2005: Best places to spend the night

I was away from home 88 nights during 2005, with a tremendous variety in lodging. The settings were plush to rustic, in urban to remote areas. Accommodations were extravagant to bare bones, including a bunkhouse, a drafty old farmhouse and a Vegas mega-hotel that is too excessive to be memorable.

You’ve already heard about some of the great places: The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, a throwback to more genteel times, to The Irish Cottage in Galena, Ill., a new lodge that tries to stay true to its ethnic heritage.

I won’t dwell on a bed and breakfast in Sedona, Ariz., that is operated by a Waukesha native. Or the steady grace and comfort relished at Green Lake’s Heidel House. Both will be a part of columns in 2006.

The top 10 for 2005 includes properties encountered during anonymous travel as well as travel writer conferences and press trips. Omitted are my many adequate but predictable stays at the chains, but two surprising exceptions were the new Baymont Inn in Plymouth and the all-suite Holiday Inn Express in Kenosha. Both were steps ahead of others with the same brand name.

In the top 10 are:

Pilgrim Center, southwest of Ripon – This faith-based retreat overlooks pretty Green Lake. Grab a cup of coffee and linger in front of the giant fireplace. Simple but tasty meals, with vegetarian options, are served buffet and family style. Strangers share rooms and bathrooms.

Although operated by United Church Camps Inc., a United Church of Christ endeavor, other faith communities can arrange group events. That is what has brought me here, during more than one winter.

Best memory: Watching wildlife during an all-silent group breakfast. Not with a group? There are camps/retreats for children, families, women, men and people with specialty interests (drama to sailing to cooking).

www.ucci.org, 920-748-6750.

The Bayfield Inn Guest House, Bayfield – A stay at the inn, which overlooks Lake Superior and is near the ferry to Madeline Island, is a typical motel experience. Nothing wrong with that, but across First Street is a more homelike atmosphere.

The Guest House is well-appointed and a great location for entertaining. The well-decorated suite resembles an upscale condo more than an Up North refuge.

Complete with fireplace, and a good base for watching the sled dog races in early February.

www.bayfieldinn.com, 800-382-0995.

Stone Cottage, Wisconsin Rapids – Just as the area’s cranberries began to ripen this fall, I pulled into this charming one-bedroom hideaway that used to be a foreman’s quarters at Glacial Lake Cranberries.

It is perfectly quiet at night, and a perfect match for bird lovers. What you don’t see outside – twittering finches to squeaky sandhill cranes – you can examine in books, magazines and taxidermy inside.

There is a private swimming hole in summer, cross country trails in winter.

www.cranberrylink.com, 715-887-2095.

The Pfister, Milwaukee – Less than a half-dozen lodges in Wisconsin earn a four diamond rating from AAA; both the hotel and its upscale restaurant, Celia, have the distinction.

A grand hotel since 1893, The Pfister is elegant and within a walk of worthy attractions. Head three blocks to reach the Milwaukee Art Museum and Lake Michigan, or the heart of the theater district.

The hotel’s art collection, heavy with late Victorian works, is the largest of its kind in the world.

www.thepfisterhotel.com, 800-558-8222

Grand Canyon Caverns Inn, Peach Springs, Ariz. – The closest lodging to Havasu Canyon (65 miles northwest) is a no-frills, inexpensive and clean motel on historic Route 66. This is where we spent the night before a 10-mile hike into the Grand Canyon.

The property also has an underground, prehistoric, natural limestone cavern that can be toured, plus a restaurant with filling but not fussy grub.

www.gccaverns.com, 928-422-3223.

Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore Hotel, Baltimore – High in both personality and value, it is slightly beyond the bustle of Harborplace attractions and entertainment. We took light rail from the airport to get within three blocks of the hotel, then walked.

The art deco property is a nice mix of old and new, high-tech amenities as well as a ballroom with Waterford crystal chandeliers. On the National Register of Historic Places, accommodations are plush, not antiquated.

It is a pleasant (but bit hilly) walk of a half-dozen blocks to both Camden Yards and the city’s Inner Harbor.

www.radisson.com, 800-333-3333 or 410-539-8400.

Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza, Cincinnati – This stunning downtown hotel is a National Landmark, within a walk of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, shopping (connected to the hotel by skywalks) and the city’s biggest sports venues.

The French art deco architecture and upscale accommodations help this 1931 hotel earn four diamonds from AAA. It is full of marble, brass, ceiling paintings and floral flourishes.

www.cincinnatinetherlandplaza.hilton.com, 800-445-8667 or 513-421-9100.

Brickhouse Inn, Gettysburg, Pa. – Grab a tall glass of lemonade and head for the porch, to rock a spell while watching tourists eat ice cream and shop for antiques.

This spacious banker’s house has homespun décor and is in the heart of the town’s historic district, within a walk of both Lincoln Square and the National Park Visitors Center. Closest are the National Cemetery and Culp’s Hill.

What’s for breakfast? Shoo Fly Pie, always, plus more traditional fare.

www.brickhouseinn.com, 800-864-3464.

The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, Scottsdale, Ariz. – Here’s how to NOT experience an extraordinary, five-diamond resort: Schedule a flight to arrive after dark, check in after the restaurants have closed and be on your way the next morning.

We were around long enough to visit the tapas bar, sleep like royalty and experience how serene the place feels after sunset. This pink princess, a Spanish colonial beauty, is big enough to host pro golf and tennis championships.

It is a maze of water (five heated pools), landscapes (a mountain/desert backdrop) and pampering (the spa is 44,000 square feet).

www.fairmont.com, 866-540-4496 or 480-585-0086.

The West Kierland Resort & Spa, Scottsdale, Ariz. – Arrive with willpower, and you may leave feeling like you’ve gotten the best deal of your life.

We made arrangements to visit after getting this promo in the mail: Arrive on a Sunday or Monday, pay $379 for four nights and a $175 certificate for resort services.

Rack rates begin at $350 per night, so it was a great deal, on an inviting and lush property. The catch? You had a visit a concierge to get the certificate (good toward meals, spa treatments, golf, shopping), and were asked to attend a timeshare presentation.

Such attendance cannot be required in Arizona, so we politely declined the invitation – only to be offered more in gift certificates, if we’d attend a timeshare session. We declined again, and again (there were phone calls daily), and spent our time at spring training baseball games, Taliesin West and sightseeing.

You’ll hear more in a couple of months, and we were surprised to see the same Westin promo arrive in the mail last month.

www.kierlandresort.com, 888-625-5144.