I hit the road for a driving Experience
MANCHESTER, Vt. — Hands at 10 and 2 o’clock on the steering wheel of a six-figure Land Rover, I’m about to head down a trail called Sidewinder, and feel the urge to play “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen, at high volume.
The instructor in the passenger seat, no doubt having dealt with such enthusiasm before, says he needs clear lines of communication, so there will be no such rocking out. He’s right, of course. There’s lots of landscape to scan — moguls and dips and steep inclines, muddy puddles, and slender but menacing birch trunks that nature has set out like slalom gates. Full attention is required.
As a recent guest at the Equinox Golf Resort & Spa in Manchester, Vt., I was steered toward the Land Rover Experience, which I’ve known about for a long time, but never tried. It’s been offered over the last 20 years, and now is part of a bundle of available activities, including fly fishing, falconry, skeet shooting, horseback riding, and mountain biking. The Equinox has gone all-in on the idea of such vaguely exotic “experiences,” most not readily done at home.
The nearby 80-acre course, with 5 miles of trails, gets a workout on pretty much a daily basis, with a team of enthusiastic instructors and a continually updated fleet of 12 vehicles. The outings range from one to six hours, starting at $275; non-white-knuckled guests can also ride as a passenger for a 25-minute adventure ride for $25. The program is as all-season as the vehicles, whether splashing through mud puddles amid the fall foliage, or drifting around a meadow covered in snow.
Team-building programs have also grown in popularity, said David Nunn, location manager for the Land Rover Experience at the Equinox. In a typical company outing, executives take turns being blind-folded behind the wheel, instructed on what to do by colleagues. It is said to hone communication skills. Or they compete, eyes wide open, to see who can keep the most liquid in a martini glass strapped to the hood. (They use water; I was assured no actual martinis are harmed in the exercise.)
Instruction is tailored to each guest. The young woman who went before me was from New York and hadn’t driven a car in years. From the back seat, I felt like I was in a “Seinfeld” episode. When my turn finally came I settled into the cockpit, emboldened as a jet pilot. Slow and steady is the general idea — no need to stab at the accelerator in these powerful machines. I went up and down and navigated gullies and deep ruts, just sort of nudging my Land Rover along.
My trip through the tracks at the base of the Green Mountains, each marked like ski trails, was punctuated by getting the car to prop up on a swale with the front right wheel in the air, like a circus elephant doing a trick. The instructor was outside the vehicle at that point, motioning with his hands for me to crawl forward or stop.
If anything, it felt a little too cautious, though we were all novices. More experienced off-road drivers can take it up a notch, I was told. But nobody really careens around like in a car commercial.
The Land Rover Experience is available at three other resorts — the Quail Lodge in Carmel, Calif., Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C., and the Fairmont Le Chateau Montebello in Quebec. Other luxury properties are getting into the act, though many are dream-car driving experiences on solid pavement versus off-road; Waldorf Astoria offers the Lamborghini driving experience, the Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Montelucia in Arizona lets guests take a Porsche, Bentley, or Aston Martin out for a spin, and at the Fonteverde in San Casciano dei Bagni, Italy, guests can borrow a Ferrari for a tour of the Tuscan countryside. Make no mistake, insurance waivers need multiple signatures.
The instructors suggested that the skills picked up in just an hour can be transferred to regular driving. Scanning the path ahead, from one side to the other, is an excellent habit, perhaps forgotten from driver’s ed. Drivers are most effective keeping hands at the aforementioned 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock position on the steering wheel, with thumbs out, and shuffling on turns rather than going one-handed or hand-over-hand. The winter driving exercise allows guests to feel what it’s like to be in a skid without being in an accident. With graduation certificate in hand, it should be less likely you’ll jam the front fender in a snowbank, or worse, as Vermonters like to say, get belly-hung.
And if predictions hold true, autonomous cars will be doing the driving for us, fairly soon. Late-model vehicles already ping and beep — or brake on their own — when drivers get too close to objects, whether a birch tree or a mailbox. In that sense, these driving experiences may become downright nostalgic.