When it comes to travel, true luxury isn’t always only about comfort. It is also about being able to really experience a place, its history and culture. The best way to do that is to get involved. Various working estates and creative retreats around the world offer guests the chance to enrich themselves by learning something new. Whether you dream of being a cowboy driving cattle on the plains of the Argentinian pampas, fancy yourself a Picasso-in-the-making, or wish you could blend your own wine, work your own organic farm, or live the romance of a 100-year-old tea estate in the Himalayas, the person you aspire to be – even if only for a week or two – is limited only to the imagination.
The magnificent and secluded 2,600ha Estancia Los Potreros cattle farm on the vast, rolling plains of the Cordoba region of central Argentina dates back to 1574, when breeding mules for use in the silver mines in Peru was the main activity on the surrounding Sierras Chicas hills.
Over the centuries, cattle have replaced mules, and the land has been farmed more recently by four generations of the Begg family.
The Beggs have retained the rural traditions of Argentina, including the highlight of the year – the yerra, or branding of cattle – when the gauchos show their prowess in lassoing the animal, which is followed by a traditional fiesta. Estancia Los Potreros is one of the few farms left in the area that still follows the traditions of the yerra, so it is an important event for the local community.
Guests can participate in the yerra, round up mares and foals to protect them from pumas, or go for trail rides in the hills. There are 80 horses at the estate – a mixture of strong and sensible Criollos, five-gaited Paso Peruanos that are bred at the farm, and crossbreeds.
The main house is spacious and comfortably rustic, with plenty of dark wood floors, antiques, books and traditionally woven carpets and bed throws. The adobe construction keeps the rooms cool in summer, while crisp winter nights are warmed by wood-burning stoves and open log fires.
Lunch and dinner is served at the family table, usually hosted by a member of the Begg family. On the menu is Argentine “asado”, or barbecue, while freshly baked bread is supplemented by the estancia’s own organically grown vegetables, fruit and free-range eggs. Beef is from the farm’s own herd. The estancia has its own wine label that can be sampled at Kevin Begg’s much-loved wine tastings and meals.
New Mexico, US
Mabel Dodge Luhan House, the former abode of Mabel Gansen Evans Dodge Sterne Luhan – salon hostess, art patroness, writer and self-appointed saviour of humanity – has inspired some of the greatest minds of the 20th century.Georgia O’Keeffe stayed here, as did D.H. Lawrence, Ansel Adams, Martha Graham and Carl Jung.
Today, guests can soak up the spirit of this fascinating house, while attending three-to 10-day workshops on everything from “creativity without limits” to photography and creating illuminated journals. There are also yoga classes and personal- growth workshops.
The beautifully designed, triple-storey adobe house in Taos was built by Mabel and her husband, Tony, in the early 1900s. Situated at the end of a quiet road not far from the centre of town, the house appears much as it did in the days when Mabel and her distinguished guests admired the view of the Taos Mountain from the third-storey solarium.
The house blends warm mud-brick charm with early 20th- century elegance, including herringbone ceiling beams, traditional arched doorways, kiva (beehive-shaped) fireplaces, and carved pillars.
The main house has charming suites, including Mabel’s room with the original hand-carved double bed, and the solarium, which was formerly Mabel’s sun porch. There are also two cottages, plus a big South-western-style lodge named Juniper House.
Stellenbosch, South Africa
Dating back to 1692, Spier is one of South Africa’s oldest wine farms. Located in a charming university town about an hour’s drive from Cape Town, its rich cultural heritage includes a restored manor house, a collection of Cape Dutch gables, and the oldest wine cellar in the country.
The wines, under the award-winning 21 Gables, Signature, Creative Block, and Savannah ranges, are known especially for their use of sauvignon blanc, pinotage and, what is sometimes called “South Africa’s best-kept wine secret”, chenin blanc grapes, as well as cabernet sauvignon, merlot and shiraz in the limited-edition flagship wine, named Frans K Smit after the estate’s celebrated cellar master.
Guests can blend their own wines during tasting sessions and immerse themselves in the wine-making process by exploring the factory and cellar. During the annual harvest festival in February, they can stomp grapes before tasting wines against a backdrop of live music and festivities.
The Spier hotel, which opened in 2000, blends modern simplicity with a nod to the farm’s history in the softly curving gables, and is laid out with rooms arranged around six courtyards, each central square with its own swimming pool and sun loungers.
The Himalayas, India
Perched on a verdant ridge in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, Glenburn Tea Estate is a haven of pretty waterfalls, bamboo and teak forests, and steep slopes of neat tea plantations. The sought-after Darjeeling tea that is grown here is award-winning – the estate’s Silver Needle Tea took home the accolade of World’s Best White Tea last year.
Guests can get involved in the tea-making processes at the estate, from picking the “bud and two leaves” to learning the intricacies of the wilting, leaf maceration, fermentation and drying techniques. Estate manager Parveez Hussain takes guests on tours through the factory, followed by a tasting of the black, white and green teas produced at the estate.
Glenburn was started by a Scottish tea company in 1859, and the tea estate’s little hotel is steeped in colonial charm. All eight rooms are resplendent, with hand-printed curtains and cushions, antique beds and embroidered linens, and tea-scented soaps and lotions.
Mornings begin with the colonial tradition of “bed tea” – tea and biscuits brought to your room as a wake-up call – followed by breakfast served under a pomelo tree. Afternoon tea and evening drinks are on the long verandah, which offers views of the third-highest peak in the world, Kanchenjunga. Dinner is in a room decorated with china plates, botanical drawings and large teapots of blousy flowers from the estate’s gardens. Tea-smoked chicken, tea-leaf tempura, and tea-scented panna cotta are some of the dishes on the dinner menu.
Farm for friends
An idyllic, 1,700ha estate in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, Blackberry is a small luxury hotel on a working farm that has attracted discerning guests longing to escape the pressures of modern life for the past 40 years.
The farm was first staked and named in 1939, when Mrs Florida Lasier of Chicago, who was scouting for the location of her dream house, snagged her silk stockings on a wild blackberry bramble and decided it was home. In the 1970s, the Beall family – Sandy Beall being the founder of the Ruby Tuesday restaurant empire – opened Blackberry Farm to the public by converting the family home into a six-room country inn. Now run by Sandy’s son, Sam, Blackberry Farm has expanded to offer accommodation in elegantly appointed rooms, suites, cottages and three- or four-bedroom houses that come with their own private chef.
The farm retains the same values as it did decades ago – to offer friends, family and guests from all over the world good food and the joy of nature.
Guests can get involved in the farm’s activities, including helping master gardener John Coykendall work the fields, harvest the day’s produce for the kitchen and shell seeds, while learning about the heritage, history and craft of sowing, harvesting and seed saving.
Guests can also help chefs prepare meals to be served in the hotel’s restaurant, sign up for whisky, cheese and wine tastings, and learn about the craft of beer-making at the farm’s in-house brewery.