The Best Hidden Surprises at Airports

Most of us never really "see" our airports. Oh, we notice security, alright and pay attention as the baggage carousel as goes 'round and 'round without ever disgorging our suitcase. But I suspect most consider airports nothing more than endless corridors of moving sidewalks and crowded plastic seats. If that's you, you're missing out.

Airports aren't just for flying anymore. Many are re-branding themselves as havens of customer service, picking up the slack from the airlines which pretty much abandoned perks and comforts after 9/11.

Today's airports, in the U.S. and abroad, feature imaginative ways to relax and refuel, while providing unusual conveniences and outrageous souvenirs (oh, we'll get to those). Here are some of my picks for best oddball airport surprises and services.

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Best Nature Trail: Singapore Changi (SIN)

A nature trail in an airport? This huge facility gives you a choice of gardens to explore including bamboo, fern and cacti extravaganzas. Note to kids: some of these ecosystems contain carnivorous plants! Best of the bunch: The Butterfly Garden, filled with the flutterings of tropical species. According to the Changi website, it's the world's first airport butterfly habitat and I believe them. And as far as hiking a nature trail, Changi sure beats hoofing it around DFW on the rare occasions when Skylink is out of order.

Best Spa Services: Calgary (YYC) and Detroit Wayne County (DTW)

This is a tough one since spa services are exploding at airports. Need a quick fix for your nails, a 30 minute facial or a soothing massage? You can find that anywhere, but what if you need a real pick-me-up, non-alcoholic edition? Try the OraOxygen Spa at Calgary or Detroit where you can breathe deeply for a 15 minute session that'll only set you back $18. They do manicures and such there too but keep your ears open for gate announcements.

Speaking of ears, if you want them waxed or have other body parts requiring hair removal, visit XpresSpas at airports throughout the U.S. for all your de-furring needs.

Best Kiddie Stuff: Philadelphia International (PHL) and Frankfurt (FRA)

Wish they'd had these when my daughter was a baby: the NannyCaddy, a vending machine dispensing everything a parent could want from diapers, pacifiers, wipes and more, including the all-important sippy cup. There are NannyCaddys in zoos, children's museums and even aquariums, but PHL is the only airport location I'm aware of.

If you want to entertain the tykes between flights, why not a children's birthday party? There are venues for this at Germany's Frankfurt International, but if it turns out to be anything like a typical Chuck E. Cheese outing, the adults can always retire to the airport's onsite casino for a little black jack or slot machine action.

Best Conspiracy Art: Denver International (DEN)

I'm at a loss to explain all the conspiracy theories surrounding the Denver; maybe it's that distinctive, pointy fa├žade? They've been cropping up ever since the facility opened in 1995; some of the weirder ideas have to do with underground tunnels and world domination, but the airport art has been called into question too. Sure, Leo Tanguma's mural titled, "In Peace and Harmony with Nature" is a bit different; if you look closely, you'll see dead animals, raging fires and people in coffins. In fairness, another panel of the mural depicts a happier vision though sites devoted to conspiracy theories don't seem to care.

Airport authorities are aware of the speculation; as the website notes, "A few fanciful conspiracy theories have been generated by this artwork, none of which were intended by the artist". See for yourself in the South Terminal.

Best Sci-fi Restaurant: Los Angeles International (LAX)

As you drive around the loop that is LA's airport, you can't miss the Jetsonian-like structure in the center; that, my friends, is the Encounter Restaurant, sometimes known enigmatically as "the theme building". Opened in 1961, it helped give the airport a snazzy, space-age look; I've read that the brother of one of one design team member was art director for the 1954 film, "War of the Worlds." Today it just looks retro, but I'm told the food is terrific and the bar offers an assortment of cocktails that include the Blue Moon Margarita and the Black Hole (Absolut vodka with a splash of Chambord). If you've tried it, I'd love to hear a review.

Best Souvenirs: Sioux City Airport (SUX)

When Sioux City's airport was given the wacky but official code designation of SUX, the mayor screamed, "An embarrassment!" Then a broader-minded airport board member had a brainstorm and SUX souvenirs were born. City officials now slap the code on everything from t-shirts to luggage tags; there's even a "BiSUXual" coffee mug, attractively priced at $9.95, but what do you say we don't go there?