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Forget gliding down a red carpet. The next time you treat yourself to a luxury stay, you may find yourself shimmying down rungs nailed into a cliffside, or climbing up a staircase wrapped around a tree trunk: welcome to the global boom in extreme accommodation.
No longer content with checking into a luxury suite, today's been-there-done-that traveller is looking for something more memorable – an underwater villa, perhaps, or a glass igloo.
"It's not enough to stay at a five-star hotel anymore," says Michael Londregan, managing director Asia-Pacific for Virtuoso, a global network of luxury travel advisers. "These products are capturing people's imagination. They are structuring their entire trip around these experiences."
The boom is being accelerated by the demand for back-to-nature experiences. In remote areas without traditional infrastructure, erecting a bubble dome or a floating platform not only offers a quicker, low-impact alternative to a traditional hotel, it also gives guests a more direct experience of the environment.
"Folks like me want to re-wild, they want to leave the maelstrom of the city behind and listen to a waterfall instead," says Bill Bensley. Known for creating some of Asia's most indulgent resorts, Bensley's most recent designs include tree-shrouded luxury tented camps in Cambodia and Bali that were inspired by his childhood camping holidays. "I enjoy making luxury camps so I can share the love and joy that I had as a wee bloke," he says.
The canniest operators know that the more out-there the concept, the easier it is to attraction the attention of consumers. "These are powerful marketing gimmicks," says Londregan. "Get it right and you don't need a marketing budget – word of mouth and social media will do the work for you."
That doesn't mean that these eccentric accommodations are an easy option for operators. Design Hotels' Jinou Park, vice-president Asia Pacific, says that not only do these properties still need to deliver quality experiences and service, the construction challenges can also be formidable.
"Suspended jungle pods need adequate insulation and ventilation, underwater [accommodation] requires pressure-resilient glass and smart illumination, and luxury tents must feel, well, luxurious in extreme climates," he says. "It requires genuine passion from the patron and his team to make that happen."
So, are you ready to check out (or check into) the outside-the-square hotel and resort room experience? Here is our pick of some of the most memorable examples from around the globe.
IN A BUBBLE
BUBBLE LODGE, MAURITIUS
THE STAY Camping gets a space-age makeover with these semi-transparent bubble domes. Bubble Lodge launched with three suites on the Bois Cheri tea plantation; a further three suites are now available on the Ile Aux Cerfs golf island. Both locations feature a choice of couples suites and family suites.
THE EXPERIENCE Each lodge consists of a series of linked, airconditioned domes including a lounge area, a bedroom, a bathroom and an open sky shower. The domes are carefully positioned to ensure privacy for all guests. Activities at Bois Cheri include tea tastings, guided nature walks and quad biking, while at Ile Aux Cerfs you can laze on a private beach before teeing off.
DON'T MISS Meals are a highlight at both properties, with Mauritian cuisine served up at the Bois Cheri restaurant, while guests at Ile Aux Cerfs can enjoy a private dinner on the beach.
THE ESSENTIALS Rates from €329 per suite per night at Bois Cheri, and €379 per suite per night at Ile Aux Cerfs. See bubble-lodge.com
OFF A CLIFF
SKYLODGE ADVENTURE SUITES, SACRED VALLEY, PERU
THE STAY Incan ruins aren't the only things to marvel at in the Sacred Valley: the Skylodge Adventure Suites are also breathtaking. These aluminium-polycarbonate pods cling to the side of a cliff 400 metres above the valley floor. To reach them, don a harness and hard hat and make your way along a via ferrata route of metal steps and aluminium wires. Less adventurous guests have the option of hiking to the pods.
THE EXPERIENCE The pods are quite basic – there are beds, a no-frills toilet cubicle but no shower – but those dazzling views across the valley are priceless. Four-course dinners are served in a separate dining pod. Fuel up with a breakfast of eggs, toast and granola before heading back down to earth.
DON'T MISS If you thought that the journey here was memorable, just wait until departure time rolls around. Guests make their exit via a series of ziplines that take them down to the valley floor.
THE ESSENTIALS From 1475 Peruvian soles per person. See naturavive.com
AFLOAT ON THE SEA
KELONG VILLA, BANYAN TREE BINTAN, INDONESIA
THE STAY Overwater bungalows? So yesterday. Check into Banyan Tree Bintan's brand-new premium villa and you will find yourself floating on a luxury raft. Kelong Villa sits on its very own 200-square-metre wooden platform. You don't need to worry about drifting off; the platform is firmly moored in place.
THE EXPERIENCE The Kelong Villa has a tropical vibe thanks to its indoor-outdoor design, with plenty of deck space on which you can sprawl out with a good book. When it's time to sleep, roll down the canvas walls, or keep them up if you would rather gaze out at the moon reflected in the waves.
DON'T MISS The resort has plenty of restaurants from which to choose, but if you want to maintain your splendid isolation, your room service will be delivered by boat.
THE ESSENTIALS The Kelong Villa opening package starts at $SG840 a night per couple, including transfers to the resorts, three meals and a 60-minute massage. See banyantree.com
IN A CAVE
SEXTANTIO LE GROTTE DELLA CIVITA, MATERA, ITALY
THE STAY The UNESCO World Heritage-listed town of Matera is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world. Locals have been adapting the area's caves as dwellings since the Stone Age. While residents were moved out of the notoriously primitive accommodations in the 1950s, many of these underground lodgings are now being reborn as inviting accommodations.
THE EXPERIENCE The 18 atmospheric rooms at the Sextantio hotel may have uneven floors and rough walls, but they offer plenty of luxurious touches, including sink-into beds, elegant bathtubs and flickering candles that dial up the romance. And yes, they are heated.
DON'T MISS Just when you think it can't get any better, it's time for breakfast in the deconsecrated church, where a buffet is spread on the former altar. You can also book a private dinner in this beautifully vaulted space.
THE ESSENTIALS Avoid visiting Matera in summer, when the heat can be intense. Rates from €270 per night, breakfast included. See legrottedellacivita.sextantio.it
UNDER THE SEA
THE MURAKA, CONRAD MALDIVES RANGALI ISLAND
THE STAY The phrase "sleeping with the fishes" gets a whole new meaning at The Muraka, the premium residence at the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island resort. This exclusive two-level, three-bedroom villa is partly above the waves and partly beneath them, with an underwater bedroom and living space where you can lie back and watch the wonders of the oceanic world.
THE EXPERIENCE Aimed at the highest of high-flyers, The Muraka offers next-level service which goes way beyond butlers who are on call 24 hours a day. Your staff will help you plan the perfect holiday, depending on your tastes. This may involve taking cooking classes with your personal chef or enjoying private yoga and meditation classes on your deck.
DON'T MISS Have an Attenborough moment of your own when you head out for a snorkel or dive accompanied by your very own film crew.
THE ESSENTIALS From $US22,000 per night. See conradmaldives.com
UP A TREE
FREE SPIRIT SPHERES, VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA
THE STAY If you go down to the woods today, you are in for a big surprise. Free Spirit Spheres, moored in the treetops of the verdant British Columbia rainforest, are no ordinary tree houses; they have been described as everything from hobbit-style accommodation to astro-spheres that fell to earth.
THE EXPERIENCE Two of the spheres are made of wood, another of fibreglass; each one measures about three metres in diameter, and is accessed via a rope-ladder-like staircase. The spheres are firmly tethered to the surrounding trees through a complex system of ropes, but expect some slight swaying. A small shared kitchen and bathhouse is nearby, and a welcome basket of goodies is included. For urgent midnight calls there is a pit toilet just below the tree house.
DON'T MISS Several trails let you explore the surrounding forest, so bring your walking shoes.
THE ESSENTIALS Rates start from $C314. See freespiritspheres.com
IN AN IGLOO
KAKSLAUTTANEN ARCTIC RESORT, FINLAND
THE STAY Always dreamed of seeing the Northern Lights, but not too keen on frostbite? Then Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort is the place for you. The resort has several accommodation options, including log cabins and snow igloos (in winter), but we love the glass igloos which let you watch the light show in the heavens while staying warm and toasty.
THE EXPERIENCE The glass igloos come in two sizes. The larger glass ones sleep four and have their own toilet and shower; the small glass igloos sleep two, and are serviced by the communal bathrooms. The resort also has an on-site restaurant and offers massage and spa services.
DON'T MISS Get a taste of Finnish tradition in the resort's smoke sauna. The largest in the world, it can hold 100 bathers at a time.
THE ESSENTIALS Glass igloos are available between August and the end of April. From €559 twin-share for a small igloo or a €601 twin-share for large igloo. See kakslauttanen.fi
IN A JUNGLE TENT
CAPELLA UBUD, BALI
THE STAY If a Victorian expedition had gotten lost in the Balinese jungle while lugging the contents of a country house with them, and then decided to settle in and make themselves comfortable, they might have ended up with something a little like Capella Ubud. These tented pavilions may be nestled into the jungle but they still offer plenty of five-star comforts.
THE EXPERIENCE The tents are ornately furnished with vintage pieces and custom-designed items including four-poster beds. All have private decks; some are even equipped with private pools. Complimentary activities include yoga, nature walks and cycling, while fitness fans will love the indoor and outdoor gyms, striped swimming pool and high-intensity training classes. For outings further afield, talk to your helpful butler.
DON'T MISS Both the resort's al fresco restaurants, the all-day Mads' Lang and the degustation-only Api Jiwa, are superb.
THE ESSENTIALS Rates from $US838 per night including breakfast, return airport transfers, scheduled activities and laundry. See capellahotels.com
IN A COCOON
ENTRE CIELOS, MENDOZA, ARGENTINA
THE STAY Some people like to unwind with a spa session. Others prefer to do the job with a nice bottle of red. For those who can't choose, there is Entre Cielos. This spa retreat set amid the grapevines of Mendoza, Argentina's most famous wine region, offers plenty of ways to spoil yourself. The ultimate indulgence is a stay in the eye-catching Suite Loft, which resembles a cocoon on stilts.
THE EXPERIENCE There is nothing ordinary about this superbly private lodging, with its skylights and curving walls. The bathtub on the private terrace is a highlight. Make the most of your surroundings by ordering room service; alternatively, the hotel restaurant, Katharina, offers a memorable dining experience.
DON'T MISS A thorough session in the hotel's hammam, starting with a steam and finishing with a cup of mint tea and taking in the full scrubbing and pummelling in between, will leave you feeling like you are floating on air.
THE ESSENTIALS Suite Loft from $US690 per night, including breakfast and a hammam circuit. See entrecielos.com
ON A VOLCANIC CRATER
ANDBEYOND NGORONGORO CRATER LODGE, TANZANIA
THE STAY No, you don't have to worry about flowing lava: the volcano that created Ngorongoro Crater has been extinct for several million years. Visitors head here to see the wildlife that lives inside the vast crater, including elephant, rhino, hippo and lion. Perched on the rim of the extinct volcano, Ngorongoro Crater Lodge offers spectacular views into the 600-metre-deep crater.
THE EXPERIENCE Game drives are interspersed with other excursions, including trips to Olduvai Gorge, but schedule some time to savour the lodge's one-of-a-kind stilted suites. With conical banana-leaf domes and Victorian baroque furnishings – think swaths of silk taffeta, hand-beaded chandeliers and carved bedheads – these ornate retreats are a world away from the standard safari fit-out.
DON'T MISS There's nothing like the feeling of coming in from an amazing game drive to find that your butler has drawn you a bath, where you can soak up the view while soaking in the claw-footed tub.
THE ESSENTIALS From $US1115 per person (twin share). See andbeyond.com
FIVE MORE STAYS WITH A TWIST
PALACIO DE SAL, UYUNI, BOLIVIA
Located on the edge of the country's massive salt flats, the Palacio de Sal hotel is made of – what else? – salt blocks. Run your fingers along the walls to feel the salt crystals. Much of the furniture is also made of salt. See palaciodesal.com.bo
V8 HOTEL, STUTTGART, GERMANY
One for the revheads. Stuttgart's V8 hotels features themed rooms decorated with all sorts of motor-centric paraphernalia, including an actual F1 podium. Beds are built into a range of converted cars, from a VW Beetle to a Cadillac. See v8hotel.de/en/
BOOK AND BED, TOKYO, JAPAN
There may not be a lot of room to move but you'll never be short of bedtime reading when you check into any of the Book and Bed hotels (there are already half a dozen outlets), where bunk beds have been built into the shelving. See bookandbedtokyo.com/en/
HANG NGA GUESTHOUSE, DALAT, VIETNAM
There is not a square line in sight at the Hang Nga Guesthouse in Dalat, where the fluid architecture was inspired by Gaudi and Dali. Inside, rooms are themed after animals, including tigers, eagles and kangaroos. See uniqhotels.com
LEGOLAND WINDSOR RESORT, UK
The closest hotel to the Legoland theme park gets its guests into the swing of things with its themed rooms. Travel back to the days of knights and castles with one of the Kingdom rooms, where resplendent banners hang over the beds, or snuggle under sheets stamped with a skull and crossbones in a pirate chamber. See legoland.co.uk
FIVE MORE TRULY STRANGE STAYS
IN A CRANE
The stellar views are one of the big selling points of the three-roomed Crane Hotel Faralda in Amsterdam. This idiosyncratic hotel has a hot tub perched on top of the crane, and the staff can also organise a bungee jump for you. See faralda.com
IN A JET
Jungle lodgings take a different turn at Costa Rica's Costa Verde, where guests sleep inside a 1965 Boeing 727 transplanted into the forest canopy. The top choice is the two-bedroom suite; its outdoor deck sits on the plane's wing. See costaverde.com
IN A WINE BARREL
Another decidedly different Dutch property, Hotel De Vrouwe Van Stavoren in the country's north, invites guests to sleep inside giant wine barrels converted into compact but comfortable bedrooms. See hotel-vrouwevanstavoren.nl
IN A SEWAGE PIPE
We're not quite sure what sort of guest Das Park Hotel in Linz, Austria, is looking to draw, but if you're looking for creative thinking, a hotel in a renovated sewage pipe on the banks of the Danube certainly qualifies. See dasparkhotel.net
IN A BOOT
Perhaps inspired by the Little Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe, the Boot Bed'n'Breakfast near Nelson, New Zealand, was a labour of love for its owners, who had to have all the furnishings custom-made to fit inside their giant boot. See jesterhouse.com