Over-the-top vacations never go out of style if you’ve got the resources, imagination and topnotch travel planner. The world can literally be your oyster, as luxury travel companies like Travel Artistry, Heritage Tours and Pacific Experience have found.
Heritage Tours, for example, sells a nine-night “Turkey in Style” experience, priced at an eye-popping $155,000 for a family of five (including airfare). This includes stays in the best suites at two Four Seasons hotels in Istanbul, a sail by private wooden gullet from Bodrum to the Carian city of Knidos, and an after-hours, private tour of a sixth-century cistern under the streets of ancient Constantinople.
Pacific Experience does Australia and New Zealand the right way: Its 17-night tour for two, $35,000 without airfare, begins with four nights in a suite at Australia’s exclusive Lizard Island Resort, on the Great Barrier Reef, continues with a stay in a luxury tented resort at the legendary Ayers Rock, followed with a stop in Sydney for a climb of the city’s bridge and surfing lesson at Bondi Beach, and ends in New Zealand, with a helicopter expedition to Milford Sound and jet-boating safari.
Few trips can top a $1 million, two-week-long, combination 50th birthday and 20th anniversary celebration across Europe planned by Travel Artistry for 16 couples. This grand adventure included a rally-style drive through Switzerland in Audi TT convertible roadsters, private jet transportation, and a luxury yacht race from Bodrum, Turkey, to Santorini, Greece. The final weekend of the trip, in Corsica, featured a party with flowing, 50-year-old champagne and a 20-minute private fireworks display.
Despite the current slide in the U.S. economy, Susan Weissberg, president and chief executive of Wyllys Professional Travel, a Coral Gables, Fla., travel agency that is part of the Ensemble Travel Group (a consortium of luxury travel agencies), finds “more demand than ever” for over-the-top vacations, especially among yuppies. “They’ve done everything," she says. "They want new experiences so they have bragging rights. They want to be the first to try something that’s very, very unusual. And the more extreme the adventures, the better."
Similarly, Robert Romano, a partner in the San-Francisco-based Fugazi Travel Agency, also a member of Ensemble, calls such trips a sign of the times. “People have already bought jewelry, art, rugs and beautiful motor cars,” he says. “As they’ve taken high-end personal trips, they’ve come to see how enjoyable and special they are, and how much more fun it is to share such an experience with their closest friends and family.”
According to Lesley Brooking-Elms, president and owner of Pacific Experience, Inc., a Newport, R.I.-based luxury tour operator, travelers booking customized vacation itineraries are looking for “some sort of wow factor. They want private charter planes, meet and greet assistance at airports to get through customs, access into private places, like special sections of the Forbidden City in Beijing, or special events like a dinner at a maharajah’s palace in India.”
A perfect example of such travelers: Clyde and Janet Ostler, a couple from Ross, Calif., near San Francisco, who this past July took three other couples on a four-day trip of a lifetime to the Villa d’Este, on Italy’s romantic Lake Como, north of Milan, to celebrate Mrs. Ostler’s 50th birthday.
Priced at a cool $142,000, including airfare (the Ostlers paid for their guests’ activities and meals, while guests covered their own hotel accommodations and flights), the trip was designed by Romano, the Ostlers’ travel agent, “to explore a part of the world that’s glamorous and exclusive without being too far removed from business and family responsibilities."
Besides accommodations at the fabled Villa d’Este, which was built as a cardinal’s residence in the 16th century and transformed into a luxury hotel in 1873, the trip featured a golf outing for the men; private cooking class for the women; private sightseeing flight by sea plane around Lake Como and the nearby Alps, with lunch at a centuries-old restaurant on the lake’s only island; an excursion on beautiful, wooden Riva motor boats; and a full-day birthday celebration for Mrs. Ostler on July 14, Bastille Day. This started with spa treatments for all and ended with a black-tie, multi-course dinner in the formal dining room of the Villa d’Este, followed by a 30-minute, private fireworks display over the lake.
One of the group’s most memorable experiences had nothing to do with Romano’s planning, however.
Mrs. Ostler said her friends wanted to dine at Il Gatto Nero, a trattoria in Cernobbio frequented by George Clooney, the actor, who has a home on Lake Como. They went on the spur of the moment—and got lucky.
"There was a huge thunder and lightning storm, so we had a fireworks show from the storm and George Clooney to look at," she says. "It doesn’t get any better than that, it was a perfect night."