Subscribe

Archive | Travel

Germany (I)

germanyI co-wrote this monster of a guide along with Andrea Schulte-Peevers, Steve Fallon and Anthony Haywood.

I covered Bavaria, the ever-lovely Mecklenberg-Vorpommern, half of Lower Saxony (maybe the bigger half), half of Baden-Wurttemburg (the smaller one), Saxony and Saxon Anhalt.

And while Steve covered Berlin, I wrote the Trabant joke.

All told, probably my favorite parts of the country were the ones I thought I’d least like: Saxony – Leipzig is one of the hippest cities I’ve ever visited, and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where they grow trees along both sides of the road so that in summer it canopies all the highways.

This originally protected the horse-drawn fish carts as they made their way from the Baltic to markets in Berlin.

Florida

Florida_2Tackling the entire state of Florida with your wife is a great way to test the strength of a marriage, and Corinna and I had not just one but two books – this and Lonely Planet”s Miami – to do!

We managed not only to stay married, but to produce one hell of a guide – if we do say so ourselves – to a state most think offers little more than South Beach and Disney.

We went crazy on the outdoor activities, museums and art galleries to try to get away from the golf courses (which we didn’t include at all), condo-lined beach resorts and the madness of Kissimmee.

As a bonus, we ticked off loads of people who felt different – Jay Clarke roared in the Miami Herald that we’d inexplicably excluded the city of Naples from our guide (we left it out because it’s a golf-course packed, condo-lined beach resort), though he relented a bit and said that our book offered “more than most”

Golly, thanks, Jay

But the second edition of the book promises to be a kinder, gentler, Florida. There’s improved coverage of native American activities and history.

And of course, newly updated sections on all the state has to offer, from Disney to Drag Queens.

And yes, we’ve included a nice fat section on Naples which, truth be told, is a perfectly lovely city with some exquisite restaurants.

Brazil

brazil-2What a blast. I covered the states of São Paulo, Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo, as well as updating the history, flora and fauna, and all that stuff in the front of the book, while Andrew, Chris, Robyn and Leo tackled the rest of the country.

The basic assignment I got was, “Cut the book by half the length. And make it funnier.” That’s the kind of job I love. So I went. I’d always wanted to go to Brazil, but by the time I got there I had been writing LP books for about five years, and frankly I was burned out. I called my wife from a pay phone in Minas Gerais state.

“How’s it going?” she asked.

“Yeah, well,” I said, “basically everything is the same here as it is everywhere else, except that here I get to look at beautiful girls on the beach while I plod by with all my crap, as opposed to looking at ugly people in a city. So not much difference.”

Brazil, though marked the first time that I wrote a book entirely on the road, using a handheld device of the sort that used to be called a Personal Digital Assistant and is now called a “phone”. It was a WinCE machine that allowed me to type all my notes and corrections into the chapter file at the end of each day and send it via Internet home to Spain. For the first time, I wasn’t lugging all my notes and guidebooks and pamphlets and magazines.

Just half of them.

What, Me Worry?

Steven Caron has time on his hands, and with unique reason. For with all the talk in the U.S. media about the dangers of Russia and the “Mafia-controlled businesses” there, the congenial 26-year-old Californian entrepreneur has such reliable Russian business partners there’s not enough to keep him busy.

“It runs itself,” Caron says of Russian Youth Hostels and Tourism, a joint venture among Caron and two Russian friends. “I mean, I can go in to work and putter around a bit, but we’ve got such a great staff that I’m not really needed there anymore.”

Caron went to Moscow in 1990 to sit in on classes at the Moscow Art Theater, a move meant to advance his first love, a career in acting. But on a visit to St. Petersburg, he found himself spellbound by the 17th-century city, so he decided to transfer there and study Russian in earnest.

Over the next 1 1/2 years Caron, along with two administrators from the Moscow Art Theater, Nikolai Travinin and Oleg Dzanagati, formulated a plan to create the first youth hostel in the Soviet Union that would operate under Western standards.

In February 1992, an exceptionally good lawyer slashed through miles of what was still the Soviet Union’s red tape and registered the joint venture in a record two weeks.

Booked Solid
Caron’s Russian Youth Hostel officially opened in June 1992, and was semi- filled throughout the year as word of its existence filtered through the backpackers’ grapevine. But most important, it opened in time to be included in budget travel guides aimed at young travelers. Since 1993, the hostel has been booked solid.

While his partners ran the day-to-day business, Caron began the gargantuan task of insinuating his hostel into the worldwide hosteling network.

“On my first visit to the hostel in Helsinki,” says Caron, “I found out that some Estonians had just set up a hostel in Tallinn. I met with them, and we all decided that we should get together and promote that route – Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Estonia – as a Baltic Triangle.”

Establishing the Triangle was fortuitous in more ways than one: While Caron insists that the Mafia in Russia is in no way as bad as it’s made out in the Western media – that it concentrates on local businesses, not tourists – it still poses a real enough threat.

“We have to be extremely careful,” he says. “We don’t advertise in the city, but we advertise in Moscow and Helsinki and Tallinn, as well as in guidebooks; anything that the ‘no-necks’ won’t read. It’s a constant battle of promoting the hostel in the West but not gaining too much publicity here in town.”

But a far greater threat than the Mafia to the hostel’s existence are the Byzantine tax regulations imposed on businesses by the fledgling Russian government.

“If they stick another tax on me, I’m going to jump out the window,” says the otherwise preternaturally calm Californian.

Big Obstacle
The tax situation has long been one of the biggest obstacles to foreigners doing business in Russia. Laws change so suddenly and frequently that accountants use the day’s newspaper to determine what taxes their clients are required to pay.

Enforcement is organized, with tax police empowered to raid businesses’ books, make arrests and freeze bank accounts. And there’s a great incentive for the tax police to find new ways of catching non-payers: They work on commission.

“One friend of mine owned a cafe in town,” says Caron. “One day the tax police pulled up outside his place driving BMWs and wearing expensive suits – they had more money than he’d ever seen!”

So far, though, the tax situation hasn’t been enough to stop Caron.

Last year he established another joint venture, with the state museum that operates what has become St. Petersburg’s trademark: the Peter and Paul Fortress.

Caron now operates concessions within the fortress, providing sorely needed food and beverage stands as well as stands selling T-shirts. And Caron is hopeful that his company will be St. Petersburg’s first distributor for Ben & Jerry’s when the Vermont-based ice cream giant begins sales in the city (the company is currently operating in Petrozavodsk, about 100 miles north of St. Petersburg).

True to Hostelling
But over time, hosteling remains the purpose to which Caron is true. He’s upset by what he considers to be unfair reporting of the dangers in St. Petersburg, pointing out that “in two years of doing this, I’ve had two guests have serious trouble on the streets; both were drunk, and both were out very late at night walking in deserted sections of town.”

Indeed, security in the city has never been tighter. Police were on practically every street corner to keep order during the Goodwill Games in July, and there’s a plan to create a “tourist police” force, similar to those in Egypt, Indonesia and, more recently, Miami, composed of multilingual police officers to assist visitors.

For his part, Caron uses his “down time” to organize hosteling in Russia and improve St. Petersburg’s tourism infrastructure. He was instrumental in creating the Russian Youth Hostel Federation, which is composed of five hostels – his own and ones in Moscow, Novgorod, Irkutsk and Petrodvorets.

Caron’s energy seems endless, and if it ever does falter, he has a precious resource from which to draw in the community of foreigners living in St. Petersburg. In a city of more than 5 million, the expatriates have managed to create a community as tight as any town of several hundred, and they all get involved.

“The ex-pat community is larger than it was, but it’s still very small and very tight,” he says.

“The American Business Association here now has a sports committee and a social committee, and we see each other all the time – it’s amazing how close we all are, and how much we support one another.”

Obvious Western Influence
To guests at the hostel, the Western influence is readily apparent. The clean, well-lighted, five-story brownstone is guarded not by hulking security guards, but by grandmotherly types who admonish those who arrive too late at night.

Inside, while the Russian staff keeps things clean, backpackers from all over the world gather in the lobby area to do what hostelers everywhere do: drink coffee, laugh, share war stories and travel tips and make connections at the hostel’s crowded bulletin board.

To understand how Caron achieved his dream in a system fraught with pitfalls and booby-traps designed to thwart his every step, one need only look at how he relates to people.

When Caron bought an apartment last year, the seller, an emigrating Russian, took very little cash up front and Caron’s word to wire the balance to an account in the West. When the Russian arrived at his new home, the money was waiting for him.

IF YOU GO . .
The Russian Youth Hostel is near St. Petersburg’s Moscow Train Station off Ploschad Vosstaniya. Reservations can be made by calling Russian Youth Hostels and Tourism in Redondo Beach at (310) 379-4316 or in St. Petersburg at 011-7-812-277-0569. There is a $10 one-time reservation fee. Rates at the hostel are $15 a night including breakfast. Russian Youth Hostels also arranges visas for hostel guests.

Headhunters Down Under

kontrollerThe team of plainclothes agents moves in, and takes position. The suspect is in the corner, the gentleman with the pierced face, shaved head, tattoos and a scuffed leather jacket. He is almost 2 meters tall.I’ve seen this kind of thing before, riding shotgun with cops in New York and St Petersburg, but Munich’s kopfgeldjaeger, “head-hunters”, are different. They’re despised and mocked: I met one who’d appeared on a TV talk show as having one of the, “worst jobs in Munich”.

But the MVV Transit Ticket Controllers I met are, for all the world, a bunch of pussycats.

“It’s a game,” says Wolfy, amiable team leader of this 8-person crew which prowls the city’s public transport system in search of scofflaws. “They see us coming, and we see them see us coming.”

It certainly appears that way during the afternoon I spent sniffing out crime with them aboard Munich’s subways and trams. The affability of this group was was something of a let-down. I’d somehow expected (as had my editor, who also had hoped for tales of terror from below) that these folks would would be a right hard bunch.

Maybe they’re friendly because they’re hardly necessary: of almost 300 million riders last year on the Munich underground, only a paltry 3% to 5% actually ride “black”, or without a validated ticket. Those who do risk a fine of DM60 – money the MVV, Munich’s Mass Transit System, says you’d be better off spending on beer.

There’s really no “black riding” culture here as exists other cities like Amsterdam, where rider’s groups defy the law en masse. In Munich, most cough up. So relaxed was the control team I rode with that they told me I could say anything I wanted to about their methods, patrol tactics and procedures.

The Basics
Your chances of getting caught, and the patrol schedule, change like the wind. But one static figure is that there are 22 teams of eight agents on staff at the MVV.

They’re not cops – indeed their powers of arrest are identical to yours as a citizen. But they have the power to inspect your ticket, and issue fines. They can hold you until police arrive if you’re recalcitrant or they don’t believe you’ll pay (thoughfully, though, if you live in Germany, a bill will arrive at your house).

The Day
I met the team at the Hauptbahnhof, the central railway station, under which their headquarters is located behind one of those mammoth steel doors you pass daily and never notice. As we boarded the U4 Wolfi and I chatted about statistics and the risks.

“Most people are polite,” he said. “It’s not really a dangerous job. And people know who we are – you see five or eight people standing clustered on the platform talking, and carrying no bags, you figure they’re us – and you’re right.”

Sometimes teams lurk at the top of the stairs to the subway, doing “border checks” to nab passengers alighting from the U-Bahn.

One thing these folks have done is heard it all. There’s little you can say to them that’s not been tried before, probably tried in the last hour. For the record, the most commonly used excuse is, “The machine was out of order,” followed closely by “I lost my ticket”, both of which go over about as effectively as the old yarn involving your homework and your dog.

These are, however, reasonable folks. “We understand that this is a difficult system for foreigners to grasp,” says Gaby, a 20-year veteran and another huggably amiable – when she’s not asking for your ticket – agent. “If people don’t understand and we believe they tried to, we’ll give them a break.”

But mess with them and you’re in for it. “If we don’t believe you,” says Wolfi, “we’ll fine you, and if we think you won’t pay we’ll hold you for the police. A mistake is a mistake, but ‘paying’ is international.”

And don’t try the old “I-don’t-speak-German” dodge – all teams have an English speaker and many a French speaker, and all are armed with Wolfi’s custom-made chart which gives you the bad news in languages from Czech to Spanish, and Italian to Serbo-Croat.

We board another train, and the doors close. Instantly all scatter, whipping out their ID cards like Kojak at a raid, their presence going over like, well, Kojak at a raid.

The skinhead I discussed earlier bristled, and I thought we were in for some action.

“You got me,” he says, smiling.

Willi, the rookie of the group with just a year on the job (and the subject of that episode of the Sabrina show) tickets the perp, who politely hands over all documents requested and signs on the dotted line.

When it was over, the skinhead says something which convinces me the rest of my day is to be rather dull. He says, “Thank you.”

Desperate for some action, I tried one last question: “Do people ever run?”

“Sometimes,” said Wolfi.

Ah ha! “So, do you give chase?” I asked, breathlessly.

“No.”

It’s The Taxis, Stupid.

Violence is the No. 1 concern of foreigners contemplating a trip to the United States, according to participants at a Pow Wow round-table discussion that included top tour operators from Japan, Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy, Australia and Venezuela [1994].

The panel, hosted Tuesday by Bob Dickinson, Travel Industry Association of America chairman and president of Carnival Cruise Lines, allowed tour operators to explain what their customers like and dislike about the United States.

“A trip to the USA is a dream visit,” said Naoto Katsumata, deputy general manager of Kinki Nippon Tourist Co., which sent more than 100,000 Japanese visitors to America in 1993. “But what scares us most is the gun problem. If there was a solution to this, the amount of Japanese tourists to the USA would double.”

While stories of violence in the United States have created a feeling of dread among potential visitors, the tour operators were all generally positive about this country.

“One of the things Australians like most about America is how friendly the people are,” said David Farar, U.S. product manager of Swingaway World Holidays in Sydney.

“Most of our tourists enter through the West Coast and travel across the country, and practically everyone comments on how welcome they feel, and that gives great peace of mind.”

But violence was mentioned by all of the panelists as the major concern.

“There was a poll taken in Britain,” said Christopher Smart, president of Great Britain’s Jetsave Ltd. “One of the questions asked was what is the most violent place in the world. Kenya and Turkey came in third, followed by North Africa, but 47 percent named Florida the most violent destination in the world. That is the perception of the man in the street in Britain.”

Other subjects touched on were a seemingly universal dislike of American taxis and their drivers.

The major concern of the buyers themselves was the small amount of money the United States spends promoting itself, something tour operators, who work on narrow profit margins, feel should not remain the responsibility of the private sector.

“When we speak of countries’ perceptions of the U.S.,” said Smart, “consider that Morocco spent $1.3 million promoting its country in the U.K. last year; France $2.1 million; Turkey $1.2 million; and the United States Travel and Tourism Association spent $40,000, which was $40,000 more than they spent the last year.

“Travelers have the world to choose from, and America’s world share of tourists is down. As a tour operator, I have the world to sell my customers, but I can’t sell a destination. You have superb, dedicated people at the TTA, but you have no budget. And if the violence continues to be an issue, you will need a massive advertising campaign.”

Ermanno Fici, general manager of Jetset Voyages in Paris, agrees. “You need to educate people to increase tourism in America,” he said. “There needs to be a program to teach people that America is a diverse place with many attractions.” The Travel Industry Association of America has been lobbying to increase federal government spending on tourism.

“Travel and tourism to the United States brought in $74.4 billion last year,” said chairman Dickinson. “And the USTTA is operating on a budget of$20 million. This government spends more than twice that promoting U.S. agriculture overseas, which brings in less than half of the amount tourism generates.”

The Clinton administration is aware that tourism is now a major U.S. concern, and Travel and Tourism Association Director Greg Farmer has announced that the first-ever executive-level panel on travel and tourism will be held at the White House in late 1995.

Where Are The Nooklear Wessles?

I’d come to Severodvinsk, about an hour from Arkhangelsk, to see the submarines. An expatriate Italian bartender living in Arkhangelsk had told me I could take pictures of Soviet-built atomic-powered submarines right from the city’s harbor.

‘Course, what he didn’t mention was that Severodvinsk was a ” Closed City” – that is, off limits to foreigners even these days – because it’s a storage area for the Soviet-built atomic-powered submarines that park in its harbor. Formerly it was closed because it was a staging area for the nuclear gear that used to be transported to the islands of Novaya Zemlya, back when the Soviet Union was doing above-ground nuclear testing there.

The bartender assured me that, while the city was closed, it wasn’t ” very closed” .

After about an hour of looking on my own (I had taken bus No 3 on a three-loop tour of the city before realizing I was going in circles), I finally asked a kid where the subs were (” Excuse me, where are the nuclear submarines?” – which I pulled off with a dignity equal to that of Ensign Chekhov, who asked the same question of a San Francisco cop in Star Trek V) and was directed to a fence at the end of a long, deserted street.

The ” fence” turned out to be the entrance to some sort of naval facility, and as I passed the boundary (there was no one guarding it) I realized that from that point on, no amount of pleaded ignorance would help me if I – an American with a camera in a Russian military facility – were caught.

The water was now in sight, the subs just across the harbor from where I stood, but between them and me, moored at the docks, were two large gunships, sporting several large and rather vicious looking guns fore and aft.

A man with a face of stone and wearing an officer’s uniform stood between me and the subs.

” Hi!” I said, with a smile, ” May I take a photograph”

The officer looked at me a and grinned, and said, ” Why not?”

There were about eight black submarines parked just across the water, but far enough away to make my photographs look as if they were taken by a spy satellite in the 1960s. Still, I got the shots.

I looked over to one of the gunships and saw on board a young woman in a pink coat looking around ear the bridge. As I walked back past the gangplank, I asked the officer if I could take a look around on bord.

He smiled again and said, ” Of course, go right up.”

I saw the bridge, and the guns, but I started to get a little nervous; my Russian’s good enough to say what I had said so far, but anything ese would be a hopeless stretch, and I wanted to get out of there fast.

On my way out, a much more senior looking officer approached me with a look of investigatory intent.

” What is he doing here?” he asked, looking at me but speaking to the officer who had let me on board.

” He’s taking an excursion,” said the first.

The senior officer looked at me, rubbed his chin thoughtfully and said to the officer, ” You know, we really ought to set up a ticket booth out here.”

Europe Develops An Online Brokerage Culture

Further evidence of the development of an online European brokerage culture emerged Monday when German online broker Comdirect AG, which will soon replace LHS Group Inc. on the Neuer Markt’s Nemax 50 Index, announced that it almost doubled its customers in the first half of 2000. Comdirect’s customer head count rose 97%, to 545,000, and customers made about 5.4 million transactions, up from 1.6 million in the first half of 1999.

“Overall, online brokerage is definitely a part of banking life in Germany now,” Alexander Hendricks, Banking Analyst at ABN AMRO Bank, told TORNADO-INVESTOR.com.

But throughout Europe the nature of the online customer is changing. In Germany, public acceptance of retail investing has gotten huge shots in the arm from successful IPOs such as Infineon, T-Online and online broker Comdirect – the last two amidst absolutely horrendous market conditions. But the face of the typical German retail online brokerage customer is changing from the early adopters – more aggressive, sophisticated high-volume traders – to a more staid, middle of the road investor.

“The sophisticated investors were already on board,” said Marc Rubinstein, e-finance analyst for Credit Suisse First Boston, “But in Europe there’s an increasing amount of shareholders.”

“There’s been an explosion of interest in the stock market, in Germany,” said John Glendinning, Managing Director of comdirect.co.uk, “much of which coincided with boom in the market, led by the Deutsche Telekom float, and there is a large expansion of share ownership. “

The trend is widespread, and follows an overall pan-European interest in stockholding that has developed very recently. “Over the year ending May 2000,” said Credit Suisse’s Rubinstein, “there were 400,000 new shareholders in France – and a significant proportion of those investors are going online to manage their own accounts, so you see there’s a huge structural upside, beyond any cyclical factors that the market might bring.”

The problem for online brokers, then – and for those who invest in them – is finding new sources of revenues in order to maintain the growth rate of profitability. While Comdirect lists €11.9 billion in “assets under management”, they make very little for actually “managing” that money: because as an online brokers they are discount brokers, not managers, and do not charge traditional management fees.

The mainstay of the online brokerage bottom line has been transaction fees, but as new customers who trade less than the early adopters come in, and competition increases, analysts agree that transaction fees will be the first to come under attack.

“That’s one of the main reasons we’re not bullish on discount brokers,” said Metehan Sen, Senior Analyst for Financials at Sal.Oppenheim, “the fact that commission income will come under pressure in Germany – per trade you just won’t get the same amount you could two years ago. And then consider that marketing expenses, the costs of getting each customer, are skyrocketing.”

Consors and Comdirect have both begun offering services above and beyond the traditional offerings of a discount broker, and are doing them very cheaply in order to entice more warm bodies and increase that ever-import “assets under management” figure. These services have begun to include allowing customers to buy into mutual funds at reduced or no commissions or holding fees, and Comdirect will soon announce a suite of insurance products in Germany.

The revenue stream is not all fees: analysts estimate that margin lending – where the broker who borrows money at, for example, 5% and lends it to the customer at 8% to effect a transaction – comprised nearly 25% of Consors’ top line in 1999. And “order flow” – gathering up stock orders and flowing them through certain paths thereby getting a payment for diverting orders to a particular market maker – also brings in revenues. In the US, margin lending and order flow payments make up substantial percentages of online brokers’ bottom line. But things move fast – in the US companies such as Datek Online have been competitively forced to pass on their savings, and now rebate their order flow payments to customers.

The increased competition does not mean that some online brokers won’t do well – they will. In a rising market, as the hordes leap on to the bandwagon, online brokers consistently shine. But with the competitive mix of price, additional services and heavy marketing expenses, the shine will have just that much less luster.

If You Go To Prague…

If you do decide to go to Prague, there are a few things to keep in mind. This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a good place to start.

Visa
Americans, Brits and other European citizens need no visa, just a valid passport. The Czech currency is the Koruna (Kcs); US$1 = Kcs33.50, 1 German mark = Kcs18. Tourist information: Prague Information Service tel +4202 187, Old Town Square.

Costs

For an overnighter, this flight for four people worked out cheaper than taking the train!.

Plane rental:

US$107 per hour wet. Landing fee: US$18.50 Approach Fee: US$9. Handling & Assistance: US$17 Parking: US$4.50 Airport Tax: $14.

Accommodation

We stayed at the Hotel Atlantic (tel +42 02 2481 1084, Na Porici 9) where singles or doubles are US$107 or US$125 per night with breakfast.

Contact

Prague Airport is on +4202 2011-1111; Mr Sovak at +4202 2011-4383. Munich Flight Information is at +49 89 9780-350/1/2, fax 970 1424. Munich WX-Brief is at +49 89 1593 8135/6. Munich Flyers is at +49 89 6427-0761.

Closing Your Flight Plan

VFR Flight plans are automatically closed by Prague tower on your arrival at Prague airport, so there’s no need to telephone anyone. But on the return to Germany you must remember to close your flight plan by calling Munich Flight Information.

Charts

Jeppesen (www.jeppesen.com) VFR/GPS Chart Germany ED-5 covers south-eastern Germany, western Czech Republic and the entire area near Prague’s Ruzyna Airport; Chart ED-6 covers Munich and Augsburg. Buy VFR charts in Munich at Geo Buch, Rosental 6 (tel 089 265-030).

Orlando Gets A Hostel

Sun-bronzed guests lounge by the pool. Others mingle by the lake, some splashing by in pedal-boats. The fountain gurgles. But as new guests check in, the document that desk clerks ask for is not a passport.

It’s a hostel card.

This is Hostelling International’s latest experiment: the HI Orlando Resort.

For the past several years, Hostelling International has been quietly working on its image, trying to make its product – budget accommodation with a socially and environmentally conscious twist – more accessible to people over age 26.

HI’s surveys of hostelers around the country showed a great need for a second Orlando-area hostel, and it took the plunge earlier this year. Similar market research resulted in additional hostels in cities such as San Francisco and Boston.

Heavy Competition
“The challenge here,” says Beth Barrett, general manager of the new hostel, “is to try to insinuate the hostelling experience into the center of the glitziest, most neon-filled tourist strip in the entire country.” The Orlando area has one of the highest concentrations of hotel rooms in the United States.

By taking on all the glitz and the inexpensive motels that line Route 192, about five miles south of the Disney theme parks, Barrett faces a somewhat unfamiliar dilemma: Some motels here offer double rooms at less than the cost for two to stay in the dorms.

HI is hoping the difference of a few dollars won’t be enough to make guests stray, even at the thought of more privacy. The idea here is to bring people together – in the common areas, the kitchen, the TV room – to share experiences and travel tips. And that intimacy is the first thing to go in traditional motels, where guests lock their doors and turn on the tube.

Knowing What To Expect
“Hostelers seek out hostels for a lot of reasons,” says Toby Pyle of HI’s public relations office in Washington. “Camaraderie and interaction with other travelers comes before price.” Indeed, hostelers have flocked here, and seem to agree with Pyle.

“For two of us it cost $36,” said Glen Richards of Snells Beach, New Zealand. “We saw a place down the road that had a double room for about $30, but at the hostel we knew exactly what we were getting into.”

That certainty – knowing that hostels will provide services like directions, help with trip planning, onward reservations, cooking facilities and helpful staff – is one of the things that has kept hostel stays so popular all over the world. The guest book here shows visitors from as close as New Jersey and as far away as Germany, England, Australia and New Zealand.

But it’s not just the feel-good idea of hostels that’s drawing the visitors: The hostel offers many of the same perks as motels on its two acres of property, such as the pool, lake access and volleyball and barbecue areas. Jet ski rentals are available next door. All the rooms are air-conditioned, and the whole place is accessible 24 hours a day.

Former Motel
The hostel was, in fact, a motel that HI took over earlier this year. The project, which is estimated to have cost Hostelling International $1.5 million, is in the final phase of a $100,000 renovation. The ribbon-cutting ceremonies will take place in December, though the hostel is already open for business.

While many of the rooms have been converted to dormitory-style accommodation, with four wooden bunk beds per room, others are still standard motel-style rooms with one or two queen-size beds, some with kitchenettes.

Private transportation services shuttle guests between the hostel and the area’s attractions – Disney and other theme parks in the area such as Sea World, Wet & Wild and Universal Studios Orlando. The same transport options are available at the area’s motels at similar prices.

Real Central Florida
The difference here, aside from the pool and prime lakefront location, is probably in the staff and activities. “Some people come here, spend four days at Disney and go home,” says Barrett. “That’s great, but they haven’t seen Orlando.”

Hostel staffers help to coordinate day trips in the area, working closely with the existing HI Orlando Hostel downtown, so guests can see some of the real Orlando and Central Florida: places like the Morse Museum of American Art, the Central Florida Zoological Park and the Orlando Science Center.

“We just hope that people will stay here a bit longer and see what the area has to offer,” says Barrett. “There’s a whole lot of interesting things near here that haven’t been touched by theme parks.”