Creature Comforts

Travelers who still have cash in hand find the world remains their oyster

Related: Where to sneak off to when there's no time for a real vacation

Once upon a time, a Saudi prince wanted to propose to his beloved. But only a fairytale engagement would do for his princess, so he called Quintessentially.

The prince envisioned "an extraordinary engagement party and wanted to hire the Pyramids, so we built a tented city for 400 of (his) closest relatives and flew them all in to Cairo," says Aaron Simpson, founder and group executive chairman of the London-based private members' club and luxury concierge firm, which provides a full range of lifestyle-management services. "We hired Pavarotti when he was alive to serenade the potential fiancee and brought her in on a chariot with 12 white stallions pulling her in."

Companies like Quintessentially have reinvented the world of luxury travel, catering to clients seeking bespoke experiences, which bear as little resemblance to their package-vacation cousins as haute couture does to ready-to-wear.

"We've opened up private tombs at the pyramids (in Egypt) for leading archaeologists to give a guided tour of tombs that have never been open to the public," Simpson says.

TV audiences got a glimpse of this elite world with Bravo's recent reality series "First Class All the Way," which followed Sara Duffy, owner of SRD International, another luxury concierge service that handles extraordinary travel requests.

"I just came back from two weeks in St. Barths. It was somebody's 40th birthday, and basically my job for two weeks was to (handle) every lunch, dinner and trip to the club, moving 70 people around an island that's relatively small and doesn't have a huge amount of infrastructure in terms of large groups," Duffy says. "I have another client who is a Ferrari enthusiast, and every year we rent a villa outside of Florence, and he races Ferraris at the track during the day, and on his off time, we helicopter into vineyards, we close down stores for private shopping -- you name it. You find what makes people tick, and you find a way to incorporate their passions into their travels."

Chariots. Helicopters. Ferraris. With the economy in crisis, isn't all this ostentation out of fashion?

"The reality is that people are still spending money on travel, and people are still traveling in style," says Greg Sacks, a partner at Trufflepig Travel, a Toronto-based custom-trip-planning firm. But, he explains, "People are thinking twice before they go on the trip, questioning whether it's responsible to splash out in a big way, whether that's the right way to spend their money, if they should be spending it on the luxuries of white-glove service or whether they should be spending it on the luxuries of properly getting in touch with a place, volunteering, staying at an eco-friendly property. But there's no doubt about it, they're spending their money."

The new way to spend, Duffy explains, is more edifying experiences. "If it's something that not everyone else can do, they can sometimes justify it because then it's an experience; it's not just a luxury or a waste of money." For example, Duffy says, she can call the Egyptian Director General of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, and her clients will get to "touch the foot of the Sphinx versus standing a thousand yards away."

Similarly, Sacks says, Trufflepig will "pepper our itineraries with people who are nontraditional suppliers, be they chefs, filmmakers, journalists, hoteliers -- the kind of people who could give you a bit of a different perspective into things." In South Africa, for example, Sacks commissions a tribal conflict-resolution expert to guide clients through the Johannesburg township of Soweto.

Some travelers, Simpson says, are "aware of this Generation G (for 'generosity') idea that's coming out now, of giving back and participating in more socially conscious vacation experiences, like where someone would perhaps go ranching and sponsor half a dozen children to do the same experience with them."

In addition to opting for experiential travel over excessive displays of luxury, many are choosing discretion.

"They're falling off the radar," Duffy says. "They're doing boats. They're doing villas where nobody else can see them or see what they're doing, i.e., not knowing what they're spending."

One Quintessentially client, Simpson says, typically seeks out the best restaurants "in the normal hot spots." But recently, the client instead booked "a three-day dining program, which involved ordering and packing and delivering 15 kinds of the best Thai street food from Bangkok to Hua Hin and Phuket."

Obviously, not many people can afford to order takeout from a foreign country, but such travel experiences aren't just for the astronomically wealthy. Quintessentially offers three levels of membership, with annual rates starting at $2,000, $5,500 and $45,000, respectively. Trufflepig's trip-planning fees are based on the complexity of the getaway; while their services can cost as much as $25,000, they can also cost nothing, as in the case of a simple hotel booking. Similarly, Duffy bases her fees on a "person-by-person, trip-by-trip basis." (Naturally, with all three firms, the cost of the trip itself is separate.)

As for those lucky people who don't need to look at the price tag, why shouldn't they travel the world in style?

"We have a lot of people spending an awful lot more this year than last year, because I've already had this expressed to me a couple of times: 'I've got to spend and help the economy move along,' " Simpson says. After all, "If these people stop spending, then we're all really in trouble."

Hotel Shangri-La
Santa Monica, CA
Hotel Shangri-La is celebrating its 70th birthday this year by showing off its new look following a $30 million overhaul. Officially reopening this spring, the boutique hotel has been brought into the 21st century with iPod docks and flat screen TVs in its oceanview rooms. But the landmark's original art deco charm remains as it roosts on a bluff above the Pacific, presiding over the Santa Monica beach community. Locals can leave Los Angeles behind with a cocktail on the rooftop lounge.

Oceana Santa Monica
Santa Monica, CA
A getaway to Santa Monica is the opportune way to get out of town without actually leaving, and less than a mile from the Hotel Shangri-La is another getaway option for Angelenos. Pack an overnight bag and head west to Oceana Santa Monica, the recently renovated boutique hotel on Ocean Avenue. Following a $15 million redesign in fall 2007, guests can
stowaway to the beach chic-meets-Anthropology-styled suites. The waves drown out the buzz of Hollywood, but the proximity to the real world can have guests back on set at a moment's notice (Sig Alerts notwithstanding).

Riviera Resort & Spa
Palm Springs, CA
Formerly the desert getaway of choice for Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Elvis Presley, Palm Springs' iconic Riviera Resort & Spa was brought into the 21st century -- and kept pace with the locals -- in October with a $70 million facelift. In the shadow of the San Jacinto Mountains, the resort is within a 10-minute drive of three championship golf courses, while two pools and a sprinkling of cabanas keep the desert heat at bay. For those in the mood for a little detoxing, the hotel's onsite SpaTerre is a 12,000-square-foot retreat with indulgent treatments ranging from a milk bath and soak called "Cleopatra's Milk Ritual" to a Balinese massage, complete with a splash of cool yogurt.

Se San Diego
Se San Diego
San Diego, CA
Opened in December, the 23-story Se San Diego (named after the Chinese word for sensuality and physical attraction, among other things) seduces southbound weekend travelers with views of Coronado and the blooming downtown San Diego skyline. The decor, design and textures of the hotel's Asian-inspired interiors -- from the bronze and wood pivot front doors to the Jerusalem bone limestone bathroom finishes -- are zen-inspiring. Guests looking to completely unplug need head no further than the Se Spa on the third floor to recharge, before refueling at Suite & Tender, a Dodd Mitchell-designed modern steakhouse. And for industry guests who can't leave their work at home, there's an onsite screening room and recording studio.

Donovan House
Washington, D.C.
After the Inauguration crowds have cleared, springtime in Washington allures weekend guests (it's just a four-hour drive or quick flight from New York) with the town's famous cherry blossoms and temperate weather. Thompson Hotels, who brought luxury accommodation connoisseurs the Hollywood Roosevelt and the Thompson Beverly Hills, have ventured to the nation's capital, opening their first D.C.-area hotel, Donovan House. Set in the Thomas Circle neighborhood, the hotel's modern aesthetic foils the historic city setting. Complimenting the space's sleek look is chef Todd English's onsite eatery CHA, plating Japanese fare. Guests familiar with the ABH rooftop bar at the Thompson Beverly Hills will feel right at home at ADC (Above D.C.), a private poolside lounge on the roof of the hotel with panoramic views of Washington's skyline.

Mirror Lake Inn
Mirror Lake Inn
Lake Placid, NY
Outdoorsmen looking to prolong winter head to Whiteface mountain for some spring skiing. The Winter Olympics have called this ski resort home twice, but it's not just for downhill skiers -- make sure to test out the luge rides and fasten up for an Olympic bobsled run. Apres ski, check into the Mirror Lake Inn to enjoy hot toddies after a long day of hitting the slopes. Situated on the shores of Mirror Lake with the snow-capped Adirondacks looming from above, the inn's old world charm is a soothing respite from New York (the city is less than five hours south), while Lake Placid's Main Street is a short walk away for local dining and boutiqueing.

The Hedges Inn
East Hampton, NY
Nothing says deal like "offseason." Weekenders heading out to the Hamptons before Memorial Day enjoy room rates at about half the cost and a fraction of the crowds. While the East End community might seem sleepy before the summer rush, it's ideal for those looking for another type of Hamptons experience. Built in 1652 as a private residence, the 12 rooms at the Hedges Inn underwent a major transformation last year. Beyond the white picket fence of the bed and breakfast, the nearby beach lacks the throngs of July-August summer shareholders and is a wide-open, tranquil setting for kite flying or a little R&R.

Nu Hotel
Nu Hotel
Brooklyn, NY
Manhattanites can get off the island for an easy getaway across the East River. Leave the tourists behind for the boutique Nu Hotel, where guests immerse in the cozy neighborhood like a local before retreating to their own loft in Brooklyn (the cork-floored, cozy rooms are set up to resemble a minimalist flat, complete with bunkbeds and modular furniture). Opened last summer, the eco-friendly accommodations boast organic bedding in a green setting created from recycled teak wood. The hotel has bikes available for touring around the borough, but for those not up for exploring, the Nu Bar is adjacent to the lobby -- it's easier than waiting around for a cab back to the city.

-- Michelle Grabicki
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