July 25, 2007

Cool pools

I love finding reasonably priced hotels with pools. Now I appreciate them for their workout value, but when the kids were younger, I searched them out because kids love pool breaks -- give them an hour or two of splash-happy fun and get three or four sightseeing hours in return. I've been traveling most of my life, the last two decades of it with kids. If asked to distill my traveling-with-kids advice to a single word, it'd be "pool."

We've played in some interesting pools. Like the near-to-boiling, sulphur-infused, subterranean venues in Turkey and Iceland fed by geothermal vents and touted as therapeutic for everything from acne to arthritis. And the indoor, clothing-optional oases in Bolivia and Germany that were tricked out like sultry grottoes of hedonism. Who'd've thunk you could go to a hotel on the Bolivian Altiplano and find a mist-bound, basement lagoon that fell just short of absolutely demanding you enter naked? Or to a hotel in straight-up, Protestant Wurzburg, Germany and find a spa with a self-appointed totally nude pool policeman who followed the clothed (us) around, tallying their (our) transgressions and reporting them to the reception desk? Great, weird stuff!

But the pools I've loved most are outdoor basins with signature settings or stellar views where, while enjoying the water and recreation, you're visually, physically and spiritually connected to the place you came to see. You're not taking a pool break, you're communing with a city, culture, island, environment. You just happen to be all wet while doing it.

Some of our favorite spots include the compact, rooftop oasis at the Best Western Coral Hotel in Paleo Faliron, a seaside suburb of Athens, where Adam and Mike would position themselves under the lion-head waterspouts and see who could stay put longest. The hotel is on the direct approach to Athens airport, and jumbo jets from all corners of the world flew directly over us. We could see human shapes in the planes' windows and knew the travelers could look down and see us in the pool. We spent a lot of time on that rooftop, soaking in the cool water, watching the great jets come and go, and sharing beers with other travelers, like the steel company sales reps from Holland who told Heinekein-induced insider tales about the Greek shipbuilding business.

Another great oasis was the infinity pool on the roof of the Eden Aparthotel in Lisbon. This place was a find, and it's a favorite of flight attendants on Lisbon layovers. The pool afforded marvelous views of the Tagus River and the ochre-colored castle of St. George sitting on its hilltop above the Alfama, the oldest part of Lisbon. The management had installed clear glass panels as fencing so you could take in the view while swimming. Panels of mirrors along the hotel's back wall captured the castle in the glass, and in brilliant sun, bounced it back off and into the water with you.

And the pool at the Grotto Villas on Santorini, a paradise. The pool sat on a cliff edge overlooking the sea-filled, ancient crater of the exploded volcano that some believe is legendary Atlantis. From the pool, you looked down to the sea, dotted with ferries and cruise ships, and up and sideways to volcanic cliff faces peppered with Santorini's stark-white signature cube houses whose terraces were planted with flowers and striped umbrellas.

I love immersion travel.