2008: top lodging encounters of the year

Deep discounts for lodging are commonplace during this time of year, so it’s easier to afford lovely vacation accommodations. Here are my top six experiences of 2008.

When my brother and I travel, it is highly unlikely that we’ll book a bed and breakfast for our overnight stay. Comfortable as these surroundings might be, they tend to be about king-sized beds and whirlpool tubs for two.

One refreshing exception is The Fringe: A Country Inn, on the outskirts of Sheboygan Falls, although it also has the ingredients for romance. The converted carriage house has been a B&B since 2004, but not the frilly, lovers-only type.

Roomy gathering space, with fieldstone fireplace, is ideal for stretching out or bringing together family or business colleagues. Our Therese Barbara – one of four guest rooms – was large enough for king and twin beds, plus two recliners.

For more about The Fringe, 711 Giddings Ave., Sheboygan Falls: www.thefringecountryinn.com, 866-374-6430. Room rates start at $73.

Grand old ladies get my respect, and at the top of the list is The Palmer House, which has been housing travelers in Chicago’s Loop since the 1870s. A $170 million overhaul brings fire escapes indoors, upgrades room décor and enhances museum-quality ceiling murals and moldings.

In hallways of this enormous building, which has more than 1,600 rooms, are vintage photos of the many celebrities – Louis Armstrong to Frank Sinatra – who have performed in the hotel’s Empire Room.

History is rich in other ways, too. The Palmer House takes credit for inventing the brownie, installing Chicago’s first elevators and being the continent’s longest, continuously operating hotel.

For more about The Palmer House, 17 E. Monroe St., Chicago: www.hilton.com, 312-726-7500. Room rates start at $89.

Think “Amway,” and you’ll likely envision the company that peddles practical products: cleaning and personal care items, vitamins and food supplements. The business also is responsible for restoring a splendid hotel in downtown Grand Rapids, Mich., which does not look extraordinary from the outside but was one of the nation’s top 10 hotels in 1925.

Crystal chandeliers and gold leaf glitter at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, in business since 1913, set the tone for elegance in service and décor. The location also is sublime, near the Gerald Ford Museum and the Grand Rapids Art Museum.

Consider splurging at the hotel’s 1913 Room, Michigan’s only five-diamond restaurant.

For more about the Amway, 187 Monroe Ave. NW, Grand Rapids: www.amwaygrand.com, 800-253-3590. Room rates start at $129.

I jumped at the chance to visit Alberta, Canada, last winter and taking a snowy train ride from Calgary to Jasper National Park was one highlight.

Our destination was the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, where you might see moose striding outside of your cabin window and a steamy outdoor pool has the Canadian Rockies as a backdrop. Don’t be fooled by the rustic setting; indoors are deliciously decadent, contemporary amenities.

Such accommodations, in the middle of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are unusual – and especially welcome during winter. Daytime excursions can be as rigorous or gentle as desired, snowshoeing to ice climbing, and outings booked through the hotel will include transportation.

For more about the Jasper Park Lodge, Old Lodge Road, Jasper: www.fairmont.com/jasper, 800-441-1414. Room rates start at $148.

Shortly after the stone Culloden Estate and Spa, Belfast, was built in 1876, it became a palace for a bishop. Today the building caters to Bono of U2, Tony Blair and average travelers but still sits atop a wooded hillside near the edge of Northern Ireland’s capital city.

The Culloden’s garden-rich acreage overlooks the Irish Sea and is pleasantly isolated from the busy-ness of urban life. It is five minutes from Hollywood, but this version contains an abundance of crafts and antiques instead of celebrities.

Inside of the Gothic mansion is a strong sense of comfort and courtesy. Guests lounge with a book or newspaper, children behave properly, adults speak in congenial tones. We also noticed a discreetly placed condiment on the breakfast buffet: Irish whiskey, to slip it into your porridge

For more about Culloden Estate, Bangor Road, Belfast: www.hastingshotels.com, 28-9042-1066. Room rates start at $130.

We decided to fly into Milan during a trip to Italy this year because a promotional airfare from Chicago (on Air One) couldn’t be beat, but that meant spending our last night near the airport and seeking a hotel with free shuttle service. It wasn’t an easy feat, but then we discovered First Hotel Malpensa.

The modern, boutique hotel rightfully boasts about its soundproofed rooms – important because of the property’s location between airport terminals. But it’s also in a modest neighborhood with Michelin-rated dining options.

One is the hotel restaurant. Another is the next-door, family-owned trattoria where language might be a barrier, but you’ll laugh with and hug the proprietors anyway.

For more about First Hotel Malpensa, Via Baracca 34, Case Nuove: www.firsthotel.it, 39-0331-717045. Room rates start at $140. Day use rate (good for 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.) is about $70.

Observations are the result of independent travel, conferences of travel writers and press trips. Recommendations include, but are not limited to, subsidized and complimentary meals. Room rates are subject to change.