In our increasingly homogenized, globalized, and cookie cutter world, one thing remains unique: the whims of eccentric billionaires.
I travel a lot, and occasionally I am fortunate to visit some of the finest hotels and resorts on earth. In the past few years I’ve noticed a trend: many of my best and most memorable experiences are being created by the people who know the least about the hospitality industry. The places you want to stay for a dream trip are often not the work of hoteliers, but folks who made huge fortunes doing something completely different, from mining to finance to retail.
Despite the title above, this is not limited to billionaires. I’ll go so far as to allow for centi-millionaires, and basically anyone wealthy enough to indulge their very whim. These are the people who build hotels and resorts as true labors of love, to reflect what they would like in a place they would stay at, and in many cases, with no regard for the bottom line and no intention to ever turn a profit. These are the places they go to themselves, and often live at, and I would highly recommend staying in, but probably not investing in.
It increasingly seems that my best recent travel experiences, the ones I return from and instantly call friends and suggest they should go for their birthdays or anniversaries, are at places like this, hotels and resorts that do not aspire to be chains or brands, but simply to be awesome.
The best examples are places the rich person built as a home, and then realized they could subsidize the expense by opening it up to the public when not in use, like Sir Richard Branson’s Necker Island, the first of many highly publicized private island resorts. Branson built Necker as his own home but you can be a paying house guest. Things may have changed, but for many years it regularly lost money, and I doubt profit is high on his list of motives for keeping Necker as an awesome escape, since he spends so much time there. Likewise, Julian Robertson, of Tiger Fund fame, the original mega-rich hedge fund guy, turned his New Zealand dream home into a posh boutique resort – you can even stay in his actual house.
The other models to seek out include people simply chasing fantasies, like Jade Mountain, which I recently wrote about for my recurring “Hotels I Love” feature, the perfect example of a place that could not be built by committee, probably could not be signed off on by investors, but exists nonetheless, because it was the dream of its owner and designer, architect and railroad heir Nick Troubetzkoy. Another creation story is trying to overcome some feeling of inadequacy, such as when mining magnate Spencer Penrose decided to show the city slickers on the coasts that someone in the middle of the country could play in the luxury big leagues.
Whatever their motivation, when really rich people put quality ahead of profit, it is you, the traveler, who benefits. None of these places are cheap but many are bargains, in the sense that if they were run for profit, they would almost certainly cost even more, if they even existed at all. And they probably would not be as good. And unlike equally expensive luxury chain properties, these are typically not the kind of places where you are going to shell out $1000 a night and then get charged $20 a day for internet or nickelled and dimed for valet parking. For the most part, once you arrive, your wish is their command, and for whatever nightly rate you pay, you get to live like the owner would, because that’s why he or she built the place. Free flowing wine, decadent meals and incredible activities are often included in the rates, making some of these actual bargains from a perspective of excess.
Kauri Cliffs, New Zealand: Julian Robertson, founder of Tiger Fund, fell in love with New Zealand after a post- college year there, and dreamt of a second home. But he never planned to build a resort, yet alone more than one. He found a fantastic piece of land, unrivalled by almost any site on earth, 6,000 waterfront acres overlooking the stunning Bay of Islands National Park, and built his house. Being a crazed golf fanatic, with a truly world class site, he also built a course for himself. As he told me, “I bought this land and it was just too beautiful to leave and do nothing with, and I decided to build a golf course.” Why not? But then it was time for a reality check: private jet or no private jet, when you live in Manhattan how much can you use a golf course on New Zealand’s North Island? So he opened it to the public, and at his wife’s suggestion, built a small luxury lodge, Kauri Cliffs, with 22 “rooms,” all individual cottages, and you can even rent his house when he is not there. The golf course is truly exceptional, and was quickly ranked in the World’s Top 100, public or private, which is hard to do. But the resort is so unbelievable, my takeaway was that I could very happily go there for a week and not play golf, even though I love golf. It’s that good. It’s like its own small country and has two magnificent waterfalls, the kind you’d go to a National Park to see, three gorgeous private beaches, miles of hiking trails, and every outdoor pursuit from hunting wild boar to some of the world’s best Scuba diving. World-class cuisine and luxury lodging made it the first golf resort ever admitted to the prestigious Relais & Chateau hotel association and everything abut the place is first class. (Rates vary seasonally but begin at $500-$900 per person nightly including meals)
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The Farm at Cape Kidnappers, New Zealand: Once Robertson got going it was hard for him to stop. He has since acquired several New Zealand wineries, which he now serves at both Kauri Cliffs and its newer sibling, Cape Kidnappers. This is a very similar concept, except that instead of the relative middle of nowhere it is in the heart of the acclaimed Hawke’s Bay wine region, occupying a dramatic and rocky namesake peninsula. This time he got Tom Doak, of Pacific Dunes fame, arguably the hottest living golf architect, to do the course, also quickly ranked in the world’s top 100. The scale is about the same, on 6,000 waterfront acres, with very few rooms, luxury food, wine, accommodations, and doting staff everywhere. The main difference is that Robertson’s house here, also for rent, is even bigger and posher. Go! (Rates vary seasonally but begin at $500-$750 per person nightly including meals)
Jade Mountain: Since I just wrote about this (Here) I won’t devote a lot of space, but this place is an architect’s fantasy brought to life on a gorgeous St. Lucia mountaintop, with rooms so stunning and so unique I guarantee you have seen nothing quite like them. Since Jade Mountain is a boutique resort within a larger 4-star beach resort, you get a ton of activities and facilities for a place with so few rooms, including redundant spas and fitness clubs, world-class diving, multiple beaches, tons of activities, etc. It is the kind of place rock stars and CEOs go to relax and be not seen. Love it! It is also one of the best values here. (Rates run $1000 – $2200 nightly and are per room, not per person. The optional all-inclusive upgrade makes a ton of sense at $90 per night per person with all your meals and drinks, including room service).
Twin Farms, VT: Another entry in my “Hotels I Love” series, this ultra-private Vermont enclave for celebs and folks who want peace and quiet is the work of Thurston Twigg-Smith, a fifth generation Hawaiian whose family developed extensive real estate holdings in the 50th state and sold their Hawaiian newspaper to Gannett for a quarter of a billion dollars. He is a noted philanthropist and art collector, and every building at Twin Farms, including the 20 luxury homes, each architecturally unique and thematic, that pass for “rooms,” is adorned with collectible art. There is so much that the guide to the art collection fills two thick binders. Twin Farms occupies the 300+ acre estate formerly owned by Nobel-prize winning novelist Sinclair Lewis. You can read more detail in my previous post, but basically the service is fawning, the food exquisite, the lodging over the top, the sporting facilities wonderful, all while maintaining Vermont’s relaxed country aesthetic. It is often described as “summer camp for adults,” has its own small cross country and downhill ski areas, grows much of its own delicious food, and is truly like being a guest at the home of an eccentric billionaire. It is no coincidence that the tiny and totally off the radar property has won the Forbes (formerly Mobil) 5-Star award for 17 straight years. (The handful of guests rooms in the main house, which I do not recommend, start at $1,400 nightly in peak season. Cottages are mostly $2,100 nightly. NOTE these rates are per room, for two guests, not per person. Rates include all meals, activities, wine and drinks, basically everything. Very slight reduction in off-season pricing).
Ballyfin: Fred Krehbiel’s wife is from County Kerry, Ireland, and apparently that was reason enough for him to undertake the massive renovation of a dilapidated Georgian Manor house in what is pretty much considered nowhere as far as Irish tourism goes. A Chicagoan, Krehbiel is Chairman of the Molex Corporation, a manufacturer of connectors traded on the NASDAQ with a market cap of $4.5 billion. For the past 8 years – longer than it took to build the house in the first place! – Krehbiel has been painstakingly turning the historic building into a 15-room luxury resort on a 600-acre estate full of follies and grottos and a pristine 28-acre lake. A true “build it and they will come” project, Ballyfin sits in County Laois smack in the middle of the Island, 90 minutes west of Dublin and over 2 hours east of Shannon, away from all the major tourist routes and sites. Even before he bought Ballyfin in 2002, Krehbiel had been amassing an impressive collection of Irish art, and the entire place is decorated with these works from his personal collection, all in an effort to elevate the perception of Irish art. Ballyfin is a true labor of love, and while it could theoretically turn a profit someday, it is hard to imagine how, given what has been sunk into it and the size. In the meantime, it is now what it was in the 1820s, a rich guy’s estate designed for entertaining and worthy of a James Bond villain. With a maximum capacity of 29, the chef consults with each guest and cooks whatever they want, focusing on the estate’s extensive gardens and free range eggs and largely locally sourced ultra-fresh ingredients. Ballyfin just opened in May, 2011 has a spa and beautiful grounds, and is mainly for escaping into a romantic and historic past with all the modern luxury bells and whistles. (€580-€1350 nightly per person, including meals, most drinks, minibar, and most activities.)