No offense to conventional hotels, but sometimes you just want to stay someplace a little different, a little avant-garde, someplace you'll be able to tell the grandkids about someday.
You know, someplace that, once you post a picture on Facebook, will make every one of your 732 friends positively green with envy — or at least scratching their heads, wondering how you ever found this place.
(And preferably, someplace that won't require taking out a second mortgage to get there and hang out for a few days — which, regrettably, precludes anything atop Mount Kilimanjaro.)
With that in mind, here are five unique accommodations, all within easy driving distance of Baltimore, that are pretty much guaranteed to be unlike anywhere you've stayed before.
Living among the trees … or in a Hobbit hole
Maple Tree Campground
20716 Townsend Road, Rohrersville, Washington County
301-432-5585 or thetreehousecamp.com
75 miles from Baltimore
Butting up against the Appalachian Trail and 20 minutes from Antietam, Maple Tree Campground offers a rustic oasis just 90 minutes west of Baltimore. Which means, of course, lots of tents and trees, wooded trails and river rafting, camp fires and wildlife.
But this 20-acre campground, operated by the Soroko family since 1972, throws in a couple of unique twists. For those who have ever wanted to live like the birds or the butterflies, 10 treehouses offer the chance to sleep up there, on stilts between eight and 10 feet off the ground. With a capacity of six to 12, they're pretty basic: no wood stoves, no mattresses (just bunks). Eight are screened but largely open to the elements; two are more deluxe, enclosed and insulated.
"It takes people back to being a kid," says owner Louise Soroko, who's continuing down the path started when her mother, Phyllis, opened this Washington County campground for rentals in 1972. "Nature is always rejuvenating."
The campground's newest addition, perfect for Middle Earthers, is the Hobbit House: a 20-by-26-foot underground cottage with two skylights, a thatched roof and, presumably, plenty of pipe-weed for relaxation. Plans are to open it this summer, at a rate of $138 per night. While hobbits are known to be on the small side, however, Soroko assures that modifications have been made, especially with regard to the ceiling. "It's designed for tall hobbit people," she promises.
Living like our forefathers (and mothers) did
Colonial Houses — Historic Lodging in Colonial Williamsburg, Va.
888-965-7254 or colonialwilliamsburg.com/stay/colonial-houses
200 miles from Baltimore
Colonial Williamsburg has always offered visitors the chance to follow in the footsteps of Jefferson, Washington and others of our Founding Fathers. But did you know it offers to chance to sleep there, too?
Visitors can spend the night in 26 historic buildings, offering a total of 74 rooms. Sizes range from small "dependencies" — structures separate from the larger homes, once used as laundries, kitchens, lumber houses or for other ancillary purposes — to the 16-room Brick House Tavern, which dates to at least 1770.
"They are really authentic, and each one looks very different," assures Barbara Brown, communications manager for Colonial Williamsburg. "And you'll be staying right in the middle of the historic area."
While the rooms do offer modern amenities — heat, air conditioning, bathrooms, even flat-screen TVs — every effort is made to replicate the 18th-century experience of the people who would have lived in each particular house. Homes built for the gentry reflect those upper-class surroundings, while homes designed for the lower classes — such as The Quarter, a tiny two-story, three-room structure that was probably home to indentured servants or slaves — are furnished more sparsely.
And then there's the Colonial atmosphere of Williamsburg itself
"You might get up in the morning and hear some of our rare breeds of chicken, or something crowing in the morning, or you might have lambs bleating," Brown says. "You really feel like you're living in the 18th century."
Cass Scenic Railroad State Park
304-456-4300 or cassrailroad.com
$85-$119, plus train fare
250 miles from Baltimore
Cass Scenic Railroad State Park, in southeastern West Virginia, is a railroad fan's paradise. Steam-driven locomotives, smoke belching and whistles piercing, take visitors from the former logging town of Cass to the top of Bald Knob, at 4,800 feet among the highest points in the state.
Serious rail fans — and we're talking about the die-hards here — have a real treat in store for them, however. Visitors can spend the night in restored company houses, which is cool and all. But the park also offers accommodations in three old cabooses, for an experience even John Henry would envy.
There's little modern about these cabooses, which is what makes them so glorious. You have to ride the train for 45 minutes to two and a half hours to get to them, depending on where you stay. Once you get there and the train leaves, you're on your own; there are no restaurants, no stores, precious little in the way of civilization at all. There's just you and the land and the sky and decades of steam-powered memories.
"For train fanatics, they come and feel like they are living in history," says Shannon Church, a reservation agent at the park. "You're alone. There's no electricity or anything like that. The cabooses are just like camping, only in a caboose.
"But if you like to wake up and be on your own, have a nice peaceful morning with mist rolling off the grass, then this is right up your alley."
Follow the light
Cove Point Lighthouse
3500 Lighthouse Blvd., Lusby, Calvert County
410-474-5370 or calvertmarinemuseum.com
$550-$1,600 (for minimum three-day stay)
80 miles from Baltimore
The days of the grizzled lighthouse keeper may be long gone — just about all lighthouses operate on their own these days — but that doesn't mean you can't live like one, at least for a few days.
Isolated on a spit of Calvert County land jutting into the Chesapeake Bay, the 186-year-old Cove Point Light is as much a welcome light as a warning beacon these days. And for real lighthouse fanatics, spending a few nights in the adjacent keeper's cottage is a time-traveling opportunity not to be missed.
The two-story house looks almost exactly as it did in 1925, when the last major addition was completed. It still has its hardwood floors, cast-iron radiators and deep-set window sills. Even some of the modern touches retain links to the past: One table is made of lumber from the dismantled Cedar Point Lighthouse, which stood about seven miles down-bay, while another was made from an old countertop from a Lusby general store.
The lighthouse sits on a four-acre private beach, surrounded by a fence that's locked at night. Visitors can rent either one half or the entire keeper's house; a movable wall inside separates the two main rooms on the first floor.
"You feel like you're a million miles away, but we still have wireless; we still have flat-screen TVs; we have all the amenities you're used to," says Vanessa Gill, director of development for the Calvert Marine Museum, which administers the property. "At night, when the sun sets, you have this beautiful lighthouse light that grazes the water. It's magical."
Slept with any good books lately?
The Library Hotel
299 Madison Ave., New York City
190 miles from Baltimore
Books may be a vanishing breed, but not at New York's Library Hotel.
Surely the stuff of a bibliophile's dream, each of the 10 guest floors of this hotel on New York's East Side is dedicated to a category of the Dewey Decimal System, that numerical road map that makes finding books within a library possible. There are floors for the social sciences, math and science, language, technology, the arts, literature, history, philosophy, religion and (for those whose interests defy easy categorization) general knowledge.
But it gets even better: Each room is dedicated to a specific topic within each category. Thus, you can stay in a social sciences room devoted to the law, or an ancient history room, or a philosophy room focusing on logic. But fair warning: Once there, you may never want to leave — each room is stocked with between 25 and 100 books on the particular subject.
"There's just something about walking into a room that's full of books," says Adele Gutman, vice president of sales, marketing and revenue for The Library Hotel Collection. "You'll meet some old friends that you love, and meet some new friends that you didn't anticipate."
What's more, the literary experience extends beyond the hotel's doors. Just one block away is New York's famed main library, the one with the two stone lions out front. And the block of 41st Street alongside the hotel is known as Library Way, with quotations from famous authors embedded in the sidewalk.
Feeling especially ambitious?
For travelers who don't mind going a little farther afield, here are a few more extraordinary places to spend a night or two:
Winvian, in Morris, Conn., (285 miles from Baltimore), offers 18 themed cottages, with names like "Music," "Secret Society" and "Golf"; there's even one that was a rescue helicopter in a former life (860-567-9600 or winvian.com).
Boston's The Liberty (400 miles from Baltimore) was once the Charles Street Jail; its inmates included anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, Boston Mayor James Michael Curley and civil rights leader Malcolm X (617-224-4000 or libertyhotel.com).
A replica of Dorothy's House from "The Wizard of Oz" is available for rental in Beech Mountain, N.C. (440 miles from Baltimore), where it was part of an amusement park (now in private hands) devoted to the magical land of scarecrows, tin woodsmen and cowardly lions (828-387-2000 or emeraldrealtyandrentals.com).