Rooms with more than a view

Bored by anonymous, sterile, lookalike hotels? Carol Wright offers some striking alternatives in the first of a series of hotel round-ups
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The Independent Travel
Beau Nash's mistress, Juliana Popjoy, lived in a tree after his death. Travellers today seeking to avoid the banality of international hotel rooms, the same from Peking to Paris, can copy her sleeping arrangements at Kenya's Treetops hotel, where branches run through the rooms forming impromptu clothes hangers that threaten to kneecap the unwary en route to the bathroom.

A tree also featured in a Haitian hotel room in which I once stayed. At the foot of a bed was a refectory table and two medieval throne chairs. Below this was a sunken circular bath surrounded by 18th-century French pornographic prints. Steps then rose to a closet containing the lavatory - and a palm tree. The tree necessitated side-saddle seating, arms clasped round the trunk as the trade winds shook the tree and rocked the throne.

That hotel no longer exists, but there are plenty more conversation stoppers for travellers willing to put experience above practicality.

If not up a tree, then sleep in a hole in the ground. At Matmata in southern Tunisia, two hotels copy the local way of keeping cool in the Saharan temperatures which rise to 50C in the summer shade. The community lives in holes, caves, and Roman wells below ground. The "lobbies" of Sidi Driss and Marhala hotels are circular pits reached by ladders. Bar, restaurant and disco lead off while bedrooms scooped out of rock are linked by underground passages. Each is furnished with bed, candle (there is no electricity) and an access ladder. Communal washing and toilet rooms are also in caves.

More upper-crust cave-dwelling is available at Cuevas Pedro Antonio de Alarcon at Guadix in southern Spain. Another hot spot, locals have burrowed into the hills since prehistoric times. Nineteen cave-dwellings have been restored to create the hotel. Reception and restaurant are caves but the suites are spacious with sitting-room, kitchen, bathroom, and windowless bedrooms leading off tunnels. Television, hot water and ventilation are provided, but no central heating. The hard clay from which the caves are carved remains a constant 20C and provides noise insulation.

A wartime underground bunker is a popular honeymoon suite at the Granshotellet at Tocksfors in Sweden. The walls are several feet thick, steel doors keep out visitors, and period atmosphere is underlined with a wind-up gramophone, 78rpm records, and a "bathroom" of water pitcher and chemical toilet.

Nor are there noisy neighbours at the world's only undersea hotel, the Jules (as in Verne) Undersea Lodge in Key Largo, Florida. Since it is five fathoms down and invisible to passers by, location instructions are to make for mile marker 103.2 on US Highway 1. This low dive is not the place to drop in for a drink. Guests need to hold a standard diver's certificate. But four-hour courses are given on the spot. Developed by film producer Garry Gerberg, the 50ft by 20ft steel and acrylic hotel which opened in 1991 has three double rooms. Guests can stay inside for 24 hours at a time or walk the "grounds" of the surrounding marine park tethered to the hotel by air hoses. Luggage - overnight cases only - comes down in sealed containers but dress code is strictly casual; swimsuit, wetsuit or tracksuits, bare or sandalled feet. The bedrooms have TV, computer games, and circular windows for eyeballing passing fish. Sunrise and sunset through 30 feet of water are memorable. Jules Lodge is strictly a non- smoking hotel and alcohol, aerosol sprays, electric curlers and hairdriers are banned.

The chilly welcome of too many receptionists is nothing to that of the Ice Hotel at Jukkasjarvi in Swedish Lapland - even King Carl Gustaf got the cold shoulder. You won't even get a reservation if you are a sleepwalker, have a cold, flu, or cough. Checking-in involves signing an indemnity in case you die of pneumonia or hypothermia in the night. Don't think of going for summer holidays - from March to November the hotel will not be there; it literally melts away.

Only four hours flying from London and available on tour packages, this hostelry is an architect-designed super igloo, rebuilt annually entirely of ice and snow blocks and it gets bigger each year. As well as acting as an art gallery, it includes a chapel, cinema and disco. No need to fuss about getting ice in your drinks, the bar is solid ice sculpted with niches for bottles, nibbles and flowers.

The bedrooms, including bridal suite, have beds made from snow and ice blocks covered with spruce boughs and reindeer skins. Special sleeping bags protective to minus 35C are provided. Outside it's minus 20-25C but the average Ice Hotel temperature is minus 8C depending on the number of guests. Cowards can opt for the neighbouring "normal" inn.

Climatic contrast is a hotel without walls on Savaii island in Western Samoa. The Safua Hotel has thatched bungalows of just floor, roof and supporting pillars native-style. Roll-down rattan blinds are provided in case of rain, along with niceties of shower-room and fridge. Guests live by the sun clock, candles light them to bed; just slip off a pareo and merge with the night. A large bungalow acts as reception, restaurant, lounge, bar and a place to take part in the hotel's offbeat activities programme, including tattooing with boar's tusk and soot or the weekly fia fia dance in aid of village charity.

The Safua was founded by Englishman Barry Jackson in 1978. His widow, chief's daughter Vaasili Moe Lagi, still runs it. Somerset Maugham would have written Jackson into his tales had they met. The funeral of this hard-drinking womaniser in 1984 was the social event of the year and his large stepped tomb is near the hotel bar, as he would have wished. Samoans reserve the place nearest the house to bury the most beloved family member. Check-out is often done over Barry's tomb where his wife and children sit preparing vegetables and writing out guests' bills.

Preparation for a Safua stay could be made at the Bio Trainings hotel at Gars, an hour's drive from Vienna, Austria. Here the stress-relief programme includes summer night forest walks to heighten sensual awareness, dawn herb-gathering, making bread for breakfast, and going on excursions in lead-free, filtered-exhaust cars.

The hotel uses only natural materials and was created by Willi Dungl, the physiotherapist who put Niki Lauda together after his racing accident. The rooms are in wood with wool carpets, down duvets and pillows and special back-support chairs. Maids use only natural cleaning products and double windows reflect back body heat and screen out ultra-violet rays. A few minutes after the lights are switched out, a special fuse box draws out all the static electricity. Dungl says this and the lack of noxious fumes from synthetic materials encourage sleep. The beds cost around pounds 15,000, adapt to the body when you are asleep, and are adjustable to 23 different relaxing positions.

If Dungl's way to sweet dreams doesn't work, try Hilton's new experimental "American sleep tight rooms" Rooms are stocked with soothing music systems, massage showers, non-caffeine refreshments, synthetic down pillows, ear plugs, Apollo system light box, sleep masks, "Sunrise clock" and "glow lamps".

FACT FILE

t Treetops bookable through Cazenove and Loyd 0181 875 9666

t Marhala (Touring Club) Matmata, Tunisia 05 30 015

t Sidi Driss Hotel, Matmata, Tunisia 05 30 005

t Cuevas Pedro Antonio de Alarcon, Barriada San Torcuato, Apto.de Correos 116, Guadix, Spain, tel/fax (958) 66 49 86 or through Charming Hotels of Andalucia, Oficina en hotel Siroco, 29630, Benalmadena tel/fax 95 244 55 91

t Granshotellet, Tocksfors, Varmland, Sweden (46) 573 215 00

t Jules Undersea Lodge, PO Box 3330 Key Largo, Florida 33037

(305) 451 2353

t Igloo ishotellet (Ice Hotel) bookable through Scantours 0171 839 2927

t Safua Hotel, Private Bag, Salelologa

t Savaii, Western Samoa (685) 24443/22552

t Bio Trainings Hotel, A 3571,

Gars am Kamp, Hauptplatz 58, Austria (029 85) 2666.)

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