Intrepid Traveler: Fun sleeps that don't cost a fortune

Published April 2, 2006

For less than $20 you can bunk down in a 19th century lighthouse on the California coast, a deco landmark in South Beach or a cabin in the Colorado Rockies. The only catch: You'll have bunk mates.

Welcome to the world of hosteling, where you get a bed in a sex-segregated dorm - though many also offer cheap private rooms - camaraderie and communal spaghetti dinners in the shared kitchen, and a gaggle of potential companions you can easily talk into joining you surfing, skiing, hiking, mountain biking or sightseeing.

True, many hostels are reminiscent of concrete block college dorms, but there are also spectacular ones that break the mold. Here are some of the funkiest, most memorable and cheapest lodgings in the nation.


The Clay Hotel & Hostel, South Beach

It doesn't get more Miami than the Clay, where Al Capone ran a 1930s gambling den, Desi Arnaz once played rumba in the lounge, and Miami Vice filmed its pilot. This art deco icon is split between a hostel (bright, shared dorms, each with A/C and a minifridge) and a cheap hotel (doubles start at $54.25). Want more? It's two blocks from beach - in three directions. Also: barbecue and movie nights, discounts at South Beach nightclubs, and daily tours of the city ($27), the Everglades ($39) and Key West ($49). Toll-free 1-800-379-2529; www.clayhotel.com, $24.

Redwood National Park Hostel, Klamath, Calif.

Most folks just drive through Redwood National Park, then book a pricey B&B in town, little realizing they can sleep under the 300-foot trees inside the park in this 1908 pioneer home transformed into an eco-hostel with a comfy, private-home feel. It's right on the 70-mile Coast Trail, just across the street from the beach - which means surfing and whale watching by day and bonfires by night. Open March through November; lockout 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; curfew 10 p.m. Toll-free 1-800-295-1905; www.norcalhostels.org/redwoods, $16-$19.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse, Pescadero, Calif.

This historic lighthouse keeper's home perches above the Pacific next to a towering, 1872 lighthouse. Nature nuts flock here, 50 miles south of San Francisco, to watch harbor seals, pelicans and (March through May) gray whales from the oceanside hot tub. Nearly 150 species of migratory birds can be spotted in neighboring Pescadero Marsh, and northern elephant seals breed (December through March) in nearby Año Nuevo State Reserve (book guided walks at parks.ca.gov). Lockout 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; curfew 11 p.m. Toll-free 1-888-464-4872, ext.73; www.norcalhostels.org/pigeon, $18-$25.

Fireside Inn, Breckenridge, Colo.

Breckenridge is a four-season Rockies resort with excellent skiing in winter on more than 2,208 acres, and rafting, biking and hiking in summer. This hostel two blocks off Main Street has WiFi in the rooms, is a free shuttle bus ride (or 10-minute stroll) from the ski lifts, and has a hot tub for soaking after a hard day on the slopes. Copper Mountain, Arapahoe Basin, and even mighty Vail are all within striking distance. Whoever said a Rockies ski vacation had to cost an arm and a leg? (970) 453-6456; www.firesideinn.com, $26 ($30-$38 in ski season).

Jazz on the Park, New York

This hostel offers the full New York City experience: cramped digs, an antique heating system, sometimes surly staff and (free) bagels for breakfast. But, in a city where even the Super-8 runs $150, it's insanely cheap, plus it achieves that Holy Grail of New York real estate - location, location, location - on Central Park West at 106th Street, a few blocks from the subway, St. John the Divine, and the hopping scene at Columbia University. (There are two other "jazz'' locations - on the Town-East Village and on Harlem). It's a bit of a party place, with free BBQ and pizza soirees, no curfew and no draconian liquor laws. Bonus: There's WiFi in the lobby. (212) 932-1600; www.jazzonthepark.com, $27-$32.

AYH Ranch Hostel, Vashon Island, Wash.

Judy Mulhair has turned her 10 acres of Douglas fir at the northern tip of Vashon Island - wedged into Puget Sound between Seattle and Tacoma - into an oddball, cowboys-and-Indians-themed hostel. Beds are scattered between a cabin, cozy covered wagons, and Sioux-style tepees (or BYO tent for $9). Free bikes, free pancake mix (you cook) and free campfire wood. Open May through October (in winter, private quads cost $70-$80). (206) 463-2592; www.vashonhostel.com, $16.

Truro Hostel, Cape Cod, Mass.

A weekend on the Cape may be the quintessential New England upper-crust vacation, but cheapskates can horn in on the action at this 1930s Coast Guard station two minutes from the beach (free boogie boards) in the middle of Cape Cod National Sea Shore Park - 43,608 acres of dunes, marshes, cranberry bogs, bike paths and beaches. The hostel is 8 miles from the National Audubon Bird Sanctuary and 10 miles from the galleries and restaurants of Provincetown. It also offers discounts on whale-watching cruises and guided sea kayaking. Open June 23 through Sept. 4. Toll-free 1-888-901-2086 (out of service until June opening); www.usahostels.org/cape, $24-$29.

Reid Bramblett is the founder of ReidsGuides.com. He has written 10 guidebooks on destinations as diverse as Tuscany and New York City.