While the term is gaining in popularity, the concept of experiential luxury travel has actually been around for a long time. That doesn’t mean it’s always easy to define, however, and many travel professionals have different definitions. It’s at the heart of how I travel though and is a style about which I have given a lot of thought. For me, my personal definition is multifold. There are some travel experiences, some entire trips even, that are so exceptional they are de facto luxury travel experiences. These run the gamut, from African safaris to a cruise around Antarctica, but their commonality is that they are remarkable activities that do more than just take you to a new place, they transform who you are as a person. The second definition is more mainstream, which is luxury travel but luxury that doesn’t cut the traveler off from the places they visit. Thankfully, this has been the norm lately and all of the luxury travel experts have been quoted saying that experiential travel is the new luxury, and I couldn’t agree more. Sure, spending some time at a nice tropical resort where you do nothing but rest by the pool can be fine, but many people want more than that. They want to get out and explore, experience local communities and cultures and feel like they’ve actually traveled somewhere. Nice pools exist everywhere, but those cultural connections, those are unique. I usually explain it by saying when I’m in Bangkok I love staying at the Mandarin Oriental or the Peninsula, but during the day you’ll find me in the markets, eating $2 street food meals and getting to understand the city on a more personal level.
Now that we’ve gotten all that out of the way, I want to continue my week of 2015 reflections by highlighting some of my favorite experiential luxury travel experiences of the year. To make this list the activity had to be something more than simply staying at a nice hotel, or just getting outside and being active. No, instead these experiences I feel fuse the two into a beautiful combination of getting out there and experiencing the best the world has to offer in every sense of the phrase.
Probably one of the first destinations I added to my travel bucket list as a small child, finally traveling to the land of the Pharaohs earlier this year was every bit as exciting as I thought it would be. Just as important as finally seeing the Great Pyramids in person though, was how I chose to experience this country for the first time. Joining an Insight Vacations trip around the country, this premium tour company offered a way to be fully immersed into the culture of Egypt, but in a remarkably comfortable style of travel. From touring the frenetic city of Cairo, to a leisurely cruise down the Nile, every day of my travel experience in Egypt fulfilled the definition of experiential luxury travel in nearly every way. Yes, the accommodations, food and service were what I expect from any premium experience, but what was so important to me was how they also incorporated education and cultural experiences into the trip. By the end of my journey around this beautiful and infinitely interesting country, I felt like I finally understood why so many people fall in love with Egypt almost immediately.
Silky Oaks Lodge – Queensland, Australia
There are actually a number of excellent luxury hotels in the state of Queensland in Australia, but few combine that luxury with experiential travel in the way that Silky Oaks Lodge manages to achieve. Occupying an enviable space adjacent to the UNESCO World Heritage protected Daintree Rainforest and Wet Tropics region, Silky Oaks has incorporated all the best elements of the jungle into its refined and private luxury experience. Silky Oaks is made up of a series of small cottages that they call tree houses. Perched high on hills overlooking the jungle or nearby river, the tree houses offer a secluded and luxurious experience for every guest. Silky Oaks has also done a great job of embracing its natural surroundings by offering walks through the forest, a private swimming hole, kayaking on the hotel’s river and a spa that is one of the best I’ve ever been to. In addition to the outdoors experiences available at Silky Oaks, Mossman Gorge is 5 minutes away and offers a fantastic way to experience the ancient Daintree Rainforest. Led by a member of the indigenous Kuku Yalanji people, the Dreamtime Walk through the Mossman Gorge section of the rainforest is an immersive and educational experience not only about the forest itself, but the people who have called it home for thousands of years.
I’ve spent a lot of time exploring Alberta, Canada in the last couple of years, and with good reason. Simply said, not only is it one of the most physically stunning places on the planet, it’s also one of the most interesting. From the strange rock formations of the Badlands, to the majestic peaks of the Canadian Rockies, Alberta excels in travel shock and awe. But this year was a little different in that the luxury component came more into play for me when I spent a few days in Jasper National Park, experiencing the best this natural playground has to offer with a lot of help from the iconic Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. Staying at the Jasper Park Lodge is a classic luxury experience the likes of which are quickly vanishing. The experience though is about more than a nice room of course, it’s about living in the middle of one of the most beautiful national parks in the world and enjoying this experience with other like-minded travelers. Onsite, the Lodge offers great outdoors experiences, but it’s what surrounds you just beyond the gate that is the most amazing. Some of Canada’s most popular and famous lakes, hikes and mountain peaks are all an easy drive from the Lodge, making this resort the very definition of experiential luxury travel.
Primland Resort – Virginia
Occupying more than 12,000 acres in rural Southwest Virginia, Primland Resort isn’t only one of America’s top luxury getaways, it’s also one of the most active. Primland is one of the premier resorts for nature lovers who want to disconnect and spend some time relaxing in what is arguably the most beautiful region of Virginia. Primland enjoys all of the attributes that all great luxury properties enjoy; high levels of service, spacious and comfortable rooms and food and wines that are amongst the best found at any hotel in the world. What separates Primland from other resorts isn’t actually found inside, it’s found outside. The resort started life as a hunting getaway, and while you can still find that, there’s so much more to do. Golf, off-road ATV drives, disk golf, hiking and more, the focus here really is on the outdoors. Primland is also home to one of the most unique experiences I’ve ever found at a hotel – the Observatory Dome. The modern glass enclosed “silo” attached to the main building has a secret on the top floor. The dome opens and swivels 360 degrees to give Primland’s massive Celestron telescope a chance to observe stars and planets millions of miles away. The staff astronomer leads guests through a nightly Tour of the Universe, in which she focuses the telescope on celestial phenomena that most people have never seen before. The tour concludes with a walk outside where, again under the guidance of the astronomer, guests see the night sky in a way that’s hard to find – without any light pollution. It’s rare in this modern age to see such a full array of stars with the naked eye and is just one more reason why Primland is so very special.
Viking Ocean Cruise
In 2014 Princess Cruises invited me to the christening of their newest ship along with a short trip to the Bahamas. The journey was not a pleasant one and as I disembarked one sultry afternoon in Miami, I thought my days of ocean cruising were over. Then in the spring of 2015, Viking started a new adventure – the sailing of their first ocean cruise ship, the Viking Star. As a longtime admirer of their river cruises, I was immediately intrigued. Promising smaller ships without the annoying features of the larger more mainstream vessels, from the outside looking in it seemed as if Viking had created a new and infinitely more interesting way to travel the high seas. I made it a personal mission to experience Viking Ocean Cruises for myself, and when I finally got that opportunity in November I quickly realized that my days of ocean cruising were not over at all – not by a long shot. Just as Viking revolutionized river cruising, I firmly believe that they will forever change how many of us enjoy ocean cruising thanks to the very high levels of service onboard their ships, as well as their dogged commitment to making the destinations the most important aspect of the journey. Even though Viking doesn’t use the word luxury, that’s exactly what my experience onboard the Viking Star was. A smaller ship translated to very personalized service, and the perks found onboard were the most inclusive I’ve ever found onboard an ocean going vessel. But travel is all about the places you visit and the people you meet, and for Viking their emphasis on experiential luxury travel is what transformed this experience from something nice into something extraordinary. Whether it was strolling along on my own schedule in the streets of Venice, or joining a tour of Montenegro led by a local, by the end of my trip I felt like I had relaxed a bit, but more importantly to me that I had seen and learned as much as I have on any recent travel adventure.
What were some of your extraordinary travel moments of 2015?