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Friday, June 25, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
From submerged hotels to tree houses, meet lodging oddballs
By Jane Wooldridge
Sometimes, a hotel room is not in a hotel. It's on a train or in a lighthouse, in a tundra buggy or undersea lodge even aboard a grand dame whose youthful voyages have given way to sedentary maturity. Staying in such lodgings offers more than just a good night's sleep; it's a journey into a time past or a flight into whimsy.
Themed hotels, historic national park lodges and houseboats are widely available and offer distinctive settings. For truly unique experiences, here are a few of the Americas' more unconventional lodging options. Word to the wise: All book up early, but it's always worth calling to check for a cancellation.
The train featured in the famed Glenn Miller Orchestra song didn't actually leave from New York not that it matters. The 24 rail cars converted to 48 guest rooms at the Chattanooga Choo Choo Holiday Inn aren't from the original 1880s locomotive but have been collected from passenger trains around the country. Each room-on-rails has its own bath and decor with Victorian overtones; about half feature a trundle daybed for kids.
The rail-car rooms and 315 traditional hotel rooms are part of a 30-acre complex that includes indoor and outdoor pools, an authentic New Orleans trolley, the Model Train Museum and downtown Chattanooga's grand, 96-year-old Terminal Station (no longer used for trains). The rail theme puffs throughout, with a restaurant in a former baggage area and another in a former dining car. Vintage music from World War II wafts through the formal gardens, filled with roses, day lilies and water features and crowned by a gazebo.
Details: Chattanooga Choo Choo Holiday Inn, 1400 Market St., Chattanooga, Tenn. 37402 800-TRACK-29û; www.choochoo.com. Rail cars from $159; regular rooms from $99. Packages feature admission to the Model Railroad Museum and other local attractions.
Nomadic Mongolians who engineered the concept before the days of the marauding Genghis Khan call them gers. In U.S. parks from Colorado to New Hampshire, these round canvas tents are referred to as yurts.
Whatever the name, they're a bargain: A single yurt can sleep a family of five, typically for less than $100 per night.
A deluxe yurt located only at Umpqua Lighthouse State Park features beds with mattresses for seven people, refrigerator, microwave, dining table, the all-important bathroom and shower, and a TV. Isn't that heretical?
Details: Rates run $35-$45û, depending on time of year. www.oregonstateparks.org/yurts.php; 800-452-5687.
Whether it's the carefree younger days of Sena Jeter Naslund's Ahab's Wife heroine or just the smell of the sea that lures you like Virginia Woolf to the lighthouse, you have beacons aplenty from which to choose. From Florida to Maine, California to the Great Lakes, lighthouses have been converted to inns, motels, even hostels.
A few choices:
Maine: The mail boat from Stonington brings guests to The Keeper's House at Isle Au Haut Light Station. Four guest rooms in the main tower and one in a cottage offer grand views but no telephone or e-mail. Rates range from $300 to $375û per couple per night and include gourmet meals and bicycles. www.keepershouse.com; 207-460-0257.
Michigan: The Sand Hills Lighthouse Inn on Lake Superior (on the Keweenaw Peninsula's north shore) was the largest and last staffed lighthouse built on the Great Lakes.
Each of the eight rooms is decorated in historical style. Bed-and-breakfast rates start at $125. 906-337-1744; www.sandhillslighthouseinn.com.
California: Fifty miles south of San Francisco sits Pigeon Point Lighthouse, a hostel with lodging for up to 50 and views that have earned it an award as most scenic vacation for under $20 by the San Francisco Bay Guardian. The hostel is in the lighthouse keepers' lodgings; the 115-foot lighthouse is steps away. Rates are $18û for adults, $13 ages 17-under. 650-879-0633; www.norcalhostels.org.
TUNDRA BUGGY LODGE:
It sounds like something out of a Jon Krakauer adventure tale minus the dire consequences.
Lynda Gunter of Frontiers North, which operates the Tundra Buggy Lodge near Churchill, in Manitoba, Canada, says lodge accommodations are similar to train compartments but with icy tundra and polar bears.
Two bunkhouses host 38 guests featuring upper and lower berths separated from the hallway by a curtain. Each bunkhouse features two bathrooms with sink, mirror, and basic nonflush toilet and a shower room with hot water. Propane heat stays on all night, but the electrical generator is generally shut down during sleeping hours.
The camp includes a lounge (play cards or checkers here, or catch a video), diner (for buffet meals), and of course, a viewing platform. The point of staying at the lodge is to commune with … well, shall we say, observe … polar bears in their natural habitat during their October-November migration.
If this all sounds a little too rugged for you, Frontiers North also offers polar bear-watching programs with regular motel lodging in town.
Details: A two-night package at the lodge in late October starts at about $1,561 U.S. Six-night programs including tundra visits and an exploration of the region's history and culture cost $2,478 per person, double occupancy, and are offered in October and November. Other programs available. 800-663-9832; www.tundrabuggy.com.
Camping under the trees too tame for you? How about above the trees in a former fire watchtower?
Several National Forests rent lookout towers for overnight campers, usually for about $35. It's a barebones experience no phone, pool or indoor potty, but plenty of stairs.
Some are sans mattress; no pillows, either. But then, with the stars outside your window, who needs modern conveniences?
Parents are discouraged from bringing children younger than 12 to lookout towers. Those available for rent are in Idaho, California, Montana, Washington and Oregon. Most are open only in summer months. Information: www.fs.fed.us/recreation/reservations/.
At Out 'n' About Treesort in Takilma, Ore., you can have your own treehouse for the night but with the amenities (like bathroom and kitchenette, something your own backyard hut probably never had). The resort includes swing bridges, platforms, forts, swings and 18 treehouses. Activities include horseback riding and rappelling.
Details: Treehouses for two cost $90 and up; larger treehouses for four cost $100 and up, depending on the style. A full breakfast is served daily. 541- 592-2208; www.treehouses.com.
What happens to a grand voyager when the cruise is over? Two retired to California, where they took up new careers as hotels.
In 1936, the original Queen Mary launched a dynasty of shipboard glamour that continues with the new QM2. Since 1967, the old girl has reposed in Long Beach on a pier adjacent to the mooring used by the QM2 and QE2. Today the Queen Mary offers tours, Sunday brunch and other meals, a wedding chapel, banquet rooms and 365 hotel rooms, with rates starting at $109. 562-435-3511; www.queenmary.com.
In Sacramento, the Delta King has been moored on the Sacramento River alongside the refurbished historic district of Old Sacramento, home to cafes, shops and museums, all in the town's original Old West style. The Delta King, an authentic restored 1920s paddle-wheeler, boasts a lounge, restaurant and theater. 800-825-5464; www.deltaking.com. Rates from $149 double.
JULES UNDERSEA LODGE:
Jules Undersea Lodge, the world's only underwater hotel, sits 24 feet below the surface of a lagoon in Key Largo, and the only way to get there is by diving. Once you enter the facility, though, you can dry off, change clothes and watch the world swim by. A stay at the hotel includes breakfast and dinner, cooked by a chef and brought to the guests in a watertight container.
The hotel has two 8-by-10-foot bedrooms, each fitted with a double bed and a sink, plus a single-bed pullout that will accommodate a third person. Meals are served in the common room, which also has a telephone and a radio for contact with the surface command post. The wet room, which provides access to and from the hotel, houses the toilet and bath.
Details: Rates of $295-$395 per person per night include dinner and breakfast. Information: Jules Undersea Lodge, 51 Shore and Dr., Key Largo, FL 33037 (milepost 103.2); 305-451-2353; www.jul.com.
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