Camping holidays go upmarket

From The Resort At Paws Up in Montana, guests can take a hot-air balloon over the Rocky Mountains.
From The Resort At Paws Up in Montana, guests can take a hot-air balloon over the Rocky Mountains.PHOTO: THE RESORT AT PAWS UP/ INSTAGRAM

NEW YORK • Want to camp out under the stars, but cannot forgo butler service?

Thank your lucky stars then.

Everywhere, from Luang Prabang in Laos and New South Wales in Australia to Costa Rica and even the heart of New York City, hoteliers are ditching bricks and mortar walls and ceilings for safari-style tents, many with free-standing bath tubs, fireplaces, wood floors and outdoor dual-head rain showers.

For travellers, the experience offers novelty and access to experiences that are authentic.

Think interacting with rescued elephants in northern Thailand at Four Seasons' Golden Triangle tented camp or hot-air ballooning over the Rocky Mountains from The Resort At Paws Up in Montana.

"Kids love it - it's great for multi-generational trips," said Mr Jack Ezon, president of Ovation Vacations. He added that clients came to him with tented properties on their bucket lists, or simply looking for something different and outdoorsy.

Just do not expect these trips to come cheap. "We've seen some of our tents going for US$5,000 (S$6,900) a night," said Mr Luca Franco, founder and chief executive of Luxury Frontiers, a consultancy that specialises in ultra-high-end tented camps, such as Abu Camp and Eagle Island Lodge, two iconic properties in Botswana.

Among his upcoming projects: a One&Only resort in Riviera Nayarit, Mexico; a private island in the Maldives; and a tented village in Utah.

When he got into the luxury-tent business, the market was concentrated in Africa's game parks.

"All I knew was that 50 to 70 per cent of the guests at the top-tier safari lodges in Africa were coming from the United States," he said. That signalled to him that the safari-style concept might have legs in other naturally pristine destinations.

"I saw a lot of demand and little supply," he noted. And as the market for eco-sensitive and off-the-grid vacations has spiked, tented camps have benefited even more.

Mr Franco and his contemporaries have converted that demand by thinking of these projects not just as fancy tents, but also as conduits to unique experiences.

"We flip the concept of designing the box and filling it with activities," he added. "Instead, we design the activities first and then design the box around that."

At the upcoming Shinta Mani Wild, on the border of Cambodia's Cardamom National Park, guests can eat at a restaurant tucked under a waterfall and zipline into the resort before sleeping off their adventures in tents.

At the One&Only in Riviera Nayarit, coming in 2020, guests can roll out of their beds and onto a horse for sunset rides on a white, powdery beach.

And when it opens next autumn, Nayara Tented Camp in Costa Rica will offer budding conservationists an up-close look at the country's dwindling sloth population.

But cheaper options also exist under the stars. Collective Retreats has facilities in Yellowstone National Park and Governor's Island, with views of Manhattan's financial district. Its tents start at US$150 a night.

In Australia, Sierra Escape, Nashdale Lane and Bubbletent are all new concepts that are less fullservice hotel and more unconventional accommodation that you can book for less than US$300.

"We wanted to do something completely different and immerse guests in the environment without taking away the luxury," said Mr Cameron D'Arcy, co-founder of Sierra Escape, a three-tent camp in New South Wales.

As a marketing professional, he added that the concept is a no-brainer: "Thanks to the Instagram appeal, the product almost markets itself."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 21, 2018, with the headline 'Camping holidays go upmarket'. Print Edition | Subscribe