Hollywood elite's high-end travel 


Only recently, lazing on a tropical beach with a book and a frozen, fruity drink counted as a vacation. But that was before travel and cooking shows brought the exotic not just close to home, but into the home. As soon as Angelina Jolie and other celebrities began posing for the glossies during humanitarian missions to war zones and impoverished countries, indulging in the same old same old seemed kind of passe.

Of course, the straightforward beach vacation will always have its place -- especially for certain celebrities who are granted a free ride in exchange for allowing the paparazzi to "catch" them there. However, Hollywood's elite want even the way they reach their final destination to be different from the norm. From personalized service to the pinnacle of privacy to the most remote locations, industry insiders are looking for truly memorable vacation experiences.

First and foremost, those who can afford it eschew commercial flying. Luxury travel agents like Lisa Lindblad of Lisa Lindblad Travel Design and Altour's Alexandre Chemla both say the demand for private planes has grown exponentially. Chemla's company bought its own private jets a couple years ago, with Chemla calling the demand "unbelievable."

"Everyone is looking for privacy," he explains, "And Hollywood executives are already accustomed to traveling privately when they're on business."

When flying privately isn't an option, Lindblad relies on VIP assistance for her clients. "We have it in France and in Heathrow, and we're due to get it in New York," she says. For about s100 upon arrival and s150 upon departure, "You'll be met at the Jetway and escorted through immigration and into your car, or vice versa," Lindblad explains. "It's also very useful because if luggage gets lost or your flight is delayed, the service stays and waits while you go do whatever you'd like."

The planes, private or not, are still heading to the standard European destinations -- "people complain about the euro, but they still go," says Chemla -- as well as increasingly popular places farther afield, from Africa to South America (see sidebar). Industry experts say well-heeled travelers are looking for adventure, with the caveats that their children are welcome, and that their BlackBerrys function. "The other thing that's changing tremendously -- and more among the entertainment industry than anywhere else -- is an environmental consciousness," says Chemla, noting the irony in the simultaneous demand for private jets. (Altour, for its part, uses Priuses as company cars, and plants trees to offset clients' carbon footprints.) "The consciousness doesn't really change where people want to go," he says, "But the good news is: Three years ago, this stuff wasn't even in the equation. Now, people are at least looking at places that are eco-friendly."

They're also looking for as many details about places as possible. "My itineraries used to have what room people would be in, and whether or not breakfast was included," says Lindblad. "Now, it's spa appointments, how many computers the business center has and whether or not the lobby is WiFi." That's the least of Lindblad's services: "The other day I flew to London and went through five hotels and all their guest rooms," she says, "Because the hotels were on one of my client's lists as possibilities."

Also taking personalized service to an extreme is Off the Beaten Path, a company presciently launched two decades ago with the concept of providing both authentic adventure and a high degree of coddling. With a focus on the Americas running from Alaska to the southern tip of South America, the company plans individualized trips that emphasize insiders' knowledge, with clients always accompanied by an expert in the area. One recent trip for a family of three included two weeks in Alaska, traveling to Eskimo villages and into the bush, followed by a cruise through Glacier Bay on a private yacht. They were then whisked to a dude ranch in Idaho, took a rafting trip and visited Yosemite before ending with five days in Pebble Beach, Calif., to recover from it all. At every step the family, which traveled by private plane, was accompanied by a guide and met with locals in the area. The cost: $160,000.

Less ambitious was the L.A.-based music producer who hired the company to show him the Southwest. "We set him up with the best river rafting, introduced him to medicine men and served him flautas overlooking the Grand Canyon," says Off the Beaten Path CEO Cory Lawrence. The week-long trip of immersion -- for which the producer used his own jet -- totaled $90,000.

Regardless of the itineraries, Lawrence says, people are de-manding unique experiences. "We had one client for whom we'd arranged a trip to Alaska on a private yacht, and just before he was leaving, his business partner knocked on his door and said he had just gotten back from a cruise in Alaska," Lawrence remembers. "Our client called us in a fit, saying, 'I'm very concerned I'm going to have the same experience.' We had to talk him back from the edge and say, 'Trust us, you're not doing what he did.'"

Even for those who choose to take it easy in more commonly visited destinations, resorts are brainstorming ways to make guests' vacations worthy of talking about back home. At the Ritz-Carlton in Cancun, management realized that guests crave interesting experiences beyond the tropical mainstays. To that end, the hotel teamed with Viking to launch a culinary center overlooking the water. Twice a day, up to 16 guests are tutored in the ways of authentic Mexican cuisine, as well as Tuscan cooking and sushi-making. The program has been so successful that at least eight other Ritz-Carlton resorts plan to follow suit.

"In the '70s, the trend was fitness centers, then it was executive-level floors and then it was spas," says the Cancun property's general manager Hermann Elger. "Currently, there's a huge interest in cooking. With our program, in two hours the guests can have prepared a meal, enjoyed it and gained experience. They're blown away." For those who don't want to stir the pot, but still crave knowledge not gleaned on beach walks, the hotel has begun offering classes about tequila and the emerging wines of boutique Mexican vineyards.

Taking the demand for combined service, adventure and luxury, one step further is the soon-to-be-launched Reserve properties, the Ritz-Carlton's new elite brand of resorts. The first two will open this year on the coast of Thailand and a private island in the Caribbean's Turks and Caicos. "They will appeal to the customer who wants the Ritz-Carlton experience at the ultimate level and on his or her terms," explains area vp sales and marketing Bruce Seigel. Perks include a concierge for each guest as well as 24/7 on-call staff for whatever the guest's demands might be. "It's the ultimate personalized barefoot luxury," says Seigel. "Instead of, 'This is what time the boat leaves for the excursion,' it's 'What time would you like to go?'"

Once upon a recent time, that might have sounded like a fantasy. These days, it just seems like a smart way to keep up with clients for whom keeping up with the Joneses means surpassing them at every turn. Not to mention enjoying a frozen, fruity drink -- or two -- recipe included.   

Popular Destinations

African safaris are growing increasingly popular as executives starved for time crave both adventure and family time. A top destination is Grumeti Reserves -- philanthropist Paul Tudor Jones' 400,000-acre, ultraluxurious eco-friendly resort in Tanzania.

Frolicking with sea lions in the surf, hiking volcanic islands and finally kicking that shark phobia by snorkeling with hammerheads are only a few of the reasons why cruising in the Galapagos is a life-changing trip. Because trips are limited by the government in order to protect the environment, private yachts and accompanying guides need to be booked well ahead of time.

Thanks to its exciting culture, glorious restaurants and a currency that actually works in favor of the American dollar, Buenos Aires has become an increasingly popular destination. The chic place to stay is the Faena Hotel and Universe, designed by Philippe Starck.

Europeans have long flocked to Tunisia's pristine white beaches -- with Americans
on either coast now following suit -- drawn by the idea of enjoying a tropical vacation in an exotic locale. Gammarth, which boasts the five-star La Residence hotel, is close enough to Tunis so that visitors can visit a souk for lunch and be back on the beach that afternoon.

The American West is one destination benefiting from people's desire to not endure the hassle of long plane rides and jet lag -- not to mention the falling buying power of the dollar. Says Off the Beaten Path CEO Cory Lawrence,"People are loving the concept of canyon country, from the Grand Canyon to Zion, Bryce and Sedona."