Rising from the rain forest on one of the least-populated islands in the Caribbean, each of the 10 spread-out, treehouse-style cabins at Secret Bay in Dominica is completely self-contained, with its own plunge pool and kitchen.
Guests can order meals and even private concerts on their terraces overlooking the aqua-blue ocean below, or wander to the private beach protected by sand-colored cliffs. Besides the personal chefs and concierges, there’s rarely a sign of other people.
This kind of seclusion normally attracts honeymooners and couples seeking romantic escapes. But suddenly a new breed of visitor is discovering Secret Bay: groups of travelers who have all been vaccinated against COVID-19 and want to stick together in “immunity pods,” away from conventional hotels, restaurants, activities, and crowds.
“Traveling together in vaccinated pods is giving people an increased level of confidence,” said Kristin Hughes, a travel health and wellness expert. “They’re excited to go back out there, but it’s also a matter of control.”
Travelers who are already vaccinated are 20 percent more likely than those who aren’t to have already booked their next vacation, a survey by the travel agency association Travel Leaders Network found.
But many are returning to the world with caution.
“One of the most exciting parts of travel is interacting with locals, meeting new people, trying new foods, and even the mishaps,” Hughes said. “But right now I think people are easing into travel after taking a big break. And this is at least something.”
Pods of family or friends are renting cottages together in the Catskills, cabins at family camps, entire inns and lodges, and even self-piloted houseboats on the Erie Canal. All-inclusive resorts are rebounding, since they preclude the need to travel off the property for drinks or dining. So are private home swaps.
The travel industry has taken note. Accommodations are adding “pod concierges” and arranging private pod excursions. Attractions are inviting pods to buy them out on certain days and times for private use.
Boston-based Overseas Adventure Travel has launched “personalized private adventures” for groups of as few as five and up to 16. The travel company Naya Traveler has come out with “bubble trips” to secluded destinations for small groups, from a private island in Belize to a villa at the edge of a nature preserve in the Turks and Caicos. Charter aviation company VistaJet has compiled a list of “safe havens.”
Montana and Wyoming, the least densely populated states after Alaska, are suddenly hot escapes. Dude ranches in particular are getting new business, including at luxury settings such as Red Reflet Ranch, a 28,000-acre guest ranch in Wyoming that has fully stocked cabins, private hiking, mountain biking and ATVing, and its own airport.
Canyon Ranch spas have seen an increase in group bookings, a spokeswoman said; Canyon Ranch in Lenox, along with other locations, lets pods book rooms, meals, activities, and fitness classes together.
Adventure travel companies report big increases in the number of people who want private tours; Heli, which offers adventure trips worldwide, said 90 percent reserved so far this year are private or semi-private, including a kite-surfing excursion to the Red Sea for which clients and crew will all be COVID-tested and live on a boat. In other cases, it’s arranging for immunity pods to book entire lodges.
“People are calling and asking, ‘Where can I go and do a full takeover?’ ” said Clark Winter, chief operating officer. “A lot of lodges are starting to organize their dates in pods or groupings where different groups can take over the whole lodge.”
The Inns of Aurora in New York’s Finger Lakes region is letting pods fully book three of its inns, which have from seven to 11 guest rooms, and offers grocery delivery, private hiking and fishing, and lakeside fire pits; so far eight families have booked the inns for private pod vacations in the next few months, at $1,500 to $2,500 a night.
The Foundry Hotel in Asheville, N.C., which consists of five buildings, has seen guests ask for clusters of rooms in one or another of them “so they can be on their own,” said Nikki Phillips Stewart, director of sales.
“They have their private entryways and exits,” Stewart said. “It’s definitely a trend, and we think it’s going to stick around at least for this year.”
Secret Bay, whose biggest markets include Boston, reports 19 inquiries from immunity pods just since the beginning of the year. Eleven have booked cabins there, which start at $838 a night.
A lot of other secluded travel options also tend to cater to the well-heeled. For $130,000 a week, for instance, pods can book Quasar Expeditions’ motor yacht Grace for a private Galapagos Cruise. At the St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort in Puerto Rico, guests can call the pod concierge to arrange private beach parties and private tours of nearby El Yunque National Forest. The Ritz-Carlton Residences on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu also has a pod concierge who can organize private cocktail hours, meals, and activities.
Private activities, away from crowds and strangers, are in high demand. Norris Hot Springs, a geothermal pool in Montana, can now be booked for two hours at a time by groups of 15 or fewer. Bruliam Wines in Sonoma County, Calif., is offering private group tastings.
“As people emerge from COVID and their desire to travel expands, they’re going to be selective about what they choose to do and who they choose to travel with,” proprietor and winemaker Kerith Overstreet said.
Private home-swapping is also trending. Home-swap company HomeExchange, in a survey of its members, found they’re looking for less crowded destinations and 85 percent prefer to stay in single-family homes. The UK-based Love Home Swap reports a 282 percent year-to-year increase in home exchanges.
“People want to be able to control the environment they’re in,” said Celia Pronto, managing director. “They don’t doubt that staying in a hotel will give them safety in their bedrooms. What they don’t like is the public spaces, such as the lobbies and the pools.”
Among the biggest beneficiaries of the vaxication craze are resorts with free-standing cabins or cottages. Chatham Bars Inn has homes with kitchens and gas grills. So does the Winnetu on Martha’s Vineyard. The Roxbury, in the Catskills, has added cottages with pop-culture themes — Dracula’s lair, comic book superheroes, Austin Powers — created by a theatrical set designer. The Sagamore Resort on New York’s Lake George has debuted its newly renovated First House, and will deliver prepared meals to it. And the Chalet at Urban Cowboy Lodge in the Catskills has added a new freestanding cabin.
“These types of destinations that have separate units are positioning themselves as places where a group of friends can travel safely,” said Leora Halpern Lanz, chair of the master’s in management hospitality program at Boston University’s School of Hospitality Administration.
Conventional resorts aren’t the only places that have cabins. So do family camps. Camp Wandawega in Elkhorn, Wisc., has had so many bookings that it’s building new cabins, owner Tereasa Surratt said. It’s also setting aside separate coves, picnic tables, and even beach zones for visiting pods.
“People have been isolated in a home for so long and this is a chance for them to get out with their bubble,” Surratt said.
Winnetu owner Mark Snider and his wife, Gwenn, had the good timing to add a private island to their portfolio (the Sniders also own the Nantucket Hotel); their Lovango Resort + Beach Club opened in December in the US Virgin Islands, with a private villa and more planned.
Though guests can travel the 10 minutes by ferry to St. John and St. Thomas, said Snider, half of them never leave the grounds.
“People do like the fact that they can travel again and feel a sense of freedom,” he said. “But safely.”
Jon Marcus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.