Who ever said getting back to nature meant roughing it? Now travelers can have their truffles and eat them under the stars, too.
By Carla Power
July 25-Aug. 1 issue - Travel used to be divided into two basic categories: luxury and no-frills. the former consisted of flying first class, dining at three-star restaurants and staying in decadent comfort; the latter involved backpacking and camping out in some of the world's most beautifully remote spots. Rich holidaymakers never had to go a day without a glass of fine Bordeaux, but they also rarely ventured beyond the confines of their posh resorts. Rugged travelers regularly communed with nature—but ate hot dogs cooked over an open fire. Now tourists can have their wine and see the wildlife, too: communing with nature and living the good life are no longer mutually exclusive.
In fact, they fit together surprisingly well. A private island in the Maldives or a sumptuous tent in the Serengeti provide perhaps the most elusive luxury of 21st-century life: sanctuary from traffic, the fax machine and business suits. But modern-day travelers don't want to do without their plush towels and designer coffee. So cutting-edge hoteliers are beginning to combine the timeless luxuries of solitude and nature with the more mundane ones of butlers and Frette sheets. India's Oberoi Group has erected magical air-conditioned tents with marble bathrooms in the jungles of India's Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, while the Gulf hospitality group Jumeirah has created Arab opulence at the Bab Al Shams Desert Resort in Dubai. Smart designers are catering to the same group of clients with accessories like the new Mount Everest-ready backpacks produced by luxury luggagemaker Tumi.
The quest for privacy and exclusivity means that haute civilization is popping up in ever more remote places, says author Martin Nicholas Kunz, whose latest book on sumptuous lodgings covers Africa and the Middle East: "The new nomads will help drive a market for many more exciting hotels to visit in the deserts, jungles, mountains, forests and even underwater." Once word of remote gems reaches civilization, notes Atlanta-based travel agent Betty Jo Currie, it's nigh impossible to get reservations. The sheer exclusivity "drives the price sky-high. It's supply and demand."
For those who can afford it, the rewards are rich. Giselle Hantz—a Manhattan lawyer married to an investment banker, and a self-described "luxury consumer"— recalls the glories of her mobile safari in Botswana, where the staff included zoologists and scholars. Camp, set up each night, was "very luxurious, with real beds and good food." The incongruity of having "elephants stomping around our campground" way out in the middle of the savanna made the experience something "very personal, very private."
"Personal" and "private" are watchwords for rustic-luxury clients, many of whom are baby boomers, says PricewaterhouseCoopers travel industry analyst Bjorn Hanson. With grown children and established careers, these forty- and fiftysomethings are no longer —afraid to go where they can't be easily reached. "Gen-Xers want more social activities," he notes. Their parents, by contrast, want to be free to make their own fun. Many of them came of age during Woodstock, and remain hungry for adventure. In fact, they've begun "competing with their children" for travel experiences, says Hanson. They choose rock climbing over rocking chairs, snorkeling over spectator sports, and now that they have money, are eager to merge the buzz of their youthful pursuits with luxury. "They say, 'I've been to the theme parks and the sound-and-light attractions. Now, let me get away'."
Opportunities abound. At the Mnemba Island Lodge, on an island off Zanzibar's coast, you can listen to the lapping of the Indian Ocean from your sumptuously appointed palm and wood hut. Guests visiting the Bullo River Station, a luxury hotel on a working cattle ranch on the northwest tip of the Australian outback, can muster cattle, catch bulls or hunt crocodiles. At this year's annual rock festival in Glastonbury, England—an event as famous for its sex-in-muddy-tents atmosphere as for its music—one entrepreneur launched Camp Kerala Village, where the £6,000 tents included VIP tickets, 24-hour room service and dressing gowns. In the Highlands of Scotland, the luxuriously appointed Alladale Wilderness Lodge offers clients rural Highland sports, including stalking, falconry and clay-pigeon shooting.
The trend has created a boom market for private villas, customized with support staff, ready to accommodate their clients' lifestyles. On the island of Dhoni Mighili in the Maldives, guests can lounge in beach bungalows equipped with Bose sound systems and L'Occitane toiletries, or sail around the Ari Atoll in traditional Maldivian fishing vessels, kitted out with Frette linens, Philippe Starck bathroom fittings and a butler. For managers Jacqueline and David O'Hara—formerly a chef for Jordan's royal family—the specific needs of their guests are paramount. When one party requested the chef rustle up their favorite French risotto, the O'Haras flew in mushrooms from Dubai. Last year, for a couple who returns annually for their wedding anniversary, the O'Haras organized a mock wedding on the beach, complete with lace, Dom Perignon and caviar.
Creature comforts like that, even in India and Africa, mean that high-end travel agents like Betty Jo Currie, of Explorations in Atlanta, can persuade clients who'd never have dared to visit exotic places before to get on planes "because I know these properties are going to blow their minds." Both India and Africa have achieved what Currie calls the "tipping point" in luxury travel, where the quality of the lodgings now matches the uniqueness of the experience. Indeed, with globalization and hotel chains making travel blander, the former haunts of backpackers are now the places to be seen. "For a lot of people, it's just the same kind of status game that everything else is," says luxury traveler Hantz. "For them, staying at the Four Seasons seems kind of bourgeois, since any doctor from the Midwest will know about it."
The rustic-luxury genre recalls the incongruities of Marie Antoinette in her Versailles dairy farm. This is a world where there are "penthouse-suite tents" set in the wilds of British Columbia, Japanese-inspired bathrooms in Belize rain forests and black-tie dinners thrown deep in the Adirondacks. Craftsmanship is prized as much as comfort. On the Placencia Peninsula in Belize, film director Francis Ford Coppola used Indonesian craftsmen and Balinese artifacts in the design of his exotic resort, the Turtle Inn. "We are now witnessing the birth of a new move in hospitality, which brings architecture and nature together," says Kunz. "It emphasizes transparence and open spaces, with no tangible or visible borders between inside and outside." Even some of the world's most rustic, ecofriendly accommodations are adding luxe touches. At the Green Magic Nature Resort in Kerala, guests can bunk in a treehouse, complete with an elevator, running water and a carpeted veranda. On North Island, an elegant resort in the Seychelles, guests shower and get massages under the sky. Its designers built the dining room and villas around a dead takamaka tree, a feature that helps create what the designers dubbed "an haute couture Robinson Crusoe look."
Savvy to the fact that the rustic-luxury market revels in local tradition, some hoteliers have even invented their own myths. Designing the sumptuous Tsala Treetop Lodge in South Africa, Jill Hunter invented a legend about an ancient civilization, the Tsala, originally from North Africa. The architects built a faux ruin of local stone, and then laid the boardwalks and decks of the lodge around it. "It could have been, but it is fictitious," says Hunter. Last month, on the islands of Phi Phi in Thailand, Zeavola opened a bamboo-and-rattan re-creation of a rural Thai village—if Thai villagers enjoyed plunge pools, a southern Italian restaurant and CD/VCD/DVD players.
Clearly the new fusion between local style and global luxury raises moral issues. Kishore Singh, an editor at India's Business Standard newspaper, recalls a trip he took on a houseboat in Kerala state, and the discomfort he felt observing village life from a vessel with rooms worthy of a five-star hotel, replete with silk throws, plush mattresses and lots of polished wood and brass. "It is a little decadent," he concedes. "You are sitting there in your luxurious, air-conditioned surroundings, sipping expensive wine in the face of so much poverty." When Currie organized a 50th-birthday celebration for a friend, hiking Peru's Inca Trail, she "got some ribbing," she recalls, for bringing extra porters and masseuses for the trek. And yet, she points out, the Peruvians they brought along were paid well—and perhaps more important, had never before seen the Inca Trail. "Philosophically, there is an argument that [traveling] well can benefit the local population," argues Currie. "Luxury can also be about sharing the wealth—and not just money." As any rustic luxurian knows, the best things in life are free.
With Mary Acoymo and Jason Overdorf
© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.