Image: Casablanca Hotel
Casablanca Hotel
The 48-room Casablanca Hotel in Times Square features a Moroccan decor complemented by Rick's Cafe, named for the resaurant in the classic 1942 film featuring Humphrey Bogart.
updated 10/9/2006 6:43:52 PM ET 2006-10-09T22:43:52

With beds of ice and living rooms made from helicopters, the world's most unusual luxury hotels are trips in and of themselves.

When the Smith family decided to build an exclusive resort in the northwestern Connecticut hills, they wanted to create something different. Really different.

They wound up with Stonehenge in the bathroom, a beaver lodge in the bedroom and a 17,000-pound helicopter in the living room.

Sleeping in such oddball lodgings doesn't come cheap. When the new hotel, Winvian, opens in late fall, room rates will start at $1,450 per night.

Winvian is about to join the ranks of the world's out-of-the-ordinary luxury hotels, a travel category that ranges from unusual and ultra-luxe boutique inns to touristy spectacles drawing more day traffic than overnight guests. They cater to travelers who want something special — not just a nice view from the bathtub or super-posh toiletries, but the privilege of staying in a tree house, ice room or teepee.

Located in Morris, Conn., about two hours outside Manhattan, Winvian is the Smith family's second luxury property. In 1997, they opened The Pitcher Inn near Sugarbush Mountain Ski Resort in Warren, Vt. The Relais and Chateaux property's 11 rooms mix luxury with quirky design, as in the large blackboard looming over the bed in the “School” suite.

“We wanted to take [the] foundation of The Pitcher Inn and make it much larger,” says Heather Smith, managing director of Winvian. “We wanted something that wasn't the same over and over again.”

Winvian has a traditional suite in the inn and 18 cottages designed by 15 architects. The “Helicopter” cottage features just that — a hulking Sikorsky HH37 Sea King Pelican chopper, rotors and all, right in the middle of the space. Its interior has been completely renovated and features “working” controls, a screening area and, of course, a wet bar.

The “Treehouse” cottage is perched 35 feet above ground, anchored to three trees and designed to sway in the breeze, requiring its wood-burning fireplaces be set in rubber to accommodate movement. The “Golf” cottage, with its gently undulating floors, allows guests to putt from the bedroom to their own private green outside. Other cottages — “Library,” “Stable” and “Greenhouse,” to name a few — are more sedate, but share the same eye-widening spirit.

Smith says she expects a mix of wealthy guests, from traditional inn patrons to others who seek out the unusual. The nightly rate includes all meals (cooked by an Alain Ducasse-trained chef), an open wine cellar, complimentary hot-air balloon rides, a screening room and other activities. There's also a 5,000-square-foot private spa and high-tech boardroom.

Image: Ariau Towers Hotel
Ariau Towers Hotel
The Ariau Towers Hotel in Brazil lets you sleep in the treetops of the Amazon Rainforest.
Smith says she's confident there's sufficient demand. She points to the success of the inn's likely competition, The Point resort in Saranac Lake, N.Y., and Twin Farms in Barnard, Vt., neither of which, admittedly, has the unusual rooms.

Bill Crow, a hotel industry analyst with Raymond James & Co., says the children of baby boomers — the so-called echo boomers — drive demand for distinctive hotels. They tend to travel more than their parents, Crow says, and when they do, many seek an “experience” rather than a standard place to lay their heads. As a result, Crow says, “Everybody's looking for an edge.”

Take Quebec's Ice Hotel,which takes “seasonal” to a new level. The hotel is made each winter out of 15,000 pounds of snow and 500 pounds of ice. It's as much tourist attraction as hotel, with more than 60,000 day visitors arriving last year, says Sylvain Auclair, a hotel spokesperson.

Suzanne Brian of Scottsdale, Ariz., chose the hotel for a Valentine's Day getaway last winter with her husband, Harvey. Harvey, who says he gets cold in 105-degree weather, was skeptical about sleeping in sub-zero temperatures. On their night in the hotel, the Brians slept in sleeping bags in a sleigh carved out of the ice.

“They don't have anything like that in the W's, the Marriotts,” he says. The couple plans to return next year.

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The edge for the planned HydroPalacein Qingdao, China, is water. Lots of it. The 200-room hotel, which is scheduled to open in 2009, is to be anchored in — not on — the Yellow Sea. The company hopes to open additional underwater properties in Monaco and Dubai.

Currently operating underwater is the Jules Undersea Lodgein Key Largo, Fla., a former research lab where guests scuba dive down 21 feet to reach the main lobby.Luanne Betz and Dave Thompson chose the lodge as a memorable spot for their July wedding, sending the tuxedo and wedding dress down in airtight containers.

Then there are the less extreme (and drier) versions.The Library Hotel in New York, with rooms categorized according to the Dewey Decimal system, uses a theme to differentiate the property from its mainstream business-segment competition. The Casablanca, a Times Square hotel owned by the same company, is designed after the movie, right down to the Rick's Café.

Bjorn Hanson, a hotel analyst at PriceWaterhousecoopers, says the biggest risk in creating a "unique" hotel experience is going too far. That peril is something Heather Smith of Winvian ponders regularly.

“I think it's great, but will everybody else?” she says. “The word is good, the scuttlebutt is good ... but it does give you sleepless nights.”

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