Karen and Jeff Block were looking for a place to celebrate their 15th anniversary last November with 40 friends. They considered high-end options such as Mahakua, the Amanresort in Mexico, but found them not quite right—they wanted something unique. Even Costa Rica or surf camp sounded too predictable.
Instead, they gathered at Hotelito Desconocido, a Mexican ecoresort where there's no electricity. It was a revelation. The lack of modern amenities felt like an opportunity to see the world differently: they read by candlelight and hosted beach barbecues and bonfires. "You can go anywhere and stay at a nice hotel and be saturated with luxuries," says Karen Block. "But at Hotelito, you realize you don't need all that. It's about the beauty of who you are and who you're with." Indeed, when her sister went to the Four Seasons Punta Mita afterward, she found the air-conditioning and marble bathrooms distracting.
For years, hotels and resorts have poured on the excesses. Pillow menus, bath butlers, pet concierges. Even spas have shrugged off asceticism in favor of indulgence—they're as likely to serve wine as not. But every trend brings a countertrend. Call it the deprivation vacation: travelers who can afford to stay at a Canyon Ranch or a Ritz-Carlton, thank you very much, are seeking out places where they get less for their money. (integral)
Authenticity is the appeal for much of the less-is-more crowd. Vladi, a company that sells and rents islands all over the world, peddles a $250 survival kit: designed by Patrizia Gucci, it holds a two-person tent, a fishing rod, a hammock, and a magnifying glass. It's bought primarily by people who own undeveloped islands; they want that Robinson Crusoe experience, the kind you won't find at a resort in Fiji where there's always a pool boy skulking around. Those who can't afford to buy their own island can pay $165 a day to rent Sleepy Cove, near Halifax, Nova Scotia. Popular with upscale urbanites looking for simplicity, it has a rowboat, canoe, and one log cabin. In Tasmania, the hot hotel is the Bay of Fires Lodge, deep in a national park. You not only have to hike 15 miles to reach it (with an overnight campsite stay en route), but you have to pump your own shower water once you'rethere. Guests don't just put up with the hassle, they embrace it as part of the experience. At least at Bay of Fires, you get a shower: students at Boulder Outdoor Survival School, in Utah, are left in the woods to fend for themselves (though guides follow surreptitiously to ensure their safety). School owner Josh Bernstein says there's been an uptick in the number of city dwellers who've never been camping but are nonetheless attracted to the idea of learning how to "cut the umbilical cord."
It doesn't get much more real than that, unless you do it in Africa. In addition to high-end safaris, the Colorado-based outfitter Explore Inc. has started specializing in edgier experiences—such as a $9,000 trip to Niger that owner Cherri Briggs calls "seriously minimal and very hard." This can mean lying in a camel trough to cool down in 140-degree heat or finding a spring to do your own laundry. "If you went in a more luxurious way, you wouldn't be able to interact with the locals properly," says Michael Fitzgerald, a serial entrepreneur who's taking his 14-year-old nephew on the trip. And interact with the Tuareg people they will: Explore not only hires native guides, but also has them organize a festival with hundreds of tribe members. The safari-goers will be sleeping in nomadic tents.