Twenty minutes from the airport at Saranac Lake, New York, an unmarked road runs through a 75-acre wooded peninsula to a gate with a sign that says NO VISITORS.
Beyond is the Point, a small lakeside retreat on a 10-acre spit of land that is touted—justifiably—as the ultimate getaway. Ever since the 1980's, when it became a hotel, this last and most lavish of the Adirondack Great Camps, built in 1933 by a great-nephew of John D. Rockefeller, has been a haven for the wealthy, the savviest travel connoisseurs, and celebrities like John F. Kennedy Jr., who took Daryl Hannah here.
The reason? The Point is perfect—particularly if you enjoy the exclusive company of people who don't faint at a four-figure-a-night hotel bill. Its four lodges are constructed of native timber and stone, and its interiors are as palatial as they are rustic : there are mounted game watching over Hudson River school paintings; cavernous fireplaces and walk-in closets; deep soaking tubs; overstuffed antique furnishings; zebra-and bearskin rugs; and custom-made beds so plush some guests never want to leave them.
But leave them they do, after they're served coffee in bed, since what's outside the huge picture windows is as awesome as what's within. Swimming, boating in a fleet of vintage wooden boats, and playing tennis in summer; cross-country skiing, skating, and snowshoeing in winter; and hiking through the majestic Adirondacks in any season are all included, along with the requisite equipment. So are drinks and meals, although meals hardly does them justice, for the resort's kitchen churns out three gourmet feasts a day, tailored to guests' dietary preferences and served house-party style, on twig place mats at communal tables. Guests dress for dinner, and are even encouraged to don black tie on Wednesday and Saturday nights.
Sometimes, the revelry goes on all night in the Great Hall, or the Pub, with its tree trunklegged pool table, or a carpeted and pillowed lean-to by a roaring bonfire on the lake. So does the incomparable service: the kitchen will cheerfully make you a pizza, or anything else within reason, at any hour. Room fires are kept roaring in winter by invisible elves. Even canine guests are pampered to the ultimate degree.
And did I mention that tipping and children are forbidden, and that most cell phones, BlackBerries, and televisions don't work here?
So the question really isn't who stays in this most sophisticated retreat, but rather, who wouldn't, if they could?
Once, a destination like the Point was a rarity; there weren't many customers for hotels where rooms for two start at $1,565 a night. But times have changed, and the popularity of ultraluxe travel is booming. "Since 2002, we've had a fifty percent increase in people paying more than a thousand dollars a night," says Bob Boulogne, a vice president of Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, which charges that amount for top rooms at many of its properties, such as Jumby Bay on Antigua.
Many people, it seems, are trading up to more refined and expensive travel. "The general trend in the country is increasing affluence," says Madelyn Hochstein, president of DYG Inc., a luxury consumer research company. "Factor in credit, and more and more people can pay. So it becomes harder [for the super-rich] to differentiate themselves, and they need to go to greater lengths to make the statement that they are successful. They need some form of exclusivity to remind themselves that they are not you and me. The 'massification' of luxury drives them to consume even more."
Spending like there's no tomorrow has become the ultimate status symbol defining this tribe of travelers. Not so much individualistic explorers as cohorts in a new form of sybaritic narcissism, they hop (alone, yet together) from $1,000-a-night lodge to $40,000-a-night island, celebrating life and the riches and freedoms it offers as an antidote, a rebuke, to uncertainty. "A private paradise—a place where you can do what you want when you want—is worth it, despite the cost," says John Steinle, owner of the Connecticut-based Sanctuare, which markets exclusive hotels, ranches, game reserves, and private islands such as Musha Cay in the Bahamas.
So, on Frégate Island in the Seychelles you get meals and most drinks, along with a bed, for $2,807 a night. Compared with that, Dhoni Mighili, in the Maldives, and Turtle Island, in Fiji, are affordable: all-inclusive at about $2,000 a night. Then there are the game reserves of the African bush—Mombo Camp, in Botswana, and Royal Malewane and Sabi Sabi, in South Africa. At those natural yet lavish properties, wild-game excursions are part of the package, along with meals, drinks, and amenities, so aficionados consider the price—$1,000 to $2,000 per night—a bargain. And don't forget about Australia's Bedarra Island, on the Great Barrier Reef, or Longitude 131°, in the outback, or New Zealand's Lodge at Paratiho Farms: all three will take your breath away, as will their rates—more than $1,500 a night.
Who pays these prices?A few months ago, three Americans and a Brit were having dinner at Le Gaïac, one of the most expensive restaurants on St. Bart's and part of Le Toiny, a cliffside hotel where rooms (little villas, actually, with private pools and flat-screen TV's) start at $1,992 a night. Between nibbles of foie gras and amuse-bouches topped with truffles, the quartet cast glances around the room, trying to figure out who else was there and what they all had in common.
"They're rich," said an American.
"But it's not so simple anymore," replied Marc Arnall, a restaurateur recently relocated from England to St. Bart's. "If you're super-rich, you come here on your superyacht, or your Gulfstream V, and go straight to your private villa, where your staff has lunch laid out for you. If you're just really rich, skip the yacht, unless you're renting, but you'll still have a jet share and a villa and a chef."
"And if you're merely rich?" the American asked.
"You stay and eat here," said Arnall, gesturing at the new low end of the new high-end vacation. "Not bad!"
Ultraluxe is a state populated by all three strata of the rich (super, really, and merely, along with those extravagant souls who want to travel like them). Its denizens demand experiences filtered by inaccessibility and extraordinary expense, experiences defined by the fact that few can have them.
At the bottom of the top are hotels where room rates start around $1,000 a night : Little Palm Island, in the Florida Keys, and Vermont's Twin Farms; in Italy, the Point-like Grand Hotel Villa Feltrinelli on Lake Garda, the Splendido in Portofino (both starting at over $1,200), and the Hotel Cipriani in Venice (starting at $1,040); Amankora in Bhutan and, in the Caribbean, St. Bart's Hôtel Taiwana (at about $1,000). Some of these properties are all-inclusive, but others offer guests only coffee and croissants for their basic tariff. Some are lavish in every way; others provide lavish simplicity. Almost all seduce by promising getaways not just from where you live, but from other people. And that aspect of the ultraluxe phenomenon isn't limited to destinations. It has given birth to a whole new class of travel experience.
When the merely rich can rent one of five sprawling casitas on Cayo Espanto in Belize (starting at $1,095 a night) and play Robinson Crusoe on a semiprivate tropical island, then Someones with a capital S want the bar raised. So the new paradigm has expanded to include renting a yacht and going to Isla Guadalupe, off the Mexican coast, on a seven-day great-white safari with Shark Divers, for a minimum of $100,000—payable in advance. "That weeds out the lookiloos," says Divers owner Patric Douglas. "We never know who the guest is until they get on the boat. They have proxies approach you. Everything is mysterious. They don't want people to know what they're doing."
Renting a private island accessible only by private plane or boat, for yourself and a few friends, works, too. Great Mercury Island, off New Zealand's Pacific coast, has two villas that sleep 16 between them; it rents for $20,000 for three nights. Richard Branson's Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands, where Diana, Princess of Wales, used to escape the paparazzi, ranges from $20,000 to $42,000 per night, depending on the size of the party. And Musha Cay is $45,300 a night for groups of 26. These are the right places with only the right people—those you've handpicked.
The latest trend to take the industry by storm is members-only vacation ownership clubs. In exchange for refundable deposits in the low six figures, plus annual dues, Exclusive Resorts and Abercrombie & Kent Destination Clubs are giving members not just unlimited access to dozens of luxury vacation residences in desirable, if predictable, locations, but also a sense of inclusion in an elite group.
Ultraluxe destinations can be apples (the Point), oranges (Little Palm Island), or kiwis (Lodge at Paratiho Farms). Their customer base is just as diverse. For younger travelers, ultraluxe trips show how far in front of the pack they are. Sanctua re's Steinle says he is always surprised at how many people rent islands to celebrate 40th birthdays: "A good-sized minority of our bookings are for self-congratulation at a very early age."
For baby boomers, splurging on travel demonstrates that they are still intrepid pathfinders. Boomers "have already bought everything they want to own," says Rob McGrath, CEO of Abercrombie & Kent Destination Clubs. "They want experiences, not acquisitions. It's now about 'my life, not my assets.'" A DYG survey of status symbols bears that out. "Travel is the number one nonmaterialistic way to express success," Hochstein says. And for the older set, it is also a way to express continued youth and vitality.
Late-blooming boomers, as well as Gen Xers, are also increasingly heading to properties with large suites, or to four-or five-bedroom villas, that allow them to vacation with their families—and ensure that every member has a great room. "Today you want to take the kids, the nanny, your mother and father," says elite travel agent Bill Fischer. Steinle agrees: "Cementing relations with loved ones is something to which a price can't be attached. What's important is having the experience of a lifetime with people close to you."
Whatever your generation, researchers say, one curious by-product of 9/11 has been a turn inward that manifests itself, ironically, by a turn outward into the world. The perception that life is short has raised the stakes for many of us. "People want to appreciate what they have and don't want to miss anything, so they go—at every opportunity," Fischer says. "They are so stressed and pressured, and they all want the best, the most expensive. But it's not about money. It's about getting what you want."
DYG's Hochstein has found that two trends, though contradictory on the surface, have dovetailed to drive this move toward ultraluxe travel. One is what she calls the what-the-hell phenomenon. The other is a need to minimize fears, including financial ones. "Post-9/11, post-bubble, post-Enron, post-everything," Hochstein says, "is a new era dictated by risk. The ultimate expression of affluence today is to be risk-free, but we all need to escape. And when you have more money, you are more inclined to believe it's okay to take risks, because you are in control. It's both an über-escape and a statement that you can do it up big. You don't have to feel at risk."
There are two clusters of customers for these top-drawer travel experiences, "and their motivations are very different," says James Chung, president of Reach Advisors, a high-end research firm that counsels developers such as Intrawest, known for its mountain resorts. One group has earned its wealth, the other has inherited it. The earners want to maximize their free time by working while traveling, even if it means only rubbing shoulders with "people who are good to know to keep the deal flow going." The inheritors tend to behave more like celebrities, who want to "seek isolation, be anonymous, and control their environment, including the people around them. That's a scary concept for the earner crowd."
Ultraluxe is not only about self-affirmation—it's also seeing your success mirrored in the envy of others. "It's bragging rights," says Ben Elliot, owner of Quintessentially, a concierge service that arranges travel for a wealthy clientele. "Our customers want to do it before anyone else, or in a grander way."
At the Mansion at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas ($5,000 a night), "it" means staying in a hotel that is normally open by invitation only, where grandeur is on offer alongside what the hotel's president, Gamal Aziz, calls "anticipatory service." This begins when the hotel's Maybach or Rolls-Royce picks you up at the airport and shuttles you to the private courtyard, and continues in your villa, where you'll be served by your own butler. At the Point, "it's being part of a club," says Philip Wood, president of the Garrett Hotel Group, which owns the resort. "It's preselection. You wouldn't be there if you weren't accomplished. You're worldly. You have confidence and a sense of adventure. That's what our customers have in common."
But bragging rights are taken only so far. One night at the Point, the guests included four fortysomething bond traders who'd flown in with their wives on a Learjet borrowed from a business associate. Over cocktails, they boasted of this good fortune to another guest. "Two hours door-to-door," said one. "Thirty-five minutes in the air!"
"Do your clients know where you are?" another guest asked.
"No way," one of the men replied. "I just tell them Lake Placid."
Bragging about your travels is falling out of fashion, Chung says: "It's a scary world. Do you want everyone to know what you're up to?American sentiment is no longer 'Ride 'em large.' It's 'Keep it quiet.' Which is why the private residential clubs are doing so well. That's an understated way to brag—signaling not to the world, but only to the people who matter to you."
So it is that a friend who works as an investment adviser, usually a jolly soul, turned serious when I asked if I could quote his rhapsodic review of the South African game camp Singita ("giraffes, leopards, lions, and zebras in verdant foliage...the most gorgeous rooms...the service is beyond...every amenity you can imagine...the food is incomparable...so many single malts...the cigars were free...I've already reserved for my 65th birthday..."). "I'm not rich," he answered. "I just live like I am. Life is precious. I work hard and I want to enjoy the fruits of my labor. But I don't want my name used. I don't want to come across as...jaded."
"People want whatever they can get to approximate what the rich have," says Barbara Caplan, a partner at the consumer research firm Yankelovich. "For everyone, there's a reach." Yet ultraluxe oversaturation is just around the bend. Some experts feel that only the best of the new $1,000-a-night hotels, lodges, and private-island resorts will survive. "Occupancy is not as high as you'd think," Elliot of Quintessentially notes. "It's an open question whether they'll be successful or not."
Others think the bar must now be set higher. "It never ends," Hochstein says. "The faux affluent show up and the real affluent flee [because] it doesn't differentiate them anymore. They will still travel, but they will have to go to the moon." Presumably leaving Necker Island and Musha Cay for the rest of us.
For those who have long gone to expensive extremes and feel proprietary about them, the arrival of newbies, however monied, has proved a bit unsettling. Some of the old guard disparage the recent arrivals as checklist travelers who work their way through best-hotel lists just so they can say they've been there and spend as much time studying the thread count of sheets as they do admiring the scenery—"sharing their thoughts about the wild while riding in a Land Rover," as one wag puts it.
So now the truly elite seek to escape too-popular escapes. One self-described travel connoisseur, a really, really rich person who has been going to places like Africa and New Zealand since she was nine, recently went to the Coral Sea and found the diving areas so crowded, she rented a helicopter (at a cost of $1,500) to fly to a deserted reef. "I was willing to make that compromise to enjoy it privately," she says. Willing, but not happy about it. What she really fears is that the new travel tribe doesn't want authenticity. "They want the best that money can buy, but also the familiar," she says. "They want the same things in Nepal that they want in Paris and London. I want Nepal."
Does the constant raising of the stakes mean that henceforth, top-end travelers are condemned to a high-end Holiday Inn experience with Frette, Floris, and Fortnum & Mason wherever they go?Clearly, that's what some want. Abercrombie & Kent's McGrath says that "standardizing the private home" to make it a repeatable and trustworthy vacation experience is his business goal.
That thought makes our connoisseur yelp. "I don't want the same experience set against different backgrounds!" she says. "I want a different experience." So, just as fashion caroms from haute couture to street chic, she's now looking anywhere but up, at places with nothing but two-star hotels—places where the ultraluxe crowd won't go.
Now that exclusive and expensive have become common, "affordable" is desirable again.
MICHAEL GROSS is a T+L contributing editor.
As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. Here, a sampling of the world's most exclusive retreats. Prices listed are per night; see complete address book, linked at right.
WHERE Villa San Michele, Italy
WHAT A standard room
BRAGGING RIGHTS Peace and quiet (the hotel used to be a monastery); views of the Tuscan countryside; breakfast; shuttle into town.
Private Game Reserve, South Africa
WHAT A suite in one of five camps
BRAGGING RIGHTS Two openLand Rover safaris per day; daily meals; house wines and other beverages; laundry service.
WHERE Wrotham Park Lodge, Australia
WHAT One of 10
BRAGGING RIGHTS Outdoor deck; binoculars; unlimited mini-bar access; three meals daily; beverages; laundry service; cattle-station tours; gourmet picnic baskets; horseback riding; canoeing; cooking classes; use of mountain bikes; guided nature walks.
WHERE Wakaya Club, Fiji
A bure with ocean and garden views
BRAGGING RIGHTS Indoor space of 1,500 square feet; a private garden; a lava-rock outdoor shower; meals and beverages; unlimited mini-bar access; two scuba dives a day; unlimited use of sports facilities (everything from snorkeling to professional croquet); a personal tennis or golf coach; laundry service; natural woven slippers; chilled Taittinger on arrival; unlimited bottles of water (Fiji, of course).
WHERE North Island, Seychelles
WHAT A thatched villa
BRAGGING RIGHTS Private outdoor showers surrounded by a wildlife sanctuary; daily meals; scuba diving; sea kayaking; shore-based fishing; use of mountain bikes and one island buggy.
$6,700 (three-night minimum)
WHERE Great Mercury Island, New Zealand
WHAT A private island
BRAGGING RIGHTS Two villas and a main house, which sleep up to 16 people; 5,000 acres of land; dedicated staff to customize activities (everything from touring the working cattle and sheep farm to golf on the mainland); gourmet meals in the main dining room or an impromptu seafood cookout on the beach; helicopter ride on and off the island.
WHERE Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi
WHAT Palace Suites
Extravagant space (7,405 square feet); three bedrooms; dining room; Swarovski chandeliers; three rain showers; seven 61-inch plasma televisions; Lady Primrose amenities; a butler who can draw a welcome bath; a constant supply of munchies; a chauffeur to drive you around town, or to and from the airport, in a stretch limousine.
WHERE Four Seasons New York
WHAT Presidential Suites
BRAGGING RIGHTS Real estate (1,500 square feet, to be exact); 180 degrees of the best views in town (this is Manhattan's tallest hotel); living in an I.M. Pei design.
WHERE Setai, Miami Beach
When it opens next month: a whopping 10,000 square feet; three bedrooms; two-level wraparound balconies; a private lap pool; a Jacuzzi; great city and ocean views.
WHERE Little Palm Island, Florida
The million-dollar weekend package offers private use of the island (three-night minimum)
BRAGGING RIGHTS All 30 suites; a bottle of Cristal, with engraved champagne flutes (to keep); turndown gifts (think Tag Heuer watches, Tiffany frames); all meals; open bar; spa treatments; a 100-foot yacht with crew; scuba and fishing expeditions; a $30,000 shopping spree at the hotel boutique; a limo on call for land excursions; fireworks show.
Sky's the Limit
WHERE Hôtel Président Wilson, Geneva
WHAT Imperial Suite (so exclusive, they won't reveal the rate)
BRAGGING RIGHTS 12,900 square feet; four bedrooms; dressing room; study; billiard table; cocktail lounge that accommodates 40; steam bath; stocked library; bulletproof windows and doors.
WHERE TO STAY
Doubles from $784. Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; 800/426-3135 or 971-2/690-8888; www.emiratespalace.com
Four Seasons New York
Doubles from $713. 57 E. 57th St., New York; 800/332-3442 or 212/758-5700; www.fourseasons.com
Grand Hotel Villa Feltrinelli
Doubles from $1,270. 3840 Via Rimembranza, Gargnano, Italy; 39-036/579-8000; www.villafeltrinelli.com
Doubles from $1,047. Giudecca 10, Venice 800/223-6800 or 39-041/520-7744; www.hotelcipriani.com
Hôtel Le Toiny
Doubles from $1,995. Anse de Toiny, St. Bart's; 800/932-3222 or 590-590/297-750; www.hotelletoiny.com
Doubles from $1,421. 16 Salita Baratta, Portofino, Italy; 800/223-6800 or 39-0185/267-801; www.hotelsplendido.com
Hôtel Président Wilson
Doubles from $504. 47 Quai Wilson, Geneva; 800/325-3589 or 41-22/906-6666; www.hotelpwilson.com
Mansion at MGM Grand
Doubles from $5,450. 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S., Las Vegas; 877/225-2121
Doubles from $1,017. 2001 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 888/665-3600 or 305/520-6000; www.setai.com
Villa San Michele
Doubles from $1,146, including breakfast. 4 Via Doccia, Florence; 800/223-6800 or 39-055/567-8200; www.lhw.com
Doubles from $1,189. Balakha, Chento Geog, Bhutan; 800/477-9180; www.amanresorts.com
Doubles from $1,607. Bedarra Island, Australia; 800/225-9849 or 61-2/8296-8010; www.bedarraisland.com
Doubles from $1,368, all-inclusive. Ambergris Caye, San Pedro, Belize; 888/666-4282; www.aprivateisland.com
Doubles from $1,842, all-inclusive. Mushimas Mighili, N. Ari Atoll, Maldives; 960/450-751; www.dhonimighili.com
Frégate Island Private
Doubles from $2,807, including meals. Frégate Island, Seychelles; 800/225-4255; www.sanctuare.com
Doubles from $1,028. Flamands, St. Bart's; 590-590/276-501; www.hoteltaiwana.com
Jumby Bay, a Rosewood Resort
Doubles from $1,204. St. John's, Antigua; 888/767-3966 or 268/462-6000; www.jumbybayresort.com
Little Palm Island
Doubles from $1,390, including meals. 28500 Overseas Hwy., Little Torch Key, Fla.; 305/872-2524; www.littlepalmisland.com
Doubles from $3,175, including meals. North Island, Seychelles; 248/293-100; www.north-island.com
Doubles from $1,565, all-inclusive. Saranac Lake, N.Y.; 800/255-3530; www.thepointresort.com
Doubles from $2,019, all-inclusive. Turtle Island, Fiji; 800/255-4347; www.turtlefiji.com
Doubles from $1,302, all-inclusive. Stage Rd., Barnard, Vt.; 800/894-6327 or 802/234-9999; www.twinfarms.com
Doubles from $2,138. Wakaya Island, Fiji; 800/828-3454 or 011-679/344-8128; www.wakaya.com
Lodge at Paratiho Farms
Doubles from $1,602, including meals. 545 Waiwhero Rd., Nelson, New Zealand; 64-3/528-2100; www.paratiho.co.nz
Londolozi Private Game Reserve
Doubles from $1,168, all-inclusive. Benmore, South Africa; 888/882-3742 or 27-11/809-4300; www.londolozi.com
Doubles from $2,755 (two-night minimum). Yulara Dr., Uluru, Australia; 61-8/8957-7888; www.longitude131.com.au
Doubles from $2,400, all-inclusive. Okavango Delta, Botswana; 27-11/807-1800; www.wilderness-safaris.com
Doubles from $1,783, all-inclusive. Hoedspruit, South Africa; 27-15/793-0150; www.royalmalewane.com
Doubles from $1,439, all-inclusive. Sabi Sand Reserve, South Africa; 27-11/483-3939; www.sabisabi.com
Singita Private Game Reserve
Doubles from $2,225, all-inclusive. Sabi Sand Reserve, South Africa; 27-21/683-3424; www.singita.com
Wrotham Park Lodge
Doubles from $1,224, all-inclusive. Australia; 800/225-9849 or 61-2/8296-8010; www.wrothampark.com.au
Great Mercury Island
Island from $20,000 (three-night stay) for 16 people. New Zealand; 64-9/360-8461; www.seasonz.co.nz
Island from $25,988 for eight people. Exuma Chain, Bahamas; 877/889-1100; www.sanctuare.com
Island from $26,500 for 14 people. British Virgin Islands; 800/557-4255; www.necker.com
Abercrombie & Kent Destination Clubs
From $275,000, plus $11,750 per year. 800/230-9310; www.akdestinations.com/destinationclubs
Absolute AdventuresShark Divers
Trips from $100,000. Isla Guadalupe; 888/405-3268 or 415/404-6144; www.sharkdivers.com
From $185,000, plus $9,500 per year. 800/447-8988; www.exclusiveresorts.com
Starting at $1,500 for single membership. 800/850-8002; www.quintessentially.com
All prices listed are starting high-season rates and include taxes and service charges.