Luxury travel gets a bad rap. The mere mention of it to my more intrepid colleagues garners polite disdain, as if I'm suggesting a form of travel somehow inauthentic, out of touch, less real. Does luxury by its nature hinder you from experiencing a destination, or is it possible to travel in style and still remain close to the ground? That depends on your personality.
Travel has historically been a dangerous undertaking, and luxury created distraction from risk. The great transatlantic ocean liners of the late 19th and early 20th centuries lured wealthy passengers by calming their nerves, recreating in extravagant detail Park Avenue and Mayfair drawing rooms - lush with marble fireplaces, ornate woodwork and dramatic chandeliers - so that nervous old ladies could feel at home as they pitched and yawed their way through stormy seas toward London. But fear was never far from mind.
Prior to the advent of reliable weather forecasting, overseas travel was a gamble. Ocean-going vessels were vulnerable to peril. The now-nostalgic going-away party has gloomy roots: before you disembarked, potentially lost to the sea, you threw a soirée, swilled champagne, and donned on a brave face as you said goodbye, perhaps forever, to your friends and family.
Now relatively safe, travel still remains an arduous undertaking and has the curious power to bring out the best and worst in people. When you travel, you're out of your element, subject to forces beyond your control. This uncertainty causes some to thrive, others to melt down. One need only sit in the departure lounge of a long-delayed flight and watch how sophisticated adults can lose all self-possession.
Luxury hotels exist in service of those for whom travel brings out the worst. Indeed, top hoteliers delight in needy guests. The measure of a high-end hotel lies not in its list of amenities, but in how management resolves complaints. Anyone can steer a ship in calm seas, but it takes a master to navigate a gale: if you really want to know whether you're staying in a good hotel, cause problems and keep score. The trouble is, you get sucked in to all that pampering and run the risk of only seeing the destination through triple-pane glass, barely making it beyond the bougainvillea-covered garden walls to the world beyond. Discretion is the hallmark of real luxury: nobody will warn you if you grow overly fat, dumb and happy.
As a Lonely Planet author, my job is to get readers to the heart of a place, not to insulate them from it. I posit that it's possible to penetrate a culture, and still get a good night's sleep with goose-down pillows. Personally, I fall under the rubric of 'flashpacker', one who spends lavishly on certain comforts, but parsimoniously on others, in order to afford the occasional three-star dinner or business-class upgrade.
Though an expert in luxury travel (I'm a former member of Les Clefs d'Or, the international union of the world's elite luxury-hotel concierges), I rarely shell out for five-stars, especially those with excessively coddling amenities - I can spritz my own sunglasses poolside, thank you - but if I'm researching a wilderness destination, once I emerge muddy and tired from the woods, I want the best hotel I can afford. Never underestimate the power of a hot shower and sumptuous bed. Peppering a journey with occasional extravagance adds texture, renews the vigour necessary to keep going.
Sometimes the cushy choice reveals more, not less, about a destination. Consider the private riad in Morocco, château in Burgundy, or villa in Tuscany. These provide an up-close (if rarefied) view into local culture and history. The deciding factor must always be sense of place: if your expensive digs could be anywhere in the world, it's probably not worth the extra expense.
Let's face it, in many places on Earth the greatest luxury is clean running water, and we mustn't lose perspective on privilege. A powerful elixir, luxury is best appreciated when dosed properly. I've witnessed guests at fancy hotels throw all-out tantrums, demanding an upgrade as alcoholics demand booze. Like an extra round of cocktails that nails you the next day with a hangover, luxury's trap lies in over-indulgence. Only you can know when to cut yourself off.
However you travel, make the most of this year with Lonely Planet's Best in Travel 2012.
Do you flashpack, backpack or couchsurf? Whether you're a five-star jetsetter or a hostelling hitchhiker, share your thoughts on luxury travel in the comments.