It was early morning at low tide as we motored the traditional wooden skiff around the barrier islands of Ria Formosa, an estuarine national park in southwest Portugal. Our guide, a local, fifth generation fisherman, was taking us out to learn the ancient skill of Portuguese clamming. We put-putted the spider web of inlets and canals before landing on a sandy island, where a handful of stooped-over locals were already shoveling for clams, filling muddy buckets to take home for their evening meal.
Those clams are easy enough to dig, our guide told us. But, we were after the more reclusive and harder to grab razor clams. We learned to spot the holes where clams were hiding and used two techniques to capture them. Technique one: pour salt into the hole, which caused the razor clam to emerge, allowing us to grab it (quickly!) Technique two: thrust a spear into the hole and hope we nailed the tasty bivalve. If we found enough of them, the chef back at the Conrad Algarve hotel had promised to make a dish with our catch: perhaps razor clam rice or Amêijoas à Bulhão Pato, one of Portugal’s traditional clam dishes. We had mediocre success with nabbing razor clams but the outing ended with a stop at a local oyster farm, where we slurped just-harvested oysters and sipped chilled champagne.
Clamming with a local fisherman is just one of the curated experiences offered by the Conrad Algarve Hotel (www.conradhotels3.hilton.com/rs/stay-inspired/), as part of its newly-launched Stay Inspired program. Conrad is asking its guests: If you had 1, 3, or 5 hours to explore while you’re here, what would you do? And then they’re suggesting 15-20 unique experiences in each location, all local takes on culture, art, food, and adventure.
“The smart luxury traveler is looking for local experiences,” says Peter Jon Lindberg, the brand’s newly-appointed “director of inspiration.” Lindberg works with locals in Conrad destinations across the world to come up with off-the-beaten path, only-there experiences, whether it’s a five-hour clamming excursion in Portugal or a one-hour visit to an old, creaky bookshop in New York that sells only mystery novels.
“The new generation of travelers are often combining business with pleasure; many may only have an hour or two to spare, but they still want to do something that connects them in a special way, something that’s authentic to the destination,” says Lindberg.
The program has struck a chord; Conrad is already seeing a dramatic increase in customer satisfaction in the properties offering the Stay Inspired 1/3/5 program. Other top hotel brands are following suit with their own take on curated guest adventures, sometimes offering unprecedented access, not-available-to-the-public, tailored excursions, unique to the location.
For example, Jumby Bay, a Rosewood Resort on Antigua (www.rosewoodhotels.com/en/jumby-bay-antigua), is home to Pasture Bay Beach, one of the world’s primary nesting sites for the endangered hawksbill turtle. Guests who sign up for the resort’s exclusive turtle watch program are alerted when nesting turtles are spotted and escorted to the beach to play an active role in helping the ancient reptiles. At Las Ventanas al Paraiso in Los Cabos (www.rosewoodhotels.com/en/las-ventanas-los-cabos), guests, with the guidance of a trained local artisan, can create their own hand-woven, embroidered Tenango linen or take a Huichol class to create a kaleidoscopic piece of traditional art.
The newly-opened Renaissance New York Midtown Hotel (www.newyorkrenaissance.com) has paired with Time Out New York, the popular city guide, to provide local, insider information on events, restaurants, shopping venues, shows, and other local experiences near the hotel via a high-tech digital program. The hotel’s interactive “Discovery Portal,” with exclusive Time Out content, delivers an overview of current hotspots in the neighborhood, based on guest’s selections (including time of day and walking distance from the hotel). Guests can also work directly with the hotel’s team of “Navigators” to personalize their itineraries based on their unique interests.
Other curated experiences we love include a private champagne toast on the roof of the Grand Palais in Paris, which is normally closed to the public but available to guests of La Reserve Paris (www.lareserve-paris.com/en), or a private after-hours tour of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona led by one of the current architects and available only to Majestic Hotel & Spa guests (www.hotelmajestic.es/en). At the Lake Manyara Tree Lodge, the only permanent luxury lodge in Lake Manyara, Tanzania, locals lead bike tours through the village, where guests can meet the Mayoka community and Mang’ati tribespeople.
Opera lovers staying at the Belmond Hotel in St. Petersburg, Russia, (www.belmond.com/grand-hotel-europe-st-petersburg) have access to the Tsar’s Box at the Mariinsky Theatre, or can reserve the hotel’s private box at the Mikhailovsky Theatre, one of the oldest opera houses in Russia.
At the UXUA Casa Hotel & Spa in Trancoso, Brazil (www.uxua.com), guests can board one of the 10 remaining traditional fishing boats to learn about line-in-hand fishing, and back at the resort, UXUA’s chef Bernardo Silva will prepare their catch.
Closer to home, the Peninsula Chicago Hotel (www.chicago.peninsula.com/en/default) recently introduced its Keys to the City program, offering guests a variety of exclusive experiences, including a behind-the-scene tour of the Vosges Haut-Chocolat factory, a plating lesson from Michelin three-star chef Curtis Duffy at his top-rated Grace restaurant, and front-of-the-line entrance to popular attractions and events, including “Hamilton” in December.
And, if you look longingly at the yachts bobbing in the harbors of New England, consider checking into one of the Nantucket Island Resorts (www.nantucketislandresorts.com), where you’ll have a rare opportunity to book the White Elephant Hinckley yacht, normally only available to private club members, for half- or full-day private cruises.
“We’re learning that our hotels can play a lot bigger role in our guests’ lives by giving them access to global culture and experiences that are tied to their location,” says Lindberg. “It’s no longer just about a good night’s sleep or luxurious accommodations. When they leave the hotel, we want our guests to have connected to the destination in a special way.”
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.