Whirlwind of rich rewards

A pauper among princes and princesses, Max Anderson fastens his seatbelt for an air tour of a lifetime.

Don from Texas said he wasn't hanging around at the end of our 17-day tour. "I gotta get home and drill a coupla wells," growled the 76-year-old oilman.

As stereotypes go, Don was perfect for the luxury private air tour. He was loud, built like a hand grenade and loved to toss "sonbitch" into conversations. And here he was, one of 22 millionaire types, plus me, zipping across the world in a slender tube of leather and steel: Sydney to London via 12 cities, nine luxury resorts and a slew of ancient cultures. Don't spare the horses and hang the expense.

Me? I was a guest of Bill Peach Journeys, which was just as well, because, unlike the elderly passengers assembled in the private jet terminal (including the retired surgeon, the founder of a large retail chain and a clutch of ladies managing fat investment portfolios), I couldn't afford the $29,995 one-way ticket.

Simply reading the schedule left me out of breath. Sydney, Darwin, Denpasar (Bali), Kuching (Malaysian Borneo), Siem Reap (Cambodia), Chiang Mai (Thailand), Agra (India), Muscat (Oman), Aswan (Egypt), Santorini (Greece), Prague (Czech Republic), London ...

"In 17 days?" I scribbled in my journal. "This luxury air charter is going to shrink my world. And I'm not sure that's a good thing."

Of this much I am sure: the future of luxury travel is shaped like a private jet. People are getting wealthier, their time is too precious to lounge on the deck of a cruise liner and mid-range jets offer a practical way to kick the bucket list into shape.

Retired surgeon Professor Patrick looked at it another way. "Indonesia, Cambodia, Oman - these are countries I'd never go to." He was leaning against the rail of a pearl lugger in Darwin's Fannie Bay, the late sun winking off his wineglass. "But two days in each, staying at a great hotel? I've got nothing to lose! If I like 'em, I'll go back!"

Our Ancient Cultures tour was made possible by an Embraer 135LR, a sleek Brazilian-made aircraft capable of flying up to 34 passengers at 800km/h.

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The grey leather seats were arranged in a 1-aisle-2 configuration, and while they were smaller than most of our party would be accustomed to in business class, flying was never less than comfortable. The itinerary was arranged to ensure each sector was no longer than 3½ hours and the time changes were so minimal jetlag was never an issue. All we had to do was sit back as steward Joe served us with G&Ts, light meals and iPads loaded with movies.

Our first port of call - rather oddly I thought, given that ancient cultures were the main billing - was the Waltzing Matilda Centre in Winton, outback Queensland. Nice though the centre was, Aboriginal rock art would've made more sense than the strains of Craigeelee, the tune that inspired Banjo's ode to the swaggie.

No, for me the journey began the next day and it sounded very different.

"TAK-TAK-TAK-TAK-TAK ..." Forty Balinese men sat in concentric circles on the torch-lit sands of Uluwatu, their arms outstretched, their palms shimmering to their staccato chant. I recognised it immediately from the movie Baraka, that wordless carousel of scenes from around the planet. Three dancers clad in gold added to the glittering private recital, laid on for us by the Jimbaran Puri Bali resort while we banqueted on the beach.

This is how it would be. Jet into a country, have the untidy business of bags and passports taken care of by someone else, board a luxury coach for guided touring, repair to a five-star resort for rest and recreation, and be furnished with a meal of unmitigated splendour.

And then, just like that: scene change.

We started collecting ancient wonders like they were trading cards. Angkor Wat, Prague Castle, Wat Chedi Luang, the Taj Mahal ...

Egypt's Abu Simbel is usually a five-hour slog out of Aswan by road. We did it in 25 minutes. The temple to Rameses II was moved in 1968 before the damming of the Nile, and seeing it for the first time was a personal highlight but it was doubly startling because the troubles in Cairo had cleared it of tourists. I stood in withering desert heat looking up at the carved sun god Ra with his falcon's head. It was so quiet I could hear the wings of a real falcon hovering over the temple.

Cultural treasures came to light in unexpected corners.

In Borneo, we visited a traditional Dayak compound which was like a village under one tin roof hoisted on stilts. A small hut called the Panggah was home to a blinking Wi-Fi modem and a steel basket of prized skulls, head-hunted over some 300 years.

Ghanshyam Mathur, the jeweller of Kohinoor Jewellery in Agra, hung a priceless 16th-century necklace of nine uncut emeralds around the female necks of our party.

"So far, 68 people have made offers," he said in his perfectly cut English. "But why would we sell it? We have history here."

Within the Grand Mosque of Muscat, completed in 2001, we gazed up at eight tones of Swarovski crystal lit by 1122 bulbs, a spaceship-sized bucket of light hovering to illuminate turquoise mosaics and Koranic verses in 24-carat gold.

"It's a privilege, isn't it?" said our charming guide, Ali. I had to agree, but there was no shortage of privilege on this trip.

Luxury resorts are temples of consumerism and rarely more wonderful than after a day of touring Angkor ruins in 88 per cent humidity. La Residence in Siem Reap was like a lost temple of luxe with a cool pool at its heart, a refuge from the city's frenzied bar district just a few convenient blocks away.

Musqat's Barr Al Jissah Resort Resort was built into a lonely wadi with its own slice of beach. This vast complex of hotels and restaurants was a balmy, palmy fortress of leisure beside the Sea of Oman. Two of the properties were linked by a half-kilometre of "Lazy River" on which guests could float in rubber rings.

In the super-lush Four Seasons Chiang Mai, our suites were set in the hanging gardens of fab-ylon. The property looked on to a lake, rice paddies, a forest and a mountain elegantly wreathed in cloud. Each morning, an albino buffalo emerged from the forest, stirring small birds out of the rice stems.

Dinner was never simply served - it was brought on. We dined in a private Czech palace beneath frescoes of cherubs, on a rooftop in an Omani village and on a royal barge as it sailed down the Nile.

In a private room at London's Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Knightsbridge, liveried wait staff made a performance of revealing our dishes, lifting a dozen silver domes in a flourish.

It didn't always go right and India was both a mid-way point and a stress point.

In Agra, our jet was marshalled to a far corner of an empty landing strip and the elderly Peach party had to stagger through stultifying heat to an immigration hall, empty except for stamp-wielding clerks and soldiers in baggy fatigues.

In the "small city of two million", a few passengers began putting up the shutters, blocking out the broken streetscapes of cows and rickshaws, resisting the people squatting over their small industries and positively hating the incessant hawkers.

But even the most Agra-vated felt becalmed by the serenity of the Taj Mahal. Paradoxically, this 16th-century monument appeared so masterful and so precocious (the minarets were built off-vertical to present perfectly square to those looking up) that it made the modern populace - bound by religion, poverty and sheer weight of its own number - seem almost feudal.

Our tours around Agra were depleted, with half the guests bolting for the safety of the Oberoi Amarvilas, a place of deep pools, cold airconditioning and high walls. I should add it was the only time I felt compelled to escape the five-star and sought asylum in a lively pavement cafe where I indulged in chai and a lot of chat about cricket.

One of our number, however, kept smiling. Journey director John Medcalf was an astonishingly energetic 76-year-old ex-Qantas flight attendant who had clocked up more miles than the Embraer. Every day he liaised with customs officials, hotel staff, tour companies, restaurant managers and guides, and that was before he met the demands of 23 passengers.

Nothing seemed to trouble him: not when Saudi air traffic control demanded our little jet take a different flight path, not when one of the party from Melbourne blew his top in the Egyptian heat and declared Abu Simbel was "Bullshit! Just a hole in a rock!" and not even when a guest in evening wear lost her footing in the darkened lobby of La Residence in Siem Reap and tumbled into a deep carp-filled pool. (When we fished her out with a twisted knee, she sat on a scalding floor light recessed into the boardwalk.)

Looking back on the trip, I'm surprised by the images that spring to mind, because they're not images at all - they're voices.

I can hear every one of the guides who showed us around their cities, especially the gentle scholar Said decoding cartouches in Abu Simbel, and Kuching's savvy native Dayak guide, Lemon, who one of our group kept calling "Melon".

I can hear the twinkly-eyed matriarch of the group, Eleanor, 82, reacting to one of our party who was worried about being stared at by young men in Agra. "Just give me 10 minutes with any of them," she chuckled, "They're gorgeous!"

I can hear Professor Patrick explaining how he'd innovated complex surgery on a cancer patient's face - he drew imaginary lines with his smooth hands on my face to illustrate how he'd done it.

Most happily of all, I can hear Don from Texas, who liked to make me giggle during sombre temple tours by growling something dazzlingly profane. His life stories, often told over breakfast, left me choking with delight.

If there was a defining moment of the trip, it was also the greatest indulgence - when we stopped for lunch on the island of Santorini.

The jet touched down at the base of the fragmented volcanic cone poking from the Aegean, before a bus wound us through steep vineyards into villages of white walls and blue domes. In Imerovigli, we walked through steep alleys to The Grace boutique hotel, where we were seated beneath sail-sized umbrellas on a rock ledge overlooking tiny cruise ships on sparkling seas.

I felt a million dollars (small change to Texas Don), and as we were served exquisite wines and great oval platters of Greek tapas, it became clear what this sort of travel actually provides: intensity.

Only three hours before reaching the Greek isle buzzing with bronzed Europeans wearing expensive sunglasses, I'd been in the deserted streets of Aswan, watching a young boy delivering heavy gas bottles through narrow lanes filled with dogs and rubbish.

I'd wondered if the air tour would shrink my sense of the world but it did the opposite. It made it seem bigger, more complex. Ironically, the one luxury this trip didn't have was time - time to explore, to learn more.

But as Professor Patrick said: "If I like 'em, I'll go back!"

Perhaps the ultimate travelling luxury is simply the opportunity to travel again.

The writer was a guest of Bill Peach Journeys.

TRIP NOTES

TOURING THERE

Max Anderson's 17-day Ancient Cultures tour was an inaugural trip; it has been refined to form the 20-day World Heritage Aircruise for 2014. The stops are: Sydney, Darwin, Denpasar, Kuching, Siem Reap, Yangon (Myanmar), Agra, Muscat, Amman and Petra (Jordan), Crete, Florence, London. The trip will run August 27 to September 15, 2014. It's open to a maximum 30 guests; early bird price is $34,995 fully inclusive (single supplement of $4995).

MORE INFORMATION billpeachjourneys.com.au

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