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Not just a vacation

We have all tired of the usual tourist trail. Now, our attitude when we go on holiday is: surprise me!

india Updated: Jun 05, 2010 18:12 IST
Vir Sanghvi

TravelI’ve written before about the move away from standard holidays to more experience-specific vacations. What this shift means is this: in the old days, you went on a holiday. You saw the sights. You admired the beauty. You enjoyed the hotel and then you came back.

Now, however, we have all become so well-travelled and jaded that we want something more. So, travel agents and hoteliers are trying to organise vacations that still give you the sights and the beauty but also pack in lots of special experiences. This means that (a) your holiday is a little different from the next person’s and (b) you have something special to remember when you go back. Moreover, there are companies devoted only to creating experience-filled holidays.

One such company is called A Taste of Italy, is based in London and is run by a personable old Etonian called William Goodacre. William studied at the university of Bologna, fell in love with Italy and then eventually launched a company that gave visitors a taste of the Italy that tourists never see.

While William’s company is a specialist operation, I find that more and more resort hotels (though not in India) are also going out of their way to customise the holiday experience so that each vacation seems different.

I’ve taken William’s help on two trips to Italy over the last two years and though, in each case, the holiday has covered areas of exceptional beauty (Venice, Portofino, Tuscany, Florence etc.), he has found ways of adding depth and texture to the experience.

I’ve also been twice to the Maldives in the last three months – once for an interview and once on vacation – and it struck me that though the Maldive islands must rank as one of the world’s great destinations, all the hotels I stayed at went the extra mile. Each of them looked for customised experiences to make each vacation seem especially memorable.

My guess is that this is the future of travel. We have all tired of the usual tourist trail. Our attitude when we go on holiday is: surprise me! Show me something I have not seen before! Give me something to remember!

Take A Taste of Italy. William quickly worked out that the problem most of us face in Italy is that we do not speak the language. So, unless we are very adventurous, we stick to the usual tourist places where everyone speaks English. Not only are we therefore, at the mercy of those who make their livings fleecing tourists but we all end up having the same holiday: eating at tourist traps, seeing the usual sights and learning nothing of how real Italians live.

A Taste of Italy aims to get around this by choosing hotels that are either off the tourist track or are so special that they provide memories that last a lifetime. It avoids the usual tour guides, choosing well-educated and intelligent locals who offer insights that only the people who live in the area can provide. And it looks beyond the usual activities.

For instance, when I was in Florence, a couple of years ago, I was booked for a tour of the Uffizi gallery (a pre-booked visit so I did not have to queue up) with an art historian who explained all of the important paintings to me. He then whisked me off to see Michelangelo’s David and made me understand its conception and execution. In Alba, William found me a professional truffle collector and sent me on a truffle hunt.

This time around, I expressed a desire to see Liguria. William ignored the tourist hotels and booked me into a 15th century abbey that had been converted into a small (less than ten rooms) bed and breakfast by a local family. This family were my hosts. They took me to village restaurants where nobody spoke English and we walked through the Cinque Terre trail with them, stopping off at a small vineyard owned by a man who only made a few hundred bottles of his wine. No Indian had ever visited the vineyard before, so there was a real sense of doing something different and meeting people one would not normally have much to do with.

The Maldives pose a special problem because there really is no local culture or history to distract visitors with. All you have is the beauty (which is exceptional). How does a resort provide unusual experiences within these limitations? Sonu Shivdasani (the subject of a Brunch cover story some months ago) has tried to focus on the other advantages of the Maldives, among them the clear skies. At Soneva Fushi, his high-end resort, guests can visit an observatory, built to high standards that even professional astronomers will admire.

I told the astronomer at Soneva Fushi that I wanted to see Mars. He programmed my request into his computer and then, the ceiling opened up and the telescope swivelled till it had located the red planet. Sonu has also worked out that guests from big cities have no experience of solitude. So, should you so desire, a Soneva Fushi boat will take you to a deserted island. The hotel staff will lay out a picnic for you and will then disappear. You have a whole day to yourselves with not a single other person in view. (You can ring for a boat – on the mobile – to take you back when you’ve had enough).

I returned to the Maldives last week on vacation and stayed at the Taj Exotica, my favourite hotel in that country. The Exotica has always seemed to me to be the perfect Maldives hotel. It’s not cheap (its rates are among the highest in the region) but it combines the luxury of say, Reethi Rah with an appreciation of the natural beauty of the Maldives (unlike Reethi Rah which could be in the Bahamas or Barbados).

Each time I go back to the Exotica, it seems to have got better. This trip I was surprised by the hotel’s new focus on special activities. Twice a day, we were encouraged to feed raw tuna to the fish in the ocean with our own hands, a feat that seems more remarkable when you realise that at least half of the feeding fish are sharks.

The hotel has a new Italian sommelier (Luigi), stolen from Reethi Rah and he offers a wine appreciation course for guests. I went along, out of curiosity and was staggered by the inventiveness of the session. Luigi had vials containing over fifty smells (blackcurrant, smoke, vanilla, cedar, oak etc.). We were first made familiar with each smell. Then, Luigi opened six bottles of wine and taught us how to judge each wine with our noses before we had even tasted a drop.

The next day, the hotel sent us off to the ocean on top of a Maldivian dhoni, urging us to lie on cushions, look for dolphins and to enjoy the sunset while sipping champagne and nibbling at smoked salmon.

The Exotica has a new general manager (well, relatively new – he has been there for a year) in Girish Sehgal and he has made the resort seem much more international than before. But of course, all Indians will recognise the familiar Taj touches. The chef was my old friend Sheroy from the President so there was a familiarity factor and Kelly, the spa manager, remembered what treatments I had enjoyed when she managed the spa at the Taj in Mauritius.

In many ways, the Exotica experience seemed to me to sum up what holidays are now becoming. You need familiarity to anchor you (hotel staff who remember you, English-speaking guides etc) but the real joy comes from doing something that is far removed from your everyday existence back home. And because the new prosperity has turned all of us into travellers, we are not only more jaded but are also determined not to be fobbed off with the standard tourist experience. Most of us have begun to weary of the identikit blandness of most holiday hotels and long for experiences that seem more real and more rooted in the destination we are visiting.

The problem, of course, is that most Indian resort hotels still have not woken up to the change in our expectations. Go to Goa for instance and you will find that the hotels have not upped their game over the last decade. They think that guests are happy with the same pseudo Goan buffets, the same swimming pool barbeques and the same tedious cultural programme in which three women and a man in a sombrero sing songs while guests stare into their vindaloos. Ask for evidence of change and all that the managers will point to are (a) east European women who are willing to dance and otherwise entertain guests and (b) new spas.

Is it any wonder that more and more Indians are taking their holidays abroad? Partly it is that foreign destinations are cheaper. But mostly it is that we seek experiences that are different and special. And all we get in our own country are the same old overpriced vacations.

A Taste of Italy can be reached at wgoodacre@finewinesnmore.com
Soneva Fushi at reservations-fushi@sixsenses.com
Taj Exotica Maldives at exotica.maldives@tajexotica.com