Picture of a Free Spirit Sphere covered in snow in Vancouver

Room with a view: Free Spirit Spheres see all seasons among the tall trees of Vancouver Island along Canada’s west coast.

Photograph by ACE Pictures

By Margaret Loftus

From the February/March 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler

Fall asleep swaying in the breeze in a hand-hewn wooden orb suspended in the coastal rain forest of Vancouver Island. Kick back in a sunny, art-filled SoHo flat stocked with fluffy hotel towels, Kiehl’s bath products, and an iPhone loaded with your host’s tips on the neighborhood’s finest. Check out a pair of your hotel’s Google Glass eyewear for a tech-enhanced spin around San Francisco.

Welcome to the latest wave of lodging standouts, where the most coveted amenity is connection—to locals, nature, technology, culture, and even other travelers.

“For millennials, the thought of staying in a hotel that’s exactly like a hotel in another city is a negative, unlike in other generations when it was a selling point,” says Bjorn Hanson, a hospitality professor at New York University. And no matter their age, Hanson says, travelers now look to lodging as an extension of the destination, often favoring novelty and cultural relevance over minibars and late checkout. The result is a staggering array of new ways to sleep away from home. In the tradition of National Geographic field guides, here we offer tips and strategies for navigating the evolving lodging landscape:

1. Boutique Hotels: Join the Party

For travelers who yearn to blend in and feel less like, well, hotel guests, today’s boutique hotels often double as community gathering spaces.

WHERE TO FIND At the Ace Hotel in New York’s Flatiron district, club chairs, charging stations, and fast and free Wi-Fi are like candy to neighborhood novelists polishing their prose and techies taking meetings. “There are locals that are actually making stuff here, which gives it an authentic feeling,” says Kelly Sawdon, one of the partners in the seven-property chainlet. For guests, “you’re not an observer; you’re part of that energy.” (That’s without the pesky work part, of course.) The downtown L.A. Ace opened last year in the renovated retro-glam United Artists building. Its ornate theater presents headliners such as the band Coldplay.

The brains behind 21c Museum Hotel—soon to open in Durham, North Carolina’s resurgent downtown—know that modern art is a surefire conversation starter. As with sister hotels in Louisville, Kentucky; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Bentonville, Arkansas, the lobby doubles as a contemporary art museum—free and open 24/7. The gallery “brings people back,” says Alice Gray Stites, who curates the hotel collections. Hitching a ride on that theme, big chains are busy dreaming up new brands, including Marriott’s Moxy. Debuted last fall at Milan’s Malpensa Airport, the hotel is a watered-down version of the indie entrants, with a spacious lobby/living room designed for work (charging stations, free Wi-Fi) and play (happy hours with local wine and beer).

BEST FOR Folks who like the center of the action.

CAVEAT Hanging with the cool crowd often comes at the sacrifice of old-school niceties such as valet parking, porters, and a concierge.

TIP Build time into your stay to soak up the scene.

Picture of 21c Museum Hotel
With its flagship hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, 21c Museum Hotel claims North America’s first museum to focus exclusively on art of the 21st century.

Photograph by Bob Stefco

2. Glamping: Live With Nature, in Comfort

With roots in nomadic yurts and gypsy caravans, “glamping” is basically camping without the gear, hassle, and aching back from sleeping on the ground. In recent years, the term has become a popular catchall covering everything from tricked-out tree houses to canvas tent camps.

WHERE TO FIND Grown-ups who pine for their summer camp days gravitate to Orenda ($190 per person), a collection of safari-like tents in the Adirondacks backcountry where guests hike, canoe, and ride horses by day, and sip cocktails around a fire by night. Dinner is served family style and cooked over an open-flame, but forget franks and beans—we’re talking herb-crusted chicken and beet salad with pine nuts.

Somewhere between a tree house and a wooden boat, Free Spirit Spheres (from $155) are suspended in Vancouver Island’s coastal rain forest with little to distract their inhabitants besides the neighboring cedars, spruce, and balsam fir trees. The effect verges on the spiritual, says founder and builder Tom Chudleigh: “We’ve become disconnected. A sphere speaks to unity with each other and the trees.” For an experience rooted in luxury—with a price tag above the clouds—there’s Montana’s new Cliffside camp at Resort at Paws Up, overlooking the Blackfoot River, made famous in the film A River Runs Through It. Guests enjoy heated bathroom floors, meals, and a butler. The grand total to sleep in a tent? At least $1,500. Guided fly-fishing is extra.

BEST FOR Nature enthusiasts without the gear, time, or patience necessary to make camp.

CAVEAT Indoor plumbing isn’t always de rigueur. Verify before booking if outhouses don’t appeal.

TIP The glamping season is limited, so book early—Orenda’s tents fill up in February.

Picture of a glamping tent
Orenda’s furnished canvas cabins make it easy to go back to basics in the Adirondacks of New York.

Photograph by Dana Romanoff

3. Peer-to-Peer Lodging: Live With (Charming) Strangers

Struggling to make rent on their San Francisco loft in 2007, two friends invited some out-of-towners to crash in their living room to earn some extra cash. Fast-forward eight years, and their scheme, aka Airbnb—estimated to be worth several billion dollars—has upended the hospitality trade, spawning countless competitors.

Experts say there’s more fueling the phenomenon than the prospect of saving a few bucks. “[Guests] feel connected to the community in a way that’s more genuine,” says Arun Sundararajan, a New York University business professor who studies the sharing economy. “You can ask a hotel concierge for local activities, but that always has a commercial sheen.”

WHERE TO FIND Covering more than 34,000 cities, Airbnb’s spectrum is astonishing—from pullout couches to historic castles and solar-paneled spaces like the Off-grid itHouse in Pioneertown, California. The digs on nightswapping.com, a cash-free exchange based on credits, range from an apartment guest room in Bangkok to a villa in Cárdenas, Cuba. Onefinestay.com lists only town houses in the most affluent zip codes of New York, Los Angeles, London, and Paris and stocks them with the sort of high-count linens, plush towels, and French-milled soaps you’d expect at the Four Seasons, as well as an iPhone loaded with host tips. The formula was a hit with Felicia Newberry, who spent a weekend at a SoHo apartment rented through the service. She likens the experience to taking the train instead of flying: “It’s more of a story.”

BEST FOR Extroverts who crave a local link (choose rentals where the hosts are present) as well as introverts who steer clear of bed-and-breakfasts (search “entire place” when booking).

CAVEAT Booking typically requires more steps, such as verifying your identity. And renter beware: Some cities, such as Charleston, South Carolina, ban rentals for less than 30 days; crackdowns on violations could lead to cancellations.

TIP Before booking that “charming,” “strategically located” house, take a virtual tour of the neighborhood with Google Maps Street View.

Picture of people reading
Onefinestay.com focuses on posh pads in London and other cities.

Photograph by Philip Sinden, Guestbook/OneFineStay

4. Multigenerational Travel: Bring the Family, Not the Stress

A new crop of niche outfits offer rentals for multigenerational vacations, equipped with personalized amenities and family essentials—whether guests need a high chair, a pediatrician, or restaurant recommendations for picky eaters.

WHERE TO FIND After traveling the world managing her husband’s music career, Zoie Kingsbery Coe noticed few hotel rooms with, say, childproof electrical outlets once her tots came along. That scarcity planted the seed for her family-focused online listing service, Kid & Coe, which launched in early 2013. Some 400 listed properties range from a two-bedroom pad in Tel Aviv ($180 a night) furnished with bunk beds and toys, to a sprawling villa in Barbados ($2,285 a night) with a pool and optional babysitting service.

For families who need on-the-ground help, Time & Place is a vacation rental company with concierge services that fall within the realm of a butler cum travel agent. D.C. attorney Channing Cooper booked a three-bedroom apartment in Paris’s Le Marais to celebrate her 30th birthday with her parents and grandmother. She tapped the concierge for everything from hard-to-get tables to French Open tickets.

BEST FOR Those pressed for time but not money.

CAVEAT Overplanner? Skip the extra expense and go for a traditional beach house.

TIP Reach out to the concierge as soon as you book, and provide as many details as possible.

Picture of a child looking into a bathtub
Kid & Coe family rentals wow guests of all ages with details like claw-foot tubs stocked with bath toys.

Photograph by David Land, Big Leo

5. Budget Stays: Reconsider the Hostel

Forget the seamy digs you knew as a broke backpacker in Southeast Asia. Young entrepreneurs have introduced a no-frills model of shared rooms and baths in revitalized neighborhoods in cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, and Austin. Cleaner and pricier—though still cheaper than daily parking in big cities—many new-wave hostels have added private rooms and extras, including free Wi-Fi, towels, and storage, to appeal to a wider audience. Seasoned traveler Lyndsay Bouchal says she prefers hostels: “I love the communal feel, the camaraderie, and that instantaneous connection you make with most everyone there.” Collin Ballard, co-founder of Austin’s Firehouse hostel, sums up the vibe: “A hostel is like a hotel, but the s stands for social.”

WHERE TO FIND London-based hostel chain Generator relies on a formula of sleek design and free Wi-Fi, with plans to expand to more cities this year. Rates at the Barcelona hostel range from $12 for a dorm-style bed to an eye-popping $320 for a private penthouse. Opened in 2012, the Cleveland Hostel in the trendy Ohio City neighborhood has a shared kitchen, free towels, bike storage, and a roof deck (from $26 a night); Austin’s Firehouse hostel sits above a cocktail bar in a 19th-century fire station and serves free breakfast (from $29); and Pittsburgh’s under-development Southside Traveler’s Rest is near the Allegheny Passage, a prime locale for bicyclists starting or ending the trail.

BEST FOR Low-maintenance, adventurous types.

CAVEAT Light sleeper? Pack earplugs.

TIP Decode if a hostel is new breed or old dump by scanning the reviews at Hostelworld.com.

Picture of a rental apartment
Barcelona’s Generator hostel features festive hanging lanterns in the lounge (left) and a spiral staircase (right).

Photographs by Nikolas Koenig, Generator Hostels

6. All-Inclusive Resorts: Class Up Your Vacation

Once content to largely ignore local culture, more resorts are introducing activities designed to immerse guests in their surroundings. That is, when they’re not immersing themselves in the infinity pools.

WHERE TO FIND Raising chickens and learning the two-step could be courses at a Texas community center, but they’re also among the most popular offerings at Travaasa Experiential Resort in Austin, which opened in 2011 along with a resort in Hana, Maui (think ukulele lessons and lei-making). On the Riviera Maya, Barceló Maya Caribe Resort guests can join a temazcal, a Maya sweat lodge ceremony in a circular stone hut; an herbal concoction is poured over hot stones to create a purifying steam. On Mexico’s Pacific coast, the Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita hosts a Huichol Indian sunset ritual, Spanish lessons, and lectures on cultural topics like mole sauce.

BEST FOR R & R lovers who like to learn a bit, too.

CAVEAT Don’t expect to be a mole-making or two-stepping all-star when you get home. Deep dives into cultural heritage, these aren’t.

TIP Check the fine print on what’s included.

Picture of an agave farmer
Mexico’s Four Seasons Punta Mita offers tours of nearby agave fields.

Photograph by Lucas Vallecillos, VWPics/Redux

7. Hotel Gadgets: Tech Yourself Out

Mid-century Americans checked into hotels to give air-conditioning and color TV a whirl, before such appliances became household staples. Travelers still look to hotels to test-drive technology, and hotels hoping to appeal to digital natives are tripping over their discarded Ethernet cords to one-up each other with tech flash—from the cool to the curious.

WHERE TO FIND At San Francisco’s Stanford Court, the Google Glass Explorer Package includes overnight accommodations and the use of the glasses, along with tips, such as how not to be a “glasshole” (ask a person’s permission before snapping a photo of them, for one). The hotel is also working on a lobby tech bar with devices like Fitbits and GoPro cameras available for checkout, plus nostalgic throwbacks (Atari, the Sony Walkman). At the new 230-room citizenM in New York City, guests check in on touch-screen kiosks and control the room temperature, television, window blinds, and lighting with the swipe of a “Moodpad” tablet. Times Square’s futuristic Yotel Hotel features a Jetsons-like robotic luggage handler and a motorized bed that expands with the touch of a button. Guests at Hiltons worldwide solicit local advice by directing questions on Twitter to @HiltonSuggests. And no more rousting knocks from housekeeping at the Umstead Hotel and Spa in Cary, North Carolina: A motion-detecting system tells management if a room is occupied.

BEST FOR Early adopters and gadget freaks.

CAVEAT Luddites, leave your pride at home: Dial the front desk for help, or miss out on the fun.

TIP Follow hotel brands on social media for perks that range from loyalty points to free nights.

Picture of a robotic luggage handler
A robotic luggage handler assists a guest at the Yotel Hotel in New York.

Photograph by Eric Michael Johnson, The New York Times/Redux

8. Night at the Museum: Be an Exhibitionist

Why let kids have all the slumber party fun? Last summer, New York’s American Museum of Natural History hosted an adults-only sleepover—complete with three-course dinner and curator presentation—in a spin-off of its hugely popular Night at the Museum series for kids. A sequel is planned for 2015; meanwhile, more museums are rolling out the sleeping bags.

WHERE TO FIND With stand-up comedy, a show on the sex lives of insects, a movie marathon, edible insect snacks, and a cash bar, the adult sleepover at London’s Natural History Museum, dubbed Dino Snores for Grown-Ups, feels more frat party than field trip. The Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., keeps it to a dull roar by comparison, with a wine and cheese welcome, a keeper-led tour of the exhibits, and a tent. The Rubin Museum in New York hosts a “dream-over” each May; last year’s participants slept next to a piece of art selected for them and, the next morning, had their dreams interpreted.

BEST FOR Science and art nuts who fantasize about cuddling up to their favorite exhibits.

CAVEAT You can pretty much guarantee this won’t be the best sleep you’ve ever had.

TIP Pounce on tickets as soon as programs are announced; some events sell out within hours.

MARGARET LOFTUS, a contributing editor, charted the ins and outs of top airports in “The Perfect Layover” (November 2013).



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