With the travel landscape increasingly dominated by “experiential” trips to remote countries like Bhutan and challenging locales like Everest Base Camp, can the more familiar, less exotic destinations entice tourists to return and reengage?
Recently, I was invited to attend the third annual Fete Imperiale ball in Vienna, a city known for its fancy occasions. The Fete was introduced as a summer addition to the city’s traditional winter balls. This ball was a white tie affair to raise funds for the Lipizzaner horses, held in the Spanish Riding School.
Upon my arrival at the new, sparkling Vienna airport it was evident that Austria understands how to entice tourists in many ways. Dramatic signage announces that imperial, turn of the century, art deco and 2012 Vienna is right around the corner.
On our first evening, we take a hike up into the vineyards surrounding Vienna, to learn and taste the local production. The view of all Vienna (just 20 min away) is magnificent and the wine most refreshing. A local vintner, who is passionate about preserving this pre-Roman vino-culture, describes his battles to protect every acre of vineyard. Dinner followed at one of the much-touted Heurigens with exceptional locavore cuisine.
The next morning, attended much needed dancing (and etiquette) lessons at the Elmayer Dancing School, founded in 1919. Two hours later, with many laughing attempts and new friends, I could almost waltz and know three of the steps for the quadrilles (1, 3 and 6) that we will dance at midnight. As for etiquette, I now know how to refuse (subtly) when a man tries to kiss my hand — not been a big problem in the US, but apparently one here. A highlight was meeting the professional “students” at the school who pretended we were very graceful.
The grand opening began at 10 p.m. and the performances were stellar, from bands, ballets, opera and donkeys. The horses get spooked with the noise so did not attend, the donkeys less so, an obvious irony at a ball for the Lipizzaner horses. I spent the evening enjoying beautiful dancing, trying to join the quadrilles and drinking much champagne. I think every party in the US should have hay bales and wurst stands outside for when you get bored with the dancing. Our obviously American group was welcomed and encouraged to join in all the festivities by all guests.
There are over 300 winter balls in Vienna, one in summer and a newly introduced Salzburg summer ball at the end of the famous Salzburg Festival (you saw it in The Sound of Music). You can attend any, take dancing lessons and bring your own group to enjoy the fun. Fill in your days with history, art deco treasures, coffee shops, food and wine. You will easily slip into the daily 19th or 21st century rhythm of the Viennese capital.
I am convinced that “experiential” travel is about your level of engagement and not the exoticism of the location. Climb Everest to Base Camp or learn a quadrille for a Viennese Ball, both offer a discriminating traveler new bragging rights to travel beyond the ordinary.