Good night value: eco cottage to Pod hotel

Good value matters when traveling. Here are six places to find it, from overnights that enriched my own travels during 2010.

Aloft Milwaukee Downtown – Among Milwaukee’s newest lodging options is this hip and practical hotel within a walk of the Bradley Center, Riverwalk, theaters, dining and nightlife.

Sharp geometrics and bold colors define the first-floor lounges and bar, and clientele migrate onto an enclosed patio during warmer weather. Buy a latte, pastry, fresh fruit or pint of Ben and Jerry’s from the lobby-level pantry (open 24/7). Dip into jars of complimentary hard candy sticks – sour apple, fruit punch and butter rum were in stock during my visit.

In-room coffee brews by the cup. In-room reading materials include Spin and Wired. Expect a big-screen TV, rainhead shower and free WiFi.

Aloft, with multiple locations nationwide, is at 1230 N. Old World Third St., Milwaukee. Rates start at $89. For more: www.AloftHotels.com/Milwaukee, 414-226-0122.

The Pod Hotel – How often do you find comfortable quarters in Manhattan for less than $150 a night? Stylish and thrifty traveling is possible in Midtown, within a walk of Broadway and Rockefeller Center, especially if you’re willing to share a bathroom.

Uh-huh. That made me squeamish, too, but The Pod eases concerns. Small, in-room lights show when and where bathrooms (four, in my vicinity) are vacant. Shower fixtures are luxurious, the bathrooms sizable, conditions tidy, décor minimal but pleasant.

In each Pod are a comfortable bed, stainless steel sink, desk, chair, clothes rack and free WiFi. A small TV, with swivel arm, is attached to the bedside wall. Sounds sparse, and is, but it’s also agreeably cozy.

Feeling claustrophic? Unlikely, but classy common areas are next to the lobby and on the rooftop. Concierge and bellhop staff is down-to-earth. Bars, restaurants and a subway stop are within the block.

The Pod is at 230 E. 51st St., New York. Rates start at $85 (in January); rooms with private baths start at $139. For more: www.thepodhotel.com, 800-742-5945.

Giant City State Park – Within the 280,000-acre Shawnee National Forest of southern Illinois is a 4,000-acre park that is rich with hiking and rock climbing among enormous sandstone outcroppings. The beautiful location feels eerily detached from civilization, with an aura of peril; consider the first sign to greet visitors: “Dangerous areas exist within this park. Extreme caution should be used in these areas.”

At the park’s core is a sturdy lodge of white oak timber and sandstone, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s for $106,000 and perched on the forest’s highest point.
Look for the heavy wooden doors, thick and hand-hewn beams and a circular stairway that leads to a balcony that offers nooks for relaxing and people watching.

The lodge restaurant is known for its fried chicken, and just out the door are freestanding cabins, also constructed by the CCC, but this is not rustic lodging. Expect satellite TV and clean, respectable motel furnishings.

Giant City Lodge is at 460 Giant City Lodge Rd., Makanda, Ill. Rates start at $69, and cabins are rented from February until mid December. For more: www.giantcitylodge.com, 618-457-4921.

Lonnie’s Eco Cottage – For rent in southwestern Michigan is a secluded, octagon-shaped cedar cabin that is the former refuge of doctor, author and sex therapist Lonny Myers of Chicago.

Inside are artistic touches, including pottery and a fallen Baltimore oriole’s nest that resembles a finely woven vase. The latter sits on the mantle of a massive fieldstone fireplace.

Visitors experience life off the grid: That includes a composting toilet and one-burner stove that runs on alcohol. An on-demand water heater produces steamy showers in a snap. Sunlight pours through the many windows, minimizing the need to add artificial light.

Attached to the cottage is a roomy, screened porch, for sitting by candlelight as night arrives with its choir of tree frogs and crickets. Only forest, fields and river surround this isolated but not primitive roost for the night.

The cottage is a part of the 350-acre Ronora Lodge and Retreat Center, a former camp for girls. Other lodging options are more straightforward: simple dorm rooms, ordinary cottages with kitchens, a lodge with 10 bedrooms, sundeck and fieldstone fireplace.

Ronona Lodge is at 9325 Dwight Boyer Rd., Watervliet, Mich. Eco cottage rental is $175 per night. For more: www.ronoralodge.com, 269-463-6315.

Honey Creek Resort State Park – It took more than 30 years of politics, planning and prioritizing before the doors to this government-owned resort opened in 2008 as a way to boost tourism, about 25 miles from the Iowa-Missouri border.

Now a lodge with 105 guest rooms, 28 cottages (one to four bedrooms), an 18-hole golf course, indoor waterpark, RV park and convention center exist on the state’s biggest tract of prairie (which extends to the lodge’s front door). Add modern amenities – plasma-screen TVs, free WiFi – and hotel-plush furnishings.

Organized activities for children – naturalist talks, sandcastle building – are commonplace. So are narrated boat rides at twilight and beginner kayaking classes (when weather cooperates). The resort’s Lake Rathbun was established in 1969, the result of a flood control project, and is Iowa’s largest lake.

Honey Creek Resort is at 12633 Resort Dr., Moravia, Iowa. Room rates start at $99. For more: www.honeycreekresort.com, 877-677-3344.

Dana Hotel and Spa – You might not think that raw concrete ceilings and exposed pipes belong in a luxury property, but think again. Three blocks west of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile is boutique lodging that is locally owned and environmentally conscious.

Add recycled and reclaimed wood, glass and other materials, for the makings of a message that “plush” need not mean thick carpeting or a ton of incidental accoutrements. Spa flooring is recycled beer bottles.

Mr. Kites, a Chicago candy and nut business, provides little bags of snacks, but prices aren’t what you’d expect in the big city. So you can get an in-room fix of caramels, toffee or chocolate for less than $5 – or open a bottle of wine for less than $20. WiFi, local calls and a daily newspaper are free. Chocolate-dipped fortune cookies appear on bed pillows at night.

For an eclectic thrill, head to the rooftop, even in winter, when 500 pounds of ice form a bar, the bartender wears a parka and customers sit around a firepit. The vibe is stylish, but if you’re not, it doesn’t much matter. “Eclectic” décor doesn’t mean pretentious attitude.

Dana Hotel is at 660 N. State St., Chicago. Rates start at $109. For more: www.danahotelandspa.com, 888-301-3262.

“Roads Traveled” is the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.