Hotels Of Whim And Vigor

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Ray Stonecipher thought it was hokey when he heard that his biotechnology convention was booked at the Wild Horse Pass Resort and Spa outside Phoenix, Ariz. The idea of a hotel designed around a western theme "sounded like a dude ranch," he says. Instead, the marketing manager from San Jose, Calif., found rooms decorated with authentic baskets and pottery from the Pima and Maricopa tribes; an upscale spa that offered such Indian-inspired treatments as tashogith, a clarification bath using juniper and cypress; and the Kai restaurant, which features dishes like lobster with fry bread, a Native American staple. Says Stonecipher: "It turned out to be anything but hokey."

One of the fastest-growing trends in travel is theme hotels. There are concepts for every taste: from the elegant Library Hotel in midtown Manhattan, where room numbers are based on the Dewey decimal system of classifying books (900.004 for the Asian History room), to the adventurous Jules' Undersea Lodge at the bottom of the Emerald Lagoon in Key Largo, Fla., where guests scuba dive to the entry of their underwater accommodations. "This is a real trend for the traveler who has been there, done that," says Mary Tabacchi, professor of hotel management at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration. "There's a whole market segment of travelers in Europe, the U.S. and Asia who are no longer just looking for a place to hang their suit and plug in their laptop. They want a hotel with interesting things to do."

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The big chains, still trying to recover from the travel slowdown that followed Sept. 11, are experimenting with leitmotivs too. A newly opened Marriott venture in Walnut Creek, Calif., is a fitness freak's paradise. Renaissance ClubSport Hotel and Fitness Resort's 6.5-acre campus offers basketball, volleyball, racquetball and squash courts, outdoor boccie courts, three swimming pools and kickboxing classes. All the guest rooms are outfitted with sets of 2-lb. dumbbells, and power shakes are on the menu. And the Wild Horse itself is the product of a collaboration between the Sheraton and the Maricopas and Pimas. The $125 million resort is located on the Gila River Indian Reservation, wild horses roam freely across the 40-acre property, and tamed ones are available for riding. The place has no tepees and no powwows, but ribs from saguaros poke through the ceilings of the meeting rooms, and murals in the lobby recount tribal legends. "It's impossible for guests to leave here and not take at least a little piece of the Pima and Maricopa culture back with them," says sales and marketing director Jim Curtis. It's too soon to tell how the Wild Horse will fare, but Norman MacLeod, a Sheraton executive vice president, says the company already plans to open more hotels centered on the local history and culture of specific regions.

Smaller hotels helped pioneer the idea. Jules' Undersea Lodge opened 16 years ago, when its owners decided to convert a former oceanic-research laboratory into a cozy two-bedroom hotel with a common living area. The rooms are small, but there's air conditioning, a VCR, a microwave and a mini-fridge. Air and power are supplied by cable, scuba courses are offered to all guests, and room service is delivered from the surface, 21 ft. above, in a "dry box." But the prime attraction is the 42-in. windows that give guests a unique view of the wildlife swimming outside. The hotel last year averaged 400 guests, about 25% of whom were first-time divers. The guest book is filled with testimonials. Wrote Jeff and Michelle Wall, a couple from Harrison, Tenn., who were married at the lodge: "Fantastic. A sample of life in the sea. We didn't want to come back to the surface."

The Nordic Inn Medieval Brew & Bed in Crosby, Minn., opened five years ago and prides itself on immersing guests in a 10th century experience. The rooms are decorated with shields and armor; some beds are shaped like longships. Instead of the usual complimentary robe and cloth slippers, guests at the Nordic receive handmade Viking outfits with horned helmets and leather slippers. Entertainment includes a rowdy candlelit dinner with a floor show based on Nordic mythology. Owner Richard Edward Schmidthuber, who got the idea after people cheered the Viking costume he wore to a football game, says he intentionally made the place "a little different" to distinguish it from the thousands of bed-and-breakfast inns. For those who insist on a 21st century association with the word Vikings, he's also created a football-theme room complete with AstroTurf, lockers from the Minnesota team's practice facilities and a urinal with a Green Bay Packers emblem.

Even hotels at the top end of the spectrum are adopting the high-concept approach. In New York City, the Library Hotel, where rooms run as high as $395 a night, borrows its theme from the neighboring main branch of the New York Public Library. Each of the hotel's 10 residence floors is dedicated to a different area of knowledge, and every room is subtly decorated with art and books reflecting its particular subject. The eighth floor is the literature floor, and the prints hanging on the wall in room 800.005, the Fairy Tales room, are scenes from The Wizard of Oz, Treasure Island and a 19th century children's story about a girl who won't eat her vegetables; a copy of Maurice Sendak's classic children's book Where the Wild Things Are, a collection of Russian tales and volumes of other mystical stories fill the bookshelf. Diane Ackerman, an essayist and poet from Ithaca, N.Y., used to stay at the tony Carlyle and Plaza hotels when she was in town but has become a frequent guest at the Library Hotel. "I have a nomadic mind, and my muse is very miscellaneous, so I like sampling the different rooms and the different subjects," she says. "I last stayed in the Fashion Design room, but I think Astronomy would be great fun." Occupancy rates have averaged about 80%. "As the market gets very difficult, one of the ways to stand out is by creating something different, not just to be another nice-looking hotel," says owner Henry Kallan. He will do it again next summer, in Prague, when the music-themed Aria opens its doors.

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