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Luxury, style and delicacies fly at new airport hotels

/ Source: TODAY contributor

Almost since commercial airports began, there was the airport hotel. These buildings were — for the most part — afterthoughts, attempts at lodging for a truly captive audience of passengers whose flights had been delayed or canceled.No one ever stayed at an airport hotel by choice. These Spartan hotels were often not even at the airport, but miles away. And they only offered basic accommodation, minimum-security-prison design, bland restaurants and few — if any — amenities. For most travelers, myself included, airport hotels ranked just slightly above refugee centers.Not anymore. As airports grew — and expanded further outside of more expensive and congested metropolitan areas — more and more business travelers found themselves spending more time at airports. And slowly but surely, hoteliers began to realize there was a growing market out there to cater to travelers who either didn't want to leave the airport area or — not surprisingly — had no choice. So why not cater to them in an upscale, more hospitable way?Enter the concept of the new airport hotel, with well-designed rooms, great health clubs, ballrooms, theaters, shopping, memorable restaurants and, in some cases, excellent children's programs. Add state-of-the-art technology and, yes, even soundproofing, and the airport hotel is now becoming an attractive alternative.Would you believe that some airport hotels have now become known for ... weddings? Here are some great examples:At the Dallas Fort Worth airport, you'll find the Grand Hyatt, built right inside Terminal D. Not only does the hotel offer a great meeting space (many travelers are now opting to fly into Dallas and never leave the airport), inside the hotel, there's a great restaurant that also offers an interactive culinary learning experience at the hotel’s state-of-the-art kitchen.

The hotel offers hands-on training and preparation of a globally inspired menu. In addition, the Grand Hyatt provides special wine and cheese pairings, and guests get a special DVD with recipes from the instruction and experience at the Epicurean Studio, so you should have no problem following the recipe once you get home; includes a reception at the Grand Met Restaurant with chef Eric Dryer, and a grand tour of the Grand Hyatt DFW Culinary area. You can even have an epicurean weekend package — cooking school, accommodations and wine pairings for $975. And, guests at the hotel can also get special security-gate passes that allow them — without boarding passes — to shop inside the terminal during their stay.

Want to step up the culinary experience at an airport hotel? Head either to Tampa or the U.K.In Tampa, the Renaissance Tampa Hotel International Plaza is another soundproof hotel, but it's not food-proof. It has an in-house “Book to Cook” cooking class and features private lessons for individuals or small groups — you’ll learn cooking from local celebrity chef Fabrizio Schenardi. The 2008 rates start at $349 a night, including room, for one to two people.And if you're flying overseas, a layover at the Stansted Airport used to be nothing more than feeling you were being punished. Not anymore. The Radisson SAS Hotel London Stansted Airport hotel has Europe's lone wine tower — a 12-meter-high, 4,000-bottle atrium where the sommelier doubles as a flying “wine angel” to fill guests' orders. Bottles start at about $32 and go up to $800 for the 1978 Chateau Latour. But the good news is that the meals are reasonable, and start at about $20. After all, why wait for bags that will never arrive at Heathrow's new Terminal 5? Head for Stansted instead. And enjoy the wine!

At the Vancouver Airport, you'll find the Fairmont airport hotel. It's a soundproof, luxury hotel within the airport — no need to get a shuttle. This hotel is located directly above the U.S. departures level. The hotel has a full spa and an excellent restaurant. The hotel also offers an entire floor of hypoallergenic guestrooms that have been converted to hypoallergenic or low-allergen content. There is also a designated “Quiet Zone” — 19 rooms on the hotel’s sixth floor: From 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., normal day-to-day hotel operations cease in this area. Complimentary earplugs and eye masks are provided. But to prove the point that necessity is truly the mother of invention, consider this signature service: the hotel offers a “fish valet.”

Since British Columbia is so popular among anglers, and since so many fishermen (and women) transit the airport either to or from their fishing expeditions, the hotel actually offers a service that will store your fish in a 575-cubic-foot departures-level fish freezer, and then will transfer the fish directly to your flight home.

Back in the U.S., one airport hotel has offered entertainment during long layovers for nearly 50 years! The Crystal City Marriott at Reagan National Airport is also the home to the Arena Stage theater. The Arena Stage has been a favorite among locals for more than 50 years. Currently showing “Death of a Salesman” and “A View from the Bridge,” the theater has been part of the hotel since December 2007 and will remain there until the 2010-11 season.

Arena Stage theater was one of the first not-for-profit theaters in the country, and is widely considered a pioneer in regional theater. It was the first regional theater to transfer a production to Broadway, and the first to receive a Tony Award outside of New York. The hotel's Restaurant CC Bistro offers a pre-theater menu so guests can dine before the show and have a short walk to the Arena Stage after dessert. And then, of course, there's the reason you stayed there — your early-morning flight the next day!

And speaking of great theater, let's not forget the new airport hotels for pets. It's estimated that Americans will spend $3 billion on pet boarding and grooming in 2008. So why not do that near the airport and combine it with your next trip? You'll find Paradise 4 Paws — an airport hotel for pets — near Chicago's O'Hare. Opening later this month, the 25,000-square-foot resort for cats and dogs offers a cage-free environment — dogs sleep in their own suites or in a slumber-party lounge. Suites look over play yards and a splashing pool, and dogs can frolic in the bone-shaped pool and indoor grass area. A deluxe suite starts at $47 a night.

Cats get their own gated community (after all, they're cats!) — deluxe, executive and presidential bungalows with a window perch and personal aquarium in select suites. They can play in the outdoor Adventure Jungle, or just watch the action from their bungalow window. A deluxe bungalow starts at $25 a night. The facility is open 24/7 for pickup and drop-off based on your flight schedule.

Already open and running: Located within a mile of the Jacksonville, New Orleans and Houston Bush airports are three Pet Paradise resorts, offering similar upscale pet hotel services.

Last but absolutely not least, there's at least one airport hotel that's considered so convenient that it prides itself on fly-in, fly-out ... airport weddings! The Westin Detroit Metropolitan Airport hotel, at the Detroit airport, is right at the McNamara Terminal.

Under the category of “who knew?”, this airport hotel is now a wedding destination, hosting about 15 a year. And that number is growing. As guests arrive at their gates in Detroit they are able to walk directly into the hotel. Room rates start at $129. And, if you happen to be stuck for a last-minute wedding gift, no problem. Under a new Transportation Security Administration pilot program, “Beyond the Screening Checkpoint,” registered overnight guests at the Westin get special gate passes that allow them access (after security screening, of course) to the nearly 90 shops and restaurants in the McNamara Terminal.

Peter Greenberg is TODAY’s Travel editor. His column appears weekly on TODAYshow.com. Visit his Web site at .