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Vacationing off the Beaten Path
Bored with "ordinary" getaways? Try these seemingly inhospitable destinations. They can be hospitable indeed—and anything but ordinary.
Some folks would be delighted to spend every work break on a sandy beach in perfect weather. Others, though, want a vacation to offer something different—and perhaps more challenging. If you’re one of those people, this article is for you. Here are five places, all far from the beaten path, where you can enjoy comfort and luxury in the face of strong natural resistance. You won’t necessarily end your vacation with a suntan, but you will probably return home with a highly unusual collection of photos, stories and memories.
For Mountain Lovers
Songtsam Retreat—Shangri-La, Shangri-La, China
Nothing says “welcome to 10,000 feet” quite like being handed a complimentary bottle of oxygen at check-in. Fortunately, at the Songtsam Retreat—Shangri-La, the emphasis is on taking it slow.
Once you’ve acclimatized (in-room oxygen machines are also available), head next door for a tour of Songzanlin Monastery, home to 700 frequently chanting Buddhist monks. A little farther away, you’ll find the stone-paved old town of Shangri-La, formerly a key stop for trade caravans traversing the Southern Silk Road.
Back at the retreat, a schedule of activities begins with the Himalayan Five Rites at 7:30 a.m. Also available are self-massage courses and treatments where other people do the work. You can reenergize with a Coffee Body Scrub or steep in an organic tea bath at the retreat’s Linka Spa.
Beyond the retreat, there are excursions to sights such as Tiger Leaping Gorge as well as valley hikes and horse riding. Alternatively, you can remain in your room with your feet parked upon the sheep’s wool Tibetan rug, and taste test the dry local wines, a product that originated with 17th Century French missionaries. The locals still use French oak in production and grow Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling grapes—the Tibetan twist is the addition of barley. Pair with a good 12-month yak cheese and let the enlightenment roll over you.
Cost: The daily rate for a deluxe room is $212, which includes breakfast, service charge and tax.
Flying in: Shangri-La (Diqing) Airport is 20 minutes away by car.
For Jungle Lovers
Mashpi Lodge, Mashpi Rainforest Biodiversity Reserve, Ecuador
Opened in 2012, Mashpi Lodge is, relatively speaking, not that remote for a jungle resort. Only two and a half hours from Quito, it earns its place in this article by boldly introducing high design into a nature reserve.
Eschewing the jungle eco-lodge default of a crescent of thatched huts overlooking a small lake, Mashpi instead offers steel-and-glass minimalism 3,000 feet above sea level on the western slopes of the Andes. Nearly 10,000 square feet of glass was used in construction, facilitating spectacular views of the surrounding fauna-rich forest—part of the 3,212-acre, bio-diverse hotspot known as the Chocó—while also providing a genuine sense of tree-house-feel immersion thanks to the why-have-a-wall-when-a-window-would-do aesthetic.
Inside, you’ll find 22 comfortably sized rooms and suites, all of which balance the warmth of natural materials with slick design. And there are no chain-operated cold-water showers here: the suites offer Starck-designed bathtubs-with-a-view, while a Jacuzzi open to the elements is available in the Wellness Space as a venue for post-nature-walk analysis.
Of course, you’re here for the Andean cloud forest (aren’t you?) and again Mashpi delivers the unexpected. Ride the sky bike, a tandem hung from a zip line that cuts through the treetops. Or, if you’re concerned about getting spiders in your hair, step aboard the canopy gondola—an aerial tram—that slides through the jungle while your naturalist guide points out items of interest.
Cost: All-inclusive two-night programs start at $1,296 per person.
Flying in: Rates include a transfer from Quito Airport but Esmeraldas Airport is closest at four hours by car. A transfer from Esmeraldas costs $460.
For Arctic Lovers
Hotel Arctic, Ilulissat, Greenland
Ilulissat, Greenland’s third-largest city with just under 5,000 residents, translates from the Greenlandic as “icebergs.” It’s accurately named, positioned as it is on the banks of the Ilulissat Icefjord, along which a procession of these seaborne islands of ice drift from their glacial source to gather in Disko Bay.
The Hotel Arctic, which opened in 1984, proudly hails itself as the “most northerly four-star” in the world. It has added two wings and a conference center since 2000 as news of the icefjord’s stark polar beauty has spread. (It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.)
Throughout the hotel’s 85 rooms and suites, the Scandinavian aesthetic keeps you in mind of Greenland’s history as a Danish colony. The two cultures conflate in the hotel’s five aluminum igloo cabins; reminiscent of Phillipe Starck’s take on a countertop breadmaker, these igloos combine the hotel’s comforts with an unbeatable fjordside view which, from September to April, features the northern lights.
At Hotel Arctic’s experimental Restaurant Ulo, meanwhile, you’ll find a decent selection of New and Old World wines, as well as friendly advice on what pairs best with the seal soup.
For all its modernity, Ilulissat remains an outpost of civilization 250 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, the home of midnight suns and frostbitten explorers such as the legendary Knud Rasmussen. In fact, you can channel your inner Knud through March and April, when the hotel arranges dog-sledge tours and the chance to stay overnight in a hut with local hunters.
Cost: Room rates—which include breakfast and transfers between the airport and the hotel—range from $248 to $336.
Flying in: Ilulissat Airport is five minutes away by car. Due to limitations on takeoff weight, flights often include a fuel stop at Greenland's Kangerlussuaq Airport.
For Ocean Lovers
Conrad Maldives Rangali Island, Rangali Island, Maldives
Prior to 2009, hubristic plans to dwell beneath the waves were rife. With projects like Hydropolis and Poseidon Undersea Resorts now on indefinite hold, however, Conrad Maldives Rangali Island remains the pioneer in undersea luxury. (Honorable mentions include the underwater spa at Huvafen Fushi in Maldives and the Manta Resort’s Underwater Room in Tanzania.)
As the name suggests, Conrad Maldives Rangali Island is mostly situated on terra firma and encircled by the region’s famous crystal-blue, coral-rich waters. In 2005, Conrad sank Ithaa, the world’s first all-glass-enclosed undersea restaurant, five meters into the Indian Ocean. Costing $5 million to build, it seats 12 and is constructed of three five-meter-wide, 125-millimeter-thick glass arches.
A six-course dinner at Ithaa costs $320 and features ossetra caviar, grilled sand lobster and floating island egg white. Lunchtime brings the midday sun and an unexpected underwater necessity: dining in sunglasses.
Above the waterline, you’ll find arguably the premiere Maldivian resort. Last year named “Best Luxury Resort in the Maldives” by Diners Club Luxury Travel Magazine, the facility has also won many other accolades, including first place in a survey of the world’s best places to nap.
But if you’d rather ditch the hammock to further pursue your Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea fantasy, you’ll be glad to know that the resort offers rides in a three-seater submarine for half-hour explorations of the coral reef ($495 for two people). The sub resembles something from Jules Verne’s imagination with its glass pods poking out of the roof and providing passengers with a 360-degree perspective.
Cost: Nightly rates range from $1,150 for a Beach Villa to $13,775 for a Sunset Water Villa in high season.
Flying in: You reach Rangali Island via a 35-minute saplane flight from Male, the Maldivian capital. Private jets can land at nearer Maamigili Island and connect to the resort in 20 minutes via private speedboat (or yacht, if preferred).
Info: conradresorts.com ("destinations")
For Desert Lovers
Three Camel Lodge, The Gobi, Mongolia
The 500,000-square-mile Gobi Desert, which consists primarily of bare rock, is one of the world’s great wildernesses. At its heart, hundreds of miles from the nearest Wi-Fi, is Three Camel Lodge.
Construction wasn’t easy. Logs had to be shipped from Siberia, while the best yurts, craftsman and painters skilled in the traditional Buddhist style all had to be imported from another province. (Fortunately, there was plenty of local stone.)
The effort paid off. Sheltered in the shadow of ancient Mt. Bulagtai, this secluded eco-lodge will make you feel as if you’re lost in the desert—but without a care in the world. Accommodation comes in the form of luxury felt and canvas gers (traditional nomadic tents) illuminated by the richly painted orange interiors. Fortunately, you don’t have to rely on the paint after sunset, as the resort uses wind and solar power to generate electricity.
Every ger comes equipped with hand-painted furniture, wood-burning stoves and camelhair/cashmere-blend blankets, and the deluxe gers also offer Mongolian-style robes, camel-milk moisturizer and private bathrooms. The main lodge, an outstanding example of traditional Mongolian Buddhist architecture, ensures a sense of being embedded in the culture while still within reach of the expected trappings of a luxury destination (check out the Thirsty Camel Bar and the spa suite).
Besides sipping Thirsty Camel martinis while taking in the desert vista, you can enjoy hikes in the Gobi-Altai Mountains and camel treks across the dunes. At the Flaming Cliffs, you can even get a taste of palaeontology and follow in the footsteps of adventurer Roy Chapman Andrews—the inspiration for Indiana Jones.
Cost: A deluxe ger costs $250 per person per day, based on double occupancy.
Flying in: The nearest airport, Dalanzadgad, is an hour-and-a-half drive from the eco-lodge.
Chris Allsop is a U.K.-based freelance writer whose specialties include travel, food and film.