Sewer pipes, igloos, dinner with giraffes: hotels are pushing the envelope like never before.
Courtesy of Dasparkhotel/ Konzept Andreas Strauss
| Credit: Courtesy of Dasparkhotel/ Konzept Andreas Strauss

You take an elevator up 60 feet and step out into your room, which is decked out with Eames chairs and plasma TV’s and has a panoramic view out over Holland’s Wadden Sea. Sure, the luxuriously appointed room has a touch-screen lighting system, a shower for two, and an outdoor terrace, but the real magic is tucked away in a corner. That’s where you can man the controls and turn your room in any direction you like. After all, that’s the benefit of staying in a 143,000-pound steel crane.

Let’s face it: sometimes a rectangular bed, a stocked mini-bar, and an obliging staff aren’t enough. Sometimes you crave something different—a lot different. Fortunately, hoteliers are stepping up, fashioning wacky and unusual lodging experiences once thought inconceivable.

Hotels, of course, have long tried to attract guests with gimmicky themes like tepees and train cars. Some go to extremes to offer something different: Karostas Cietums, for example, is an infamous Soviet-era military jail in Latvia where, for $10 a night, you can sleep in an old cell on a threadbare mattress. As for room service?Well, how about day-old Russian rye bread?

Fortunately, not all unique hotels are so lacking in creature comforts. In the heart of Finnish Lapland, for instance, the time-honored igloo has been recast with glass at the Kakslauttanen Hotel, while at Whitepod up in the Swiss Alps, a collection of luxurious geodesic domes ushers in the new age of ecofriendly slope-side chalets.

“It’s not about the room, it’s about the experience,” says Steve Dobson of Unusual Hotels of the World, a consortium of atypical properties stretching from Thailand to Turkey. “It’s all about a story and experiences that people can share with their friends time and again.”

At Dasparkhotel, for instance, guests will have stories aplenty once they check into one of three 10-ton drainpipes on the banks of the Danube in the Austrian city of Ottensheim, where the only amenities are a skylight, a circular electronic door, an extra-thick custom-made mattress, and a lamp. It’s pared down but still comfortable. The proprietor, art student Andreas Strauss, launched the “property” as an exercise in eco-economic feasibility for passing travelers, who decide what to pay per night.

Hoteliers are also venturing into uncharted physical spaces: Jules’ Undersea Lodge in Key Largo, Florida was the trendsetter underwater hotel, but copycats are popping up in Fiji (Poseidon Undersea Resort), Dubai (Hydropolis), and Istanbul, where a still-unnamed venture will open by 2010. The same year could also see the launch of a roster of so-called blimp hotels, which are currently in development; they include a beluga-shaped vehicle by French designer Jean-Marie Massaud called Manned Cloud, capable of accommodating 40 passengers, and a larger 250-guest redoubt called Aeroscraft.

And of course, there’s the real final frontier: space, where there are lofty plans like the three-bedroom Galactic Suite, and proposals to build other space hotels (by California-based Space Island Group and Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace), which will be ready for occupancy as early as 2012.

In other words, the hotel paradigm is undergoing a massive shift. But for now, these gravity-based hotels qualify as the universe’s most unusual.