plus a bar, lounge and nightclub, a breakfast buffet, free wi-fi, free walking tours of the city, and a rooftop terrace with views over one of Europe's most exciting destinations.
How much? Private rooms from $102; dorm beds from $20.
The extra mile
These three hostels are setting the kind of benchmarks for design and guest facilities normally associated with expensive hotels.
Hostel stays and fitness regimens may appear to be awkward bedfellows, but not at Urbany. The hostel offers the sort of exercise and leisure facilities of an upmarket resort, with a fully equipped gym and a four-lane, 25-metre indoor swimming pool. Private rooms from $121 a night.
180 Degrees, Berlin
Say goodbye to the seedy backpacker bars of old. Reflecting the creative spirit and mod design aesthetic of the city in which it resides, 180 Degrees features live music most nights, and the tunes are often provided by the guests themselves. The hostel's "Gigs for Beds" initiative means musicians stay for free — as long as they provide entertainment. Private rooms from $60 a night.
This is everything you'd expect from a boutique hotel, except it's a hostel. There's an indoor pool, a sauna, a huge courtyard, a breakfast buffet and an amazingly plush bar. You won't want to leave. Dorm beds cost from $15 a night (six-bed dorm), private rooms from $60 a night. plushostels.com.
Lisbon — Travellers House travellershouse.com
Lake Atitlan — Casa del Mundo lacasadelmundo.com
Kinosaki — Mikuniya Ryokan www.kinosaki3928.com/english
Sydney — Sydney Harbour YHA yha.com.au
Gloucestershire — St Briavels Castle yha.org.uk/hostel/st-briavels
Singapore — Bunc Hostel radiancegrp.com/bunc@radius
Buenos Aires — America del Sur americahostel.com.ar
Sorrento — Seven Hostel sevenhostel.com
Cape Town — Daddy Long Legs daddylonglegs.co.za
Berlin — Baxpax Downtown baxpax.de/en/downtown
Berlin — 180 Degrees one80hostels.com
Barcelona — Urbany barcelonaurbany.com