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Modern-day hostels bump up the wow factor

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The chill out room of this hostel in Venice looks like the swanky interior of a boutique hotel.Generator Hostels Ltd.

As a 30-something, the last place I thought I’d find myself was at a hostel. Not to mention one nestled on the lovely island of Giudecca in Venice, a stone’s throw from nice, affordable hotels as well as gondola rides and couples canoodling over piping hot plates of spaghetti.

But my sister, who planned to pop over from Rome, wasn’t able to meet me after all, and I was unexpectedly alone.

Thankfully, though, I was at an upscale hostel. Which sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s actually a trend exploding across Europe. And as soon as I settled down for dinner at the hostel bar, I met Jackson, a chatty American college student who studies biochemisty at Duke University. Then it was Marco, a Brazilian on a 20-day European excursion. And Sam, a Frenchman who builds robots for a living. We all had something in common: a passion for traveling to all corners of the globe – and no travel partner.

That’s what makes hostels special: They gather a group of likeminded people, and lifelong friendships flourish. But I had never considered even stepping foot in one, much less spending the night, until I learned there was such a thing as a luxury hostel. 

This one in particular, Generator Venice, had complimentary Wi-Fi, continental breakfast, an in-house cafe serving Venetian-style tapas and carefully chosen furniture that would make you think you were in a boutique hotel. And it certainly could be called that, except for the fact that it has dorm-style rooms that can sleep 5, 8, 10 or 16 (starting at $28.69 per person) and posh private twins, triplets and quads (starting at $31.30 per person).

Housed in a 19th century grain house, it offers views of Laguna Veneta, the enclosed bay of the Adriatic Sea. Inside, there are exposed, original wooden beams, worn metals and cozy seating. Hipsters hunker down at their MacBook Pros. The bartender serves Aperol spritzers at the swanky bar.

What I’m trying to say is, hostels aren’t what they used to be.

“It’s a growing trend across the globe,” says Carl Michel, executive chairman of Generator Hostels, which runs eight hostels in six countries, including Spain and Italy.

“Australia and New Zealand have a very high concentration of hostels,” Michel says. “But Europe is where most of the [upscale] hostels are located.”

I see luxury hosteling expanding in a big way across the U.S., and also in Asia. Generator has concrete plans to open in New York City, Miami and Washington, plus there already are some cracking luxury hostels like the Freehand in Miami and my favorite, the Bivvi, the stunning mountain lodge hostel in Breckenbridge, Colo.

So if your image of a hostel is dingy hallways, hippie backpackers and subpar food, think again. Luxury hostels combine things you would expect from a hostel (like affordability and prime social opportunities) with things you wouldn't (style, prime locations and good food). Some offer yoga classes, concerts and designer fittings. And these design-centric properties appeal to more than just 20-somethings.

“We have a lot of flashpackers, as we call them,” says Michel. “They are essentially people who were backpackers 10 or 15 years ago who now turn up with wheelie bags, have quite a high disposable income and are actually making a conscience decision to stay at a hostel as opposed to a hotel.”

Only about 6 percent of Generator’s guests are American, but Michel expects that number to rise as the perception of hostels continues to change. He says he is even seeing business travelers and families.

Two years ago Paige Totaro of Alexandria, Va., booked a room for herself and her twin 12-year-old daughters at the Kex Hostel in Reykjavik, Iceland, where dorms start at $22 per person and private rooms start at $80 per person.  They were beginning an 11-month trip around the world with a budget of $100 a day for food and lodging.

Kex is the brainchild of a group of filmmakers and former soccer players who got together to design a hostel in an old cookie factory. With an art gallery, movie theater and the occasional pop-up concert, it has created a cult-like following worldwide. Even Russell Crowe and Ben Stiller have stopped by.

“Iceland is quite expensive, so I looked into the hostel situation,” Totaro says. “I was a little nervous about staying in a hostel with my daughters, and I thought staying at a nicer one would be a good introduction. The key, though, was finding one with a private room available.”

Rising trend

Hostels are really kicking things up a notch, from Buenos Aires to British Columbia, from Iceland to Istanbul. Generator Hostels just spent more than $13 million to revamp its property in London’s popular King’s Cross area. It also plans to open locations in Rome and Paris next year, and in the U.S. after that.

“Hostel chains are taking the concept of hosteling to a new level,” says Kash Bhattacharya, author of Luxury Hostels of Europe. “The owners are designing travel experiences for their guests, and this is one key defining characteristic of the luxury hostels experience.”

While Europe is leading the way, the U.S. is cashing in, too. In December 2012, the Sydell Group opened Freehand Miami in a 1930s art deco building. Each of the 60 rooms (some private, some shared) is handcrafted with a fun boho-chic vibe, with colorful Mexican serape throws and handmade rugs from Peru. Here, it's easy to get to know your fellow travelers out by the veggie garden, the palm tree-lined pool or at art class. There’s even an activities concierge so you won't miss out on ping-pong games and bocce tournaments.

So, what sparked the boom? According to Bhattacharya, the movement originated in Lisbon when design-conscious artists started refurbishing decaying, empty buildings in the heart of the city and transforming them into hostels, restoring their original art deco features while adding quirky touches like recycled furniture and vintage pieces.

“As artists, these people we were focusing on creating an experience rather than just a cheap bed to sleep in,” he says.

After my stay in a luxury hostel, I agree: It’s all about creating something unforgettable, something that combines character and coziness.

I’m happy to report that I am no longer apprehensive when it comes to hostels, as long as they are of the swanky variety. In fact, I will now go out of my way to track them down.