Bed decorated with leaves and seeds
Belize,  Botswana,  Galapagos Islands,  Rajasthan,  USA

Wherever I lay my hat … (continued)

Memorable places I’ve stayed, part two

What makes a place to stay special? Is it the location? The people? The building itself? Maybe in the best places it is all of these things, plus a small helping of ‘je ne sais quoi’.

When I set out to choose the top ten places we’ve stayed I realised how varied they have been, from upmarket hotels to friendly B&Bs and even a boat! But they all had something that made them stand out from the ordinary, which I hope you’ll see as I present the second set of five:

Rawla Narlai, Rajasthan

In the seventeenth century Jodhpur’s royal family built a hunting lodge on the edge of a small village in the heart of the Aravalli hills, Narlai. Today that lodge is an exquisite hotel, which was my favourite of all the places we stayed in Rajasthan. It has been very tastefully converted, retaining bags of character. It still feels old, unlike other heritage hotels we stayed in which were perhaps almost too well restored, albeit beautifully.

Our room was really lovely, packed with historic detail and antique furniture; yet with the modern conveniences we appreciate such as good plumbing and air conditioning. The king-size bed was very comfortable. We had seating inside and a day bed on the shady terrace outside. This room was in the older part. I gather that those in the newer wing are larger but have less character, and personally I was very happy we were where we were as the room was more than large enough and I wouldn’t have wanted to sacrifice the character!

There are plenty of activities on offer, including jeep safaris to look for leopards and village walks, and we took advantage of some of these. But it was also a great place for some time out from our busy sightseeing schedule in Rajasthan. The hotel grounds are gorgeous. Bougainvillea, morning glory and frangipani flowers trail everywhere. There’s a good-sized swimming pool tucked in one corner, while elsewhere there are pretty courtyards, fountains and lots of marble elephants. Elephants are a bit of a theme here because of the huge carved marble elephant on the top of a rocky outcrop, Narlai Hill, that towers above the property.

Narlai itself is a small village with an unusually large number of temples (even by Indian standards). It faces some of the same challenges as rural communities everywhere, with a declining population caused by some younger people drifting away, tempted by big city life and its wider opportunities. But its streets have thriving little shops, mainly catering only to locals; its farmers manage to feed their families and have produce over to sell; its people benefit from the opportunity to work in or for the hotel; and overall it has a more affluent (or more accurately perhaps, a less struggling) character than many other places we went. I loved staying here and wished we could have had longer to relax at the hotel and to explore everything the village and surrounding area have to offer.

We stayed in Narlai in 2015. For more about our time in Rajasthan see: The Palace of Bundi: Kipling’s ‘work of goblins’

Lamanai Outpost Lodge, Belize

From the moment we arrived at Lamanai and were greeted at the dock by the friendly housekeeper, to the moment she saw us off four days later, we felt totally at home here, despite the fact that it couldn’t be more different from our city life in London.

Its wooden cabins are dotted on a hillside that slopes down to the lagoon, with the public areas at the highest point. We were lucky to be allocated a cabin at the bottom of the hill, its deck (with wooden seats and a hammock) overlooking the water. Despite the rustic appearance, the cabin was a good size and fairly well-appointed. There was no air-conditioning (according to the website this is now available), but the louvered (netted) windows filled two walls and let in plenty of cooling air from the lagoon.

Stays here are on an ‘all-inclusive’ basis, but it couldn’t be further from the usual image of such arrangements. Meals are good Belizean / international food, served in the open air with spectacular views over the lagoon (photo above) to a set menu. I was wary of this arrangement before we went. It’s not that I’m a fussy eater but I enjoy having a choice of dishes. But as it turned out the quality was so great that I had some of my most memorable meals of the holiday here.

And the included activities aren’t the typical resort water-sports; instead you can visit Mayan ruins, hunt for wildlife at night or try your hand at traditional recipes in the nearby village.

But this is also a very pleasant place in which to unwind and appreciate a slower pace of life. Grab a book and head for a hammock with a view of the lagoon; wander through the grounds and enjoy the tropical plants; head for the bar where tea and coffee are on tap all day; take a seat on the dock, armed with binoculars, and do some bird-watching; or take one of the canoes out on the lagoon and have a leisurely paddle. With so much to do, I only wished we had been staying longer!

In the evening there were wildlife-spotting boat trips. And later we could relax in the comfortable bar, decorated with interesting images and artefacts from the surrounding area, and with bar staff who made a mean rum punch!

We stayed at Lamanai in 2010. For more about our time in Belize see: Lamanai: submerged crocodile

Xugana Island Lodge, Botswana

This small lodge is located on a small island towards the northern edge of the Okavango Delta, in a lagoon said to be one of the most beautiful of them all. Or as the website says, ‘the most spectacular permanent water site in the entire delta, which itself is Africa’s largest and most awe-inspiring oasis’. Having not seen all the others I am unable to judge, but spectacularly beautiful it certainly was!

The lodge has just eight rooms and takes a maximum of 16 guests at a time, though there were never more than 12 when we were there, creating a very friendly, homely atmosphere. Guests, guides, staff and management all eat together, reinforcing this sense of home.

The only way to get here is by air. The small planes that serve the various Okavango camps operate much like buses, dropping off and picking up passengers along the way. Nervous flyers might not enjoy this journey but for me it was one of the highlights of our time in Botswana, affording me a wonderful introduction to the landscape of the delta.

Rooms at Xugana are built of reeds and thatch, and all have a view of the lagoon from the deck – and from the shower! I found our room lovely in a rustic fashion, and the bed was beautifully decorated with petals, towels folded to look like swans and more. The one downside was that the rooms are screened at the windows but not glazed, and the chilly wind found its way inside all too easily. I had known of course that temperatures drop here at night; but I had expected warmer days, and had thought that staying in hotels, rather than camping, would mean that we didn’t need as many warm clothes. Clearly I had thought wrongly! So one of my first actions here was to buy a fleece from the small lodge shop. This I would wear almost constantly for the next three days!

All meals and activities are included in stays here. We had a wonderful programme exploring the delta by boat and on foot. The latter excursions were especially memorable: walking through long grass, skirting herds of elephants and spying hippos in the water below. Our guide carried a loaded rifle, adding a frisson of danger to the exercise, although he never needed to use it.

And in the evenings there were mokoro rides along the narrow channels, half-hidden by tall rushes; and cocktails with some of the best sunsets I have experienced anywhere.

We stayed at Xugana Lodge in 2018

The Angelito, Galápagos cruise boat

We were very happy indeed with our choice of the Angelito for our Galápagos cruise. She isn’t a luxury vessel, but she is solidly built (entirely from wood), and owned (and crewed) by locals. She provided a friendly, comfortable setting that we believed helped our group to gel and absolutely fitted the unique atmosphere of this special part of the world.

The Angelito accommodates 16 passengers in 8 cabins, all of which at the time of our trip had bunk beds (they have since been upgraded and have regular beds). This was one factor that meant that the price of her cruises was lower than some others we considered. But the interest-levels of the itineraries and quality of guiding, the two most important factors in your enjoyment of a Galápagos cruise, are undoubtedly high unusually for a boat in her class; the guides are qualified to the top level (level three); and the boat can travel to some of the further flung islands.

Almost as important, the service we received on board was informal but of a very high standard. We had plenty of tasty food served by a super-friendly chef and a helpful and ever-smiling crew. There was a bar with an honesty system for drinks, including a ready supply of beer, and a small reference library of wildlife guides and other reading material.

To say that meals on the Angelito were generous would be an understatement, with big breakfasts and a large lunch and dinner every day. And not just meals; every time we returned on board after an island visit or a snorkelling session, a treat would be waiting for us. And with two visits each day, and snorkelling on most days, that’s a lot of treats! With all that to eat, is it any surprise that despite all the walking and swimming I did, I put on weight during the week?

We found the shared public areas more than adequate for the number of passengers, with a lounge space inside and seating on a covered aft deck and open foredeck. My favourite spot to relax and catch up with my diary or read became the aft deck; here the loungers were shaded and the view of frigatebirds and others following our wake always enticing.

Our cabin was pretty tiny but we didn’t spend much time there apart from sleeping. Chris quickly claimed the upper bunk, which I was glad to agree to. We found we had just enough storage space for our belongings, and soon settled into the space. We had a small bathroom with toilet, wash-basin and shower, and hot water was available at all times. Sheets were changed once during our stay, and towels were plentiful, both in the cabins and when needed after snorkelling or swimming.

If you’re looking for a luxury cruise, the Angelito won’t suit you. But if you want a friendly welcome, top-notch guiding and a genuine Galápagos experience, it’s hard to think it could be bettered!

We cruised on the Angelito in 2012. For more about our time in the Galápagos see: The waved albatross of Española Island; and: The ‘Christmas’ marine iguanas of Española Island

Spahn’s Big Horn B&B, Wyoming

This is the only accommodation included in my ‘Top Ten’ list that is no longer operational. That’s a shame, because we had a memorable couple of nights here back in 2006.

Getting here however was a little bit of a challenge! The road to the house was a steep winding one-lane gravel mountain road. We were warned about this in advance and told, ‘if you’re uncertain about driving it, just stop and honk, and we’ll come and help you.’ But we didn’t find it much of a problem in our small hire car, and it was well worth the effort!

As with some of the other special places I’ve described in this list, our stay here was more like a visit to friends than anything else. We were welcomed as part of the family and encouraged to make ourselves at home by George the dog as well as by Ron and Bobbie Spahn. The house had been built in log cabin style by Ron himself and managed to look both stylish and comfortable.

Our small bedroom, the Aspen Room, was small but very pretty and comfortable. The excellent cooked breakfasts were served family style. There was a deck with wonderful views, and a cosy sitting room where we were welcome to sit and swap travellers’ tales with the other guests, while Ron made helpful suggestions about more places to discover.

Ron was an ex-Yellowstone ranger, and a geologist, and had extensive knowledge of the area, knowledge he delighted in sharing. We took up his offer of guided trips and went on two tours with him. We had an evening wildlife drive and steak dinner, and a full day tour to the Pryor Mountains on roads that would have been inaccessible in our 2WD car. Although these excursions weren’t cheap we felt we really got our money’s worth out of the experiences, which we looked back on as among the highlights of our visit to Wyoming.

We stayed at Spahn’s B&B in 2006

So that is it, my ‘top ten’ memorable places we have stayed. They aren’t necessarily the most luxurious (although some were); but they all had something special about them, and often that something special came down to the people, whether staff or owner or (usually) both.

It’s been fun compiling this list but it will be even more fun when we can get out exploring the world again and hopefully finding many more memorable places to stay.


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