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Escape Artistry

The false conviviality of five years ago, when communal tables were being installed at chic hotels and restaurants, has given way to pseudo-exclusivity (pseudo, of course, because everybody's doing it). The Chateau Marmont and the Standard in West Hollywood, and the Mercer in New York's SoHo, are three hotels known for having bottled the lightning of travel trendiness. But their owner, André Balazs, worries that the buzz machine that sustained them may be busted beyond repair. "Things used to be hot because only a few knew," he says. "The ones who used to define cool are running from it." Running where?Some, at least, are going to Balazs's latest creation, Sub Mercer, a club in the basement below the Mercer Hotel that's off-limits without an invitation—because the hotel's restaurant, Mercer Kitchen, is too public. "Everything has become accessible, so the quest for inaccessibility is heightened," Balazs says with a sigh. "The truly exclusive have moved to exclusion."

Expect things to get worse. "It's an outcome of big-city life, high stress, and incredible discretionary income," says Alastair Morrison, who runs Purdue University's Tourism & Hospitality Research Center. "We have more means of communication, and that's increased our desire to escape, to seek seclusion."

It's a self-centered baby boomer thing too, Morrison says. Aging boomers at the peak of their earning years "want their own vacations." Raised to believe they're special, accustomed to instant gratification from infancy to Internet, the children of Dr. Spock aren't satisfied by just any vacation. "They're looking for the perfect trip," says Madison Toms, North American marketing director for Orient-Express Hotels.

This is business as usual for Edward Marquis, whose International Chapters agency rents villas in Europe, the Caribbean, Morocco, and Mauritius. Weekly rates range from $2,500 to $60,000 for "the sort of place a pop star goes to," Marquis says. Villas have siphoned off some of the crowd that once patronized luxury hotels. Clever hoteliers are responding by building villas of their own—like the opulent new $1,300-per-night two-bedroom hideaways occupied by the most discerning guests at the Four Seasons Resort Bali at Sayan. This is giving way to a new breed of over-the-top private-island resorts like Belize's Cayo Espanto, a $1,700-a-night jewel box with five villas. "There's such an intrigue to getting out of your life and going somewhere private," says owner Jeff Gram.

Orient-Express has turned the madness into a product—complete with a glossy brochure. Its Ultimate Takeover program was launched last year after the company noted an increased demand for "absolutely quintessential, truly exclusive experiences," Toms says. The Takeover—in which a single customer buys out an entire property—appeals to the rich, the celebrated, and the power elite. This spring, for instance, a tycoon took over La Samanna on St. Martin for a party. Seventy guests had full run of the 81-room resort for five nights. The cost?About $615,000— not including the extras the host laid on, like his own silver and daily planeloads of fresh flowers.

Heightened privacy is the special formula behind Italy's Monastero, a restored village on Pantelleria, an island off Sicily. Its owner, photographer and fashion entrepreneur Fabrizio Ferri, calls it "the place where people with nothing to hide can hide." And he rents its 12 traditional stone cottages, which sit in three little clusters on the large property, only to friends, or to friends of friends like Madonna, Sting, Gérard Depardieu, and Carole Bouquet. "But you can rent one"—for prices ranging from $3,700 to $25,000 per week, Ferri says—"if you heard about it from the right people, if we like you." Ferri will also ask, "Why do you want to come?" Better practice that Garbo imitation.

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