The term “experiential luxury travel” has actually been around for a long time; in fact one of the companies mentioned in this post first made the term popular. Lately though this style has taken on a new life of its own and it’s not just popular, it has quickly became the de facto way in which many luxury travelers prefer to see the world. For me personally though the definition has two different aspects. There are some travel experiences, some entire trips even, that are so exceptional they become 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. Since it is how I almost always experience the world, I thought I would take stock and share my favorite experiential luxury travel moments from 2017, amazing adventures that I know I’ll always remember.
Hiking Through Colombia’s Cocora Valley
Believe it or not but it’s not everyday I’m completely surprised by a new place I visit, but that’s exactly what happened to me while exploring Colombia’s coffee growing region. Massive coffee plantations abound along with mountains and cloud forests that seem as if they were plucked from the pages of a fantasy novel. It’s a beautiful part of Colombia, but this national park is definitely in a class all of its own. The Cocora Valley comes from the indigenous word for “star of water” and it’s certainly a cloudy, wet part of the country. It’s also home to Colombia’s national tree, the gigantic wax palm. It was this tree more than anything that transformed a simple hike into something extraordinary. The last place I’d ever expect to see these massive palms is high up in the Colombian Andes, a world of impossibly diverse shades of green and clouds that envelop you as you walk along. It’s a surreal almost magical place, which in large part defines Colombia. Arguably Colombia’s greatest author, Gabriel García Márquez is famous for his use of magical realism, which is a realistic view of the world that adds in magical elements. I couldn’t think of a better way to describe my morning tramping through the grasses and damp fields of the valley. It was real, but there was something else there too, something I could almost grasp but it kept eluding me. No doubt there’s magic in these hills, a special kind of effect that surely makes this one of the most extraordinary spots on the planet.
Escaping to Florida
I always flee Washington during Inauguration week, no matter who is elected President. It’s just nice to get away from the madness for a few days, preferably somewhere warm as January in D.C. is often cruel. This year I picked Florida and the gorgeous Diplomat Beach Resort. Originally built in the 1950s, the Diplomat at one time was the only resort between Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Given what the area looks like today, that’s amazing, and it was the start of a long and storied history at one of the country’s great resort hotels. Over the decades, the Diplomat wined and dined everyone from the Kennedy’s to the Rat Pack but then in the late 1980s it began to fall on hard times. Eventually, the original hotel was completely demolished and a new one built in its place; evoking the memory of the original but with the modern flourishes everyone expects. Then just a couple of years ago, the resort once again started to reinvent itself and launched a $100 million renovation project which just finished and that has made it one of the top properties in South Florida yet again. It was also the ideal place to relax and decompress, something I don’t do often enough.
Mallorca with Azamara
One reason I was so excited for my Azamara Club Cruises trip around the Mediterranean was that the ports of call aren’t ones typically visited by much larger ships. Thanks to not just the size of the Azamara Quest, but also the cruise line’s commitment to providing engaging local experiences, destinations like Palma de Mallorca, Spain were on the itinerary and I couldn’t wait to visit. I did a lot during my day of exploration, but as always just wandering around the city of Palma was a highlight. I have long said that it’s impossible to look at a palm tree and not smile, and in Palma that meant a silly smile was plastered to my face for the entire day. Palm trees line the entire historical downtown core, from the ancient cathedral to the little side streets that kept drawing me in to explore and wander. It’s a wonderful feeling, to be warm and happy even at a time of the year when many parts of Europe are still grey and cool.
Spending Time in Granada
There were many highlights on my week long tour of Southern Spain with luxury tour provider Abercrombie & Kent, but one that quickly rose to a place of prominence for me personally was the day spent exploring the massive and undeniably beautiful Alhambra in Granada. Originally built as a fortress on the remains of Roman ruins in the 9th century, it wasn’t until the 13th century when the Moorish emir of Granada renovated and rebuilt the palace that it took on the incredible appearance it enjoys today. While it’s been changed and added to many times over the centuries, the Alhambra remains one of the best preserved Islamic palaces from when the Moors controlled this region of Spain. I thought I knew what to expect but, of course, nothing really prepared me for the experience itself. Everything was so much grander than I had anticipated and the subtle beauty of Moorish design is hard to resist.
Rural Fine Dining in Ireland
I normally don’t consider myself a fine-dining kind of guy and yet, whenever I experience a great restaurant, I almost always walk away impressed. That was definitely the case after an incredible 11-course tasting menu at the organic Strawberry Tree Restaurant at Macreddin Village. The BrookLodge and attached restaurant are a relaxing country retreat where pastoral luxury reigns supreme. I love great properties like the BrookLodge, tucked away deep in the rolling hills and a place where people go to do little more than relax. But it’s also home to Ireland’s only entirely organic restaurant, the Strawberry Tree. Led by a chef with a fierce obsession with seasonality, they even have a full-time forager on staff who treks every day to find the freshest ingredients in the pastures and paths surrounding Macreddin. The results speak for themselves; after a leisurely dinner I was as impressed as I’ve ever been by a food experience. Each course was more surprising than the last and when combined with great service and hospitality, it was the perfect evening.
Driving the Alsatian Wine Route
Although the weather was picture-perfect as I drove into Ribeauvillé, the weatherman had already let me know storms weren’t far away. I was in a race against those dark skies as I tried to see and do as much as I could, while paying attention to the time. But if any village deserves some time, it’s this one. One of the oldest towns in Alsace, its wine history goes back centuries and clues to its importance can be found everywhere, but especially from the incredible ruins of the Three Castles that still overlook the village today. The great thing about visiting the various settlements along the route is their size. They aren’t big and most have a similar layout, with one main street running through them. That’s the path I took through Ribeauvillé as I gawked at the ancient buildings; not for the first time overwhelmed by the vibrant colors surrounding me. It was a beautiful Saturday morning and the town was packed with locals and visitors alike, everyone stopping by the morning market to see what was available and pausing to enjoy coffee at the corner cafe. It was my first real introduction to the Alsatian Wine Route and set the perfect stage for a day of exploration.
All of Kyrgyzstan
At the beginning of the year I couldn’t even place Kyrgyzstan on a map, much less imagine traveling there. And yet, my couple of weeks spent in this Central Asian country now counts as one of my favorite experiences of 2017. When planning a trip to Kyrgyzstan it’s important not to approach the country as a voyeur. Instead, do everything you can to know and understand the wonderful people who call Kyrgyzstan home. You can accomplish this in any number of ways, from engaging food tours in Osh and Karakol, to attending special festivals highlighting the traditional culture of the country. Everyone has a story to tell and as travelers, it’s up to us to find out what they are. I had honestly never considered traveling to Kyrgyzstan as something viable until I was approached by USAID. However, the trip opened my eyes to a new region of the world, one I had some strong misconceptions about. I never knew how beautiful it was, how friendly the people are, how delicious the food can be and just how fun traveling there is. It felt like an adventure and in 2017, that’s a difficult sensation to recapture but in Kyrgyzstan you can embrace everything great about the spirit of pure exploration.
First Class on Cathay Pacific
Getting there is more than half the fun for me; the in-flight experience is a big part of any trip I take. Over the last few years, I have gotten to know the premium airline Cathay Pacific very well, flying in almost every class of travel except for one – First Class. So when it came time to cash out miles for my vacation to Southeast Asia I decided to go for it and enjoyed the legendary service in Cathay Pacific’s First Class Cabin for the first time. From the massive personal space to the extraordinary service, everything was perfect, just as I had expected. Add in amazing food and lots of little perks, and I’m afraid that my First Class experience with Cathay Pacific has forever spoiled me.
Strand Cruise in Myanmar
We all have our own unique ways in which we like to travel. Mine is called experiential luxury and while not every trip matches the style, when possible it is how I prefer to see the world. Visiting Myanmar was equal parts work and vacation, which means I wanted a luxurious but immersive first introduction to Myanmar. I say first because, even before leaving home, I knew that Myanmar is a country that would require multiple visits, a fact reaffirmed now that I’m home. To help introduce me to the wonders of Myanmar, I joined The Strand Cruise along the Ayeyarwady River from Bagan to Mandalay. Now in its third season on the water, this luxury river cruise experience is an extension of the elegant Strand Hotel in Yangon, a beautiful property with an incredible history in the region. The cruise is an extension of that luxury experience, from the accommodations to the service and everything else onboard, it was the ideal place to call home for a few days. Even better though were the immersive experiences offered on the cruise. The passengers onboard The Strand Cruise were there for one reason, to experience Myanmar and the tours, lectures and activities offered provided us all with that remarkable opportunity. Whether it was learning about the temples of Bagan from the head of Myanmar’s archeological efforts or getting up at dawn to see the sun rise over the marshy landscape, I left the ship at the end of the week satisfied with my first introduction to the country, learning about both the country’s history and the wonderful people who call it home.
Rome with Flair
Before my recent return to Rome with untour company Monograms Trip, my only other experience with the Eternal City had been for 36 hours several years ago. Needless to say, that first time I didn’t even give the city a chance really which is why I’m so thankful for this second attempt. As it turns out, I fell in love with Rome which is certainly something I never expected. Yes, I enjoyed hanging out in the Piazza Navona with gelato in hand, but I equally enjoyed walking around neighborhoods that remain nameless to me, just admiring the atmosphere and what it was like to be present in the moment. Sitting outside with friends enjoying a meal, lifting a glass of Prosecco in a silent cheer to a golden sunset, getting delightfully lost down a seemingly endless array of side streets; these are my favorite moments in Rome, much more than seeing the Sistine Chapel or trekking up the Spanish steps. Those private, independent moments are what endear us to new places, it’s why we travel and my trip with Monograms facilitated this in a way no one else could have.