Hello everybody! Welcome back for the third installment of the Golden Hedgehog Awards for Lodging, wherein we recognize the finest and most spectacularly wonderful places we stayed on our round-the-world trip! Let's start with a quick recap of what we've seen so far:
- #11 – Posh luxury in Vang Vieng, Laos
- #10 – A good "home base" in Siem Reap, Cambodia
- #9 – Turning 30 in Arequipa, Peru
- #8 – Getting engaged in Fethiye, Turkey
- #7 – A hidden garden in Vilcabamba, Ecuador
- #6 – A call to prayer in Istanbul, Turkey
- #5 – A tranquil oasis in Bangkok, Thailand
- #4 – Feeling at home in Göreme, Turkey
In this installment, we'll be covering award-winners #3 and #2. They could not be more diametrically different: one is a hostel in the center of one of the largest city we visited on our trip, and the other is a ramshackle hut by the beach, almost directly on the other side of the world.
As before, if you didn't read our ground rules in Part 1 of this series, you might want to take a quick moment to acquaint yourself with them now.
On March 4, 2005, we landed in Buenos Aires. After years of saving and planning, our trip had finally begun. We had sold everything we owned, and we were officially unemployed and homeless.
What we didn't realize was that we wouldn't stay unemployed and homeless for long. Within a few weeks, I'd start doing the occasional bit of freelance work, eventually making enough to extend our trip from 12 to 18 months. And within a few hours of landing in BA, we would have ourselves a home: the San Nicholas Hostel on Avenida Bartolomé Mitre.
The San Nicholas has all the usual hostel amenities. It's well-located, smack in the middle of El Centro, in the thriving center of this marvelous city. It offers nice little rooms at a cheap price – when we were there it cost 64 pesos (about $20) for a double room with a private bathroom, less if you just wanted a shared bathroom. The hostel is actually divided into two parts: on one side of the street is the dorms, and across the street (where we stayed) are all the couples and private rooms. There's a communal kitchen, a common room with a TV and free internet, and a little restaurant where you get a free breakfast every morning. Pretty standard stuff. So why does it come in as our #3 room of the entire trip? Well, three reasons, really.
The first reason is, frankly, because it was our first love. We stayed at about 100 other places on our trip, but when we first checked into the San Nicholas everything was new to us.
We've occasionally looked back to the very first time we traveled together: a road trip up to Montreal in a rented Lincoln Town Car. What if it had gone horribly? What path might our lives have taken if we'd never fallen in love with traveling together?
I look back on our beloved San Nicholas with the same emotions. What if it had all been awful? What if we'd been cheated or robbed, or if our room had been grim and filthy, or if the other travelers there had been pricks?
Fortunately, just like our first road trip, San Nicholas did not let us down. And for that alone, it will always be dear to our hearts. That is not, however, the only reason it ranked so high on this list.
There's also the matter of the friends we made there. This was another thing that was new to us: we'd expected travel to be a lonely affair, having left all of our friends back at home. We'd had no idea how many friends we'd make on the road, but it was something we discovered right there, right at the very beginning. Never before and never again would we forge so many friendships so quickly. We've talked before, of course, about Paul and Caroline, and Gemma and Stuart. But those were just four among the dozens of friends we made at the San Nicolas. I can't tell you how nostalgic I've gotten for them all looking through our photos while working on this post.
Part of why we made so many friends there is the third reason it ranks so highly: we were there for so damn long. We returned to Buenos Aires, and to the San Nicholas Hostel, three times during our travels throughout Argentina. The third time was when Jessica started taking her Spanish classes, and we stayed for a month. We got to know the place inside and out, every nook and cranny. We'd buy our groceries at the Coto Supermercado down the street and spend hours cooking together in the kitchen. We bought flowers and fruit to decorate our little room. We started eschewing the hostel's free breakfast and popping into the neighboring bakery every morning for some medialunas and café con leché.
We even became part of the tour one day: we were making lunch when a girl came through showing the place off to a couple of potential guests. As she led them through the kitchen, she paused in front of us and declared, "And these are our oldest guests."
And stop me if you've heard this before, but the place started to feel like home. I know we've said that about a handful of places we've stayed on our trip (and it's true of most of the top half of this list)... but this was the first place it happened. This was our very first home on the road. And it really was one of the very, very best.
The classic "Thai beach hut" is one of the things we dreamed about most before our trip, so it's only fitting that our version of this backpacking archetype shows up as the second-best place we stayed on our trip. This one is on the mountainous, jungle-choked island of Ko Chang, two hundred miles to the southeast of Bangkok.
As Jessica talked about last week, when we got to Thailand we were pretty down. We missed our families, from whom we'd never before been separated during the holidays. We were homesick something fierce. And after about 10 months on the road, we were feeling a little burned-out. We started talking about scratching the rest of our trip and going home early. None of this was helped by the screaming manic frenzy that is bustling Bangkok.
We needed out. We needed something a little more soothing, to help us recharge for the next leg of our trip. We found that in spades at a little place called The Blue Lagoon.
Our hut was spare and basic, and we could not have loved it more. It sat on stilts out over the lagoon, with four large french doors opening out onto a marvelously rustic deck. The water gurgled a few inches beneath the wooden slats of our floor, and our bathroom was surrounded by wooden walls but had no roof other than a small leaf of corrugated metal hanging out over the toilet, in case you needed to do your business during a rainstorm. The long flowing curtains over the doors were echoed in the white cascade of mosquito netting that surrounded the bed. From that bed, you could look out over the lagoon to the palm trees swaying on the beach on the other side. Just beyond them lay the warm, brilliant waters of the Gulf of Thailand.
It was, in a word, paradise. And all for only 400 baht a night (about US $10).
To get to the beach, you walked along a long, rickety bamboo catwalk across part of the the lagoon. Once at the beach, if you wanted to head south (as we often did), you had to wade through the ankle-deep turquoise waters of the lagoon's mouth, or else yank your way across on a tiny, unstable, pulley-driven raft.
The beach along Ao Klong Prao ("Coconut Bay") is dotted with a few über-expensive resort-style hotels, and for some reason the people who choose to stay in these hotels seem to choose the swimming pool over the bay. I can't for the life of me imagine why, but the net result is that we generally had both the beach and the bay almost entirely to ourselves.
The beach was one of the most perfect I've ever seen, with sand the texture of baby powder and seas the temperature of bathwater. The bay is ridiculously shallow, so much so that we'd often frolic in waist-deep water nearly a quarter-mile out to sea. Looking back at the beach from there, you're able to properly frame it, backed as it is by towering mountains and impenetrable jungle. It really is just the most glorious place.
As with San Nicholas, friendships loom large in my memories of the Blue Lagoon. The hut to our right was inhabited by a lovely Russian couple named Dima and Nadya, with whom we spent hours and hours sharing stories over some freshly-split coconuts. And it was there that we were first reunited with out beloved Klaus, whom we'd last seen in Ecuador, half a world away. From Ko Chang, the three of us would next travel together into Cambodia, in search of new adventures.
Ok, well that's it for this installment of the Golden Hedgehog Awards. It'll be two more weeks until our next episode, in which we take a brief moment (in anticipation of the upcoming grand-prize winner) to remember those places we stayed that might have made the list... if only something hadn't gone catastrophically wrong.
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