Redefining Luxury

These days, though, discerning and often younger travellers are looking to do more than just visit a luxe resort - something that has moved within the reach of many holidaymakers.

Instead, they’re turning to unusual and exclusive luxury experiences. In a 2012 survey by AIGO - an Italian marketing and communications agency specialising in travel and hospitality - more than half of the respondents wanted a luxury ‘experiential’ holiday.

Affluent, and increasingly alternative, travellers are no longer content to just spend their money on branded hotel toiletries and obsequious bar service. Instead, they are looking for active vacations - think wildlife tracking, motor racing or rugged hiking - and more personalised itineraries. They want what’s next and what’s new in undiscovered, or at least unfamiliar, destinations. Research by travel company Abercrombie & Kent nominates Botswana, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Central Asia as hot destinations for 2013.

After all, expensive resorts are everywhere, but only a select few will ever enjoy special-access tours, truly remote destinations and remarkable experiences. From high-adrenaline adventures to off-the-wall dining and aristocratic encounters - welcome to the new luxury. 

Royal Tour, Ireland

A luxury trip is one thing, but a tour during which you actually stay in the castles of the aristocracy - and lunch with their owners - is quite another.

Few tour companies can boast this kind of exceptional insider access to royal families and the stately old piles in which they’ve lived for centuries. True, castle tours are a dime a dozen in Europe, but Adams & Butler’s Exclusive Aristocratic Tour gives a behind-the-scenes look at the privileged life of this elite social group.

Meet a baronet nephew of Nancy Mitford, the Earl of Erne and the Earl of Rosse, and stay with lords and their ladies. Have lunch at the home of the Earl of Antrim and join Countess Bernstorff as she shows you her collection of antique costumes. As for your tour leader, he’s the esteemed grandson of an earl, and the son of a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth II.

Banjaar Tola, Kanha, India

This could be the ultimate in camping: the best of luxury under canvas, and wild tigers prowling the thickets. If camping generally seems a hardship to you, head instead to Banjaar Tola, where tents created by Indian luxury-hotel chain Taj totally reinterpret the entire concept of roughing it. Expect handcrafted furnishings, bamboo-panel walls and floors, and rich cottons and silks inside; and wooden decks and a swimming pool outside overlooking the river. Butlers hover, serving cocktails and canapés.

The campsite nestles on the edge of Kanha National Park, where the top experience is spotting the elusive and endangered Bengal tiger from atop an elephant - a safari experience that leaves you feeling like a maharajah. Pangolins, leopards, sambar deer and hyenas are among the other creatures that can be seen on inclusive, twice-daily 4WD safaris through the lowland forests and grassy meadows of the national park.

Krug Room, Hong Kong, China

Uber-fancy meals have become the ultimate luxury indulgence everywhere, but this experience is especially exclusive.

There are only three opulent Krug Rooms in existence (the other two are at The Dorchester in London and the Kinoshita Japanese restaurant in São Paulo). This one at Hong Kong’s Mandarin Oriental boasts the largest collection of Krug - one of the world’s most prestigious champagnes - outside France.

A group of maximum 12 guests settles down under a chandelier made of fresh red roses, and gazes through a glass wall to a phalanx of chefs preparing their meal. Executive chef Uwe Opocensky presents a masterful and often whimsical showcase of molecular gastronomy over 14 courses.

Among the 1960s-inspired dishes created this year for the Mandarin Oriental’s 50th anniversary are reinterpretations of beef bourguignon, baked Alaska and even children’s Froot Loops cereal. A meal with matching Krug Grand Cuvée, vintage 1998 and Rosé will cost you a not-terribly-competitive HK$3506 ($431).

Heli-Skiing, Aspen, USA

Aspen might be one of the world’s top ski resorts, but only a select few can ski its back-country in true style.

So what does a cool US$19,140 ($18,355) buy you in this chic ski resort? A day out for four in the virgin back country perhaps, with airport transfers in one of the hotel’s “fleet of Audis”, your own personal helicopter, a luncheon of braised pheasant and lamb shanks prepared by your personal gourmet chef, and a sommelier to match the wines, such as a 1985 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti ‘Richebourg’.

Oh, and the day is capped off at the legendary, prestigious Little Nell hotel with a gourmet dinner and private sports massage for your aching muscles - after all, it’s a full eight-hour day popping out of a hovering helicopter at Silverton, the highest skiable elevation in Colorado. Best of all, though, is the snow: no queues, no groomed runs, and no other people - just you and your friends, the fresh powder and the Colorado sunshine, in terrain that varies from open alpine bowls to steep tree skiing.

Phinda, Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa

Luxury African safari lodges are nothing new, but tracking a rhino on foot adds an adrenaline rush to the experience.

To some, luxury is poking a finger into a steaming pile of rhino dung - how else are you going to determine how long ago the animal passed by? (Still warm but not steaming, and you can reckon about half an hour.) Phinda is one of Africa’s most magnificent private game reserves, encompassing mountain ranges, coastal marshland, forest and savannah, and is home to lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo and cheetahs.

But it sets itself apart with its specialist on-foot tracking tours. Few experiences are guaranteed to get more adrenaline going than tracking a 1400-kilogram rhino through the bush, or joining in a darting program, accompanied by vets and research scientists, to collect data from the tranquillised animal. Then those with nerves and bellies of steel can sleep out under the stars as the lions roar.

Arctic Kingdom, Pond Inlet, Canada

Imagine being on a small-group tour to the Canadian Arctic to see walruses and polar bears, an encounter few will ever have.

If you need proof that a luxury experience doesn’t necessarily equate with the highest comfort, your accommodation on this tour is a rather primitive campsite on an ice floe, with fold-out cots and a basic kitchen - the luxury lies in being here at all. Inuit guides promise you an up-close encounter with the Arctic in far-northern Baffin Island, where you’re likely to see seals, walruses, foxes and polar bears.

The more adventurous can even swim (well padded in a dry suit) in an ice hole with narwhals. Guests journey by snowmobile, kayak and on foot past glaciers and sea cliffs where 20,000 birds nest, and observe abandoned whaling stations and shipwrecks. With just a few groups annually, this journey takes you right off the tourist track and deep into the land of the midnight sun.

Triple Creek Ranch, Montana, USA

Learn to be a cowboy or cowgirl in the American West’s wide-open spaces - without sacrificing creature comforts.

Travel + Leisure magazine voted Triple Creek Ranch the best hotel in the USA in 2012, and number two in the world. The mountain retreat in Montana features private log cabins and a Relais & Châteaux restaurant stocked with world-class wines - but that doesn’t mean you won’t experience the authentic cowboy life on what is very much a working ranch.

In summer, you can join cattle drives with the ranch hands, try your hand at team penning (sorting and stowing calves), or participate in horsemanship weekends that see you ride a hard trail and then cross mountain-chilled streams. You might even have to catch and saddle your own horse first. A private plane can also take you fly fishing for trout, birding or horse-riding in this remote wilderness.

Anantara Spa, Abu Dhabi, UAE

Want major boasting rights at the world’s most luxurious spa and hotel, guaranteed to make you feel like a million dollars?

OK, sometimes luxury really is just about unabashed bling. If so, then the ultimate spa beauty treatment must be the Diamond Experience ritual at Anantara Abu Dhabi, which uses genuine diamond dust (from ethical sources, naturally) to stimulate the skin and provide a facial that will leave you with a jewel-like sparkle.

The setting itself is just as opulent, with gold-adorned architecture evoking an Ali Baba palace from an old storybook. Later, you can retire to the $3 billion Emirates Palace hotel of which the spa is a part, with private butlers and Swarovski chandeliers aplenty.

Ultraviolet Restaurant, Shanghai, China

Anyone can spend a small fortune on a fancy meal (well, almost anyone) but this innovative restaurant goes beyond mere fine dining to assault all the senses.

There’s no more outrageously original restaurant on the planet than the recently opened Ultraviolet, which its maverick avant-garde French head chef Paul Pairet describes as a “multi-sensory experience”. Guests are driven to the secret location of an old, abandoned warehouse - then the magic begins.

Church bells ring and a starry sky appears above as the brick walls begin to shimmer upwards and then disappear. Waiters appear with appetisers that look like food beamed down from a futuristic planet. By the time you tuck into lobster, waves crash around the walls and the air smells as salty as the sea. Settle in for four hours of witty entertainment created by clever use of themed music and interactive floor-to-ceiling video projection screens that might see you sitting in a forest glade or a psychedelic 1960s nightclub.

White Turf, St Moritz, Switzerland

Horse racing has always had a touch of glamour, but the ultimate equine meet must be White Turf in the Swiss alpine resort of St Moritz. Join the beautiful people to watch dramatic horse racing on ice with the snowy Alps as a backdrop. Thrilling.

A tent city springs up around the town’s frozen lake, populated by fur-clad billionaires and ski-bunny celebs. Champagne flows, and oysters and Oscietra caviar circulates. VIP entries are almost impossible to get, but the ordinary folk can obtain a seat in the grandstand for a pretty generous CHF 70 ($70).

The snow-capped Swiss mountains provide the background scenery to the action on the ice - a series of horse races that culminates in the 1800-metre Grand Prix. The meet also includes skijoring, an unmissable highlight in which skiers are pulled along behind galloping horses in a wild display of skill, courage and sheer physical strength.

Words by Brian Johnston - Published in Voyeur May 2013
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