Gold holidays are undergoing radical redefinition as hotels and destinations race to accommodate rapidly changing tastes, reports Julian Allason, travel writer for the Financial Times ‘How to Spend It’ magazine.
When Lawrence of Arabia thundered through the desert at the head of Prince Feisal's Arab army in 1917 his objective was Aqaba. Having captured the small Red Sea port from the Turks, Lawrence retired to Cairo, there to recuperate amidst the exotic luxury of Shepheard's Hotel, for the scattered fishing villages of the coast could offer little in the way of hospitality. Fast forward almost seventy years and the Gulf of Aqaba appears little changed. The exception is the fishing village of Sharm-el-Sheikh, which has been transformed utterly, and with it the concept of luxury travel.
Washed by clear waters that remain warm enough to swim and dive in throughout the winter, the tip of the Sinai peninsula is lined by palace hotels that would have astonished - and delighted - Lawrence. The Four Seasons Resort is surely amongst the most sophisticated yet relaxed to be found anywhere. Within easy range of the UK, it delivers levels of service that regularly exceed those prevailing in Europe. It is all a far cry from the oriental formality that prevailed at Shepheard's until its immolation in 1952.
With British Airways now offering scheduled flights to Sharm-el-Sheikh, it is barely half the travelling time to South Africa or the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and the Maldives. For anyone travelling with children or escaping for a short winter break the ability to reach one's destination swiftly and to unwind in a relaxed environment are vital elements in the new luxury equation.
Despite this, many of the more formal hotels that defined 'grande luxe' continue to prosper. At Amalfi's venerable Santa Caterina the manager still welcomes guests clad in a tail coat. Your room with a view down the Tyrrhenian coast will enjoy the charm noted by E.M. Forster a century ago - and the same Neapolitan baroque furniture. Yet even the most traditional grand hotels are discreetly winding down the formality - and updating facilities.
Therein lies the essential clue. Where once there existed a single model of luxury, now it takes several distinct forms, from the sophistication of the private villa at Cyprus's Anassa, to the spectrum of family-friendly facilities pioneered at the Sheraton Pine Cliffs resort on Portugal's Algarve. Privacy and footloose freedom are not achieved without cost, yet these are qualities for which affluent clients have demonstrated a willingness to pay the premium.
Jumby Bay occupies its own 300-acre private island two miles off Antigua's east coast, with three sandy beaches and a secure environment innocent of motor car and beach vendor. Bargain basement it is not. But is it worth it? Emphatically so, according to visitors, a high proportion of whom are repeat guests. What they are buying into is a "Robinson Eco" escape where one is more likely to bump into a Hawksbill turtle than a paparazzo, and the chances of disco disturbance are zero.
What many of these resorts now feature are well-appointed spas, where appointments are readily available. According to Emma Nicol, Sovereign's Product Group Manager, guests have become increasingly discerning. "After experiencing, say, the holistic approach to spa at the Mardavall in Majorca, guests are disinclined to put up with basic treatments in converted hotel basements," she notes. Luxury may have kicked its sandals off but high levels of professional skill are still expected in spas, just as in the kitchen.
Such lessons have been well learned by new destinations claiming the crown of luxury status - and old ones seeking to reclaim it. The opening of sleek boutique properties has re-energised even the grandest of dames. Visiting the venerable Reid's Palace in Madeira, I was surprised to discover a well-equipped children's club; this at a hotel the tranquility of which has long attracted the older generation. "After all we are now seeing grandparents bringing their children and grandchildren with them on holiday," the manager explains. Catering for the differing expectations of each generation within a single property is complicated, and not every luxury hotel has cracked it.
One resort that manifestly has is the Sheraton Pine Cliffs on Portugal's Algarve, where the range of facilities is astonishing. Alongside sophisticated restaurants catering to romantic couples are friendly caf's catering to the whole family. Children enjoy imaginative activity programmes designed for different age groups, allowing parents to play tennis, golf or just soak up the sunshine. In the evening there is live entertainment and, for the young, discos.
New resorts have taken this further, and destinations like Sharm-el-Sheikh and Cyprus have invested in imaginative new facilities. For parents of younger children the Hotel Four Seasons in Limassol has introduced a telephone-based baby monitoring service. At Almyra, hipper younger sister to Anassa, the new 'Baby Go Lightly' programme aims to supply all the paraphernalia with which infants customarily fill their parents' luggage. With parents taking children ever further afield such facilities can ensure that the holiday is enjoyed by all concerned. "For me true luxury is having a little time to myself," smiles one working mother from the tranquillity of a sunlounger.
There is the rub. Where in a less frenetic age luxury was associated with a formal style of entertaining, today we increasingly want to be left alone. For couples it may be to recover intimacy by spending time together; for youngsters the quality of facilities is the issue; while for their grandparents cultural activities or just peace and quiet in a lovely place are the qualities that define luxury. That may mean the privacy of villas backed up by the full service of a five-star hotel. Or it could be barefoot luxury at an eco-resort. What assuredly will not be on the menu are dressing formally for dinner and the need for children to be seen-and-not-heard.