Around the World in 24 days with TCS World Travel and Four Seasons Hotels is sold as the ultimate around the world experience. I have traveled with TCS World Travel on private jet trips before during my work with the Smithsonian and they were all wonderful. So when invited to join this new itinerary, I hoped I could find something to share that was new and unforgettable. For a veteran traveler like me, finding those moments that leave you in total awe….even two months later is rare. Beyond the luxury and total convenience of a private jet..what could they do? Plenty….Here are my top three
Dinner on the Great Wall of China
The Four Seasons hotel in Beijing is stunning in every aspect. To say they get all the details right is an understatement. Combining the designs of the centuries of Chinese history with exuberance of today’s contemporary art, in one unified whole is genius and very successful.But my hotel stay was far surpassed by the experience they designed for us on the Great Wall.
We were taken to a more remote, less visited site on the Wall near sunset. Our group of 30 was climbing and exploring alone. Time to let the magnificence sink in without any hawkers selling mini-Maos or costumed characters jumping out for pictures. I had been to the Great Wall many times before, never almost alone. This was a good start. But then we were summoned by drums and dancers to a more private section where dinner had been set up, catered by Four Seasons with their staff. As we sipped cocktails, watched the best performers and learned about the history and present challenges of the wall, the sun set. Had an Emperor from long ago, had the same experience? If he was lucky.
Dinner at the Vladimir Palace
This was my fourth visit to Russia this year. The imperial or tsarist history of Russia, and most particularly St. Petersburg is one of my passions. I have had the privilege of many private, extraordinary visits in St. Petersburg so what was left? Private, after hours visits to the Hermitage and the Catherine Palace are rare for most travelers, but almost expected by our group by the time we arrived at the private airport outside St. Petersburg. Both were magical to visit in the quiet of exclusive groups of 8. But I was shocked when ushered in front of the infamous Peacock Clock in the Hermitage and told that TCS had arranged for it to be wound and turned on for our group. Usually only done for heads of state, to see this clock chime as it had for Catherine the Great was a highlight. Click here for the video. But even better was to come.
Our final night in St. Petersburg, we were taken to the Vladimir Palace. With a balcony overlooking the Palace Embankment, this palace had not been opened to visitors for many years. Built for Tsar Alexander II’s son Vladimir,it had been completed in 1872. The location, second only to the Winter Palace and decor and even a rare porcelain collection are still in situ from it’s pre-revolution days. This palace is rare a time capsule showing how the Imperial family lived and entertained during the last days of the Romanovs. This particular palace had even more prominence during the faltering reign of Nicolas II. As Empress Alexandra withdrew from society to deal with the heir’s hemophilia, it was this family at this palace that took over as leader of the last social seasons. I had no idea that a private group could be entertained at this historic palace but there we were. Drinks on the balcony, ushered up the staircase to dinner by our private 20 piece orchestra, beluga and champagne set the mood. But then, just as we all thought the most exclusive of evenings was over, two of the finest opera performers from the Mariinsky Opera, came on the small private stage. Opera, as with all art forms, has always been central to russian life and as we sat in awe,most of us in tears, we all understood why.
Hiking in the Atlas Mountains, Morocco
Marrakech is always magical and there is very little that does not impress and awe on every visit. So again, I wondered if I would be ticking off the same visits I had done many times before. No complaints, but I was now spoiled for the extraordinary so my expectations were over the top for both TCS and Four Seasons. Snake Charmers, Mint tea, dates, caftans and the scents of herbs quickly got me in the arabian spirit, another article on this visit is here. Shopping was great, but how many caftans can a woman use in Washington, DC? I decided to join the all day expedition to the Atlas Mountains for something new.
En route we drove past Richard Branson’s Kasbah Tamadot where I had stayed before and loved. Shortly after we arrived at the Berber village of Imlil. Heavy rain threatened but our donkeys and guides were ready. I opted to hike on foot, hoping to get in front of the group for better pictures. A new friend of mine from the group had the same idea. So we began a friendly/not so friendly race to the top. We had been coddled and fed and plied with the finest foods for the past 20 days. We were in less than the best shape to be climbing and racing at altitude, but neither of us would give up in pursuit of the best picture and from pure competitiveness. ( I guess I have to mention he was older than I so I had a lot of pride to lose.) We called it a tie when we finally reached the small village at the top, both nearly dead.
It was at this village that the magic began. We were met by Da Ahmed, the village chief who proudly welcomed us to his village. Local dancers and musicians led us to the home where we would have lunch. We learned of their village life and that they only received 2 small groups yearly. This was no tourist creation, it was a warm, earnest hospitality that is hard to find in the world today. Our two hours there, may be the highlight of the entire trip.
TCS and Four Seasons delivered the “luxury” of these ultimate experiences. Yes, the jet, hotels, staff and food were all the finest available, but the real luxury was in these rare experiences, even to this peripatetic traveler. I experienced real exceptionalism.