Reflect on this: glamping to die for

Now you see it, now you don’t, in this example of a so-called “invisible cabin.” Manufactured by ÖÖD House, an Estonian company, the site-ready 227-square-foot unit can be yours for $125,000.

In the relentless pursuit of the next hip thing—the next glitzy, must-have, “wow” experience to foist on the camping public—it was only a matter of time before someone took the concept of “smoke and mirrors” to its inevitable conclusion.

Cue the mirrors.

The high-gloss end of the travel and leisure press has been all atwitter about the upcoming debut of the Mirror Hotel, about 20 miles north of Asheville, NC, featuring 18 mirrored “cabins” on a 55-acre site. Unlike the more modestly-sized unit pictured above, these accommodations will include two-story 1,500-square-foot units perched on stilts, each equipped with its own hot tub, patio with fire pit and pizza oven. Mirror Hotel, owner Joanna Cahill told Travel + Leisure, “is built to be everything people love about glamping without everything they don’t.”

So this is glamorous camping: 15-foot tall windows to soak in the view at a Mirror Hotel “cabin.

Sheathing buildings in reflective glass, highly polished steel and one-way mirrors is just the latest example of high-end developers seeking to create wow factors and “memorable experiences,” and hang the expense. Or as related on the ÖÖD House website, when founders Jaak and Andreas Tiik “wanted to go on a weekend hike they didn’t want the traditional ‘one-size-fits-all’ hotel experience—that was too boring,” so they came up with the ÖÖD “Signature House.” In the seven years since that fateful walk, their glass boxes have spread across Europe, into Iceland and on to the U.S. and Mexico.

Initially adopted in limited numbers—no doubt because they require a significant investment—“invisible cabins” can be found a handful at a time in early-adopter glamping resorts in Ontario, Tennessee and South Carolina, where they’re pitched as exquisitely rare and cleverly non-intrusive. Stay at “a unique, bucket-list experience in an inspiring environment that is guaranteed to lift your spirit,” coos one come-on. Mirrored cabins “are designed to be virtually invisible in the surrounding landscape, allowing guests to feel as close to nature as possible,” extols another. In short, goes the sales pitch, here’s your chance to be a trendy voyeur of Mother Nature without having to step out of your comfort zone.

But despite such green-washing, environmentalists have been calling out the claims as deceptive and misleading. In recent weeks, when Shared Estates, a Massachusetts developer, announced plans to incorporate 19 mirror houses among 72 rental units at a “campground”— shamelessly named the Greylock Glen Ecovillage—it wants to develop outside of Adams, Mass., the Massachusetts Audubon Society weighed in to protest that the design endangers wildlife. “Mirrored glass presents a severe hazard to birds,” wrote Jeffrey Collins, a society representative, to the Adams Board of Selectmen. Although the developer had claimed that a UV coating on the glass would reduce bird strikes by 70%, Collins pointed out that several hundred million birds are killed in the U.S. each year by colliding with windows.

“Birds do not perceive reflective glass—standard or mirrored—as a fatal barrier,” Collins wrote. “The Mirror Houses are designed specifically to ‘disappear’ into the landscape by reflecting surrounding vegetation. While this is a creative design concept, it is one that will without doubt lead directly to bird deaths through window strikes.” Even a 30% mortality rate “feels like an unnecessary introduction of a known hazard into a site that’s designed around connecting people with experiencing nature,” he added.

Indeed—but that’s not really what the mirror houses are all about, anyway. While Shared Estates announced last week that it was scrapping the concept, it had claimed earlier that “the mirrored units are critical to the economics of the project” because of their over-the-top occupancy rates at other glampgrounds. Losing the mirror houses means a “significant hit” that may not be offset by turning to another “eco-structure,” Shared Estates added, and may force an overall reduction in the final site plan.

What it boils down to, in other words, is another ratcheting up of the untenable tension between “glamorous” and “camping” driven, as always, by a thirst for higher financial returns. Mirrored cabins, while undeniably sleek in an airport-lounge sort of way, are a good way to “get close to nature” only if you think that includes watching birds fly directly at the glass separating you and them.

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Author: Andy Zipser

A former newspaper reporter who worked at a variety of newspapers, from small community weeklies to The Wall Street Journal, I finished my "normal" work life as the editor of The Guild Reporter, official publication of the union representing newspaper workers. On retiring, I and my wife bought a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and--with the help of our two daughters and their husbands--operated it for eight years, first as a KOA franchisee and then as an independent family-owned RV park. We sold the campground in May, 2021, and live in Staunton, Virginia, a short walk from our grandsons' home.

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