Great Hotels that Used to Be Something Else Entirely

Some hotels haven’t always been spots for weary travelers to conduct business, be pampered or simply lay down their heads. Here are a few amazing places to stay that used to be everything from prisons to monasteries.

Hostal San MarcosThe magnificent Parador de León San Marcos, a former 16th-century monastery in Leon, Spain, has lovely paintings, carvings and tapestries in public areas. You can enjoy a stay at the parador during our 2014 program “In the Footsteps of St. James: El Camino de Santiago.”

Hotel Monasterio by Genvis LociIn Cusco, Peru, the elegant Hotel Monasterio was originally built in 1595. “Hotel Monasterio sits on the site of Inca Amaru Qhala’s palace,” explains the hotel’s website. “Three years later, the Spanish took it over and founded the Seminary of San Antonio Abad.” Remodeled as a hotel in 1965, it has a beautiful courtyard. A stay at this stunning hotel is part of our 2014 South American Highlights program.

Instead of pilgrims and seminarians, some hotels once housed prisoners. The luxurious Four Seasons Sultanahmet in Istanbul’s old city is “housed in a century-old neoclassical Turkish prison.” The hotel is located a short stroll from major sites including the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace.

Another establishment that used to be a jail is The Långholmen Hotel in Sweden. The hotel assures us that: “Today, you are met by a modern hotel with newly renovated ‘cells’ (2008) with daring design solutions and free access to wireless broadband.” The hotel also has a museum, From Crime to Chains, which offers insight in to Långholmen’s past.

Lake Palace at nightIn contrast, many great hotels around the world used to be palaces. The Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur was once the summer home of Maharana Jagat Singh II, 62nd successor to the royal dynasty of Mewar. Located in the middle of Lake Pichola, this distinctive hotel has mosaics, a lovely courtyard, richly colored frescoes and ornately carved furniture. Fun fact: the James Bond film Octopussy was filmed on the premises.

Near Udaipur, magical Devi Garh is a stunning former fortress. This heritage hotel “was the royal residence of the rulers of Delwara principality, from the middle of the 18th century until the mid-20th century.” Today this all-suites property is also a wellness destination: travelers can relax at the spa or experience yoga on the rooftop.

The Umaaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur was built between 1928 and 1943 for the grandfather of the present Maharaja. Designed by Edwardian architect Henry Lanchester, the building is a blend of Eastern and Western architectural influences. According to the hotel’s website: “Its majestic 105-foot-high cupola is influenced by the Renaissance, while the towers draw inspiration from Rajput tradition.”

Another fabulous palace hotel in India is the Rambagh Palace in Jaipur. Built in 1835 for the queen’s favorite handmaiden Kesar Badaran, the mansion was later refurbished as a royal guesthouse and hunting lodge. According to the hotel’s website, “Rambagh remained the home of Jaipur’s Royalty until 1957, when it was first converted into an upscale hotel.”

Of course, hotels outside of India were also once homes to royalty.

Ciragan Palace Kempinski ExteriorIstanbul’s fabulous Ciragan Palace on the Bosporus, now a five-star hotel that is part of the Kempinski chain, is a former Ottoman palace. Designed by Armenian palace architect Nigoğayos Balyan, the building was destroyed by a fire in 1910 and served as a football stadium before a Japanese company bought and restored it in 1989. It was renovated again in 2007. The hotel’s lavish Sultan’s suite was featured in a CNN story on the world’s most expensive hotel suites.

Hotel Lost Seises SevilleHotel Los Seises in Seville was once the palace of the Archbishop of Spain. According to the hotel’s website, “As part of a refurbished sixteenth-century palace, the hotel’s rooms contain wonderful museum pieces, Roman mosaics, Renaissance paneling, Arab décor, tiles, paving and columns.” It also has a lovely terrace with a swimming pool and stunning views of the Cathedral and La Giralda.

Not interested in sleeping like a royal? Several historic hotels have also served as government buildings, hospitals and more.

The Hotel im Wasserturm  in Cologne, Germany, was once Europe’s largest watertower. As the hotel’s website explains: “the 140-year-old listed brickwork building is now presented with truly exceptional interior design of classic modernity. Partly destroyed during World War II, rebuilt in the early 90s and configured in three rings by British engineer John Moore — the Wasserturm is a journey through time and local history.”

In England, the London Marriott County Hall occupies the building that used to be the home to the city’s government. Some rooms have views of iconic sites such as Big Ben, the Thames and the London Eye.

The Abbasi Hotel in Isfahan, Iran, was built about 300 years ago as a caravansary. King Soltan Hossein attributed the complex of buildings to his mother, which is why it was called “the school and caravansary of Madar-shah” (which means “king’s mother”). Today the hotel is known for its splendid décor and lovely central garden.

Hostal dos Reis Católicos, located at the Plaza do Obradoiro in Santiago de Compostela, was formerly a hospital. The hotel, which dates back to 1499, is considered one of the oldest in the world and once provided shelter to pilgrims along the Camino de Santiago. The parador is another place where our travelers will stay during the 2014 “Camino de Santiago” trip.

Are there any other hotels that you would add to this list?

Best Bastille Day Celebrations

Bonjour, readers!

This week, New York City is getting some French flavor for Bastille Day. Throughout the week, dozens of French restaurants throughout the Big Apple will be participating in French Restaurant Week. These eating establishments will be offering special meals for $17.89, a price that reflects the year the French Revolution began. On Friday, the big event will be the Bastille Day Ball. Additional New York Bastille Week happenings can be found online.

ParisNew York isn’t the only city to celebrate French cuisine and culture this week. Of course there are festivities in Paris and throughout France, but also in other locales, both expected and unexpected. Here’s a roundup of some of our favorites.

In New Orleans, Bastille Day events include French Quarter walking tours, cooking demonstrations, and more.

South Africa‘s Franschhoek Bastille Festival has been around for 20 years. Festival activities include boules, The Waiters’ Race, the minstrel parade, and a popular barrel-rolling contest, not to mention lots of vin from Franschhoek’s award-winning wine estates.

Boston‘s Bastille Day events include a popular party on Marlborough Street.

CountiesIn London, the 2013 Bastille Festival in Bankside features educational workshops, cultural presentations, bilingual storytelling, an artisan craft market, French food, and the Bal Populaire, a traditional open air party.

The Heiva festival in Tahiti was traditionally the French Polynesian observance of France’s Bastille Day. Events include the Polynesian Cultural Center’s Tahitian fête.

Washington, D.C.‘s Bastille Day French Festival “celebrates France both past and present, with festivities for visitors of all ages, including dance performances by The New York Baroque Dance Company, live music, French games, and hands-on art projects.”

Wat Pho BangkokIn Bangkok, the Alliance Francaise is hosting a free party on Saturday to celebrate French National Day.

Milwaukee‘s Bastille Days attracts more than 250,000 visitors. The festival includes live music, an international marketplace, chef and wine demos, French and Cajun cuisine, and a 43-foot Eiffel Tower replica offering hourly light shows.

Are there other Bastille Day celebrations that you love? Let us know!

The World’s Most Expensive Trip

A new journey organized by London’s Hurlingham Travel, a bespoke luxury travel company, has made headlines for being the “World’s Most Expensive Holiday.”  The trip, which would take two years, costs a hefty £990,000 (approximately $1.5 million). Whoever is lucky enough to be able to afford the holiday would visit hundreds of UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Taj Mahal DaylightDestinations included on this high-priced adventure include the Taj Mahal in India, the Great Pyramids in Egypt, the Forbidden City in China, and the site of Machu Picchu in Peru. Currently, the trip is for sale on British website The website promises business-class flights whenever it is possible and accommodations in hotels such as the Cipriani in Venice and Moscow’s Ritz-Carlton.

Douro ValleyDon’t have a million bucks to spend on a vacation? Trips organized by Academic Arrangements Abroad might not visit hundreds of World Heritage sites, but many of our travel programs include spots on the UNESCO list. For example, our Rajasthan program features a sunrise viewing of the Taj Mahal as well as a stop at the Jantar Mantar Observatory.  Travelers on “In the Realm of Angkor: The Splendors of Thailand & Cambodia” admire the magnificent 12th-century temple of Angkor Wat. The 19 perfectly aligned Windmills of Kinderdjik, built in the 17th century and placed on the list of UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1997, are part of our 2014 “Dutch & Flemish Landscapes” program. And a cruise from Porto travels through Portugal’s Douro River Valley, the world’s first demarcated wine region.

Kinderdijk_ZhenWhich World Heritage sites would you most like to see?

Don’t Forget to Enter the Focus on Travel Photo Contest

Havana doorwayWe’ve already received a number of submissions for our Focus on Travel photo contest.  Images entered so far range from Borobudur at sunrise to Stockholm at dusk. There are also stunning shots of London, Havana, Egypt, Bolivia and other destinations near and far.

If you have a great travel photograph, there’s still time to enter it in the contest. The winner will receive a new iPad mini. Prizes for the runners-up include a NiteCore Tiny Monster flashlight, a micro luggage scale and more.

You can also vote on the submitted images, which are featured in a gallery that can be accessed through the photo contest tab.  The most popular image will receive a People’s Choice Award and a special prize.

To enter or vote, please go to our Facebook page and click on the Focus On Travel Photo Contest icon below our name.  It will take you to a new page where you can enter the contest or vote on selected entries (or both!).

Punta ArenasBe sure to submit your entry before May 1, 2013.

Architecture in the Spotlight

By Anastasia Mills Healy

As all eyes are upon London for the Summer Olympic Games, our thoughts turn to the architectural legacy the Games will leave behind and the noteworthy structures in other cities, that fans may want to visit.

Aquatics CenterThe most lauded structures built for the 2012 London Olympic Games are Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre and the Velodrome, designed by Hopkins Architects.

Pritzker Prize winner Hadid created an Aquatics Centre whose most stunning feature is an undulating roof that emulates a wave. Columnless, this inspiring building will be much more true to its inceptive vision of openness and clear sightlines when the two wings of temporary seating that increase capacity from 2,500 to 17,500 are removed and replaced by glass walls.

Riverside Museum, GlasgowOf 950 projects in 44 countries, other recent Hadid buildings of note include the Riverside Museum in Glasgow, Scotland, a fluid design for a museum of transportation that opened in June 2011 and welcomed its one millionth visitor six months later; and in China, the Guangzhou Opera House, whose twin boulder-like buildings overlooking the Pearl River opened in 2010.

VelodromeLondon’s venue for all things cycling, the Velodrome ranks alongside the Aquatics Centre in the category of breathless architecture and has received equal high marks from the public. The architectural firm succeeded in modeling the design of the building to reflect its use: “We wanted to express the geometry and drama of the track in the outside form of the building,” Mike Taylor, senior partner, Hopkins Architects, told the Financial Times. Some critics compare this elegant structure to a cedar-covered Pringle potato chip (in the best possible way) and others liken its design to that of a bicycle – streamlined and nimble.

Dubai and Cyprus are two locales with current Hopkins projects. The Dubai World Trade Centre is a vast mixed-use urban area with offices, apartments, hotels and, of course, stores. There will be tree-lined streets, rooftop gardens and, the focal point, two tall towers. Shifting focus to the Mediterranean, the Cyprus Cultural Centre will be a wonderful place for arts lovers to gather to enjoy music, dance, opera and theater in state-of-the-art performance venues. Being built in tandem with Civic Square, the Cultural Centre will be linked to the proposed House of Representatives, the National Gallery and a park beyond by an outdoor performance space.

Guangzhou Opera HouseGreat architecture becomes truly transcendent when buildings create beautiful and useful spaces for a community’s (or a world’s) important moments, and become so integrated into the fabric of their surroundings that it is impossible to imagine the locations without them.

Unusual Accommodations

One of the more unusual lodging options for the 2012 Olympics in London are suspended tents in the Wick Common Woodland, not too far from the Olympic Park. Called Holiday Out, the tents—which sleep three to nine people—hang several meters above the ground and are named after trees native to the United Kingdom.

During a trip with Academic Arrangements Abroad, accommodations are far more comfortable but can be just as unique. For example, you might stay in French châteaux, watch the sun set over the vast Kara Kum Desert from the legendary Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express or be rocked to sleep in a wooden gulet on the Turkish coast.

Gulets in TurkeyWe asked staff members to tell us about their unusual lodging experiences and offer suggestions for one-of-a-kind places to stay around the world. Here are their comments:

“One time I spent a night in a tented camp in Wadi Rum in southern Jordan,” says Director of Tour Operations Erin Sorensen. “It was really cold, but the sky was amazing and it was so quiet.”

Erin isn’t the only staff member who likes getting away from it all.

“While there are many beautiful remote hotels, one very simple hotel stands out in my mind,” says the company’s president, Jim Friedlander. “Reached by Zodiac north of the Peruvian/Bolivian border on the east side of Lake Titicaca is the Island of Suasi. The island has only one hotel on it and nothing else other than a few wild vicuñas to chase after (a hopeless pursuit as they are hard to see, much less approach). After a typically hectic schedule of sightseeing in Peru, it is an ideal place to decompress for a few days before resuming your trek, and the lodge attracts interesting visitors who like the idea of no electricity, no internet, no phones, etc…but wonderful food and a sense of peace.”

Kruger, South AfricaBrady Hiatt, Sales Associate, lived in a safari camp in Welgevonden, South Africa for several months. “I was living in the warden’s quarters, and would spend hours catching small lizards and geckos from outside and bring them into my bedroom to enlist them in my nightly battle against mosquitoes,” he adds. “I remember having the most vivid dreams, fueled both by my malaria medicine and the dozens of lizards skittering across the walls.”

Receptionist Elizabeth Kester bunked down at a camp in another part of the world. “Of the places I’ve stayed, my favorite was a Bedouin tent in the Negev in Israel,” she says. “We ate a traditional Bedouin meal, rode camels around the Negev at sunset, and sat around a fire at night. I woke up at about 5 a.m. and looked out of the folds of the tent; I just remember feeling really miniscule and really alive with this quiet, expansive space in front of me. Also: there was a scorpion in our tent and everyone freaked out — not really a high point.”

Have you stayed in a unique spot? Please share your own experiences and any suggestions for unusual lodging around the globe.