Image: Gilded room
Galilea Nin
Fit for a king:  A private dinner at La Rioja's famous Marqués de Legarda winery.  
updated 12/13/2007 11:07:11 AM ET 2007-12-13T16:07:11

You can delve deeper into an unfamiliar culture when you're able to gain access to places, events, and people that are normally off-limits. Below are 40 examples of such extraordinary experiences worldwide, ranging in price from $80 to $12,000. Because of their nature, these opportunities are subject to change and even cancellation. Not all are available every day, some only in limited quantities, and most cannot be booked à la carte but only as part of a larger itinerary. This list is not exhaustive, either: The very act of publicizing some rare experiences offered by the most well-connected travel firms would burn the bridges that make them possible. (Prices quoted are estimates for two people and include just the elements listed.)


Inside Seti's Tomb
History, The Arts
Take a private tour of the burial chamber of Seti I; discovered in 1817, it hasn't been open to the public for more than 20 years. Known as KV 17, the tomb is considered one of the most beautiful and best preserved in the Valley of the Kings—appropriate for Seti I, a pharaoh whose reign in the fourteenth century b.c. coincided with a high point in Egyptian art and culture. You will be guided by Mansour Boraik, the director of antiquities at Luxor. Avoid July and August, the hottest months of the year. Cost: $2,224. Source: Carrie McDougall, Cultural Crossroads, Barre, Vermont (802-479-7040;;

Age of Innocence
Local Traditions
Witness the Eunoto, a tribal ceremony in which young Masai warriors become junior elders in an elaborate ritual lasting three to four days (the rites conclude with the now ex-warriors having their ocher-stained hair shaved by their mothers to mark their passage into manhood). Special permission from the elders is required for guests to be present. Following the ceremony, which occurs approximately ten years after the males are anointed as warriors, the men will be allowed to marry and have a family. Cost: $12,000, including four nights' accommodation. Source: Cindy Fernandez, Abercrombie & Kent, Oak Brook, Illinois (800-554-7094, ext. 362;;

American Gladiators
Local Traditions, Sports
Watch a Masai mini-Olympics—a private demonstration of spear throwing, rungu tossing (similar to a hammer throw), and archery—in the remote Loita Hills, preferably from July through October. You can even join in on the competition if you're brave enough! The Masai traditionally use these weapons to protect their cattle, and today you'll often see Masai askaris, or security guards, keeping watch over tourist camps, spear or bow in hand. Afterward, take part in a traditional feast and watch as women demonstrate beading techniques. Cost: $2,500. Source: Kent Redding, Africa Adventure Consultants, Denver (866-778-1089;;

Back to School
Philanthropy, Wildlife
On the northern boundary of Masai Mara National Reserve, spend four days at the Koiyaki Guiding School, the first institution dedicated to training Masai to be bronze- and silver-level safari guides (see "World Savers," September 2007). Join the students in classes on wildlife management, native cultures, tracking skills, anthropology, and ecotourism. Your visit will also fund a full scholarship for one student during the next school year. Just make sure you don't arrive during a school break (April, August, or December) or May's heavy rains. Cost: $4,000, including three nights' accommodation in student housing. Source: Linda Friedman, Custom Safaris, Bethesda, Maryland (866-530-1982;;

A Hidden Tribe
Local Traditions, Wildlife
Live three days with the Antandroy, considered the fiercest and most tradition-bound tribe in the country. The "People of the Thorn Bush," as they are known, inhabit a harsh land that has kept them largely separate from other Malagasy peoples. Meet with the ombiasy (local healer), learn how to use a piletse (zebu-hide slingshot) and a lefona (spear), take a zebu cart to the local market, and visit ancestral tombs deep in the forest, where you'll also likely encounter rare lemur species. The prime season is April through September. Cost: $3,120, including three nights' accommodation in a mobile tent. Source: Daniela Bonanno, Absolute Travel, New York City (800-736-8187, ext. 308;;

South Africa
A Royal Performance
Local Traditions, Politics
Sit in King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu's enclosure at the eNyokeni Palace to watch the Reed Flute Dance, a full-day procession of 10,000 Zulu maidens that happens on the first weekend in September. You'll have a prime seat from which to witness each woman presenting the king with her reed during this ancient ceremony, and your guide—a personal friend of the royal family—may even snag you an introduction to the king himself. Cost: $2,600, including two nights' accommodation. Source: Daniela Bonanno (see Madagascar).


Slideshow: Tango time

Artists of Argentina
The Arts
Get a two-day education in twentieth-century Argentine art, including visits to the back rooms of two leading Buenos Aires art galleries, two of the country's most distinguished privately held collections, and two studios of living artists such as Luis Felipe Noé and León Ferrari. You'll be accompanied by a bilingual art historian and privately chauffeured for seven hours each day. Cost: $2,388. Source: Vanessa Guibert Heitner, Limitless Argentina, Buenos Aires (202-536-5812;;

Metal Man
The Arts, Local Traditions
Meet Huan Carlos Pallarols, a world-famous silversmith whose clients have included Pope John Paul II and the Prince of Wales. The Pallarols family has been working with silver for six generations. Juan Carlos will show you around the family's San Telmo workshop and reveal the techniques he uses to create his works of art, which blend southern European traditions with South American images. Cost: $640. Source: Cindy Fernandez (see Kenya).

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Paddle with a Pro
Spend a day kayaking around the southern tip of Patagonia with Norberto Mendez, who was on Argentina's 1988 Olympic kayaking team. Polish your paddling technique with this former national champion while he leads you through the Beagle Channel, which winds around the Tierra del Fuego archipelago and attracts a wide variety of wildlife, from penguins to sea lions to Antarctic fur seals. Time your trip to correspond with the Southern Hemisphere's summer (mid-October through mid-March). Cost: $1,000. Source: Emmanuel Burgio, Blue Parallel, Potomac, Maryland (800-256-5307;;

Football Fever
Watch a soccer match in the Maracanã Stadium—one of the largest in the world—with Marcelo Gonçalves Costa Lopes, a member of Brazil's 1998 World Cup team. Gonçalves, as he's known in Brazil, will take you onto the turf of this famous stadium before the game, invite you to his VIP box to watch the match, and then introduce you to players from some of South America's top teams afterward. Cost: $7,000. Source: Emmanuel Burgio (see Argentina).

Magic Carpet Ride
The Arts, Local Traditions
Enter the closely guarded workshop of Antigua's most celebrated alfombra family. Alfombras are street carpets made of dyed sawdust, flowers, and pine needles that are laid along the route of the religious procession during Holy Week celebrations here. For the past half century, the Armas family has been creating these works of art, and their alfombras have been the subject of a National Geographic film. In multiple visits to the workshop during the week before Easter, you'll talk to the family and see the carpet in different stages of construction. Cost: $500. Source: Jim Kane, Culture Xplorers, Kansas City (215-923-6800;;

Incan Insights
See archaeological work being carried out at Machu Picchu on a private tour with chief archaeologist Alfredo Mormontoy Atayupanqui, who has supervised the ruins since 2001. Atayupanqui will give you insights into the history of Machu Picchu, the mystery surrounding its purpose and its demise, and the current research being done in the complex. As recently as this past July, Atayupanqui and his team discovered five new areas of terraces and paths near the citadel. The weather is best from mid-May through October. Cost: $536 for a group of up to eight. Source: KC Cruz, Abercrombie & Kent, Oak Brook, Illinois (800-554-7094, ext. 353;;

United States

Image: Pay dirt
Welch Nathaniel
Author Brook Wilkinson, right, and paleontologist Jack Horner dust off a just-unearthed Gryposaurus bone in Montana

The Dino Hunter
Wildlife, Philanthropy
Go on a summertime dinosaur dig in Montana with Jack Horner, world-renowned paleontologist and technical adviser to Jurassic Park. Cost: $5,000, including a donation to the Museum of the Rockies. Source: Bill and Pam Bryan, Off the Beaten Path, Bozeman, Montana (800-445-2995;;;

Princess Diaries
Local Traditions
Have a private tea party with your favorite Disney princesses in Orlando at Walt Disney World's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa. Following lunch in a private room at the hotel, you'll be joined by three princesses of your choice for a meet-and-greet session, photos, and autographs. Cost: $2,200 for a group of up to five. Source: Susan Kelly, Travel Magic, Basking Ridge, New Jersey (908-953-9211;;


Temple Repast
Visit the ruins of Angkor Wat with a researcher working on mapping and conserving the site. He or she can usually escort you to spots that are typically closed to the public, where you'll see crews helping preserve the temples. The researcher will then join you for tea or dinner to explain the ongoing efforts to protect the ruins. Cost: $600. Source: Ashley Isaacs Ganz, Artisans of Leisure (800-214-8144;;

The Emperor's Bedroom
The Arts, History, Politics
Take a tour of Chonghuagong—Qing dynasty emperor Qianlong's private chambers within Beijing's Forbidden City, which are normally closed to the public. The emperor, who ruled from 1735 to 1796, was known for his literary prowess, and his calligraphy adorning the walls is of particular interest. (He was also a major patron of the arts, commissioning a 36,000-volume catalog of every important work in Chinese culture.) You'll see fine examples of imperial jade, ceramics, and rosewood furniture. Cost: $500. Source: Guy Rubin, Imperial Tours, San Francisco (888-888-1970;;

Slideshow: On the Silk Road

Better than Takeout
Tour a wet market in Beijing or Shanghai with Jereme Leung, founder of the Whampoa Club restaurants in those cities and one of the youngest-ever master chefs. After picking up ingredients, Leung will bring you back to one of his restaurants for a cooking lesson. The chef grew up in Hong Kong and worked in Singapore, so he's well versed in a range of Asian cuisines. Cost: $2,500. Source: Guy Rubin (see the preceding).

The Royal Jewels
The Arts
Design your own jewelry with Munnu Kasliwal, owner of Jaipur's famed Gem Palace and considered by some a twenty-first-century Fabergé. Kasliwal, whose family has been crafting jewelry for eight generations, including pieces for the Mogul court, personally helps two visitors annually choose the stones and settings for their pieces. For inspiration, you can even consult the royal jewels in Kasliwal's collection—bought back from faltering maharajas in the last century. Cost: $4,980, including three nights' accommodation. Source: Victor Biswas, International Ventures and Travel, New York City (800-338-2624;;

Feast for a King
Culinary, Local Traditions, History
Have a cooking demonstration of local Marwari cuisine by an executive chef from the royal kitchen at Jodhpur's Umaid Bhawan Palace. The palace is still the residence of the maharaja of Jodhpur, although some sections have been turned into a hotel and museum. Vegetarian Marwari dishes are traditionally very spicy and extremely rich, making maximum use of the ingredients available in Rajasthan's desert. You'll pick herbs in the royal garden, purchase ingredients from the city markets, and then watch the chef prepare a meal fit for a king but to be enjoyed by you. The best time of year for this is late September through early October. Cost: $425, including one night's accommodation. Source: Kay Merrill, Are We There Yet, Larkspur, California (888-300-0536, ext. 215;

Hosted by Headhunters
Local Traditions
Visit the Nagas, a tribe living along the Indo-Burmese border that gave up head-hunting only in the last century. The Nagas believe that the soul is found in the head and that capturing it brings good fortune, so they collected the heads of their enemies as well as their own ancestors. You'll spend a day with a Konyak warrior and an evening at a chief's home. Hardy souls can even glimpse the village's collection of heads. The weather is best October through April. Cost: $5,885, including airfare from Calcutta and one week's accommodation. Source: Sanjay Saxena, Destination Himalaya, San Rafael, California (800-694-6342;;

Image: Elephant polo
Arthur Elgort
It may not be as fast-paced as the traditional game, but there's nothing like participating in elephant polo to give you a sense of India's grandeur.

Pachyderm Polo
Local Traditions, Sports
Take part in an elephant polo match on the grand lawn of a Jaipur home (this is available only in winter—summer is too hot). Following a brief introduction to and history of the unique sport, join a mahout on the back of one of the beasts for an exciting if not particularly quick-paced game with some of Rajasthan's prominent players. You'll finish with afternoon tea or cocktails with both teams. Cost: $3,500. Source: Ashley Isaacs Ganz (see Cambodia).

Tailing the Tigers
Track Bengal tigers (most visible from November through April) on elephant-back in Bandhavgarh National Park, with the president of the World Wildlife Fund—India, Divyabhanusinh Chavda. This big-cat specialist has written several books on Asia's lions and cheetahs, and will also help you spot clouded leopards, boars, jackals, foxes, bison, and monkeys in the park, formerly the private hunting grounds of the maharaja of Rewa. Cost: $1,000. Source: Pat O'Connell, Asia Transpacific Journeys, Boulder, Colorado (800-642-2742, ext. 242;;

The Lost Kingdom
Local Traditions, Philanthropy
Experience authentic village life in a remote hamlet that the Balinese consider a "lost kingdom": The village was isolated for centuries because of an ancient curse (don't worry—it's been lifted). To this day, it can't be found on any maps. You'll be taken to the local temple and school, where you'll watch children perform classical music and dance in traditional attire, and there will be a pig roast in your honor with homegrown palm wine. The weather is best from April through September. Cost: $600, as a donation to the community. Source: Jarrod Hobson, Asia Transpacific Journeys, Boulder, Colorado (800-642-2742, ext. 223;;

Spiritual Awakening
Local Traditions
Have a private morning zazen meditation session with a monk at a seventeenth-century Buddhist temple in Kyoto that's rarely visited by tourists. Beginning practitioners can start with an introduction to the techniques of Zen meditation; those more advanced can follow along with the monks. Later, tour the grounds and the temple with a head monk, perhaps followed by a meal. Cost: $600. Source: Ashley Isaacs Ganz (see Cambodia).

Slideshow: Explore New Zealand

New Zealand
Secrets of the Maori
History, Local Traditions
Immerse yourself for a day in Maori culture with a direct descendant of Princess Hinemoa, the Juliet to Tutanekai's Romeo in a true romance. Starting in the town of Rotorua, you'll journey to the island featured in this Maori tale, then to a traditional burial ground. Finally, you'll visit the family's marae, or sacred meeting area, to learn more about historic and modern community life. Cost: $645. Source: Donna Thomas, New Zealand Travel, Langhorne, Pennsylvania (800-367-5494;;

Elephant Whisperer
Philanthropy, Wildlife
Meet with Sangduen Chailert, known as Lek, who founded the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai and was named one of Time Asia's Heroes of 2005. You'll go with Lek to market to buy the day's food for her more than 30 rescued elephants (some victims of land mines, others saved from logging duties), have lunch, and help bathe the animals in a nearby river. Time your trip to coincide with the dry season (October through March). Cost: $1,000, including a donation. Source: Andrea Ross, Journeys Within, Rancho Santa Margarita, California (877-454-3672;;

Saddle Up
Local Traditions, Sports
In Gyalthang, take your position on horseback among racing champs, heroes in this horse-dependent culture. Watch as they perform tricks—such as sliding down the side of the galloping horse to pick up a ceremonial scarf—in a festival timed to your summer arrival, and participate in a race down the valley if you dare. Cost: $700. Source: Guy Rubin (see China).

Make Friends, Not War
Go on a private tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels with a war veteran who spent time inside them—having once fought against Americans, Mr. Nam now welcomes them to his country. Beneath Cu Chi village, Vietcong soldiers hid in the narrow passageways, which also served as a food and weapons warehouse, a communications network, and the base of operations for the 1968 Tet Offensive. After crawling around the tunnels, you'll head back to Mr. Nam's home for dinner with his family. Cost: $500. Source: Andrea Ross (see the preceding).


Czech Republic
Living History
Visit the Terezín concentration camp, 90 minutes from Prague, with one of its last living survivors. You'll see perfectly preserved dwellings and the "Hidden Synagogue" and learn what it was like to live in the camp as well as under Nazi occupation. Cost: $1,200, including round-trip transportation from Prague. Source: Greg Tepper, Exeter International, Tampa (800-633-1008;;

Alone in the Basilica
The Arts, History
Have a private after-hours tour of Venice's St. Mark's Basilica with an expert guide who will tell you about the church's history and explain how to interpret the symbols in its famed gilded mosaics. You'll also be shown the crypt—normally off-limits to the public—where you can still see the foundations of the church built on this site in the tenth century. Cost: $850. Source: Andrea Grisdale (Italy).

Cucina Confidential
Treat yourself to an all-day cooking lesson with Chicco Mooney, owner of Milan's L'Ulmet restaurant. You'll accompany Chicco to the market to choose the freshest ingredients, and join his wife and sons in the kitchen, to assist in preparing the restaurant's lunch. Then it's time to enjoy the four courses you've helped create, each paired with wine. Don't miss the wine cellar, one of the most impressive private collections in Lombardy—and don't come in August, when the Mooneys are on vacation. Cost: $560. Source: Andrea Grisdale, IC Bellagio, Bellagio, Italy (39-03-195-2059;;

Slideshow: Italian dreams

Ancient Artistry
The Arts, Local Traditions
Tour the oldest and most important glass factory on the island of Murano, near Venice. The owner will show you around the workshops—the public is normally allowed only in the store—and will demonstrate the techniques that have made Murano glass so sought-after. Cost: $475. Source: Andrea Grisdale (see the preceding).

Tatar Traditions
Culinary, Local Traditions
Spend a day with the Tatar family, learning about the customs of the Crimean Tatars and enjoying their national songs and dances. You'll be taught how to prepare an authentic lunch and will receive an introduction to their famous embroidery methods. Cost: $1,000. Source: Greg Tepper (see Czech Republic).

Ultimate Amber
History, The Arts
Visit the workshops for the reproduction of the Amber Room in St. Petersburg's Catherine Palace. You'll go behind the scenes to speak to the craftsmen who have spent almost 25 years replicating this magnificent space. Cost: $80. Source: Greg Tepper (see Czech Republic).

Image: Outside of villa
Galilea Nin
Martin Legarda, the owner of the Marqués de Legarda winery, at the entrance to his wine cellars.

A Wine Wonder
Culinary, History
Gain entry to the winery and palace of the Marqués de Legarda in La Rioja, which has some of the oldest cellars in Spain. The owner is a descendant of El Cid, and his seventeenth-century palace houses family treasures, books, and paintings. Cost: $2,160. Source: Virginia Irurita, Made for Spain, Madrid (34-91-310-7070;;

Tile Talent
The Arts, Local Traditions
Take a private class in ceramic-tile painting with Esperanza Romero, whose pieces are frequently exhibited in Spain and abroad. Granada's tradition of ceramics dates back to Moorish times, and Romero will help you choose among the brightly colored geometric designs, guide your technique, and glaze your pieces. Cost: approximately $440, payable only in euros (325 euros). Source: Virginia Irurita (see the preceding).

Remember the Vikings
History, Philanthropy
Take a private tour of Stockholm's Vasa Ship Museum, and climb aboard the Vasa—an honor normally extended only to scientists and heads of state. This seventeenth-century warship was commissioned by King Gustav Adolphus but sank just a mile into her maiden voyage in 1628 and remained underwater until she was finally salvaged, nearly intact, in 1961. The director of the museum will accompany you around the exhibits before or after hours. Cost: $1,000, plus a contribution to the museum (determined at time of booking). Source: Jan Sortland, Norwegian Adventures, Gvarv, Norway (47-35-95-65-37;;

Sultan's Supper
Culinary, History, Philanthropy, Politics
Have dinner in Topkapi Palace's Imperial Room, normally reserved for the Turkish prime minister to entertain foreign dignitaries. Enjoy a ten-course dinner of classic Ottoman dishes, surrounded by the room's original furnishings and accompanied by a trio of musicians, while food historians explain the significance of each course as it is served. If you come in June, July, or September, you can finish the evening with cocktails on the terrace. Cost: $6,000, including a donation to the Topkapi Palace Museum. Source: Karen Fedorko, Sea Song Tours, Istanbul (90-212-292-8555;;

Ancient History
Meet archaeologist Sümer Atasoy at a Pontic tomb from the fourth century b.c. that he discovered in 2005 and which isn't yet open to the public. He'll explain the items unearthed and their relevance to that period. The Pontic Greeks established colonies along the Black Sea starting around 800 b.c., and remained there until they were evicted by the Turks in 1923. Weather conditions—and Atasoy's availability—are optimal for this experience from May through mid-October. Cost: $1,750. Source: Carrie McDougall (see Egypt).

Setting the Stage
The Arts
Have a private backstage tour of Odessa's opera house, where Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff performed. You'll be able to view the dressing and rehearsal rooms and, if you time your visit right, you can see singers warming up for the evening's performance. Cost: $300. Source: Greg Tepper (see Czech Republic).

© 2013 Condé Nast Traveler


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