I’ve just been offered, I said to a friend, an 18-day trip in a private plane from London to Sydney stopping off at various places including Dubrovnik, Egyptian temples and the Taj Mahal on the way. By day we would see some of the world’s top sights and by night we’d sleep on some of the world’s top bed linen.
You’ll hate it, she replied. It’ll be vulgar and meaningless seeing all those things jumbled together: there’ll be no context to put anything in. Luxury hotels get sickening after a while. And, if you see something beautiful, you’ll want someone to share it with.
I pointed out that I had never been to any of the places before and that I wasn’t going to be on my own. The air cruise is run by Bill Peach Journeys, a small Australian company much loved by elderly Aussies – a group I’m quite fond of, being the daughter of two of them. Admittedly, the fitness questionnaire sent out in advance was a little off-putting as its top level of mobility was “can walk more than 500 metres on uneven surfaces unaided”, but then. I reasoned, it could be a pleasantly unfamiliar experience to be the fittest person around.
Outside the Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge, where the rest of the party had stayed the previous night, were 18 people mostly of retirement age dressed in non-crease clothing but not looking especially decrepit. I was handed a badge saying LUCY, which I pinned to my jacket, feeling like a child on my first day at school, and climbed on board the bus bound for Luton.
Luton is not a promising place to begin such a journey but its “signature lounge” for private planes is rather different. It might look like a Portakabin with a few leather chairs inside but there were no snaking queues nor the clamour of duty-free and none of the things that make flying such an ordeal. You step straight out on to the plane.
Alas, the plane itself was not the flashy thing I’d hoped for. Inside the Embraer jet were 35 perfectly ordinary seats and a tray of perfectly ordinary sandwiches waiting to be handed out by the Australian steward.
Since the flight was only half-full – which meant I could always have a window seat – I resolved to do what I never seem to do on planes: look where I’m going. I wanted to see what the crust of half the world looked like from the sky – and the first leg looked pretty good, with the Alps reaching up towards the plane, after which the Adriatic coast wiggled around pleasingly.
On landing at Dubrovnik we were whisked through immigration and driven to our hotel, a clumping relic presumably left over from the communist era. Had I made the booking myself this might have bothered me; as it was, I noted the view across the bay was pretty, and climbed down the rocks to swim in the clear blue sea.
The next day we set out to explore the tiny old town. You can visit half a dozen churches and walk on the medieval walls while still leaving time for what was to be the major activity of our trip: eating. In a square in front of the Jesuit church we were served vast quantities of Croatian food, only to sit down again a few hours later at the hotel for six further courses. And so it was going to go.
Later I worked out two tricks to managing this: not to eat everything, and not to sit next to everyone. Some people were turning out to be more diverting than others.
When I rolled into bed on the second night I jotted down the verdict so far. Hotel: adequate. Company: mixed. Food: far too much of it. And yet my overall score was a surprise to me: I was enjoying myself more than seemed decent.
Already I was changing my mind about what makes a good holiday. Firstly, having someone else hold your passport and carry your luggage is a far better arrangement than looking after them yourself. And, second, it can be good to leave anyone you care for at home. Being with people you love stops you from seeing things properly as you are too busy reacting to their reactions to react yourself. Do you miss your husbands, I asked two women who had chosen to come without theirs. In unison they replied: No!
Touching down on the tarmac at Aswan airport, after three hours of watching the green snake of the Nile pass through the desert, it was clear something was wrong. There were no other planes: Egypt’s second revolution, it seems, has finished the job of putting off tourists that the first one started. Inside the terminal, the baggage carousel was eerily stationary and the baggage handlers were so pleased to see us they took a group photograph. Then they X-rayed our bags twice – just for the fun of it.
At the Old Cataract Hotel, a dark red colonial mansion favoured by both Winston Churchill and Agatha Christie, the staff hurried forth with cool flannels and sticky drinks to welcome this party bravely risking life and limb to be there. Within seconds, however, it was proved that the risk to limb was less from Muslim fundamentalists than from the marble floor – there was a crash and a crunchy snap, which turned out to be the sound of a femur breaking. Our unfortunate companion was taken first to a hospital in Aswan and then flown on to Frankfurt to be operated on.
I hurried, carefully, to my room, barely noticing its vast private balcony with a magnificent view of Elephantine Island and the tomb of the Aga Khan, and went online to buy some travel insurance.
The next sweltering day we flew to Abu Simbel to see the monumental temple that Ramses the Great built in honour of himself and the rather smaller one he built for his wife, both of which were moved in the 1960s to save them from the flood waters created by the new Aswan dam. Wikipedia says that every day thousands of visitors travel hours by road to visit the site: but that day it was just us. I touched the hot stone of Ramses’ monolithic calf and listened to the silence.
That evening there were drinks on a boat on the Nile at one end of which a group of Nubians did some wild drumming and dancing. When they beckoned to me to join them, I flung myself around to the hectic beat, quite forgetting that I hardly ever dance. This was my next discovery. What ruins most holidays is not just that you take your family with you, but that you take yourself. This time, thanks partly to the heavy bombardment of new experiences and more to my new friends’ pleasing lack of curiosity about my life – I had managed to leave myself at home.
Our Egyptian guide said goodbye at Aswan airport, pleading with us to tell the people at home to come. Three hours and a great deal of desert later, a different scene was waiting. Two men with a gold baggage cart hurried across the tarmac followed by two more with a red and gold carpet.
“In Abu Dhabi there are two classes of people,” our new guide told us. “There are the rich, and the very, very rich.” Emirates Palace Hotel, (which has awarded itself seven stars) was built a few years ago on scale that even Ramses the Great might have thought excessive. Gold corridors swept into the distance, a very long way off as the hotel is a kilometre long. Gold flakes were sprinkled on cups of hot chocolate on sale in the hotel café for £60 a cup.
The main two attractions in Abu Dhabi are the beach – intolerable due to the infernal heat and the surrounding towerblocks – and the enormous, brand new Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. We shuffled barefoot over inlaid marble, across the world’s biggest carpet and under the world’s gaudiest chandeliers into a space built to accommodate 40,000 worshippers, though that morning there appeared to be just one: a woman in a burka on an acre of carpet. At first I thought she was having private spiritual thoughts but on closer inspection she was hunched over her iPhone.
That evening I set out in search of dinner in the hotel but, after 20 minutes lost in endless corridors, I stumbled into something called the World Luxury Expo, where a man in white robes twiddled the handles of a gold and diamanté football table (just under £90,000) and a black-clad woman was getting a fat teenage boy to try on an unfortunately pink tweed jacket.
“Ah, home sweet home,” one of my new friends said as we got back on to the plane the next day. The steward greeted us as old friends, and in this alien world I found myself comforted by his remembering that I like my Diet Coke served without a glass and in a very cold can.
Below, the yellow sand turned slowly into a patchwork of fields that from 30,000 feet I could have sworn was Kent – until the smell of animal and human hit us on landing. Through Indian immigration (a challenge even for our excellent tour guide) we got on to a bus that inched forward around the cows lying in the road. Rubbish was everywhere. My spirits soared.
At dusk we arrived at Udaipur’s 450-year-old City Palace, crumbling and slightly mouldy in the damp air, making even more romantic the crystal glass, the mosaic tiles, carvings and paintings, and the pictures of the rajas it has housed these past four centuries. Across the lake was another beautiful palace. This one was built by Oberoi Hotels three years ago to house anyone rich enough to stay there, which, fortunately, included us.
After a deep sleep in a room so lovely I wanted to live there forever, I made my fourth discovery. I was four and a half hours ahead of my London self but, by doing the journey in easy steps, had felt no jet lag at all.
With barely enough time to enjoy a breakfast of banana sliced with cinnamon served by beautiful men in paisley robes and coloured turbans, it was time to move on to another, grander still hotel, the Oberoi Armavilas in Agra. From my room I could see an elegant pool giving way to some trees and then behind them the most famous biscuit box in the world – the Taj Mahal.
It never disappoints, everyone tells you, setting the stage for it to do just that. The following day we arrived at dawn – having travelled the 200 yards from the hotel in a golf buggy – and the sun rose and shone pinkly on the white dome, just as it ought to, and the building floated between water and sky, proving – in case anyone had ever doubted it – that symmetry is the most beautiful thing there is.
Leaving the airport in Agra and setting out for our sixth country in 10 days, I felt slightly cheated. I hadn’t had enough India. I felt slightly resentful of the ravishing landscape of the dark green mountains of Laos that was unfolding below. I could see that Luang Prabang was a charming town with some nice colonial French buildings, any number of temples and I could see that La Residence hotel, with tropical plants and infinity pool, was thoroughly tasteful. But with the Taj Mahal still floating on the back of my retina from just a few hours earlier, I couldn’t quite take it in. Rummaging around in my case for a swimming costume, I made two unpleasant discoveries. I had neglected to put on the lid of the bubble bath I had stolen from the hotel in Abu Dhabi and it had revenged itself by emptying its contents into my suitcase. And that not only had I left my heart in India, I seemed to have left my new pink shoes there too. The lesson was clear: when almost everything gets done for you, you lose any ability to do the remaining stuff yourself.
The next morning at 5.30am we reassembled for a Luang Prabang ritual. Every day, half the town’s female population get up at 4am to cook rice and then to dole it out to hundreds of orange-robed monks who walk through town at dawn. Luckily, the hotel had done our cooking for us: we were driven to little mats on the pavement with a bamboo rice steamer at each. As each monk went by, poker-faced and eyes forward, I dropped a small handful of rice into the tin bucket he carried – and felt quite unexpectedly moved. Many of them were younger than my youngest son, who 10 hours later would be sloshing milk over Cheerios in an Islington kitchen.
At the end of that day a dozen elderly Laos came to the hotel for a ceremony in which they chanted something, before presenting each of us with a strangely rigid flower arrangement of orange marigolds. Fat white cords were tied on to our wrists which made it look as if a suicide watch convention were taking place. We were told the cords must be kept on for three days at least, or some unspecified bad thing would happen.
For the first time the next morning clouds spoiled my view, and so I have no idea what the ground was like on the short leg from Laos to Vietnam. And for the first time I had no better idea once we had landed. I could take in no more experiences: not the eight courses that had been prepared for lunch in the 15th-century trading port of Hoi An, not the old Japanese bridge that was meant to be a thing of beauty, and certainly not the tourist shops selling identical tat.
Only once we arrived at the Sun Peninsula hotel, a grotesquely ostentatious sprawl of black, white and red occupying a bay of its own, did I perk up. It turns out that luxury hotels don’t get sickening – especially when you can ride in a cable car shaped like a boat and strewn with frangipani blossom down to a private beach in the South China Sea.
The shameful truth was I had tired of sights more quickly than of linen and men scrambling me eggs for breakfast. That evening I sat with my favourite new friends on the beach and we ate stingray, sand between our toes, rejuvenated and up for further adventures. I was trailing my cord bandages into my dinner and so one of the party, an ex-surgeon, cut them off me.
It was at that point that my luck ran out, as did my time. The next morning the others left to go on for Lombok, Ayers Rock and Sydney – but I had to go back home. I said goodbye to my new friends with real regret, trumped by the deeper regret of later being alone at Da Nang airport with my bags and my passport. Even Malaysian Airways, which had upgraded me to business, seemed impersonal, and exhausting. To travel round half the world at night, arriving back home jet-lagged and then expected to pour out your own Bran Flakes – it’s no way to travel.
What was it like, my friend phoned to ask. Wonderful, I replied. Hmm, she said. Really?
Lucy Kellaway was a guest of Bill Peach Journeys and Malaysia Airlines. Bill Peach’s 2014 round-the-world private jet trips take 20 days, starting in Sydney on August 27, and London on September 29. They cost £22,915 including the return leg in economy or £25,474 in business