Nobody wants to go where everyone else has been. Creating a holiday that eschews the well-trodden tourist trail requires knowledge, contacts and experience. James Parry speaks to ultimate tour operator Abercrombie & Kent to see how they create experiences beyond expectations, from the best view of a solar eclipse in Argentina to a private tour of the Bolshoi with an ex-ballerina as your guide
In our increasingly crowded world, it’s difficult to ‘get away from it all’. We often reminisce about the places we visited long ago – that seaside holiday when you and your friends were the only people on the beach or that time you visited a beautifully tranquil temple and got a guided tour by one of the monks. And though our memories of bygone holidays may be rose-tinted, it is certainly true that getting off the beaten track today has never been more difficult. Queues, timed tickets and a throng of visitors brandishing selfie sticks are often part of the price you pay for seeing more of the world.
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The travel market is starting to recognise that some travellers would like a more engaging, authentic experience abroad, one where they can create a personal connection to their destination. Abercrombie & Kent (A&K), the bespoke travel company created by adventure pioneer Geoffrey Kent, has been specialising in highly personalised itineraries that are designed to match each traveller’s interests and passions since 1962. A&K’s clients want more than a sight-seeing tour, and Kent and his team are specialists in what’s known as ‘experiential travel’, conceiving trips that “inspire our guests to look at the world in a new and different way”.
However much input you may want to have in your itinerary, a wide network of contacts is useful, and A&K’s global staff – which numbers over 2,500 – leverage their detailed local knowledge and send their team members on fact-finding missions so they can devise trips full of unusual venues and experiences.
In Cambodia, A&K’s contacts extend beyond the temples, cultural landmarks and eco-tourism spots; it has also built relationships with art experts and curators to offer insider access to the country’s thriving creative industries. If you’re passionate about craftsmanship, the chance to spend time in an artist’s workshop gets to the very heart of what makes a place tick. One visit included the opportunity to spend time with artisans who are preserving and promoting traditional Khmer lacquerware techniques and whose pieces have been commissioned by brands such as Cartier, Hermès and Louis Vuitton. On another trip, A&K arranged a stopover to a Khmer couture designer to see how locally sourced fibres are used to hand-make bespoke fabrics that are now making it onto the catwalks of Milan and Paris.
For dance lovers, the trip of a lifetime might involve witnessing the legendary dancers of the Bolshoi in Moscow – not just performing, but in rehearsal. Elizabeth Patch, private client manager, organised one such behind-the-scenes visit for a client, who commented on “the unstaged emotion and raw-life element of the practice room”. The experience also includes a tour of the legendary institution led by a former ballerina who offers first-hand recollections of a life dancing on stage and regales her guests with stories of landmark productions and celebrated prima donnas. Guests are also shown the seamstresses’ workshop, where every costume is hand-made, and the visit is topped off with an attendance of the performance itself.
Time and again, travellers’ most memorable experiences are drawn from the people they meet. In Chile, one possible itinerary sees visitors spending time at Casa Marín, the award-winning winery of Maria Luz Marín – one of the most influential women in the global wine industry. Marilú, as she is usually known, bucked the trend in the male-dominated world of viniculture by going out on her own to produce premium wines from an estate that most experts said was too close to the sea for vines to thrive. Today she shares her knowledge – and some of her finest vintages – with guests at La Casa.
One of the greatest joys of a bespoke holiday is delegating logistics to the experts – even the weather. Earlier this year, a special programme was arranged for a group of clients to witness the total solar eclipse visible across parts of South America on 2 July. The A&K team in Argentina had to identify the best possible location for a luxurious camp from which to view this momentous event. “We chose two different places, based on the optimum vantage points, and had to decide at the last minute which one to use, after we knew what the weather was doing,” says Veronica Curtis, A&K country manager for Argentina. “We were prepared for one area to have more cloud cover than the other, so we had helicopters on standby ready to take the group to whichever site had the best view of the eclipse.”
For travellers who balk at overcrowding, the ultimate luxury would be a visit to a unique venue on an exclusive basis. This applies not just to cultural landmarks, such as the Mount Etna Observatory in Italy – one of many private tours that A&K has made possible – but also to accommodation. Hotels and lodges are selected to reflect the distinctive character of each destination. Think lesser-known gems, such as the boutique Temple House in Chengdu, China, which artfully combines a restored imperial courtyard with chic modern interiors, and Angama Mara, a luxury safari lodge dramatically perched on the edge of Kenya’s iconic Great Rift Valley in the midst of what has been described as the ‘greatest wildlife show on Earth’.
Abercrombie & Kent has spent decades honing its instinct for what makes truly meaningful, one-of-a-kind trips. Beyond the planning and preparation, experiential travel requires imagination on the part of the organiser and the traveller. After all, a successful journey will take you to a place you’ve always dreamed about, but a wildly successful trip might just take you to a place you’ve never even heard of.
Another side of the red city
The sandstone walls and souks of Marrakech in Morocco are a well-established stop on the mainstream tourist route, but you can also experience some of the city’s more remarkable sights in a totally original way: without the buzz of the crowds. Bespoke private access can be arranged to many of the city’s cultural venues, offering you the chance to soak up the atmosphere at your own pace. Options include an after-hours private tour of the Yves Saint Laurent Museum, a visit to an Arab horse stud farm, and exclusive occupancy of the privately owned estate of Dar El Sadaka, designed by the celebrated French installation artist Jean-François Fourtou and home to his whimsical architectural masterpieces, The House Fallen from the Sky and The Giant’s House.
Discover A&K’s portfolio of travel tours: abercrombiekent.co.uk
This article was originally published in the Autumn 19 Issue.