What's in the box? A pop-up hotel
Sleeping Around, Antwerp
It's not uncommon to muse on previous guests as you settle into a new hotel room. Whether the past occupants were Chinese-made toys or spare motorcycle parts, however, is less likely to cross your mind. But spend the night at Sleeping Around, a cheekily named pop-up hotel in Antwerp, and you can't help but wonder about the history of your four walls.
Sleeping Around's "rooms" are in fact recycled Chinese shipping-containers, complete with the serial number and a Lloyd's of London registry sticker slapped on the side. They have been salvaged and transformed into compact, luxury hotel rooms that can simply be packed up, put on the back of a truck and moved to another location.
Right now, the four, 6x2-metre rooms, a container bar and a container sauna sit in a semi-circle on Antwerp's old port, looking out over the River Scheldt. Seen through the massive window that makes up one wall of each room, the post-industrial scenery of an old harbour, an expanse of flat water and an oil refinery blinking in the distance appears as magnificent as a landscape by a Flemish old master.
One side of each container has been transformed into sliding doors which open on to a decked terrace. The glass wall removes any sense of claustrophobia and makes you feel part of the environment, while at the same time protecting you from the elements. The wind may be howling outside, but you can sit serenely in the heated box, staring out as the ships sail past, contemplating the city's rich trade and maritime history.
The design of the rooms complements the view, with white walls and simple furnishings focusing attention outside. The occasional colourful designer lamp and the high quality furnishings ensure you feel suitably cossetted.
In the morning, an excellent breakfast appears in the container next door. Staff don't stay on site, but are a few minutes away and at the end of a phone-line if you need them.
Should you wish, you can also pop over for relaxation in the sauna, although shuffling through the biting wind in a fluffy robe as the crew of a coal barge looked on didn't appeal during my stay.
I preferred to revel in the unique experience instead. So as night fell, I pulled back the curtains and hopped into bed, watching the gas flares of the oil refinery. The following morning, I awoke to take in the pre-dawn glow on the water. But beware: local dog walkers are inclined to peer into these strange boxes, so make sure you're appropriately attired, or risk becoming the view yourself.
You sacrifice some centrality for the originality of the port-side location. But happily, Antwerp is a compact little city. You can follow the harbour south, cut across to the Grote Markt and be in the main cathedral, marvelling at Rubens's glorious frescos, within 20 minutes. Even closer is the regenerated old port area, where bars and cafés line the waterside. At its centre is the MAS museum (00 32 3 338 44 00; mas.be), an architectural marvel of rust-red blocks and glass tubes soaring skywards. This is home to a permanent exhibition on the history of the port, as well as temporary shows: currently documenting Antwerp under Napoleonic rule in the early 19th century.
Sleeping Around will be in Antwerp only until the end of this month, however, before shipping off to another as-yet-unnamed location, likely to be in Belgium.
Everything that could be done to make a shipping container luxurious has been, from the comfort of the box-spring bed and crisp white linen to the rainforest shower and bespoke toiletries, robes and slippers. But there is only so much you can do with a 6x2 metre box, so prepare for limited storage space and room for manoeuvre.
The bathroom is behind a flimsy divider and the wind can rattle the containers at night. There is an iPod dock but no Wi-Fi, which the management say they are looking into installing.
Overall, the design is a success. However, lying on the bed staring out at the expanse of sky and listening to the sea birds, it is easy to forget that you are in a container which once ferried goods across the oceans from manufacturer to consumer.
Sleeping Around, Scheldekaai, opposite Rijnkaai 150, Antwerp, Belgium (www.sleeping around.eu).
Doubles start at €149, including breakfast.
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