First World Comfort in Third World Countries
Published: April 2009
By Shane Mitchell
The comforts of civilization now await travelers in the most distant corners of the world, but for Shane Mitchell it’s the simple things that matter most.
It was never my intention to become Action-Adventure Girl. Despite being one of those rare individuals actually born in Manhattan, I have spent most of my adult life at a remove from sprawling cities, where every indulgence is a cell phone call away. But the wide-open spaces of my home are not just far from civilization because they have more than their share of cellular dead zones. My base is on the western edge of the Adirondacks, south of a barren plateau famous for its extreme snowfall and its populations of bald eagles, moose, and black bears. From here, I am often compelled to go to destinations even more remote—rain forests in Fiji, uncharted islands in the Palawan archipelago, Aboriginal camps in the Australian outback, villages in the Himalayan foothills. I like being the first one there. (Well, the first Western woman, anyway.) And my drive definitely stems from an abiding fascination with uncompromised cultures and landscapes, which often lack such rudimentary services as indoor plumbing or electrical outlets. Increasingly, it seems, others share the same interest—although unlike me, they aren’t always willing to sacrifice the comforts of home.
This has given rise to a subset of high-end hoteliers and outfitters eager to operate on the fringes of civilization, while still providing for every First World whim. It’s been 20 years since the first Amanresort opened on an isolated beach in southern Thailand. (These days, Phuket isn’t considered so remote.) Since then, the company has become a standard-bearer for what founder Adrian Zecha calls "sincere luxury," introducing the concept to tourism frontiers such as Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and the Philippines (there are also resorts in more popular destinations, from the French Alps to the Caribbean). His fifth Bhutanese outpost, Amankora Bumthang, opened late last fall in the Choekhor Valley next to the Wangdicholing Palace. Essentially, Aman’s concept of comfort in a remote setting equals a generous amount of private square footage, curated artwork, sunken marble tubs, and spa treatments. Meals always have an indigenous flavor. "After a day of exploring," says executive director Trina Ebert, "we want our guests to have happy stomachs." Of course, now Amanresorts has plenty of competition—many others are also jockeying for the attention of adventurers who favor a soft landing at the end of their day.
West of the prime meridian, Explora’s Modernist hotels in Patagonia’s Torres del Paine National Park and in the Atacama Desert have attracted upscale travelers to two of the starkest regions on the South American continent. The company recently expanded its portfolio offshore to the new 30-room Posada de Mike Rapu, which faces the blank Pacific on Rapa Nui (Easter Island), slightly south of the Tropic of Capricorn. Explora also has a Travesía (Spanish for "journey") tour to the Salar de Uyuni—one of the world’s highest salt flats—between Bolivia and Chile, although the tent accom-modation is more Orvis than opulent. Uncharted Outposts handpicks individually owned wilderness camps and outback stations from Namibia to Australia’s Northern Territory. All have an open-plan, rustic sensibility that inspires a desire for pith helmets and khaki garb with a thousand zippered compartments. Even so, the bars are stocked with chilled beverages (potable ice is itself quite a rare commodity in some parts of the world), and you’ll never share the infinity pools with submerged hippos or toothy crocs. One of its newest properties is the Nomad Tarangire Safari Camp, deep in a 1,000-square-mile national park among Tanzania’s central highlands. The look would appeal to anyone harboring fantasies of Arabian nights: arched bedouin tents, kilim rugs, Turkish brass lamps, Oriental throw pillows.
So how exactly do you get completely off the grid when it keeps expanding?Frankly, remoteness doesn’t always appeal on its own. One of my all-time favorite narratives is Roughing It, Mark Twain’s hilarious tale of a hapless tenderfoot who spends several years of "variegated vagabondizing" in the Nevada Territory, all the while encountering gold prospectors, polygamists, outlaws, coyotes, and other mythic phenomena of the Wild West. His account of crossing an alkali desert near Salt Lake under the midday sun says it all: "The poetry was all in the anticipation—there is none in the reality." These days, the focus has shifted to the Wild East. Catherine Heald, of Remote Lands, a custom tour company based in Manhattan that specializes in "tailor-made once-in-a-lifetime" trips to such emerging destinations as Borneo and Bangladesh, asserts: "Our goal is to get people into the places far beyond their comfort level. If you want a profound, life-changing experience, you need some difficulty in order to be moved emotionally."
With genuinely lavish appointments cropping up in the wild, the meaning of basic necessities has also changed. By its very nature, certain gear—anything dependent on electrical outlets or other forms of connectivity—is expendable when journeying to a new frontier. Who really needs an iPod when a Fijian choir is willing to serenade?And although I’ve figured out how to download episodes of Lost onto my laptop and have largely mastered Wi-Fi, I try to leave it at home, too. Whenever I have been surprised by small comforts (a bucket shower, a clean blanket, a cold drink) in outermost circumstances, or have found myself smugly planning ahead (my own tea bags, toilet tissue, painkillers, and chocolate-covered nuts) to counter mild deprivation in these locales, it has served to remind me that each degree of ease has a corollary, but entirely individual, tolerance for discomfort. Like pool butlers. I can definitely do without them. Porters, on the other hand, are, well, handy. Even with my whatever-fits-in-one-bag packing rule, I only stand five foot two in my Jimmy Choos—I’m always grateful to have someone sling my leather tote into an overhead rack on a crack-of-dawn train to Mombasa or Siberia or the Himalayas.
The Dehradun Shatabdi Express takes 4½ hours to travel 162 miles between New Delhi and Rishikesh, the holy gateway for yogic converts and impassioned Beatles-trivia buffs. (It is also home to Ananda in the Himalayas, a mellow spa retreat with three handsome new villas high above the rushing brown Ganges River.) Since executive class was sold out on my recent trip there, I wound up in a chair car, still air-conditioned and with tolerable meal service, and probably the best carriage from which to see middle-class India on the move. (Do not be fooled by sleeper class, a misnomer for the cattle cars where travelers are crammed onto bench seats, clog the aisles, and hang out of open doorways, gasping for fresh air.) Quite soon, however, impatient pilgrims will be able to shorten their trip to the ashrams by hours when Dehradun Airport, currently closed for expansion, reopens. To my mind, that will be a shame, especially after observing life in Uttarakhand unfurl outside the train window. And then there’s the priceless farewell as the train finally pulls into Haridwar station. The loudspeaker crackles to life with a polite, disembodied message from an anonymous lady representing Indian Railways. She trills, "We wish you a comfortable and effortless journey."
Shane Mitchell is a special correspondent for Travel + Leisure.
Amanresorts’ fifth Amankora Bumthang lodge, in Bhutan, opened in October 2007 (800/477-9180; amanresorts.com; doubles from $700).
The Ananda in the Himalayas spa and hotel is located near Rishikesh, India, in the foothills of the Himalayas (91-1378/ 227-500; anandaspa.com; doubles from $2,794 for three nights, including meals).
The newest Explora hotel, Posada de Mike Rapu, on Rapa Nui (Easter Island), opened in December 2007 (866/750-6699; explora.com; doubles from $3,588 for three nights, including all meals and activities). The 10-day Travesía tour to the Salar de Uyuni salt flats starts at $5,240 per person, double, and includes all transportation, meals, and activities.
Abercrombie & Kent, the world’s largest luxury outfitter, has itineraries on all seven continents that include cruises, train journeys, and tailor-made trips by private jet—as well as safaris, their original specialty, in both southern and eastern Africa (800/554-7016; abercrombiekent.com).
Geographic Expeditions began as an adventure outfitter, but has incorporated cushier stops into its excursions. The Australian outback trips stop at Barossa Valley wineries and include transfers by private plane (800/777-8183; geoex.com).
Latin Excursions has helped raise the travel profile of South America with high-end cruises on the Amazon and in the Galápagos, as well as bespoke itineraries in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. Among its newest offerings is a 14-day trip to Brazil’s northeast, where the beaches have long been more dazzling than the accommodations. Land Rovers and private houses that have been outfitted to the standards of their clients help ease the way (866/626-3750; latinexcursions.com; from $5,000 per person, double).
For travelers not wishing to schedule their trip to Namibia’s Skeleton Coast around the dates set by an outfitter, Mountain Travel Sobek relaunched its Private Adventures this past October. Travelers can choose from 54 itineraries in 33 countries. There is a premium for privacy, however. A 14-day group trip to Annapurna, in the Himalayas, booked as a Private Adventure starts at $3,495, versus $2,295 per person, double (888/687-6235; mtsobek.com).
Off the Beaten Path, based in Bozeman, Montana, specializes in itineraries to destinations throughout North and South America (as well as New Zealand, where it offers a two-week backcountry hiking trip on a half-dozen dates each year). Like the other outfitters listed here, customized trips—arranging for a yacht to explore the more remote stretches of the Alaska coastline, a tailored itinerary exploring the biospheres and ruins of the Yucatán by day, with nights spent in restored haciendas—complement their catalogue of set itineraries (800/445-2995; offthebeatenpath.com).
Operating in 16 countries in Asia, Remote Lands also creates custom trips with a private jet option. Prices vary depending on the itinerary, but usually range from $1,000 per person per day, including some meals but not airfare to and from the United States (646/415-8092; remotelands.com).
Operating since 1972, Uncharted Outposts selects properties in Africa, South America, Australia, and New Zealand—it currently works with more than 200, from safari lodges to island resorts—and also organizes individual itineraries (888/995-0909; unchartedoutposts.com).