GEORGE WASHINGTON NEVER SLEPT HERE. Nor, most likely, did your next-door neighbor, your boss, or your high school gym teacher. No, in our quest for the most unusual, the most astounding, the most out-there places to lay your head, we journeyed to the fringes of imagination— and occasionally, we admit, sense. But whether sleeping with the fishes (literally) or lying down with the lions, you'll find any of these 10 spots the perfect way to beat the been-there-done-that blahs.
A Salty Tale
Shut up in a remote valley of the Bolivian Andes, the Salar de Uyuni salt desert formed thousands of years ago when a salt lake slowly evaporated, leaving behind an enormous pan of white crystals. For millennia the local peasants have chopped the salt into blocks and carted it away to sell. Nowadays, however, the stuff is being used for a more entertaining purpose: as bricks in the world's only salt hotel. The Palacio de Sel's walls, furniture, and even beds are made of the ubiquitous condiment. Don't expect much comfort— the place swelters at noontime and shivers at night, and there's no running water— but the eight rooms sure are tasteful.
Book through Hidalgo Tours, 591-6/225-186; doubles $50.
There is no late checkout for guests at the Jukkas Ice Hotel in northern Sweden after April: that's when the whole thing melts. Built each November from 8,000 tons of ice and 30,000 tons of snow, the Ice Hotel, contains a bar, a chapel, and 40 rooms. As you might expect, it's cooler than your average hotel: the temperature stays around 23 degrees. To ward off the chill, guests are issued insulated clothes on arrival and sleep in special sleeping bags on mattresses made of spruce boughs and covered with reindeer skins. Spending the night in a freezer may not be everyone's cup of tea, but at least you never have to worry about an empty ice bucket.
46-9/806-6800, fax 46-9/806-6890; doubles $324, including breakfast and morning sauna.
In the little northern California town of Nice, tucked between the redwoods of the Mendocino State Forest and the waters of Clear Lake, is a cluster of nine restored cabooses from the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific lines. The antique railroad cars have entered their second phase of service as the guest rooms of the Featherbed Railroad Co., a bed-and-breakfast. Each car is done in a different theme: "Casablanca" has a little piano, "Wild West" has a bar with a brass rail and a poker game, and "Casey Jones" comes with railroad memorabilia. Most cars have their own hot tubs; all have featherbeds. Out back there's a swimming pool, and a freshwater lake across the road for fishing, swimming, and Jet Skiing.
800/966-6322 or 707/274-8378; doubles from $86.
Into the Wild
Sleeping out on a hilltop campsite surrounded by East African wildlife, waking at dawn to watch wildebeests gather at the watering hole— it's all part of a good night's rest at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, which hosts "Roar and Snore" safaris on its 2,200-acre preserve, weekend nights from May through October. Guides lead campers to the bivouac site, where they're assigned tents. After an open-air dinner, guests take guided hikes through the preserve to watch the animals do their thing, and end the evening with storytelling around a campfire. Early risers can have a hot breakfast and take a dawn tour before a hike back to civilization.
800/934-2267 or 760/738-5049; $95 per person.
Deep Down Under
Coober Pedy, an opal-mining town in the arid heart of the Australian desert, has only one plentiful building material: holes. So most of the townspeople live below ground, in cozy, carved-out dwellings that maintain a steady 78-degree temperature year-round. Visitors can do this, too. The town's finest lodging, Desert Cave, claims to be "the world's first and only underground hotel of international standard." Guests can hoist pints with the locals at the Underground Bar or try their luck in the gaming room on the world's only subterranean poker machines. The hotel's 19 underground rooms all offer color TV, phone, mini-bar, and refrigerator— but no view, of course.
61-8/8672-5688, fax 61-8/8672-5198; doubles from $105.
A room with a view, and not much else: that's the simple charm of a night in a National Forest Service fire watchtower. Built during the Depression, the towers range from spindly wooden constructions to houses of solid rock. In the 1950's there were more than 5,000 of them in national forests across the country. In the sixties, after losing a suit brought by an injured hiker, the Forest Service began to dismantle the towers, and then air patrols and other new technology made them obsolete. Conservationists fought to keep them, so today you can spend a night in one of 700 decommissioned fire towers (at $20 to $45 a night). The Snow Camp Fire Lookout in Oregon's Siskiyou National Forest holds five people, comes with a wood-burning stove, and offers bird's-eye views in every direction from its 4,223-foot-high perch.
541/469-2196; $30 per night.
First you check in. Then you put on a wet suit. Billed as the world's only underwater hotel, Jules' Undersea Lodge in Key Largo, Florida, is a space-station-like habitat beneath 30 feet of water. To get in, you dive down to the ocean floor, then climb up through a hole in the deep-sea capsule. Once you've attached yourself to a 120-foot "hookah" air hose inside, you can go back out and wander around the seabed. Or, if you prefer, you can stay in for a dinner of lobster or steak. The lodge accommodates six guests at a time in two rooms, each of which has its own TV and VCR, an outside telephone line, and a 42-inch porthole for viewing the neighboring fish.
305/451-2353, fax 305/451-4789; from $225 per person (scuba course required).
The Big Picture
Sure, a lot of hotels have in-room movies, but how many have out-of-room movies?At the Best Western Movie Manor near Monte Vista, Colorado, rooms look out onto a giant drive-in-movie screen. Speakers in each room provide the sound, and a nearby snack bar stocks such essentials as popcorn and Milk Duds. If the silver screen isn't capturing your interest, a stroll in the surrounding Sangre de Cristo mountains might.
800/771-9468 or 719/852-5921, fax 719/852-0122; doubles from $45.
Can't decide between a beach holiday and a cruise?You can have a little of both at the Imperial Boat House Samui Hotel in southern Thailand. Each of the 34 renovated mahogany rice barges, drawn up alongside Choeng Mon Beach on Ko Samui, has three stories of living space and two decks brightened with live orchids. Down by the white-sand beach there's a swimming pool— boat-shaped, naturally— and the blue waters of the Gulf of Thailand.
66-77/4250-4152, fax 66-77/425-460; doubles from $94.
Think Holland, and you think windmills— but there's only one where you can actually spend the night. On a little lake in Langweer, Friesland, the Stichting de Langweerder Molen was built in 1782 to pump water from the Dutch lowlands. Visitors can rent it by the week for a taste of Holland as it used to be. The mill has two bedrooms and a living room, and sleeps seven. Every January the management divvies up the weeks according to availability, so reserve early. Guests provide their own food, linens, clogs— and tulips.
31-513/499-315; $400$580 per week, depending on season.