When was the last time you enjoyed a little luxury? If your memories are taking you back to that time you splurged on a suite, or got upgraded to business class, your definition of luxury may be just a little outmoded.
That, at least, was the consensus when we assembled a panel of high-flyers to talk about what luxury means to them today. Although our interviewees have enjoyed some enviable travel experiences, and continue to do so, from African safaris to private yacht trips, their idea of what counts as luxurious is surprisingly broad.
"Travel is too democratised nowadays to cling to a 'red rope' mentality," says Simon Westcott, chief executive and owner of the Hong Kong-based LUXE City Guides. "Instead of being limited to experiences with high price tags attached, our panel says, luxury can take many forms.
"From a street food feast to an adventure in the great outdoors, or the simple pleasure of wandering through a new city, these more accessible luxuries celebrate the things that we all want from travel today: encounters that are both local and authentic."
Our panel members practise what they preach. Jude Turner, with her upscale Spicers Retreats collection, has established a portfolio of properties that are more about celebrating nature than about indulgent interiors. Equally the urban hotels in Singapore-based Loh Lik Peng's Unlisted Collection – which includes Sydney's lauded Old Clare Hotel – tread a fine line between grit and glamour. A sense of place is at the heart of the new luxury. As Lou Tandy of Captain's Choice, the Australian operator of five-star plus escorted journeys, puts it, luxury is "experiences that are truly unique and get to the heart of what makes a destination special".
Hotel Azerai in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo: Azerai
MEET OUR PANEL
JUDE TURNER, OWNER OF SPICERS RETREATS Australia's largest group of small retreats has eight retreats across Queensland and New South Wales, known for unpretentious luxury. See spicersretreats.com
LOH LIK PENG, FOUNDER AND DIRECTOR OF UNLISTED COLLECTION Unlisted Collection consists of seven hotels and 20 restaurants across Singapore, Shanghai, London and Sydney. See unlistedcollection.com
LOU TANDY, DIRECTOR, CAPTAIN'S CHOICE Captain's Choice delivers a range of exclusive travel experiences, from private jet tours to expedition cruises and luxury rail journeys. See captainschoice.com.au
SIMON WESTCOTT, CEO & OWNER, LUXE CITY GUIDES Available as mobile apps and pocket travel guides, LUXE City Guides provide highly curated, ultra-researched travel and lifestyle recommendations. See luxecityguides.com
LISA PILE, VICE PRESIDENT SALES, AUSTRALIA & NEW ZEALAND, REGENT SEVEN SEAS CRUISES Regent Seven Seas is known for its all-inclusive cruises, and its fleet sails to more than 540 destinations around the world. See rssc.com
Post Ranch Inn, Big Sur California. Photo: Kodiak Greenwood
MY DEFINITION OF LUXURY WHEN IT COMES TO TRAVEL…
JUDE TURNER Having time, space, comfort and freedom of choice. Luxury travel to me is spectacular locations with a high-quality, attentive, unobtrusive level of service.
LOH LIK PENG I hate having cramped quarters and I hate being rushed and I hate the idea of not being able to check in to my hotel room when I arrive and being kicked out by noon. Luxury for me is therefore time and space.
LOU TANDY I love to be spoilt at a beautiful hotel as much as anyone, but I also love to seek out experiences that are truly unique and get to the heart of what makes a destination special. These sorts of experiences are normally rare, but that's both the challenge and the joy.
SIMON WESTCOTT Luxury is about intensity and impact of experience. It's an exquisite, ambitious assault on the senses. To that end, I can experience luxury at a $2000 a night lodge in the Kimberley or on a simple five-day silent retreat in the Marin County hills.
LISA PILE Getting the opportunity to spend quality time with my partner, friends and family, along with visiting a new destination and really getting to know it intimately. Time for many of us is a real luxury, so being able to do this is such a privilege.
The Old Clare Hotel, Sydney.
MY IDEA OF "AFFORDABLE LUXURY" IS ...
TURNER Enjoying the outdoors with a big open sky above, but with handy facilities.
PENG Good cheap eats, especially street food. I think that's a good way to have value when you travel. Its affordable and it's a huge luxury to eat well and experience the city you are visiting. Street food anywhere you visit is one of the best ways to experience the city like a local.
TANDY When I'm somewhere new, I love nothing more than to meander the streets, find my bearings and get a feel for the destination. One can discover so much on foot.
WESTCOTT A few well-chosen ingredients, design elements or curated experiences. Less is more and provenance is all.
PILE That everyone has access and the ability to experience the delights of travel. Not everyone can afford to cruise out of Europe, however, they can afford to cruise out of Australia.
Virgin Australia's lounge amenities. Photo: Virgin Australia
MY FAVOURITE SIMPLE TRAVEL LUXURY ...
TURNER Club lounges. There is nothing like having a shower in transit on a long flight and stepping away from the hustle and bustle of airports for an hour or two.
PENG Having a really clean, freshly laundered bed with crisp bedsheets smelling of having been sun-dried and newly ironed.
TANDY Good coffee, and time to slow down and enjoy.
WESTCOTT VIP immigration services and a private airport transfer. For a premium, it just gets things moving as quickly and reliably as possible.
LISA PILE Flying business class on long haul flights, so you're still fresh when you reach your destination.
Firelight Safaris, Tanzania. Photo: Picasa
MY MOST LUXURIOUS TRAVEL EXPERIENCE WAS ...
TURNER A small six-cabin, chartered, crewed cruise boat on the Mediterranean in Greece a few years ago … although I do like the caviar on Emirates first class!
PENG Spending a few weeks on a driving holiday in California in a convertible driving on Highway 1 and spending time in lovely resorts like the Post Ranch Inn. I did this with my wife before we got married and the kids came along. Alas, it's impossible to do this now.
TANDY Sailing up the Hudson River on a private yacht, sipping G&Ts on the bow as dusk turned to dark and the lights of Manhattan came on. We dropped anchor at the base of Staten Island; we were so close that it was as if Miss Liberty had joined us for our private dinner.
WESTCOTT Christmas in the Carlos Suite at the Connaught Hotel in Mayfair, with Hyde Park as nearby back garden. It was hard to go past London's only Aman spa, drinks with friends at the Julian Opie-strewn Coburg Bar and globalista bonhomie on the big day.
PILE A private safari in beautiful Tanzania. We visited Kilimanjaro, Ngorongoro Crater, Serengeti and Tarangire National Park, home to more than 3000 elephants. It was truly a magical experience.
Bahia Vik Jos Ignacio, Uruguay. Photo: Vik Retreats
THE LAST TIME I REALLY ROUGHED IT WAS ...
TURNER Twenty years ago in Kebo Hut, the night before the ascent of Kilimanjaro. It's a cement bunker containing just a few bunk beds. At midnight, in minus 12 degrees, you brave the cold, putting on every bit of clothing you own to generate some warmth. [Then you] walk very slowly – because you can't breathe in that altitude – up a mountain in a weaving pattern so you don't slip down.
PENG Backpacking after finishing college. It was huge fun travelling around Europe. I think I would find it hard to tolerate travelling like that now. I am too used to the luxuries that travel offers.
TANDY I'll never forget the time my husband and I were stranded at 1am in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere in Brazil. We had no other option but to overnight in an establishment that was more accustomed to billing by the hour than by the night. I was mortified and so embarrassed, but we survived and laugh about it now.
WESTCOTT A $5 a night hostel in Maymyo, in the hills outside Mandalay, in Burma, in 2004. Slept like a prince. I've never stopped jumping in tuk-tuks or onto motorbike taxis when I'm travelling in Asia.
PILE In 2000, I travelled with friends from Beijing to Harbin on an overnight train. We went to visit the Harbin Ice Festival (definitely a must, absolutely spectacular). It was so cold that icicles formed inside the carriage and the temperature went down to minus 36 degrees. Thank goodness we had with us a supply of great Australian wines and many laughs along the way.
Virgin Australia business class. Photo: Virgin Australia
THE FUTURE OF LUXURY TRAVEL IS ...
TURNER Money can't buy experiences and intuitive personalised service. While technology continues to advance and the way we travel may change, great service and the way a luxury stay makes you feel will always be key.
PENG Time. Being able to travel faster, more direct and spend more time at the destination. I hate long flights and having to transit at airports. The era of longer range and faster planes is here and that means better point-to-point travel.
TANDY Luxury has historically been equated to formality, but that's changing. New understandings of what luxury means will see some travellers move away from the traditional white-gloved style and into more casual offerings. This doesn't mean scrimping on quality or service. For some, the new luxury is [about] the rarity of the experience and the emotional impact delivered. It is about privileged access to a person, place or experience and the transformative effect it may have.
WESTCOTT Service and a lack of pretension. Travel is too democratised nowadays to cling to a "red rope" mentality. The best luxury travel operators deliver intimate, finely calibrated experiences with a generous humility. This will increasingly mean time, space and silence.
LISA PILE Booming! Never before has travel been so affordable and the world so easy to explore. The luxury traveller is looking for special and unique experiences. These are plentiful. There is so much to do; I will never achieve it all in my lifetime.
Hotel Azerai in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo: Azerai
SUITE DREAMS: WHERE OUR PANELISTS LIKE TO WAKE UP TO LUXURY
SOUTHERN OCEAN LODGE, KANGAROO ISLAND, SOUTH AUSTRALIA
"James and Hayley Baillie have done a fantastic job in capturing the beauty of its location," says Jude Turner. "It's wild Australia by the ocean matched with perfect architecture, good food and wine. It offers well designed and comfortable suites featuring spectacular views and plenty to do for an active or relaxing getaway." See southernoceanlodge.com.au
POST RANCH INN, US
"Splendid isolation. The location, the design, the service is really special. It's one of those places that seems timeless and it's a place you could come back to again and again, whatever your stage in life. It has something to do with its location by the edge of magnificent cliffs in the Big Sur with majestic Redwood forests and nature reserves all round and the very simple but luxurious accommodation." See postranchinn.com
BAHIA VIK, URUGUAY
"Bahia Vik in Jose Ignacio, Uruguay, would be my absolute favourite," says Tandy. "With 11 private bungalows all uniquely designed inside and out, using materials such as wood, steel and black zinc, the bold and contemporary architecture is set against four hectares of sand dunes."
"I'm just back from the Azerai, Adrian Zeccha's new hotel in Luang Prabang n Laos," says Simon Westcott. "It epitomises affordable, accessible luxury and is executed to the highest quality."
THE SAXON IN JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA
"The Saxon in Johannesburg, South Africa, is where Nelson Mandela spent time in his early days of freedom," says Lisa Pile. It has wonderful karma and holds a very special place in my heart.
Emirates' onboard lounge. Photo: David Copeman
THE PANEL ON THEIR TOP LUXURY TREAT
CAVIAR AT 30,000 FEET
"Enjoying caviar on board Emirates first class – it's a great indulgence that you don't get at home," says Turner. "Having the gift of time to be impromptu and extend my stay in a place while travelling. Spontaneity is something we lack so much of in life and should be embraced – if we can find the time."
"Having proper big bathrooms with proper big bath tubs," says Peng. "I don't always use the bath tubs but having a real bath tub is such a great luxury. I hate acrylic or plastic bathtubs so bath tubs must be cast iron or stone."
THE FAMILY WAY
"It might sound strange, but my favourite luxury indulgence is travelling with my husband and our three young children," says Tandy. "Both my husband and I travel regularly for work, and when we are home (like everyone) life is busy."
"Once a month, I disappear into the Landmark Mandarin Hong Kong's luxury spa, and submit my body to the hands of expert masseur, Wali," says Westcott. "It's an expensive way to spend an afternoon, but the facilities are extensive and it's never, never busy."
"Eating out when travelling," says Pile. "Most of my most favourite travel memories involve food. You really get to know a lot about a destination and its culture through food."
Listen: Flight of Fancy - the Traveller.com.au podcast with Ben Groundwater
To subscribe to the Traveller.com.au podcast Flight of Fancy on iTunes, click here.