In Europe, luxury travel experiences keep taking off in new directions, as can be expected on a continent tailor-made for today’s brave new world of bespoke travel. This, of course, is good news for U.S. travel planners looking for creative ways to serve their upscale, often well-traveled, increasingly well-informed and recently adventurous clients. They are the market for the newest luxury lodgings and most exclusive trips, as well as the most extraordinary and authentic experiences. We reached into the huge inventory of luxury European products and came up with four that spoke “bespoke” to us.
celebrate river cruising
In medieval times, the Christmas markets were the commercial and social focus of the season. Centuries later, ‘tis the season to still be jolly when clients opt for a river cruise among Europe’s Christmas markets. Topping off the holiday-afloat season, river cruise lines’ Christmas and New Year’s cruises offer the most customized gala sailings of all to destinations decked out in holiday finery. One of the most luxurious are those offered by Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, whose palace-style fleet is appointed with Murano glass chandeliers, antiques and original art, custom-made Savoir beds, and heated floors, as well as suites that add complimentary laundry and butler service.
Uniworld celebrates in particularly grand and unforgettable style with its 11-day Enchanting Christmas & New Year’s Cruise, sailing through three countries from Passau to Budapest, and the 13-day Grand Christmas & New Year’s Cruise, floating through four nations from Nuremberg to Budapest. Check for last-minute cabin availability on the respective departure dates of Dec. 22 and 23 for this year, then plan ahead for the 2016 holiday sailings whose particulars are now available. The 156-passenger River Beatrice will depart on Dec. 23, 2016 for its 11-day itinerary to Germany, Austria and Hungary, and the 150-guest S.S. Maria Theresa—the third of the company’s Super Ships that made her debut this year—departs Dec. 22, 2016 to cruise into Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary on a 13-day itinerary. Prices for the 2016 sailings start at $4,999 and $5,799, respectively.
Consider some bespoke gifts under the Uniworld Christmas trees: the Christmas market in Nuremberg; midnight mass at the Regensburg cathedral; sleigh bells ringing on a ride through the Bavarian Forest in a horse-drawn wagon; a spiced wine tasting and organ concert in an Augustinian monastery; a private reception with Princess Anita von Hohenberg in the Artstetten Castle; and waltz lessons in Vienna before ringing in the New Year with dinner and dancing in a Viennese palace.
Last July, just before grape harvest time, the “climats” of Burgundy—the 1,247 tiny, oddly shaped vineyards that make up the Cote de Beaune and the Cote de Nuits wine regions—were officially inscribed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites. The honor recognizes the unique character of the wine-producing area between Dijon and Beaune, and salutes a region of outstanding scenery, exceptional heritage and unique know-how in cultivating and producing many of the world’s great wines. Burgundy is also Butterfield & Robinson country, where the award-winning travel company started its path to becoming the pace-setter in luxury active travel. Today, B&R presents the region as Burgundy Bespoke, offering a host of luxury travel experiences, best enjoyed May through October.
For example, from the B&R Private Trips Collection you’ll find Experience Beaune, a 5-day private walking trip based in Beaune with accommodations at the Bastion Ste. Anne, an official historic landmark. Exploring (with detailed maps and a water bottle) includes walks through vineyards and tastings at winemakers caves, easy-going bike rides to famous winemaking towns, several special meals, a local host and guide services (priced from $3,995 dbl, based on four persons). Another option is a self-guided, 6-day Burgundy by Bike trip that provides top accommodations such as the 18th century Chateau Andre Ziltener in Chambolle-Musigny, and the intimate Abbaye de la Bussiere, a medieval castle. The trip follows wine roads that run to and through villages and famed vineyards such as Romannee-Conti and La Tache to Beaune (priced from $3,295 dbl, based on four persons).
Small Luxury Hotels of the World (SLH) is inviting its guests to be inspired by its collection of some of the finest independent hotels in the world, now showcased with a range of bespoke experiences available when staying in restored palaces, city-center havens, country house retreats, family-friendly resorts or tranquil couple hideaways. In Europe, that adds up to 301 properties in 30 countries, and this year SLH welcomed a dozen new European hotels to its luxury portfolio.
In Italy, for instance, SLH members now include the Romeo Hotel, whose waterfront setting in Naples provides a good base for exploring the historic city and for day trips along the coast, while the Castello di Vicarello in Tuscany offers off-the-beaten-track luxury and private cooking courses. In Greece, one of the new properties is Castello Boutique Resort & Spa, an adults-only retreat on the historic island of Crete; in Austria, the Hotel Tannenhof in St. Anton am Arlberg is now welcoming guests to the “cradle of Alpine skiing”; and in Croatia, Boutique Hotel Alhambra is a conversion of a grand mansion built over 100 years ago on Losinj Island, today a new luxury getaway offering customized sailing programs and yachting excursions to nearby islands.
Self-drive vacations have long been a staple product in the Western European market. Exeter International, upscale specialists in Eastern European travel, is introducing the first independent driving tours through Croatia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. Previously, traveling by car in Eastern Europe meant hiring a private car and driver (and covering his or her cost of accommodations and meals). Now clients—armed with pre-programmed, custom-designed, Exeter-provided GPS itineraries, as well as a 24-hour local help line manned exclusively by Exeter local staff—can explore on and off the beaten path on their own, in comfort and with confidence.
Consider this suggested itinerary—the 11-night Ultimate Self-Drive: Croatia & Slovenia, traveling from Zagreb to Dubrovnik with private Exeter guides opening doors along the way. Features include luxury accommodations, guided sightseeing at major towns and attractions, and extraordinary experiences such as private wine tastings in Istria. With every day set up for the travelers, the itinerary runs Zagreb for two nights; visiting Bled and Bohinj on the way to Rovinj for three nights and day trips to the villages of Istria and Pula; visiting Zadar en-route to a 3-night stay in Split and a full-day exploration of Hvar by private motorboat; and three nights in Dubrovnik, with a full-day guided excursion to Montenegro. Rates for two start at $6,100 pp; with a party of four, priced from $4,275 pp. Flexibility is the thing in true bespoke travel, and this itinerary can start in other locations, can be extended to include a few nights at the magnificent Aman Sveti Stefan in Montenegro, can add islands accessible by car ferry, drives into national parks, or time for sampling the sporting life such as horseback riding, fishing, sea kayaking and mountain hiking.
Butterfield & Robinson: butterfield.com or butterfield.com/login (travel professionals login)
Exeter International: exeterinternational.com or exeterinternational.com/travelagents.aspx
Small Luxury Hotels of the World: slh.com or slh.com/travel-agents
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection: uniworld.com or uniworld.com/en/agency