I have an exceedingly generous friend who every so often invites a bunch of her buddies to visit her somewhere fun. The guest list rotates, as do the destinations. She once brought my partner and me to Santa Fe, where she keeps a home, and put us up for four days in a nicely appointed house of our own, complete with a breakfast chef and golf-course view. Another time, she flew five of us for a last-minute winter break to the U.S. Virgin Islands, where we did little more than bask on the beach. Just this spring, she jetted six friends to New York, put us up on Central Park, arranged a private tour at the Met and threw a whole bunch of ritzy Manhattan dinners.
All very nice. But, really, would it kill her, just once, to make us feel really loved? Could she not, say, rent out, and fill up, a castle in Scotland, where her loyal friends could take in a bit of deer stalking and grouse shooting between rounds of golf? Or secure a few seats on a three-week, around-the-world tour by private jet? How about coughing up for a sojourn at an 18-acre estate, accessible by helipad, perched atop one of Jamaica's highest mountains? After all, when it comes to finding a little fun on the road, more and more high-end tour operators are making it easier than ever for those with the means to take along a bevy of friends, family or anyone else they might care to impress, reward, control or just make happy.
“We're seeing a growing appeal in trips that involve more than just a couple getting away from it all, all by themselves,” says Pamela Lassers, director of media relations for Abercrombie & Kent, a luxury travel specialist headquartered in London. Lassers attributes that trend in large part to simple demographics. “Several million people are now turning either 50 or 60 every year” in North America, she notes, and many of them are taking home career-high paycheques and bonuses. “Whether it's a significant birthday or a landmark anniversary, we're seeing baby boomers taking the plunge and treating their friends or family to a faraway place where everyone can mark the occasion together.”
Certainly, Abercrombie & Kent does not lack for superb destinations that also provide what Lassers suggests is a sine qua non of a successful group sabbatical: staff. When you rent a concierge property through A&K's European Villas program, you get a “house manager” in the deal. At minimum, the manager at such properties as Borgo Bernardini in Lucca, Tuscany–once a boar-hunting lodge, now a gracious retreat complete with inner courtyards, weeping willows, fountains and formal gardens–will shop and prepare whatever menus you demand while in residence. He'll also co-ordinate the maids and groundskeepers, ensuring they keep things looking fab, while not getting in the face of you or your cortège. At Borgo Bernardini, with you and 23 guests, prices start at US$55,490 for seven days.
For some, merely sitting around for a week or two, even in restful surroundings, and with all kinds of perfect little villages a stone's throw away, might seem a bit claustrophobic. Guests, after all, can start to stink after three days, even when the property's a rental. So you might want to look into a getaway with a little more built-in coming-and-going to its days.
Like, maybe, one of those private-jet tours. On Sept. 27, St. Louis-based Intrav was set to fly a Boeing 757 out of New York and Las Vegas on a 22-day trip, which runs US$52,500 a guest, that touches down for luxe-heavy stops in Hawaii, Japan, Cambodia, India, Turkey, Russia and France, with visits to the likes of Angkor Wat and the Taj Mahal, and stays in St. Petersburg's Grand Hotel Europe and the seaside Hotel du Palais on France's Côte des Basques. In fact, your time in the air will be pretty ritzy, too, and perfect for hanging with your comrades-in-euphoria. Its interior decked out, as Rolf Meyr of Toronto's Rosedale Travel puts it, “with the feel of a five-star hotel,” the plane comes with a lounge and a movie theatre, and its usual 234 seats are replaced with a mere 48, all first-class, and arranged in intimate groupings.
If even too much deluxe air travel leaves you lagged, or if you're looking for a trip more appropriate for, say, rewarding a smallish squad of close-knit, high-performing employees (and their dates), Marc Telio, president of B.C. boutique travel company Entrée Canada, recommends a customizable nine-day tour on the Pacific Yellowfin. Departing from and returning to Vancouver, this classic wooden coastal freighter, built in Maine in 1942 and used by John F. Kennedy during the Bay of Pigs crisis, includes four double cabins, as well as four kayaks, two scooters, seven bicycles, two 14-foot sailing dinghies, a 25-foot powerboat and a 22-foot aluminum fishing skiff, not to mention two barbecues, a wet bar and a wood-burning stove.
Along with all the water sports that lineup of toys implies, your voyage includes a two-night stay, complete with meals, at Hastings House, a Relais & Châteaux 30-acre seaside estate on B.C.'s Salt Spring Island; a “gourmet safari” of wine and food tasting across Salt Spring; and a charter seaplane ride to Tofino, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, where you'll all stay for two nights at the famous Wickaninnish Inn on a rocky promontory thrust over the ocean, and sup at the award-winning Pointe Restaurant. Eight people: US$54,160.
But perhaps that's getting a bit too active, or maybe you just don't want your underlings (or offspring) witnessing your first go at manning a fishing skiff. If so, consider checking into one of those Scottish castles. Villas International offers a range of one-time strongholds of the British gentry for your lolling about. Dundas Castle, just 13 kilometres outside Edinburgh, devotes a single floor to four suites, each with its own bath, plus a shared cook and domestic help, all set in a park that includes its own nine-hole golf course and a statue of former guest Oliver Cromwell, for between US$10,000 and $16,000, depending how much snow is on those greens.
Or to escape the white stuff entirely when those winter winds blow, just take your brood or workplace brethren straight to Jamaica's Silent Waters, where no real lords have ever ruled, but where you can lord your generosity over 19 fellow guests for a weekly high-season rate of US$29,150. Silent Waters' 12 separate buildings are set in gardens peppered with ancient carved statuary from Bali, Burma and Thailand, as well as a pair of 17th-century Buddhist attendant statues that preside over the place “to ensure guests' peace and serenity.”
Surely a bit of overindulgence overkill: it's hard to imagine you'll need their services in a setting inaccessible by public roads, and where a 24-metre reflecting pool wraps around the shared outdoor breakfast gazebo. Come to think of it, that sounds like the perfect spot to bask not only in the morning sun and balmy breezes of nearby Montego Bay, but in the barrage of posterior-kissing–I mean, carefully chosen words of thanks and heartfelt homage–that will be flying in your direction, all part of a perk that derives a good part of its pleasure from the fact that it's so generously shared.