As a freelance travel writer, I travel twice a month and stay in at least 32 hotels a year for work — 97 per cent of those are luxury ones. And when not city-hopping, I am at exotic locales or having exclusive experiences that are inaccessible to a tourist of average means.
But the travels that have left the deepest impressions on me and make me smile are not the ones made up of finery like Frette sheets or de Gournay wallpaper. In fact, sometimes there is neither bed linen nor a bidet to be found. For me, my top travel experiences include an annual 10-day horseback riding camp in Mongolia. The fabled Kumano Kodo in Japan in the fall, where I had to walk-climb uphill for up to nine hours a day, is also on the list.
Pricewise, these experiences are far from luxury. The horse riding camp with Stone Horse Expeditions & Travel costs USD$4,000 (S$5,388); the six-day self-guided Kumano Kodo trek with Oku Japan starts at USD$1,720. Still, they form some of my most cherished travel experiences for the emotions they evoke and the connections they create, whether through encounters with people, reflections on simpler joys, or serendipitous moments of discovery.
For many luxury travellers, it is also these kinds of experiences — rather than the accoutrements of a hotel or fine dining — that make up their travel highlights.
“Luxury travel should not be defined by dollars and cents”, points out John Tan, who retired from a career in corporate development 10 years ago. Tan knows luxury travel, having visited 160 countries to date. To add, he has been a Singapore Airlines (SIA) Priority Passenger Service (PPS) member for 23 years, a Hyatt Lifetime Globalist, and an IHG loyalty club member with over a million points.
Many affluent travellers treasure experiences that connect them to nature, are out-of-the-ordinary, or immerse them in a foreign culture. As Ryosuke Yakuwa, director of sales & marketing, New Projects at Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas, shares, “Our guests are largely the sort who are curious about other cultures and want to know how the locals live, even if the related activities are a little rough around the edges.”
It is why the luxury hospitality brand, synonymous with wellness, also puts authentic guest experiences at the forefront of their offerings — even if some may not take place in pristine environs or may even be considered macabre. These experiences include visiting a fishing village in Yao Noi, Thailand, or a night visit to a cemetery on Con Dao island, Vietnam. The latter is a very popular activity with locals.
Still, not all well-heeled travellers agree on what qualifies as luxury travel or that organised activities are the most important; not every holidaymaker wants to access foreign cultures or make connections. “These are wealthy tourists but poor travellers,” opines Tan. “To them, luxury travel doesn’t have to be immersive or inspiring. It is simply about paying for someone to do the planning and booking for them,” Tan explains.
That said, for most affluent travellers, whether cerebral and curious or not, having their usual creature comforts is a must. “Sleeping in the best accommodation is non-negotiable for most of our clients,” says Lim Hui Juan, co-founder and director of Wandergolander, which also consults for private banks that provide travel concierge services.
Entrepreneurs and fintech professionals from their late 30s to late 40s account for 85 per cent of the agency’s turnover. “Many also value immersive and exclusive experiences,” adds Lim.
I wonder if perhaps the accommodation requirement should not be a hard and fast rule. After all, the best experiences are sometimes serendipitous and can happen through an unplanned journey of discovery. It doesn’t always have to be an itinerary made by a high-end “travel designer”.
In fact, the best experiences may even be found in a place that doesn’t hold much promise from a price perspective. “In Samoa, my stay at a USD$67-a-night beachfront fale turned out to be better than a USD$1,500-a-night five-star resort in terms of gratification,” Tan shares, recalling how he swapped rambunctious travel tales with fellow guests at a communal dining table. That night entered Tan’s journal as one of his warmest travel experiences.
It’s the simple things
And while luxury accommodations are non-negotiable for the luxury traveller, not all hospitality groups lean on the usual trappings of opulence. Aman virgins may be surprised to learn that the uber-luxe hospitality brand known for having a knack for picking breathtaking out-of-the-world locations for its hotels doesn’t set standards like 800-thread count bed linen or Dyson hair dryers at all properties. For instance, you will find one in your suite at Aman New York but not at Amanjiwo, Aman’s legendary resort at Borobudur, Indonesia.
And yet the brand has achieved cult status among a certain breed of travellers who love discreet service and plugged-in experiences, earning itself a following of staunch devotees known as the ”Amanjunkies”.
Some iconic Aman resorts are not known for fine dining either. Instead, the F&B offerings often remind guests of home-cooked food. A former general manager shares that the rationale behind this is that many of Aman’s guests dine very often at Michelin-starred restaurants. “Sometimes all they want on holiday is just simple food that reminds them of their childhood.”
For me, the things I’ve experienced on my travels often make me question my perspectives. Out on the steppes in Mongolia, I observe how content the nomads are to live a peripatetic lifestyle without many material possessions. How peculiar that in a large, well-appointed suite in a luxury hotel that I often find myself in for work, I can feel immensely empty. But when I am out on the endless steppes, my heart is full.
Perhaps despite differences in our circumstances, culture, and even income levels, people are invariably the same in many ways. Similar things move us: friendships and family, love and loss, and the bonds that tie people together. And sometimes, it takes going a long way to realise these things.
No one says it better than Pico Iyer. “We travel initially to lose ourselves, and we travel next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again — to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.”
And surely, is it not a luxury if one is able to find these moments while travelling?