Over the past few years, we’ve been lucky enough to lay our heads to rest in hundreds of places in a number of different countries. They’ve ranged from simple bamboo beach huts to six-star mega-hotels. Although many more in the first category, to be fair! One or two have turned out to be a nightmare. Some have been so memorable that we yearn for the day when we can return.
But there are a few that have stuck in our mind for their absolute uniqueness. Places to stay that are a destination themselves rather than just somewhere to get our heads down for a few hours. Here are five of our favourites…
1. A cave hotel in Matera, Italy
We won’t ever forget our overnight stay in the fabulous Sextantio le Grotte della Civita hotel in Matera. Situated in a UNESCO World Heritage site, the hotel has just 18 rooms. Or to be more precise 18 luxuriously renovated caves. Running alongside the cliff face, it’s an architectural triumph. Indeed it would be quite easy to miss it altogether, so seamlessly does it blend in with its natural surroundings.
We’d booked one of their “superior” rooms but received a free upgrade to a “cave suite” (room number 14). Opening the door to the suite was one of those “wow” moments that almost took our breath away. We entered a room which was quite simply stunning, with its centrepiece, a gorgeous king-sized bed furnished with handmade linens.
The natural smells of the bare limestone combined magically with the scented candles. And the general ambience of the place (our suite had no windows but the room was so spacious that it didn’t matter at all) was only matched by its setting overlooking the beautiful “Gravina” (ravine). Incredibly, the room also had underfloor heating and wi-fi!
Matera, itself is a fascinating ancient city with an incredible history. For generations, people lived in the caves dotted around the hillside along with their livestock in quite appalling conditions. Then in the 1950’s, the government forcefully relocated most of the population to the newer developing city. The “Sassi” area left behind remained uninhabited until the late 1980’s, after which it went through considerable regeneration. Not least with the help of its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site and its location providing the backdrop for Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ”.
If you get the chance, do go. Be warned that Le Grotte della Civita is not cheap but there’s plenty more atmospheric accommodation to choose from. Including more cave hotels.
2. A floating bungalow on Cheow Lan Lake, Thailand
To say our bungalow was basic is taking the word in its truest sense. The size of an oversized kennel it was furnished with a mattress, a mozzie net and….well, that was it.
But the uniqueness of this place was all about the location. There were twenty-or-so bungalows in all, connected by a hazardous timber walkway, with the jungle behind us and staggering views of the lake, jungle and mountains in front. And we could even see gibbons playing in the trees from our porch.
The lake itself is a huge reservoir which was only created in 1982 when a dam was built, immediately flooding vast areas of pristine jungle. Controversially it resulted in not only the loss of vast sections of ancient forest but also large numbers of animals were either wiped out or driven out by the rising water. Since then the lake has supported a whole new eco-environment, with islands where there were once hills and the tips of once tall trees jutting out from the water. Oh, and soaring limestone karst cliffs to rival anywhere in Asia.
As part of our two-day organised trip, we got there on what was undoubtedly the most scenic boat journey we’ve ever experienced. We also took in a couple of jungle treks (including one through a spider and bat-infested cave) and two early morning/mid-evening longboat cruises for some wildlife spotting. Other than that we took kayaks out onto the lake and the occasional dip to cool down.
Was the accommodation comfortable? No, not at all. It was hot, sticky and the sound of huge catfish leaping out of the water during the night seriously freaked me out at one point. But was it worth it? Absolutely.
We stayed at the Ton Tuey Floating bungalows as part of a two-day organised tour from the village of Khlong Sok. You can book the trip through your guest house accommodation or online.
Find out more in our post Confronting snakes, bats and spiders at spectacular Cheow Lan Lake.
3. A houseboat on Dal Lake, India
Srinagar’s altitude and location at the foothills of the Himalayas made it a favourite summer destination for the British Raj who wanted to escape the sweltering heat of Delhi. The intricately designed wooden houseboats on the city’s Dal Lake serve as remnants from those days. Nowadays they’re a favourite holiday destination for domestic tourists who go there to relax in the relatively cool, fresh air.
We spent three nights in one during our three-week visit to Kashmir and Ladakh. And what’s not to like when there’s a king-sized four poster bed, fiery Kashmiri food and an open air roof-top lounge area to watch the world go by over a few ice cold Kingfisher beers.
Dal Lake is a beautiful expanse of water surrounded by Himalayan peaks and carpeted with a patchwork of water lilies. There are also floating restaurants, craft shops and villages to be explored from the comfort of a shikara, a traditional wooden boat that’s been used for transportation and fishing on the lake for generations. And the afternoon we spent on the lake in the company of our “captain”, the self-proclaimed New King of Kashmir, was one of the most relaxing experiences we’ve ever had.
We stayed on the Young Alzira houseboat, which was arranged through Invicta Tour & Travels in Delhi.
Find out more in our post A Taste of Kashmir.
4. A safari tent on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia
OK, first thing, this isn’t a backpacker destination. In fact, it’s by far the biggest splurge we’ve ever made on a three-day break. To get there we took a flight by private helicopter from Queensland over the reef to Heron Island. Then, a one-hour speedboat connection to the tiny coral cay of Wilson Island. It’s called a “coral cay” as the island consists of fine pieces of coral. And it’s situated right on the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef.
There are only six safari-style tents on the whole island. So, a maximum 12 guests at any one time plus two hosts, who do all the cooking, cleaning etc. And apart from, eating, drinking, sun worshipping and snorkelling straight off the beach with dozens of turtles, there’s not much else to do.
But for a somewhat pampered semi-Robinson Crusoe experience, waking up in our king-sized bed to the sound of lapping waves just metres in front of us, it remains one of our favourite destinations of all time.
Read more in our post Glamping on the Great Barrier Reef.
5. A trullo in Puglia, Italy
Travel through Puglia, southern Italy’s heel, and you can’t fail to notice quaint dry stone huts with conical roofs dotted around the countryside. And if you visit the UNESCO World heritage site of Alberobello you’ll discover a whole village full of these iconic buildings.
They were generally constructed and used as temporary dwellings and storehouses during the 19th Century. Over the past decade, many of those in disrepair have been renovated and converted into permanent homes and holiday cottages. And you won’t see them anywhere else in Italy.
Such as the excellent Trulli Gallo Rosso near Martina Franca, with its gregarious owner, Hugo. Our trullo – one of a cluster of four on site – was an atmospheric combination of exposed stone and tasteful interior design. And, of course, the iconic vaulted conical roof rising from the bedroom.
If you’re going to be touring in this area of Puglia then you really shouldn’t miss out on at least a night in one of these tiny pieces of history.
What did you think? Where’s the most unique place you’ve ever stayed? Or maybe you’ve stayed in one of the places we’ve mentioned in this post? Either way, we’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below. Thanks!