Here’s an idea for a dream vacation: You and some besties jet off to an African private island. Or perhaps breakfast in bed aboard an opulent train car sounds more suitable? Maybe it’s a spa day in the sky. This is all actually possible. Post-pandemic, savvy globetrotters are eager to spend their time and money wisely — as in go big or stay home. Here, we peer into the world of rarified travel, showcasing the most exclusive, once-in-a-lifetime experiences on the planet. Yes, they’re limited. And expensive. And oh so incredible. Because let’s face it: We’re ready to get out into the world again and make the most of it. So let’s not stay home — let’s go big.
Join an Invite-Only Sail
The St. Barths Bucket Regatta might as well be called the Bucket List Regatta because it’s become so exclusive, especially after a three-year hiatus. The comeback happens this March, when monied superyacht owners will swoop into the Caribbean for the biggest social soiree of the season. The event is invite-only for the most extravagant sailing vessels, with friendly competitors vying for the coveted Bucket Cup. No money is at stake (who needs it anyway?), nor are there any advertisements or sponsorships. The billionaires are simply there to, as they say, “win the party,” including four days of beach bashes, open bars and yacht hopping.
Stay in New York City’s Swankiest Suite
“You’ll never even be in your hotel room” is a phrase often uttered to make you feel a smidge better about New York City’s notoriously shoebox-sized accommodations. But not at the highly anticipated Aman New York, America’s first urban outpost from the high-end hotelier. Only hotel guests (from $3,200/night), Aman Club members (initiation fee: $200,000) and residents (the five-story penthouse sold for $180 million) are granted entry into this hot spot situated in Manhattan’s iconic Crown Building on Billionaires’ Row. All 83 seductive suites have working fireplaces (a novelty in New York City), plus the onsite Italian and Japanese restaurants, speakeasy jazz club, and soaring garden terrace will tempt you to stay in. Not to mention the spa: three floors dedicated to wellness, including an indoor swimming pool (another Big Apple rarity) and a set of “spa houses,” with hot and cold soaking tubs and a private hammam or banya. P.S. In case you’re interested, that Aman Club membership currently has a waitlist (sorry!).
Fly Like a Queen
If Martha Stewart is a super fan, so are we. Emirates airline now offers the most extravagant first class cabin in existence. The experience begins before wheels up, with a chauffeured Mercedes whisking you to and fro the first-class lounge at more than 30 international airports. Like a diamond ring nestled in an unassuming box, the suite on the A380 looks a bit simplistic at first. But once onboard, it feels as if you’re in a five-star hotel above the clouds. Endless caviar paired with vintage Dom Pérignon, anyone? Or perhaps it’s “cinema snacks” like lobster rolls while enjoying a new release? Nosh on whatever you like, whenever you like — served upon fine china naturally. And don’t miss the shower spa, where you can indulge in a steamy rinse at 40,000 feet then cozy up in the first-ever Hydra Active moisturizing sleepwear (specially created for Emirates) all while a flight attendant turns down your bed.
Ride a Regal Railway
All aboard the most opulent experience on wheels: Belmond’s Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. Though recently restored, the train exudes 1920s-era elegance that makes it feel like you’re traveling within a novel. The best route is the 10-night journey from Paris to Istanbul. Pro tip from luxury travel publicist Melanie Brandman: Book a Grand Suite (from $7,400/night), which features sleeping and living quarters plus a marbled en-suite bathroom with gilded fixtures handcrafted by Parisian artisans. Equally impressive is the 24-hour butler service, which means that free-flowing libations, a private dinner or a tailored bathrobe are all just a bell ring away. A day in the life goes something like this: Check in with a porter then settle in for a multi-course meal (with wine pairings from the onboard somm, obviously). Then perhaps a catnap before evening entertainment in Bar Car 3674. It’s not over, though — midnight brunch follows with bubbles and bites. Finally, it’s time to retreat to your gloriously glam suite and awaken only for breakfast in bed.
Leave Planet Earth
It feels like space travel is hotter than a newly single Gisele Bündchen. But no need to take a run-of-the-mill rocket when you can travel in style in a sleek capsule. Space Perspective has unveiled Neptune, which will launch in 2024 with just eight passengers per experience. So what’s this swanky six-hour excursion like? The world is your oyster, including cocktails, passed hors d’oeuvres and 360-degree interstellar views. The vessel looks more like an elegant lounge than a spaceship and can be arranged to accommodate a special event — say a dinner party or an intimate wedding. Once you purchase the $125,000 ticket, Space Perspective feels like a private club, with exclusive invites to pre-launch events.
Dine at the Hottest Pop-Up
There’s a slight smugness the comes with visiting a destination before it gets super popular. We’re here to say that Greenland is the new Iceland. And if you’re a foodie, even better. The venerable two-Michelin-starred eatery KOKS has temporarily popped up in an uber isolated locale: Ilulissat, home to just 53 residents. You’ll want to reserve a table stat, as this rare dining experience can only be enjoyed select dates from June to September and is limited to just 30 people per night (the tasting menu starts at $370). No need to fret about lodging; KOKS also offers an overnight stay in one of 15 cabins that sit cliffside along a fjord. To up the exclusivity factor, the property is reachable only by boat, where you’ll pass through the UNESCO-protected Ilulissat Icefjord.
Jet to the South Pole
There’s no need to rough it like an early explorer. Welcome to the most luxuriously remote camp on the planet. White Desert is the only outfitter that delivers you to the interior of Antarctica via private jet, with departures November to February. Here, you’ll encounter thousands of emperor penguins while trekking to the South Pole. Accommodations are as posh as the transportation, with 12 guests (both Prince Harry and Bear Grylls approve) staying in tricked-out eco-camps: opulent, heated cabins boasting plush bedding and floor-to-ceiling windows. Chef-prepared meals and cocktails by a roaring fire are the icing (we had to!) on the cake. The area is so seldom traversed, this might be the only time a coworker doesn’t inwardly groan when you show off your vacation snaps.
Tour the Fanciest Factory
It’s easier to score an invite to Buckingham Palace than it is to visit the Rolex factory in Switzerland. The “house with the crown” is nearly impossible to see unless you know the right people, says luxury travel writer Annie Fitzsimmons. Rolex has long been an authority on high-end timepieces, so it naturally follows that the brand’s production atelier is akin to a ballet, with precise steps and movements almost as impressive as the final product itself. But you might ask: With iPhones in our pockets and smartwatches on our wrists, are these timepieces still in vogue today? Possibly even more so for tastemakers and collectors, who, like clockwork, are drawn to relics and rarity.
Party in a Private Art Collection
Imagine living in a contemporary art museum. That’s what it’s like to stay in the Empathy Suite at Las Vegas’ Palms Casino Resort. This two-story, 9,000-square-foot party pad (from $75,000/night) atop the Fantasy Tower was designed by artist Damien Hirst, and it’s oh so extra. As in, butterflies, skulls and a medicine cabinet full of diamonds. Six of his original works are on display, including two bull sharks suspended in formaldehyde in a white tank as well as a curved bar filled with medical waste like needles and gloves. Of course, all the high-roller requisites are covered: 24-hour butler service, a fully serviced bar, a pool table, a salt therapy room, two massage rooms, and a private pool that cantilevers over the side of the building.
Shake it in South America
Picture this: You’re on top of a parade float, letting loose in a custom sequin and feather costume, waving to the crowd like a pageant queen. This is the well-to-do version of Rio Carnival. The Greatest Show on Earth attracts two million people to the Brazil city, where the kickoff is marked by a raucous, celebrity-studded party at the Copacabana Palace. As an esteemed guest of legendary travel outfitter Abercrombie & Kent, you’ll obviously have an invite. This eight-night tailored journey (from $10,000) begins at the Philippe Starck–designed Hotel Fasano Rio de Janeiro, where fashion designers and makeup artists will assemble your ensemble. Don’t worry; you’ll learn to samba before the big Magic Ball. And who needs Instagram? A professional photographer will capture every whirlwind movement. Throughout the five-day celebration, you’ll float above the crowds in a front-row box. After the festivities, a private yacht will whisk you off to Hotel Fasano Angra dos Reis for a restful coastal getaway.
Sip a Luxe Martini
Did you know you can actually drink luxury? The Ritz-Carlton, Tokyo serves a cocktail aptly called the Diamonds Are Forever Martini. Inspired by James Bond, the drink is available only at the city’s tallest hotel. Make your way to the 45th floor bar, where this bespoke quaff is crafted tableside with chilled vodka, a twist of lime and a yours-to-keep one-carat diamond garnish. The $22,200 price tag (just 12 have been ordered in 15 years) includes a live band performing “Diamonds Are Forever.”
Score a Seat at the Track
A trip to the Monaco Grand Prix is undoubtedly a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, but here’s an industry secret for you: The renowned race is best experienced via small ship, according to Jim Bendt of Pique Travel Design. This highly desirable event sells out each year, with just 7,500 adrenaline junkies in attendance. But guests on Windstar’s Wind Surf need not worry about scoring those coveted tickets; section K for Saturday’s time trials and Sunday’s final offers higher seats (as opposed to benches) that have spectacular harbor views. Two days’ worth of Formula One fabulousness includes themed cocktail parties and a delectable dinner. Come evening, you can avoid the race crowds and escape back to the ship’s Bridge Suite, where a refreshing bubble bath awaits.
Get Happy in the Himalayas
You’ve done the whole spa day thing: a pretreatment steam, Swedish massage and post-service robe basking session. Let’s one-up that with a trip to Bhutan, an extremely exclusive South Asian destination that’s also a wellness haven. Upon arrival at Bhutan Spirit Sanctuary (which is as high-end as it is healing), head to the Transformation Room to reframe your mindset. Next comes a consultation with an in-house medicine doctor, who will prescribe traditional treatments like ku nye massage or an herb-infused hot stone bath. Sure, there’ll be plenty of yoga, but you might also hike to a monastery to meditate with monks or take a pottery class with the resident art instructor. Each of the 24 guest rooms (from $715/night) feels like a spa within a spa, featuring private outdoor space. By the end of your visit, you’ll be one of those people who actually likes to meditate.
Escape to a Private Island
Imagine having your own private island to enjoy with an intimate group of close family and friends — oh, and a resident marine biologist. Located off the coast of Tanzania, Thanda Island is an uninhabited eight-hectare retreat nestled in the Shungimbili Island Marine Reserve, home to nearly 300 aquatic species. In a nutshell: You and your fellow globetrotters will have this protected ring of the Indian Ocean all to yourselves. Upon the isle sits a five-bedroom villa (from $25,000/night) with a long list of enviable amenities: a glass-rimmed swimming pool, cigar humidor, pizza oven, indoor aquarium, Steinway piano — and let’s not forget, your own marine biologist to lead customized snorkeling trips.
Lowbrow for the High Roller
Like the CEO who loves a street hot dog as much as a glass of fine wine, affluent globetrotters have a certain infatuation with low-end rituals. Think of a simple potato chip dressed in caviar — the perfect high/low combination. Here, six travel experts (including yours truly) divulge their favorite lowbrow food experiences.
Tacos Across the Border
“The best tacos I’ve ever had in my life are at Tijuana staple Tacos El Franc; it’s this buzzy, local-filled taqueria that’s authentic to its core,” says Hotels Above Par founder Brandon Berkson, who grew up in San Diego and takes the pedestrian bridge across the border (bring your passport). He suggests ordering the carne asada and the tripa taco, then snagging a seat in one of the plastic chairs to devour this tasty meal.
Dive Bar on the Beach
A place that’s not a scene in the Hamptons? Don’t scoff until you’ve seen the Station Bar. Publicist Sybil Bunn Pool, who summers in Southampton, explains, “We like to escape to our favorite dive in nearby Hampton Bays, the Station Bar. It’s right on the water and has picnic tables in the sand, live music and delicious bar food — plus it’s not at all sceney.”
Must-Try Chinese in Missouri
This Ozarks destination is low-key famous for its Springfield-style cashew chicken. Invented in the 1960s by Chinese American chef David Leong, the dish consists of fried boneless chicken pieces smothered in brown gravy and topped with cashews and green onions. Like New Yorkers with bagels, everyone in the Ozarks has their place for cashew chicken, and we are firmly in camp Canton Inn. This small, no-frills shack has a few tables, but most people opt for the drive-through. The cashew chicken meal runs $8.15, but bring a 10 spot for a perfectly crispy egg roll on the side.
Wine on the Water
A beloved low-end experience in a high-end destination is as good as it gets. “Les Nautes on the Quai des Célestins serves wine by the glass, and you can sit with the locals on the water,” says Washington Post travel reporter Natalie Compton. “You pay a euro deposit for a real glass and get it back once you return it. Late at night, you can buy a beer from the vendors walking along the river with their coolers.”
A West Coast Old-School Diner
Sure, the City of Angels is jam-packed with fine-dining establishments (where you’re likely to see a celeb or two), but if you want to eat at a true L.A. institution, travel writer Amelia Mularz suggests checking out the old-school diners around town. One such spot is the Apple Pan, which opened in 1947 and to this day serves hickory burgers and cream-topped pies around its original U-shaped counter. The prices have changed since the forties, but you can still get a memorable meal for $20.
A Haute Dog in a Cold Clime
So back to those hot dogs, but make them Icelandic. (In fact, these might just be the unofficial food of the Nordic island nation.) The must-try delicacy is made with lamb, pork and beef, then topped with onions and various condiments like Icelandic-style ketchup, sweet brown mustard and remoulade. “They’ll run you a couple of dollars and can be eaten anytime, making them the perfect snack or quick meal,” advises Well+Good Deputy Editor Samantha Leal.