Transcendent Travel featured as one of "The Best Design-Driven Tours with the Most Exclusive Access"
Around the world, these aesthetically minded itineraries offer VIP entrée to more than just the palace grounds
By Charu Suri
March 6, 2019
Many guides show you major city landmarks and talk about the general history of a place, but these few operators are crafting trips using a fine lens (often with an award-winning architect) to highlight areas that are typically inaccessible to the public, with a strong design and architectural story.
“We started using architect-led experiences as a perfect example to cities’ history and evolution,” says Joan Roca, cofounder of Essentialist travel service, who started the site along with veteran editor Nancy Novogrod. Roca observes that more visitors now want to understand a city from a structural point of view. This includes “how a city has evolved from earlier days to what it is now,” he says, adding that much of how visitors can appreciate the full evolution is from an architectural point of view. “It’s a lot more nuanced than walking by and appreciating cultural landmarks.”
And now, with a general fascination for living like a royal (from the details of Meghan Markle’s wedding to the glittering aftermath of Downton Abbey), more group tours plan itineraries with behind-the-scenes access to more than just the palace grounds. Herewith, six premier options.
This royal weekend escape provides a rare opportunity to stay at Cumberland Lodge in the Windsor Great Park area outside London, which was built by one of Oliver Cromwell’s officers after the English Civil War and eventually became a royal residence. This particular itinerary gives guests a behind-the-scenes approach to areas not open to the public, including the castle vineyard (first planted here during the time of Henry II). Also included is a rare opportunity to tour St. George's Chapel, the site of the royal wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, and enter the upper areas of the chapel to take in a rooftop tour. This allows visitors to view the remarkable architecture and enter Catherine of Aragon's Balcony, which was frequently used by Queen Victoria to privately view services and events (this area is normally off limits to the public). At a splendid reception in the Savill Rose Garden, there’s an opportunity to meet the team responsible for the 2018 royal wedding flowers. From $2,895 per person; transcendent-travel.com.
The travel company offers trips to Chakrabongse Villas in Bangkok, which were originally built as a retreat from royal life by Prince Chakrabongse in 1908. Currently, the complex is owned by his granddaughter, Narisa, a Thai princess, who has her private home within the grounds. It has transformed into a boutique hotel with palpable heritage evident throughout in its interior design and decor. Another itinerary takes you on a tour to the 17th-century Palazzo Belmonte in Cilente, Italy (now a hotel), frequented by kings of Spain and Italy who used to hunt boar there. Perhaps the pinnacle of royal tours offered by Red Savannah is a trip to the private residence of HRH Prince Charles in the tiny hamlet of Valea Zalanului in Transylvania, Romania. Explore the peaceful area on horseback, at your own pace. All tours are custom-designed; redsavannah.com.
Essentialist, a membership-based travel agency that provides curated getaways to places around the globe, has seen an increasing interest in demand for destinations that are rich in art, design, and architecture. Design-driven getaways to Mexico have a focus on the work of Luis Barragán, including a visit to the Casa Barragán (the only individual property in Latin America included on the UNESCO World Heritage List), as well as the lesser-known Tlalpan Chapel, which can only be visited with authorization from the nuns. In Mallorca, Essentialist arranges private visits to Can Lis, the private home designed by Danish architect Jorn Utzon, who designed the Sydney Opera House. In Dubai, visitors are paired with a leading Swiss architect who shows visitors the city sights through his trained eyes. All tours are custom-designed; essentialist.com.
This London-based travel designer curates the crème de la crème of sights in its custom itineraries, and managing director Mark Allvey says that he has seen an increase in the demand for purely architectural tours. In Japan, one itinerary allows travelers to delve into the true concept and meaning of Zen by starting with Tokyo and Ginza to explore buildings including the Skytree—the country’s tallest at 2,080 feet. Then a visit to Nara, which is famous for its historic sites and ancient architecture, including the Horyuji Temple, whose temple pagoda is considered to be the oldest wooden building in the world, commissioned by Prince Shotoku (it became his palace in 607 A.D.). Some of the tours tap into the expertise of Ryue Nishizawa, a Tokyo-based architect and director of his own firm called Office of Ryue Nishizawa, and the youngest recipient of the Pritzker Prize in 2010. All tours are custom-designed; niquesatravel.com.
Oslo is now known for its rich architectural scene, which includes the Opera House designed by Snøhetta and inspired by glaciers and fjords. Since the city has faced many rebirths throughout its history, the architecture in the city’s key buildings is a testament to every new chapter. A private tour, accompanied by a certified professional guide, takes guests on a walk to see some of the city’s most noteworthy edifices, including the stories behind City Hall and the medieval Akershus Fortress that was built to protect and provide a royal residence for Oslo. $228 per person; klook.com.
This 16-day itinerary takes you from Cape Town in South Africa to the pyramids of Egypt. Guests stay at the Belmond Mount Nelson hotel (painted pink for peace in 1918) at the foot of Table Mountain and explore estates that date back 300 years. The pinnacle of the journey may well be exploring the great pyramids of Giza with an Egyptologist guide, and visiting the Citadel complex and a Sultan Hassan mosque dating back from the 13th century. From $13,995 (pricing varies with seasonality); africantravelinc.com.