When the sky's the limit

TRAVEL Been there, done that, seen the lot? If the world seems to have shrunk and you're simply loaded, Sue Nelson has the answer
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The Independent Culture
FOR THOSE few people who have already flown in Concorde, sailed the QE2 and enjoyed champagne on the Orient Express, planning next year's holiday poses serious problems. How do you better strolling along the Great Wall, watching the sun set over Machu Picchu or driving a jeep through the Australian bush? Even climbing Everest is becoming old hat.

The future, too, no longer promises exclusives. More than 6,000 people have already registered with Thomas Cook, on a first-come first-served basis, patiently waiting for the first commercial flight to the moon.

Yet it doesn't always pay to book early. One travel company took deposits in the mid-Eighties for a proposed 12-hour space vacation costing pounds 30,000 per person. All monies were eventually refunded after it became clear that the project was rather ahead of its time. It was due to start in 1993. The Tokyo-based Shimizu Corporation, however, remains optimistic. It has set a target date of 2020 for an orbiting space resort and claims there are a potential 1m people willing to pay $10,000 each to get there.

In the meantime, while the universe is still out of reach, how does the jaded earthbound holidaymaker find something different?

The answer boils down to individual taste and budget. But if you have some money going begging - maybe from an unexpected legacy or win on the lottery - here are a few ideas for a "no-expenses spared" holiday on land, sea, wheels and, potentially at least, in space.


Not a lot of people know this... but Chekov did not appear the first series of Star Trek. The character, it seems, was introduced after Russian officials complained that a spaceship of the future with an international - indeed, intergalactic- staff would contain a Russian crew member. It was a controversial idea in the Sixties, yet today it's the Russians who are taking the lead in space tourism. NASA receives hundreds of letters a year from people wanting to go into orbit, but it's the former Soviet Intourist agency that is currently offering the ultimate in activity holidays: a week's cosmonaut training in Moscow's Star City. Budding Neil Armstrongs or Yuri Gagarins can undertake lectures in basic space medicine, navigation and psychological preparation with practical lessons on the training equipment of both Mir, the Russian orbital space station, and the transport ship Soyuz-TM.

The programme takes place at Star City's Cosmonaut Training Centre, where Helen Sharman trained for 18 months before becoming the first British astronaut in space. "A week could give you a small taste of the activities involved in training," she says, "and depending on your medical fitness you could do the centrifuge or weightlessness experiments."

The rotating centrifuge, where subjects are whizzed around in circles like a stone on a piece of string, simulates bringing out the transport ship into orbit. The weightlessness training, in a IL-76-MDK freighter plane, definitely sounds more fun. "The plane flies a series of loops like a humpbacked bridge," Sharman explains. "At the top of the loop, when the plane is straightened out, you feel weightless, as if in free fall, for 23 seconds." This, incidentally, was the technique used by the film Apollo 13 to obtain its zero gravity sequences.

Sharman admits that most of her training was more earthbound. In this respect, the course is authentic, containing lessons on life-support systems and, if you're a glutton for punishment, the hydro-laboratory on "autonomous transference in the open cosmic vacuum".

Programmes can be tailor-made for individuals and cost approximately pounds 20,000 for a group of seven would-be space travellers. "So far no one has actually been on the course," admits Sarah Owen of Intourist, "but we have had three or four seriously interested parties. It was just the expense that put them off in the end."

Intourist Travel Limited, 219 Marsh Wall, London E14 9PD (0171-538 8600)


Admittedly, the world is not starved of luxurious train journeys, but only one combines views of springbok, elephants, giraffes and the occasional rhino with an overnight stop at Victoria Falls. Rovos Rail's steam safari, a relatively new arrival on the travel scene, boasts that it is The Pride of Africa. It was opened for business in 1989 by Rohan Vos, a South African millionaire who made his pile from motor spares. The train consists of 12 restored carriages pulled by one of three vintage locomotives. It took three years to negotiate between four countries for the use of rail tracks, but collecting the original pre-war carriages was less troublesome.

Vos researched the coaches by using a book called Railway Dining Cars of South Africa. "Once I started studying this book it really got me going," he says, later tracing many of the carriages with help from its author, Les Pivnic. Some were bought from railways and museums; one was being used as holiday home, while the dining saloon was discovered in a scrap yard.

Today, the train is immaculate, with a particularly impressive observation car whose glass end wall gives unobstructed views over the African bush. Despite the 12 carriages, however, there's only room for 46 guests, simply because the wagons-lits are so large.

"The sleeping compartments take up to half the carriage," Freddie Schneider recalls, after his steam safari trip across the Eastern Transvaal. "They were very large and extremely sumptuous." No wonder. Rovos Rail contains only suites - each with a private lounge area, en-suite bathroom and twin or double beds.

Schneider, a retired company director from Middlesex, has travelled extensively for both business and pleasure and had already been on the famous Blue Train, from Cape Town to Johannesburg, as well as the Orient Express.

"The difference is that the Blue Train and the Orient Express are transportation trains," he says, "whereas the Rovos made a four- to six-hour journey last four days, with overnight stops. It's much more of an excursion."

The train's most exclusive trip begins in Cape Town and steams, at a leisurely 40 kilometres an hour, through South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania before finally arriving at Dar-Es-Salaam 10 days later. There are overnight stops at two game lodges and the Victoria Falls with a visit to a cheetah project and a sunset cruise on the Zambesi.

Couples in one of the four royal suites will pay a total of $15,600 for 24-hour room service, game park fees and all alcoholic drinks.

Abercrombie & Kent, Sloane Square House, Hol-bein Place, London SW1W 8NS (0171-730 9600)


Dr Alston Callaghan went to the ends of the earth for a new travel experience. "I've been around the world four times and I'd sort of run out of fascinating places to go," admits the retired ophthalmologist from Birmingham, Alabama. "Then I went to the North Pole on a Russian icebreaker - and most people who travel to one Pole are antsy until they travel to the other, so I went to the South Pole as well."

Callaghan's pounds 14,000 holiday, at sub-zero temperatures, did not buy luxury. He stayed in a sleeping bag at Patriot Hills, the only private camp in the Antarctic, and had to hoist a red warning flag for privacy when using the igloo lavatories. In his opinion, it was money well spent. "It was the most exciting trip of my life," he says. "I'm 84 and, for me, it was to see if I could handle an endurance test both physically and psychologically."

Callaghan isn't the only adventurous - and older - traveller who has visited the earth's extremities. "Last year we took a group of 29 to the South Pole," explains Pen Hadow, the explorer and guide who runs The Polar Company, which specialises in Arctic and Antarctic tours. "The average age then was 75. These people think, `what can I do that's not been done before to tell my grandchildren?'"

Today's tourist explorers do not follow literally in the footsteps of Scott of the Antarctic, whose achievement cost him his life in 1912. After flying from southern Chile to Patriot Hills, a further six-hour flight across the polar ice cap takes them to the South Pole. They then visit the US Amundsen-Scott scientific base and walk on the world's highest and driest continent. Afterwards, there is little to do but contemplate standing at the southernmost part of our planet on two miles of ice.

"I cried, to be honest," admits Bryant Middlecote. "People have died doing this and the feeling was quite incredible." Middlecote, a retired British Rail engineer, has been saving for 40 years to fund his lifelong love of travel. "I don't drink or smoke but I've been to most of Europe, South America, the Galapagos islands, the South Pacific and Easter Island," he says. Two years ago, aged 62, he travelled alone through Papua New Guinea and now both Poles can be added to his list of destinations.

"I like to go to places with adventure and a certain amount of calculated risk," Middlecote says. "It all boils down to doing something different. It's a lot of money, but it was worth it."

John Joliffe, a consulting actuary and another bipolar veteran, also visited the South Pole earlier this year. "I've always been fascinated by stories about Scott and Shackleton. Not just the places they explored but the hardship they endured."

Joliffe describes tour conditions as "primitive" rather than a hardship. "We virtually stayed in the same clothes for 10 days," he says cheerfully, "and even took our cameras to bed to keep the batteries warm."

Joliffe, who's in his late fifties, plans to climb Everest once he's retired. Meanwhile Middle-cote, after a spot of bird-ringing in Gambia, plans a trip to Mongolia next June.

The Polar Travel Company, 97 Claxton Grove, London W6 8HB (0171-385 3940)


If you're being hounded by the press or harassed by the paparazzi, a desert island must be extraordinarily appealing. No doubt this explains why the Princess of Wales, Stephen Spielberg, Harrison Ford and Oprah Winfrey have all, in the past, escaped to Necker Island for a private holiday.

Discreetly located at the north-eastern tip of the British Virgin Islands, this 74-acre island in the Caribbean is for hire. It can be yours, and yours alone, for just $11,000 a day. This, as the price suggests, is not your Robinson Crusoe-style experience. The luxury castaway expects solitude with service, which is why the island is inhabited by 24 men (and women) Fridays.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, former guests do not discuss the delights of the island's 10-bedroomed Balinese-style house on Devil's Hill. Luckily, Necker's owner is Richard Branson, and he is less publicity-shy. He first bought the uninhabited Necker in 1979 and originally intended it as a getaway for family and friends.

"I go there a couple of times a year, but it's run as a business," he says. Clients are "everyone from film stars, directors, recording artists and models to business people, small families and the occasional corporate incentive group".

It would be interesting to know if the models make the most of the resident chef, Andrew Hamer. He spent four years at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons and offers dishes such as roast fillet of red snapper with ginger, coconut and chilli or salad of Barbary duck served with a tamarind compote.

There again, as the menu is tailored towards individual guests, it could, in theory, offer beans on toast or a boiled egg with Marmite soldiers. It must be difficult controlling an appetite when there's a personal chef in your kitchen. Worse still, if you like the odd tipple or two, how do livers fare when there's an open bar?

"We go through a great many bottles of champagne with some groups," Branson admits, "but twice a year we open to couples and they go through a lot more!"

For the healthier islander, there's a fresh-water pool, two Jacuzzis, tennis courts and enough water activities to keep even the most hyperactive holidaymaker happy. Then there's the all-inclusive, one-day yacht charter to visit one of the other islands nearby.

But if you're thinking of saving hard to hire Necker for the new millennium, forget it. There have already been more than 200 applications to welcome in the year 2000.

Information and reservations: Margie Livingston, Virgin Ultimate Ltd, 120 Campden Hill Road, London W8 7AR (0171-727 8000)


A cruise changed Bette Davies's life in the film Now Voyager. She left dry land an unattractive, henpecked daughter but returned, weeks later, transformed into a sophisticated confident woman who had discovered love, chain-smoking and the delights of dressing for dinner. At night passengers changed into shimmering gowns or crisp dinner jackets. Cigarettes - and there were many - were usually inhaled through ebony holders; Martinis, needless to say, were impeccably dry.

Today's cruises, despite the cost, somehow lack the glamour of the Forties - possibly because many modern ships resemble floating shopping malls by day and slot-machine arcades at night. They can also attract the most jaded of travellers: indifferent to life, genuine luxury or even ports of call.

Jim Brosnan, however, retains his enthusiasm. A retired stockbroker in his early fifties, he's a veteran of both Cunard's QE2 and Windstar's Wind Spirit. "They are five-star," he concedes, "but Escoa's Silversea cruises are something really special."

Escoa, an exclusive small-ship cruise company, opened for business only last year but news of its two purpose-built luxury vessels is already causing ripples among those with money to spend on the ocean waves. For a start, there are two members of staff for every three passengers on board either ship, no cabins - just suites, with marble bathrooms. Three- quarters of the 154 suites have private verandas. The largest, the two- bedroomed Grand Suite, covers 122 square metres and dwarfs many a London flat.

"There are always people who are prepared to pay for luxury," says John Kennedy, chairman of the Port Philip Group that contains Escoa. "Our ships enable those people who've got the wherewithal to visit places such as India, Madagascar and the Amazon within a comfort zone." As each ship carries fewer than 300 passengers, Kennedy believes the spacious "comfort zone" offered to each traveller contrasts very favourably with that on "the mega-liner sausage-factory cruises".

Jim Brosnan agrees: "The amount of room far exceeds anything we've ever had before, so you're not bumping into people. It's almost like your own private yacht."

There's also an unusual house rule: "Gratuities are not expected, accepted or permitted." As tipping is taboo, and prices are all-inclusive, there are no waiting envelopes at the end of the journey or signing of chits at the bar.

"If you wanted to be stupid about it you could drink yourself silly," says Colonel Ron Warren. He, like Brosnan, initially went on an Escoa minicruise around Britain, and as a result of that experience booked longer trips abroad. Both men, having travelled extensively in the past, cite relaxation as their major motivation.

Most cruises attract older, mainly retired, passengers, but Escoa is currently attracting rather younger professionals, in their forties to sixties, with high disposable incomes. Incomes that can stretch to the pounds 43,250 per person for the mammoth Grand Suite on Escoa's 74-day Imperial Voyage from Hong Kong to London via south east Asia, Sri Lanka, the Greek islands and Gibraltar.

The price includes first-class air fares to Hong Kong and, when the ship finally docks at Tower Bridge, a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce to transfer each guest within a 250-mile radius of London. Bette Davies would have approved.

Escoa Cruises, 45 Colston Street, Bristol BS1 2AX (0117 927 2273) !