Bed in a tree

By | Category: Travel destinations, Travel tips & opinions

Turned off by chain hotels? Bored with ‘boutique’?  Bettina Kowalewski, author of Bed in a tree – a gorgeous coffee table book published by DK Eyewitness Travel about the world’s craziest, quirkiest places to stay– suggests provides some inspiring alternatives from an actual bed in a tree in South Africa to a hanging eco-sphere in Canada, a giant suitcase in Germany and glass igloo in Finland!

In a seashell
Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Isla Mujeres is a small Caribbean island, surrounded by white sandy beaches and a turquoise ocean, 9 miles (14 km) off the coast of Cancún, Mexico. The north of the island, where the ferries dock, throngs with bustling tourists and colourful souvenir shops while the south is quiet and peaceful. Here, the golf cart-driving tourists stop to take a picture of one famous island curiosity – a giant habitable seashell!

In fact, there are two seashell houses, shining so white they nearly hurt your eyes: one tall, upright shell in the form of a conch and a round, squat one sitting next to it – architectural masterpieces inspired by the original designs of Mother Nature. And what could be more fitting on an island whose beaches (especially in the south) are covered with giant seashells?

In the 1990s architect Eduardo Ocampo arrived on the island and built an attractive little house for himself and his wife, Raquel. He didn’t stop there, however. To make sure his beloved brother Octavio would come and visit as often as possible, Eduardo decided to build him a house, too, right in the garden. Of course, this couldn’t possibly be any old house. Octavio is a famous painter and would need something suitably creative. Eduardo walked down to the beach to think it over … When he pulled a large queen conch from a pile of shells he had his answer. This was exactly what his brother’s house would look like: jagged on the outside, rounded on the inside; the staircase in the form of a spiral, just like the inside of the shell; a door where the shell’s mouth would be and windows shaped like the holes in an old shell.

It was the perfect design for Octavio, whose “metamorphic” paintings are renowned for their optical illusions (his portraits, on closer inspection, turn out to be composed of birds and twisted branches, for example, his landscapes of women’s bodies). And, sure enough, Octavio was thrilled with his new island abode. In fact, so much so that he wanted a second one built for all the friends he always brought along! This time a round shell served as the model. Eduardo glued the two inspirational seashells onto a piece of wood and used this as the template for his giant seashell houses. Even today, the model is part of the décor and can be found in the larger seashell’s living room.

The brothers designed the interiors of the houses together. Painted in a rather stark seashell-white, the décor is not particularly lavish or plush. However, what it may lack in luxury it more than makes up for in originality: in the bathroom water flows from real seashell “taps” into a washbasin made from a giant clam shell. There’s a small palm tree in the living room and on the balcony a bleached tree trunk serves as a railing. Eduardo found all these natural treasures on the local beach and incorporated them into the seashell houses with his own fair hands. The rooms are further decorated with a multitude of seashells, ornamental black sea fan coral, and, on the wall, two of Octavio’s maritime themed paintings in his “metamorphic” style. Since Octavio has become so busy as an artist – with customers including Jane Fonda and Cher – he is now only able to stay at the seashell houses for a few weeks each year. The rest of the time these exceptional lodgings are available to rent.

Image: Bettina Kowalewski

Image: Bettina Kowalewski

The Caribbean air is humid, salty and hot. Paint peels off so quickly here that the seashell houses have to be repainted every six months. In the stifling heat, the view from the balcony reveals a refreshingly cool play of colours: the white of the seashells meets the blue of the sky where every now and then a grey pelican soars by majestically, or a black frigate bird drifts into view, suspended seemingly motionless in the air. Below, the swimming pool glitters a deep blue in contrast with the bright turquoise of the ocean beyond. And, in the distance, the shimmering beach can be seen carpeted with sun-bleached shells of many forms and kinds – some of them small and round, others tall and jagged.

Located on the quiet south end of Isla Mujeres, which is readily accessible and developed for tourists. The sea is about 160 ft (50 m) from the seashell houses across a road while access to the beach is about 0.5 miles (1 km) away. Not far from here part of the Mesoamerican Reef, the second largest coral reef in the world, stretches along the Mexican coast.

Need to know:
Tall, upright seashell: double room, modern open kitchen, living room, two bathrooms, air-conditioning. Not suitable for young children due to unsecured balconies. Small, round seashell: double room, bathroom. Pool. From 1,100 to 1,500 GBP (20,000 to 26,000 MXN) per week.
+1 773 640 4906

Norrbotten, Sweden

A hotel built from scratch every year anew, the Icehotel is a dream in ice and snow come true. One hundred and twenty-five miles (200 km) north of the Arctic Circle, in deepest Lapland, where the northern lights shine, lies the peaceful little village of Jukkasjärvi. There is a small supermarket, a cosy restaurant, a souvenir shop and Sweden’s oldest wooden church. Other than that there are only the dogs, sled dogs that is, more of them than inhabitants in fact … and the wintry expanse of the great white open.

On the banks of the frozen River Torne, which here widens out to a lake, stands the region’s main tourist attraction: the Icehotel – the first, the original, the mother of all ice hotels. The idea was born in 1990 during an exhibition of ice sculptures when, due to a shortage of hotel rooms, a group of visitors armed with reindeer hides and sleeping bags decided to sleep in the “Arctic Hall” – a structure that had been built from ice blocks specially for the exhibition. The next morning the intrepid guests were ecstatic about their icy nights experience. And so, the plans for the first ever ice hotel were conceived. It has been re-built every year since. With an area of approximately 16,400 sq ft (5,000 sq m), it’s the world’s biggest ice hotel, complete with an ice reception desk, a colonnaded ice hall, numerous ice sculptures and, in all, 64 icy rooms and suites. There is also an ice chapel, in which Sunday services and weddings are held, an ice bar with a live video link to its twin – the Icebar in Stockholm, and an ice theatre, in which Shakespeare, and only Shakespeare, is regularly performed.

In late autumn, when the wild River Torne freezes over, huge blocks of crystal-clear ice are hewn from its turquoise depths. Every year, a fresh group of artists designs and builds the new hotel, which means that every year the hotel is different and unique. Once inside the hotel, I begin to feel a strange new affinity with the ice. The beautifully sculpted figures entice me to run my fingers along them. Their cold but surprisingly smooth surfaces feel soft to the touch. Everything around me is made of ice: the walls, the floors, the light fittings, and even the furniture – tables, chairs and, yes, even the beds! In fact, even the elegant glasses in the Icebar are made from the clear ice of the river, its waters so pure that the local people drink from it in the summer.

To make my stay as comfortable as possible, the Icehotel supplies me with warm clothing: a very hip-looking fur hat, ski overalls, waterproof boots and, for this special night, a thick Arctic sleeping bag. In the evening, the constant flow of day trippers slowly ebbs away until the Icehotel, in all its illuminated glory, falls at last into the possession of those who are staying the night.

On entering my icy suite I’m reminded of a camping adventure. There’s no door, because the frame is slowly but surely melting away; only a felt curtain separates my bedroom from the hallway. The temperature in Celsius is five degrees –below zero that is. I quickly get into my cosy sleeping bag and discover gratefully that I have not been put straight on ice. There’s a thick mattress topped with a reindeer hide between me and the cold stuff, hide being one of the most effective types of insulation Mother Nature has to offer. Nevertheless, it’s reassuring to know that the hotel’s hot and steamy sauna awaits me in the morning.


It’s fascinating to think that just a few months ago, a shoal of salmon may have swum through the waters that now make up my bed. I can even see small bits of vegetation that have been trapped in the clear ice, like strange creatures fromanother age caught and preserved in turquoise-coloured resin. But it’s not forever. Only until spring, when this majestic palace in all its splendour begins to melt, returning what it has borrowed back to the mighty River Torne.

Need to know:
Price for two people including breakfast, sauna and warm clothing: undecorated “Snow room” 320 GBP (3,800 SEK); “Ice room” suite with ice sculptures (highly recommended) 410 GBP (4,900 SEK); luxury “Art suite” 485 GBP (5,800 SEK); “warm” rooms in wooden chalets and bungalows 285 GBP (3,390 SEK). Open mid-Dec–late April (depending on the winter).
+46 (0)980 66800

Inside a Suitcase
Saxony, Germany

It was a typically uneventful night at the station near Lunzenau, a small village in central Germany. Matthias Lehmann, a railway worker with 25 years’ experience in the service of the German Bundesbahn, sat and thought.

Known locally as something of an inventor, Matthias has long been famous for his offbeat sense of humour and his curious creations – like a chair with a seat of nails. His latest invention, however, was going to be very sensible, in a quirky kind of way – The Suitcase Hotel.

Half the village helped build it. The local carpenter made the basic structure while his neighbour, a roofer, created the suitcase-style façade. The village plumber installed the toilet and washing facilities and to finish it all off, a retired teacher sewed a star-spangled canopy for the ceiling. It took two years of communal effort to complete it – the world’s first Suitcase Hotel.

Today, the oversized suitcase is a bit of a roadside attraction and passing motorists often drop in to find out what it’s all about. Approaching the giant case, I find a luggage trolley waiting for me. “Particularly useful for female guests who have packed too much … as usual,” Matthias says, winking at me. Well, all I can say is that I am amazed how much he has managed to pack into his suitcase….

Swinging a cat would prove troublesome but the suitcase contains everything you need. There are two bunks and an old station locker that acts as a cupboard; in the opposite corner there is a washbasin and even a toilet complete with a discreet warning: “Load Capacity 1,600 kg.”

It feels rather cosy lying under the homemade fabric sky, except the ceiling is so low I can’t quite sit up straight – which is saying something given my petite stature. So I lie back and focus on what appears to be writing on the suitcase wall. I first wonder if it’s the scribbles of bored guests but soon discover that it is, in fact, songs of praise for the hosts’ super-friendly service. The wall is their permanently open guest book. One guest sums it up perfectly: “I was here and that is good.” For insomniacs, Matthias has thoughtfully provided some bedtime reading guaranteed to lull even the most restless into a peaceful sleep: The Service Rules and Regulations of the German Federal Railways.

In the morning, a small breakfast table decorated with handpicked flowers awaits me on the lawn. It’s been set with authentic tableware from Mitropa, the German railway catering company, and overlooks the River Mulde, which meanders past at the end of the garden. This is a truly idyllic spot: birds chirp happily in the trees and a pair of cats stretch lazily before settling down for another nap. The male, after a rather hasty christening, now answers to the name of “Blonde Ingrid”.

Image: Bettina Kowalewski

Image: Bettina Kowalewski

The Lehmanns’ house and grounds are a train-lover’s paradise. The suitcase tops off Matthias’s unique collection of machinery, tools and other paraphernalia taken from the railwayman’s world. A retired diesel locomotive stands proudly in the garden, while his little shop is packed to the rafters with collector’s bric-a-brac. There’s even an original wooden station house from the nearby town of Obergräfenhain, which Matthias and his wife Maritta have transported here in its entirety and lovingly restored to its original splendour. Today it houses a tiny museum which holds regular exhibitions of satirical illustrations and caricatures.

Last but not least there’s the on-site pub, Zum Prellbock (“The Old Buffer”), which is famous among railway fans far beyond the borders of Lunzenau. It’s a snug little tavern with authentic German railway tables and chairs. There are ticket-punchers from all over the world on display, draught beer is tapped from a train buffer set into the wall, and an impressive collection of nearly 200 caps from various railway personnel lines the ceiling. Most of them have a story behind them, Matthias tells me. The red one, for instance, was given to him by the controller of a small station in Sicily: “It was a boiling hot summer’s day and for some reason the Snow Waltz was blasting from the tinny speakers. He handed the cap to me, saying, ‘This has always brought me luck: it was the only thing to survive a bomb attack on our station by the Red Brigade – luckily, it was my day off.’”

Matthias and Maritta now spend their holidays hunting for rare caps, only visiting countries that aren’t represented in their collection. I sit down at one of the tables beside the river and watch kingfishers flash by in a blaze of blue. The pub’s menu (“The Tummy Timetable”) offers meals like “From the Steam Boiler”, “Porter’s Sole”, and“Narrow Gauge Salad”. As I tuck into my “Drive Wheel”, a tasty grilled chicken breast with cheese, pineapple and potato pancakes, I’m addressed by an appropriately unconventional and chatty regular. He looks like a member of the Hell’s Angels, but after a while I realize he belongs to a different sort of club altogether: he is a man of God and the local parson. After a pleasant discussion about the pros and cons of monotheist faith, he rushes off to join the ladies of Lunzenau at their weekly choir practice.

I return to my hotel in the garden which is now completely booked up – by me, occupying its one and only room. The suitcase is patiently waiting for me, to take me on a journey to the land of dreams. Despite the murmur of nearby traffic I soon doze off, in the comfortable knowledge that, on this journey, I’m sure to arrive safe and sound.

Need to know:
Two bunks. Per person including breakfast: 13.50 GBP (15.50 EUR). Bring your own sleeping bag.
Open April–October
+49 (0)373 836 410 (German only)


For more inspiring accommodation alternatives, check out Bed in a Tree – and other amazing hotels from around the world by Bettina Kowalewski, £14.99, DK Eyewitness Travel.

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