Cruises Without The Crowds

Small, chic (if sometimes shockingly pricey) ships are drifting onto the scene, luring upscale travelers who crave the sea but not the crowds

Guntu, a 19-cabin cruise ship in Japan PHOTO: GUNTU

SOME 30 MILLION earthlings are expected to have cruised this year, according to Cruise Lines International Association. But not all cruisers have an affinity for megaships and limbo contests on the lido deck. A expanding fleet of smaller alternatives—from a ritzy river barge to a serene floating ryokan—are winning over travelers who prefer more-sophisticated and intimately proportioned sea voyages. The registered tagline for SeaDream Yacht Club, which has two 112-passenger vessels you can privately charter for custom itineraries, does not mince words: “It’s yachting, not cruising.”
‘The 5-cabin Mimi La Sardine looks like a super chic beach house.’
Once the privilege of emirs, oligarchs and music moguls, private yacht charter is moving mainstream. Fraser, a charter and brokerage company, saw bookings increase as much as 17% in 2018, according to Boat International, with more (and younger) clients discovering the secret that has glistened in marinas from Marbella to Montenegro for years. Yacht charters, like European villa rentals, vary widely in price, and when shared, the cost does not have to be bank-breaking. The uniformly beige 108-foot Mimi La Sardine, for example, comes with a crew, chef, five cabins that look like a super chic beach house, and a weekly rate that starts at about $124,000. (Divided by 10, that’s $12,400 per person.)
“We are seeing interest in smaller ships,” said Annie Scrivinach, senior vice president of Cruise Specialists, a network of travel agents. Ms. Scrivinach noted two key benefits of these smaller vessels: they can dock closer to the heart of a city and in more boutique ports.
The deep-pocketed are also chartering for another reason.

A stateroom aboard the Crystal Bach PHOTO: CRYSTAL CRUISES

“They don’t want to be with other people,” said Stacy Fischer-Rosenthal, president of Fischer Travel Enterprises. Her clientele likes waterborne trips to celebrate big birthdays, reward employees or seamlessly bring friends together. They’ve “always yachted,” she said, but now they’re taking over smaller ships and footing the bill for their friends and family. Last June, a woman hired Guntu—a notably minimalist, 19-stateroom Japanese boat that plies the Seto Inland Sea—just to gather her international nearest and dearest.
Larger groups—with far bigger budgets—might consider chartering the Celebrity Flora. The 100-passenger vessel, which launched in July, was specifically designed to cruise the Galapagos. Ms. Fischer-Rosenthal said that it brings a whole new level of luxury to the marine reserve, offering roomy staterooms, lavish meals, buckets of Champagne and onboard naturalists who lead daily shore excursions. But beware sticker shock. “By the time you finish, it could be a $1 million trip.”

A less extravagant way to achieve exclusivity is to take a block of staterooms on a small boat—like Ponant’s new Le Bellot, with 92 rooms and suites. Another is the river cruise. The skinny, white 110 passenger Crystal Bach started sailing the Rhine, Main, Moselle, and Danube rivers in 2017 with a 1-to-6 crew-to-guest ratio; seven-night trips start at about $2,500 per person.

The 22-cabin Oberoi Philae on the Nile PHOTO: OBEROI HOTELS & RESORTS

The Oberoi Philae has 22 cabins and makes four- and six-night trips on the Nile, between Luxor and Aswan, starting at $1,410 per person. (An Egyptian client of Fischer Travel Enterprises recently chartered the whole boat, which includes a vast upper sun deck with a pool, to introduce friends to her native land.) Last year, Belmond expanded its fleet with two eight-passenger luxury barges, which are for private charter only: In France, Pivione floats through Champagne, and Lilas winds its way leisurely through Burgundy. Booked directly or through an agent, trips can be individually designed, and a six-night cruise costs about $6,620 per person. Bon voyage.

How New-Breed Travel Agents Can Give You an Edge

ILLUSTRATION: DAVE URBAN

Overwhelmed by planning a trip on the internet? 21st-century travel agents have recast themselves as full-service experts—promising both obsessively detailed itineraries and insider access for as little as $15 a day

WHEN LAURA Fenamore set out to walk part of the Camino de Santiago in Spain she interviewed three travel experts. One had never been to Spain. One she found too hesitant and bereft of ideas. In the end, she hired Nicole Lee, founder of The Curated Travel in New York and a former private equity associate. Ms. Lee was well-traveled, had an eye for detail and knew the best hidden tapas bars in Barcelona. She developed a multipage itinerary that occupied many of Ms. Fenamore’s waking hours.
“It had options for everything…buses and planes and trains. Hotels and food and museums. If we went to a museum, the restaurant suggestions were nearby. It was complete,” said Ms. Fenamore. In the days leading up to the trip, Ms. Lee was in constant contact via text. She uploaded the itinerary to travel app TripCase so Ms. Fenamore could check it from her phone. Ms. Lee was available 24 hours a day once her client was abroad in case trains were late or airplanes were missed. “I felt so held,” said Ms. Fenamore.

The traditional travel agency, like the one shown here in 1986, has morphed into a more full-service operation. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Gone are the days of the old-school travel agents, with their 9-to-5 days and their reflexive love of the all-inclusive cruise. Today’s travel advisers promise to deliver convenience, access and hard-core expertise. Often for a steep fee. Some fashion themselves as magazine editors for hire, able to identify obscure new destinations and food trends. Many have carved out a country-specific niche, from Mongolia to the Maldives. Others have morphed into spiritual coaches and party planners for the ultra-elite. Unexpectedly, the internet has helped them flourish.
“People desperately need travel planning help,” said Wendy Perrin, whose eponymous website helps people find travel planners for their specific trips. “You wouldn’t think so because of Expedia. But they are frustrated by online stuff and don’t know who to trust.”
A time-rich traveler can still plan his or her own vacation but for those with high expectations and complex lives (think: children, a desire to experience closed cultures, tight schedules and the inarticulate but clear assumption of luxury) travel advisers are essential.
“Luxury is the absence of worry,” said Stacy Fischer-Rosenthal, the president of subscription-based travel and lifestyle planners Fischer Travel, which has been around since 1959. “We can spend months coming up with the itinerary and the client gets there in their plane and says, ‘It’s raining.’ We figure it out.” Ms. Fischer said she recently convinced an ice hotel in Norway to add a suite this season to accommodate clients who needed bigger rooms. She also helped a woman who thought she was possessed find a priest in Rome to perform an exorcism. (The priest informed her she was not, in fact, possessed.) In the old days, such demands weren’t typically made of the humble travel agent.
Fischer Travel bends toward the extremely pricey end of the spectrum: The initiation fee is $100,000 with an annual fee of $25,000 plus trip specific fees on top of that. Other outfits charge a yearly subscription. But many travel agents don’t charge anything at all or a minimal trip-planning fee. They take a cut of hotel or tour payments, as well as first-class airline tickets and trip insurance.

Though the Grand Kremlin Palace is normally off-limits to tourists, Exeter International can pull strings. PHOTO:GREGORY TEPPER

Nicole Lee of The Curated Travel requires $15 a day for a simple trip such as a week in Europe.
The benefits lie not just in the service but in the trip planners’ abilities to negotiate after-hours or VIP access for their clients. Exeter International, a travel company with deep ties in Russia, can get you into the Grand Kremlin Palace, normally closed to the public. The agency Made for Spain and Portugal can arrange for a private, after-hours tour of the Prado. Italy’s IC Bellagio will take clients to Gucci’s leather atelier near Florence or the Versace flagship store in Milan for a private fashion show with runway models.
“People think ‘I’m going to Rome. Why do I need help?’” said Ms. Perrin. “You don’t, unless you want to get in to the Vatican for a private meal or see the Sistine Chapel without crowds.”
Last year Rita Regimbal from Warren, N.J., sought assistance planning a two-week trip to Iceland with her husband and four kids. Her children are all teenagers or older with various interests and eating habits. “Although we can afford the Ritz, we don’t always like to stay in places like that,” said Ms. Regimbal “We like to experience the country.” They turned to Nicole Lee for guidance. She came up with a characteristically comprehensive minute-by-minute itinerary. She booked the family an Airbnb (unusual for a travel agent since there is no commission), a luxury hotel in Reykjavik and a converted farmhouse near the Skógafoss waterfall on Iceland’s south coast. They hiked during the day and played cards at night. Ms. Lee booked a local guide to take the family snorkeling in freezing water, which entailed a dry suit under a wetsuit. “I never would have been able to plan something like that alone,” said Ms. Regimbal. “Snorkeling in Iceland didn’t occur to me.”
Ms. Regimbal paid $150 to The Curated Travel to plan that trip and considers the fee a bargain, especially since the vacation went off without a hitch. She recalls with horror a family holiday four years ago that entailed a drive across much of Europe. She and her family got stuck at the border between Germany and Austria because she lacked the right paperwork for her rental car. She was forced to pay a large fine. “It ruined the trip,” she said.

The benefits lie not just in the service but in the trip planners’ abilities to negotiate after-hours or VIP access for their clients. Exeter International, a travel company with deep ties in Russia, can get you into the Grand Kremlin Palace, normally closed to the public. The agency Made for Spain and Portugal can arrange for a private, after-hours tour of the Prado. Italy’s IC Bellagio will take clients to Gucci’s leather atelier near Florence or the Versace flagship store in Milan for a private fashion show with runway models.
“People think ‘I’m going to Rome. Why do I need help?’” said Ms. Perrin. “You don’t, unless you want to get in to the Vatican for a private meal or see the Sistine Chapel without crowds.”
Last year Rita Regimbal from Warren, N.J., sought assistance planning a two-week trip to Iceland with her husband and four kids. Her children are all teenagers or older with various interests and eating habits. “Although we can afford the Ritz, we don’t always like to stay in places like that,” said Ms. Regimbal “We like to experience the country.” They turned to Nicole Lee for guidance. She came up with a characteristically comprehensive minute-by-minute itinerary. She booked the family an Airbnb (unusual for a travel agent since there is no commission), a luxury hotel in Reykjavik and a converted farmhouse near the Skógafoss waterfall on Iceland’s south coast. They hiked during the day and played cards at night. Ms. Lee booked a local guide to take the family snorkeling in freezing water, which entailed a dry suit under a wetsuit. “I never would have been able to plan something like that alone,” said Ms. Regimbal. “Snorkeling in Iceland didn’t occur to me.”
Ms. Regimbal paid $150 to The Curated Travel to plan that trip and considers the fee a bargain, especially since the vacation went off without a hitch. She recalls with horror a family holiday four years ago that entailed a drive across much of Europe. She and her family got stuck at the border between Germany and Austria because she lacked the right paperwork for her rental car. She was forced to pay a large fine. “It ruined the trip,” she said.

Eager to watch the Monaco Grand Prix like one of the pit crew? Try Unique Provence. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

A desire for convenience often goes hand in hand with a competing desire for authentic experiences. Jaclyn Sienna India runs a small high-end agency, Sienna Charles, that caters to about 30 families and costs $36,000 a year. She asks to meet her clients in person to get to know their tastes and interests. She sees a rise in sabbaticals where clients take their children out of school to embark on round-the-world tours complete with tutors. “My clients are top of their field and they want their kids to be the same,” said Ms. India. “If they are learning Mandarin they go to China, if it’s Roman history to Rome.”
Adults also like travel’s educational aspects. Agencies are increasingly pairing art and history experts with travelers. Want to see the Vatican’s secret archives and library, normally not open to the public? Marchay travel agency (see “Much More Than Brochures,” at right) can arrange a private tour with a professor of theology as your guide. Sophisticated Travel will arrange for a local Turkish archaeologist to lead you around Ephesus. Fischer Travel offers a meeting with Hiroshima survivors followed by a tour.
Many people still use travel agents for the more basic service of getting deals. High-end trip planners, such as those who are members of the Virtuoso network of luxury travel agencies, are able to secure room upgrades, free breakfasts and spa vouchers. More important, they are on call if disaster strikes. On a recent family trip to China, Victoria Chen’s mother fell and broke her femur. Ms. Chen, an attorney in San Diego, alerted her agency, Balboa Vacations in Southern California, who worked with the Peninsula Shanghai to send the hospital sheets, towels, a robe and non-hospital-quality food. Balboa’s contact in Shanghai stopped by to see Ms. Chen and sent over a gift certificate for the Peninsula spa. The agency in California persuaded the hotel to advance thousands of dollars to Ms. Chen to pay for the procedures, adding the charges to the room bill. Then they found a doctor to fly to Shanghai and fly home with the Chens. “I wasn’t going to get such complete health coverage,” said Ms. Chen, referring to the trip insurance a Balboa agent convinced her to buy. “But he told me to. Thank god he did.”

MUCH MORE THAN BROCHURES // The Rise of Subscription-Based Travel Planners

While most agents still take a commission from hotel and tour operators, annual subscriptions—or membership fees—ensure that enough money is coming in to the agency that they don’t have to automatically push $1,000-a-night hotels. That said the models vary in price and structure. Some agencies are best-suited for billionaires who want the last room at Paris’s La Réserve, others for an upper-middle-class family of four who wants to go to Japan but doesn’t quite know how to plan it.
Andrew Harper
The agency, established in the 1990s, was recently acquired by the Travel Leaders Group. It charges $250 a year for unlimited trip planning and a digital subscription, which includes 12 issues of Andrew Harper’s Hideaway Report—highlighting two or three destinations per issue—as well as digital guidebooks for varied regions and a directory of recommended properties, restaurants, seasonal tips, maps and travel notes from the editorial team who report anonymously. Members get access to travel advice and content as well as special hotel deals on the website. andrewharper.com
Essentialist
Founded in 2016 by former Travel & Leisure editor in chief Nancy Novogrod (who has since left the company), Essentialist specializes in creative trips designed by travel writers. All members pay $1,400 a year which allows access to a dedicated staffer to plan an unlimited number of trips. Clients download an app from which they can access their itinerary and last-minute events like art exhibits. essentialist.com
Fischer Travel
This elite agency, started nearly six decades ago and passed from father to daughter, thinks of itself as a lifestyle curator. The initiation fee is $100,000 with an annual subscription of $25,000 on top of that plus added fees per trip. Expect rare service: The agency recently asked an employee’s mother to fly a forgotten passport from Ohio to New York so a client could continue his international trip. fischertravel.com
Indagare
Founded by the former editor of Town & Country Travel magazine, the agency specializes in creative trips with a cultural bent. Membership starts at $325 a year and includes access to hotel booking deals and Indagare’s own online travel guides. Elite membership costs $675 a year and includes the planning of one trip, typically 7-10 days. Connoisseur is $1,475 a year and includes the planning of three trips. A fourth tier is for travelers who need unlimited assistance; price upon request. indagare.com
Marchay
This 4-year-old agency caters to high-end travelers and corporate clients. A Premiere membership costs $4,500 a year and requires spending a minimum of $50,000 a year. This includes a senior dedicated adviser, special deals on hotels and 24/7 flight assistance. There are no added fees. Classe Affair costs $2,500 a year, and the minimum spend is $25,000. Members are assigned a team and additional fees may apply. marchay.com

Indagare can arrange an after-hours tour—and even a dinner—at the Louvre in Paris. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

DATE NIGHT AT THE LOUVRE // The Right Travel Agent Can Open All Kinds of Doors. Here, a Sampling.

• Florida-based Exeter International, which specializes in high-end trips to Central and Eastern Europe, can get clients private access to the Kremlin before the grounds open to the public. Visitors may also visit the Grand Kremlin Palace, once home to the Czars and closed to tourists, where the president of Russia entertains foreign heads of state. From $1,500 for up to 20 people for the Kremlin, from $2,500 for the Grand Kremlin Palace, exeterinternational.com
• Touring Israel will arrange for visitors to play paintball in the Negev Desert or Galilean forests with reserve members of the Israel Defense Forces. “We used to do family against the soldiers but the families were getting whupped so we had to mix teams a bit,” said Joe Yudin, the company’s CEO. About $200 a person with 10-person minimum, touringisrael.com
• New York-based Sienna Charles arranged for five team members of the New York Rangers to surprise a client’s husband on a 30th anniversary. After watching the game (the Rangers won) at the arena, the couple went to a private room at a nearby bar rented out by Sienna Charles. When the pair walked in, so did the husband’s favorite players. The cost of the event was $70,000. siennacharles.com
• Indagare can organize a tour of the Louvre in Paris before or after it opens to the public, as well as visits to the basement and restoration workshops, normally off-limits. The agency can also plan a private dinner in the museum after-hours. Price upon request, indagare.com

The agents at Dehouche can get you a prime-viewing spot for Rio’s Carnival—on one of the floats. PHOTO: ALAMY

• Dehouche travel company, known for designing trips throughout South America, offers a “full package” for Rio’s Carnival season, which includes bespoke costumes for clients, access to the Copacabana Magic Ball and a prime spot on a Samba float during the parade. For the crowd-averse, Dehouche can organize a camping trip to remote Patagonia, where chef Francis Mallmann will personally teach you his grilling techniques over an open fire. From $8,500 a person for a five-day Carnival package and from $12,500 a person for up to four people on the five-night trip to Patagonia, dehouche.com
• France specialist Unique Provence provides VIP access to a number of high-profile events in the region, including the Monaco Grand Prix, where the agency can secure premium seats, pit visits and entry to private parties. Prices vary widely but four-day itineraries typically cost about $30,000. unique-provence.com
• The Altagamma excursions offered by Italian travel company IC Bellagio are a series of behind-closed-door experiences with designer brands. Among them: a visit to Gucci’s leather workshop outside Florence and a private showing of the newest collection with runway models at Versace’s Milan flagship store. From about $1,700 for two people for the Gucci excursion and from about $15,600 for two people for the Versace excursion. icbellagio.com
• Brazil-based Matuete arranges a private sunrise picnic breakfast at the foot of the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio. The outfit also arranges after-hour climbs of Sugarloaf Mountain followed by a private party hosted on the first mountain. Price upon request, matuete.com
• Sophisticated Travel, which specializes in trips to Turkey, can organize a Turkish archaeologist to guide you around the ruins of ancient Ephesus and a private tour of Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia while it’s closed to the public. Ephesus tour for about $300; Hagia Sophia tour price upon request, sophisticated-travel.com
• The Madrid-based company Made for Spain and Portugal will set up an after-hours tour of the Prado Museum with a Spanish painter and art professor. madeforspainandportugal.com