The term “experiential luxury travel” has actually been around for a long time; in fact one of the travel experiences in this post was created by the company in question. 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 2016, amazing adventures that I know I’ll always remember.
40th Birthday in Finland
In January I celebrated the milestone birthday of 40. It wasn’t something I dreaded, but I did want to enter into a new decade mindfully and with purpose. That’s how I found myself in Finland, celebrating in as fun a way as I can imagine, by visiting a new country. I was there to attend a conference, but decided to extend my stay for my birthday. What resulted was a couple of weeks exploring Finland, Estonia and Stockholm, enjoying these amazing destinations in the heart of winter. While I loved every moment of my time in this chilly part of the world, my favorite experiences occurred in Rovaniemi, deep in Finnish Lapland. This huge region is mostly woods, lakes and streams, but it’s also the home of Santa Claus. In what can only be described as a brilliant marketing move, years ago Rovaniemi lauded itself as the official home of Santa Claus, a moniker that stuck. But it wasn’t meeting Santa that was the real joy of my time in Lapland, it was heading out into the wilderness and enjoying a night in the forest just as the Finns do. The Finnish people have a powerful connection to the land and their country and after chatting with many, spending some time in a remote cabin with no electricity or running water is a travel aspiration most of them covet. So that’s what I did, along with some friends we spent a night in a forest cabin located just a few miles from The Middle of Nowhere, enjoying great food and each other’s company. It was also there where I learned the true art of the sauna, enjoying this ritual with some locals in the cabin’s old-fashioned smoke sauna. Totally unlike American versions, the traditional Finnish sauna is a special experience, almost religious, and being taught the intricacies of this art by Finns themselves is something I know I’ll never forget.
Hugging a Panda in China
Who doesn’t love pandas? Well, I’m sure there are some horrible people out there but I, like millions of others, have always loved pandas. In fact, I love them so much that I made it my mission while in China to visit the world capital of all things panda, Chengdu. There I visited the Dujiangyan research center; just one of many in the region devoted to protecting and preserving this oddly fragile species. I didn’t just get to watch the pandas though, this is also where I had the very unique opportunity to hug one of these teddy bears come to life. For a donation to the center, visitors can either spend an entire day volunteering at the center, or just a few moments hugging a panda. I was short on time, so I opted for the panda hug but even this brief encounter was an extraordinary moment. A small group of us excitedly waited for the panda to be brought out, a younger one who immediately hopped up on a nearby bench, clearly used to the activity. The hug itself only lasted about 30-seconds, but it was a special moment and for all of us there truly was the culmination of a lifetime of waiting.
Journey to Fogo Island
I knew that my time spent on Fogo Island in Newfoundland would be a relaxing and luxurious experience, thanks to the fact that this small island is also home to one of the world’s top hotels. But I never expected that it would be the island and the warm people who call this cold place home that ultimately would mean the most to me. Fogo Island is a strange little place, but maybe that’s why its residents are so fiercely proud of it. Most of them can trace their roots on Fogo back for centuries, and this fishing outpost probably would still be largely forgotten today if it weren’t for the Fogo Island Inn. Built just a few years ago by a former island resident who did well in life, she returned to not only give back to her community, but to both transform and preserve it at the same time. The luxury hotel is just part of her master plan to use the arts and creative pursuits to regenerate the island’s economy. And it’s working. A major aspect of this are the residents themselves, proud individuals that the luxury hotel uses to augment the experience for their guests. Dozens are hired to serve as community hosts, to share with visitors what they love most about Fogo Island, to drive them around as amateur tour guides and to just be there in case they need anything. That’s how I came to be adopted by the island, wherever I went there was someone ready and willing to help me but it was more than that. It’s a small island and everyone talks to everyone else and by the end of the second day, I learned that locals were there keeping an eye out to make sure I was in fact having an experience I’d never forget. They all cared and they all wanted me, and every visitor, to leave a little bit better than when they arrived. I felt as if I was part of the community, which is strange given the fact I was only there for two days, and it’s this rare and unusual phenomenon that not only makes the Fogo Island Inn one of the best hotels in the world, but makes Fogo Island one of those unique travel experiences everyone should enjoy at least once in their lives.
Safari in Tanzania
Going on safari is one of those special travel experiences everyone should enjoy at least once in their lives. Thanks to a few trips visiting sub-Saharan Africa, I have been on several safaris but nothing prepared me for the luxury safari in Tanzania I enjoyed with Abercrombie & Kent. A&K literally invented the concepts of luxury safari and experiential travel, so I knew I was in good hands as we toured the amazing national parks of Tanzania. Whether it was sneaking up on a herd of elephants, or admiring the power of the Great Migration, I know I will always treasure the memories from this luxury safari experience. The first and still one of the best definitions of experiential luxury travel, the Abercrombie & Kent safari experience enables guests to experience wildlife and the remarkable African bush in ways both unique and completely remarkable.
Iceland Luxury & Exploration
While Reykjavik is slowly getting more and more hotels, and even some luxury options, the rest of the country is a little behind the massive tourism boom Iceland is currently enjoying. That means finding and booking a great hotel can be a challenge, but when I discovered the Hotel Ranga I knew I had found something special. Driving up to the hotel, conveniently located along the Ring Road, I was excited for my stay, one that promised to be an experience and much more than just a nice place to spend the night. Checking into my room, I opened the door and was blown away by what I discovered. The suites at the Hotel Ranga are decorated by theme, each of the 7 continents are represented. I was booked into their Asian suite, and it was as if the door I opened transported me to Kyoto. Every detail, from the shoji screens to the traditional bathtub and wooden slippers in the bathroom were straight out of a Japanese design book, and a great introduction to the incredible level of detail for which the hotel is known. One of rural Iceland’s few luxury properties, it’s also perfectly situated close to one of my favorite discoveries of the year, the Westman Islands.
Easy to reach from the south coast, the ferry ride is a short 30-minutes, but it feels like a world away. The Westman Islands are small and the only inhabited island, Haimaey, is just 7 square miles in size. 4,000 people call this rock home, but as I discovered on a tour around the island, it’s one of the most beautiful places not only in Iceland, but arguably the world. A combination of the gorgeous landscapes and the hospitality of the people who call it home, I fell in love thanks to the total experience and I know it’s an island I will return to many times in the future.
Spending the Night at the Schlosshotel Münchhausen
Originally a 16th-century castle, today both the main building and the incredible grounds surrounding the Schlosshotel Münchhausen come together to form one of the best hotels in Germany. A luxury, 5-star hotel-resort, this wasn’t only one of my favorite hotel experiences on a road trip through Germany, it was the most relaxing. Sitting on the terrace, enjoying a fantastic dinner as the sun slowly set was leisurely and fun, exactly what you want from any great hotel experience. The rooms though aren’t what one expects from a 400-year old castle. Inside, the rooms and public spaces are modern, but in keeping with the castle’s tradition, light and airy and incredibly comfortable. It’s also located within just a few miles of Hameln, making it the perfect stop along the German Fairy Tale Route.
Exploring More of the US
While at first blush this may not seem like an experiential luxury experience and sometimes it wasn’t. I’ve added it to this list though for a couple of reasons. First, I’d long lamented the fact that while I travel the world, I sometimes ignore my own country. While I have a lot more to see and do, 2016 was a great step in truly learning more about the country I love so much. Secondly, it was oftentimes enjoyed while staying in luxury hotels that were as connected to their communities as any I’ve ever seen. From the Ritz-Carlton in Denver to The Logan Hotel in Philadelphia and many others, they added to my own travel enjoyment and education in ways I would never have guessed before I left home.
Cruising French Polynesia
The South Pacific has been on my own personal travel bucket list for as long as I can remember. Those crystal-clear waters and verdant green mountains called to me in the same way as the fictional Bali Hai called out in “South Pacific.” I braced myself for disappointment, to have my dreams dashed but that never happened. No, if anything Tahiti surpassed even my own lofty expectations. But Tahiti is Tahiti for a reason, and I realized that almost immediately upon arriving into Papeete. Over the course of a week while on a luxurious Windstar Cruise my appreciation of how just idyllic and perfect the islands are grew, and the experiences I enjoyed there really were a dream come true.
What were some of your extraordinary travel moments of 2016?