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Elephants in the Masai Mara

Vacations to Order Showcase, October 2001

Vacations to Order by Sandra Miller

ECI Communications owner Bob Crozer is a busy man, so when he has downtime he does not waste any of it arranging the details of a vacation. He calls Doug Turner, owner of Miami-based Millionaire’s Concierge, a one-stop travel and entertainment service adept at arranging everything from hot air balloon rides to villa stays, flights on a fighter jet to a swim with the dolphins. (The sea mammals, not the football team, though Doug may be able to pull that off, too.)

“We needed a seaplane to get to Little Palm Island, a five-star resort in the Keys, which you can only reach by seaplane or boat,” says Crozer “trying to find a seaplane was really difficult, but Doug had a guy, and I was all set, at a great price.”

Some of Turner’s services may be unique, but there are plenty of businesses that offer to take care of your particular vacation needs and preferences. And some do it better than others. There are ways to find out who is worthwhile before you are greeted by locked doors on your medieval fresco tour; you realize the herd of exotic animals on view is outnumbered by the herd of tourists you are in; or your seaside villa lists uncomfortably toward the sea.

Cast Away!

Aside from word of mouth, articles like this one, or the luck of just running into a guy like Doug Turner, travel facilitators can be found through advertisements or by searching the internet. A quick check with the Better Business Bureau can help establish confidence with a service unknown to colleagues or friends.

Some people are willing to go with a company as long as it specializes in the type of vacation they are interested in , has been in business for a reasonable amount of time, and provides them with a positive experience during their initial interaction

Hallmarks of the best are an obvious zeal for accommodating your special interests, the infrequent use of the words no and can’t, and a willingness to be travel agent, tour operator, and troubleshooter all rolled into one.

Local Knowledge

Gloria Sweeney wanted to visit Sicily with her husband and two grown sons, but because they had only a week to travel in, she felt overwhelmed by the amount of necessary planning to get the best out of it. They also wanted to visit her father’s hometown in central Sicily and the church her grandfather had helped restore.

“When you have limited time, you waste a lot of it making connections, and none of us speaks Italian,” said Sweeney of the obstacles she faced.

Browsing through magazines, she spotted an ad for Caravella Italia, which arranges custom tours of Italy. She called and quickly felt at ease with the level of service. “They were extremely obliging and creative,” Sweeney says. “Our guide, Roberta, went out of her way to find the church we were looking for, and then she called the bishop’s office so they could come out and meet us. Now that’s initiative!”

Caravella has also performed miracles such as arranging a private tour of the Sistine Chapel, a place normally packed with hundreds of tourists. “You just have to know the right person at the Vatican museums,” says Caravella President David Diliberto. He often calls clients himself to assure them that he knows the Italian guide they will meet or the quality of the hotel they will stay in. “We put everything together for our clients – hotels, transportation, meals, hot air ballooning. They are totally pampered.”

Always Open

Availability is a necessary quality in a great travel provider. One travel representative interrupted her wedding day to take a call from a client. But that singular devotion was part of her training at Camper & Nicholsons International, whose megayachts come with antiques, art, recording studios, cinema rooms, a mini-hospital, and a helipad.

The company is used to handling unique requests: it has provided a private helicopter to pick up a passenger at a moment’s notice; a yellow and a red Ferrari Testa Rossa were waiting at the dock for a party’s arrival; and a special mineral water ice-cube maker, a Tiffany nutcracker, a water skiing instructor, and a favorite brand of shower gel have all been flown in per clients’ wishes.

Apart from the Herd

John and Alison Boothroyd of Cambridge, England, have been to Africa many times. It became important to them early on to find an agency that could customize their trips. They are now stanch fans of Eco-resorts, based in East Africa, because their needs – customized itineraries and stays at child-free resorts – are always met by the agency.

In May, the Boothroyds rented a private vehicle so they could search for particular wild animals. “We waited an hour for two rhinos to cross the road,” he says happily. “We watched a herd of hippos for an hour. We had total freedom.” Eco-resorts even arranged for a tiny beach resort, Che Shale in Kenya, to open just for them during the off-season.

It Takes a Villa

Bonnie Monte, artistic director at the New Jersey Shakespeare Company, travels to Sifnos, a Greek island, every year. When she decided to try a villa stay last May, a friend recommended InternetVillas.com. She browsed through the crème de la crème of the site’s offerings in the world-class section and became intrigued by a tiny volcanic island near Sicily called Pantelleria, where celebrities such as Madonna and Sting go for refuge.

Because it was offered through a web site, she exercised caution – finding and consulting colleagues who had used the service and talking to a customer service representative at length before committing. “They turned out to be fabulous,” she says.

She enjoyed a stay at the Dammuso Zighidi, a 300-year-old architecturally idiosyncratic villa with hand-painted murals and views of tended gardens and the African mainland across the water.

Bob Brennan, CEO of Connected Corp., also found satisfaction via the Internet. He rented the Leamington Pavilion villa in Barbados from CaribbeanWay.com, a 2-year-old island resource provider that showed up in an Internet search. The villa, an elegant building with pergola, a large pool, and a roof terrace with coastal views, came equipped with eight staffers including a butler, cook, gardener, three maids, and night watchman.

“I have been fortunate to stay in the top-rated hotels in the world, and the experience in Leamington Pavilion exceeded even the Four Seasons and the Ritz-Carlton,” says Brennan. “It had all the amenities of such a facility, but it was yours alone, including the well-trained staff.”

The web site villa rental service also books private islands. “Venture capitalists rent a private island for a few days and do a nice deal,’ says CaribbeanWay.com President Jonathan Poulin. “They’re looking to get away from it all. A lot of glove-trotters who aren’t shocked by much are just blown away at the staffing.”

Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks have stayed at the service’s Musha Cay villa in the Bahamas. “Celebrities book up the place like crazy. If you area a celebrity in a hotel, there’s the privacy issue. Privacy on your own island is not too hard to get,” notes Poulin,.

A Word in Your Ear

Judie Balcerzak, director of the Institute for Private Investors in New York City, requires safety and privacy in hr vacation accommodations. Through word of mouth, she found out about the 18th-century Palace of Devi Garh in the village of Delawara, India, as well as Myths and Mountains Inc., the Nevada-based company that rents it out.

“I was swimming in a green marble pool, with birds diving in and monkeys running around,” says Balcerzak of the special environment she found herself in, carved from marble. The deluxe rooms provided beds on marble platforms, huge marble bathtubs, and large marble bowls filled with fragrant, floating flowers. “It was a part of heaven. You sense history there.”

Although Balcerzak would not compare the service to a top hotel (getting a phone connection could take up to 45 minutes), the secluded location and uniqueness of the property more than compensated.

“We thought about the nearby Palace Hotel,” she says, “but we fell in love with Devi Garh. We rented the whole place.”

Marylee Stephenson of Vancouver, author of a guidebook on the Galapagos Islands, heard about Myths and Mountains and Lammer Law, a spacious and elegant Galapagos-based trimaran, while on one of here many visits to the archipelago.

“You use the boat as a base camp, and go out every morning and afternoon to walk, hike, swim, sightsee, and then return to the boat for meals, rest, and sleep,” says Stephenson of her trip that was arranged by Myths and Mountains.

“Luxurious accommodations and a welcoming staff, however, won’t keep away the occasional storm.”

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