Summer Inspires Dream Vacations

As summer vacation season kicks into full-swing, we hear from listeners about their most unusual, one-of-a-kind vacations. Guest Candace Jackson covers travel for the Wall Street Journal.

NEAL CONAN, host:

Perhaps some of you are already unfurling beach umbrellas and pulling out your guidebooks. Well, it's almost summer. Vacation looms. But if you're tired of camping and just can't stand another weekend with sand caught in the heel of your shoe, here's another option you may not have explored - the insider vacation.

As part of a TALK OF THE NATION occasional summer series on unusual vacations -planned and inadvertent - Candace Jackson, who covers travel for the Wall Street Journal, is here to tell us how to have a dinner with a maharajah, or some therapy with his holiness, the Dali Lama.

She joins us now by phone from New York City. Nice to have you on the program today.

Ms. CANDACE JACKSON (Travel Reporter, Wall Street Journal): Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And by the way, we've been asking you to send in e-mails on this. We're having some problems with our e-mail account, and we'll get this straightened out and get those e-mails back. It's an occasional series. We'll pick up on this later as soon as we figure out how to recover them.

But, anyway. Let me ask you, Candace Jackson, this is a pretty hot concept right now. What is, exactly, an insider vacation?

Ms. JACKSON: Well, an insider vacation is a trip where, as the traveler, you're getting special access to, you know, a place or a person that you wouldn't normally be able to get if you were just going on your own. In theory, you kind of - you know, for example, you can have lunch with a member of parliament when you travel somewhere, or get to visit a museum and have the whole place to yourself when you're traveling. Or spend a day with a chef instead of just eating in the finest restaurant. You actually get to go into the kitchen and go shopping with him during the day. This type of thing.

CONAN: Backstage at the Bolshoi was one that I saw.

Ms. JACKSON: Exactly. Yeah, that's one you can do. I mean, it's either, sort of - you know, going to a place that everyone may visit and getting special treatment there, a special access, or, you know, getting to do things that very few others would be able to experience.

CONAN: Special treatment, special access, all these kinds of terms. Indeed, the idea of an insider vacation - this gets pricey, no?

Ms. JACKSON: They're very pricey. Yeah. I mean, they're definitely something that you're paying for the experience. I mean, in one case, I found a trip where a travel agent in the Napa-Sonoma area in California charges $100,000 for a special wine tour program. It's a two-year program where you go back and actually pick grapes with a vintner and bottle your own wine. But it's very pricey. That's on the high end.

CONAN: Hmm. We're talking about insider vacations with Candace Jackson, who covers travel for the Wall Street Journal. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And I understand, caveat emptor is a phrase that you should also be aware of when you're looking for one of these insider vacations.

Ms. JACKSON: Yes, definitely. That's sort of the catch with these, is that -you know, because they're so insider, you know, sometimes you're relying on access to one individual person. So there are caveats that go along with it.

For example, I mean, if the person doesn't show up, you know, the whole thing won't happen. Or, if you're expecting to get special access at a museum, sometimes a big event or some sort of, you know, unplanned state visit - if for example you're going to closed off areas of the Kremlin, happens, you know, you'll have to cancel or reschedule, which sometimes can be difficult if you're traveling a long way to do this kind of thing.

CONAN: And there are, well, you were kind enough in your article not to use the phrase, but there are what seem to be rip-offs. I mean, for example, people charge a lot of money - say, an exclusive visit with the Dali Lama, when your research indicates that if he's in town and you're in town, you can drop by.

Ms. JACKSON: Yeah. He's one who seems particularly sensitive to this kind of thing, just because he, you know, his representatives say that he really doesn't want to be a commercialized product. Even though, you know, there are tour packages that sort of, as part of what they do, sell a visit with him. You know, they all make no guarantees, but it's mentioned in the package. So I think sometimes travelers would come away with the impression that it was going to happen. And obviously, that doesn't sound like something he's thrilled about.

CONAN: We have recovered a couple of e-mails. This is from Brad, in Prairie Village, Kansas. "A visiting pastor was talking about the cheap airfares he found that allowed him to visit the city's St. Paul's Gospels in Greece. I told him about visiting him and having several weeks on Sardinia. I got there with free fare on a U.S. Navy submarine while on a six-year working vacation, a euphemism used for enlistment by my recruiter."

And here's another one, this one from Linda. "I'm the turban-tying champion of the 2003 Gisalamer(ph) Desert Festival in India." I'm sure I'm mispronouncing that. "With a little help from my pals at the hotel and a little help from a bottle of Bagpiper whiskey, I spent the entire night previous to the competition tying and untying nine meters of cloth on my head. When I went up for the competition, which took place in a huge stadium, I was nearly laughed out of the competition. I was told girls do not compete in such things. But the reaction was extraordinary when I jumped up triumphantly with a beautifully wound turban on my head. All throughout the village, I was greeted with shouts of Linda, Mexico, Number One! My picture was on the front page of the national newspaper, I was on television, and won three hundred rupees. I treated the entire hotel to dinner that night to celebrate."

Ms. JACKSON: Wow!

CONAN: Well, if you can schedule that, that's a pretty good vacation!

Ms. JACKSON: Yeah. I mean, I guess these kind of bring up a good point in that, you know, sometimes travelers - or oftentimes travelers just sort of stumble upon or happen to get special access, you know, and they're not even planning it. So these are sort of trying to attempt to take out that sort of variable.

But, yeah, I mean, there are all sorts of ways for travelers to get in with locals and get special access when traveling.

CONAN: Hmm. Looking at it for the other end of the telescope, as it were, for a moment, what's in it for the Maharajah of Juypohr(ph) to offer a dinner?

Ms. JACKSON: Well, I mean, in that case, you know, the maharajahs in India, a lot of times, sort of use their palaces as tourist attractions. There you're, the special access you're getting is, you know, a possible meeting with the maharajah himself. So, you know, on some level I think, for that one, the screening process to even be able to do it is quite high. So, he might just be interested in meeting high-profile Americans himself, or, I don't, you know, I don't want to speak for him. But, you know, it is sort of a business that they're running there, too. Having people come by and visit, and, you know, you pay a price to go there. It's a business.

CONAN: Amy, in Berrien Springs, Michigan, writes: "As an extension to a tour of Spain, my mom and I spent three days in Fez, Morocco. Touring the various parts of the old Medina introduced us to new smells, beautiful colors, exotic textures. While visiting a brass store, the son of the owner mistakenly thought I was Moroccan, and didn't believe I was American. He was satisfied when I said my mother was Cuban. When I introduced him to my mom, he told her in flawless Spanish that he would pay 500 camels for me. Her immediate response was, what am I going to do with 500 camels in Michigan?"

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: These vacations are going to go on. We're going to try to explore this. So if you have a story about the most unusual vacation you have ever had, I think we're getting our e-mail fixed. Send it to us, talk@npr.org. We'll call you back, and we'll have some of these more unusual vacations with us as we progress through the summer season.

Candace Jackson, where are you going on vacation this year?

Ms. JACKSON: I haven't planned anything yet this year. I travel a lot for the job, and I never quite know where it'll take me. So, you know, that usually, a vacation for me means staying at home.

CONAN: Another year at Jones Beach, eh?

Ms. JACKSON: Exactly.

CONAN: Candace Jackson covers travel for the Wall Street Journal. She joined us by phone from New York City. Thanks very much. We appreciate it.

Ms. JACKSON: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And Ira Flatow will be here tomorrow with Science Friday. We'll see you Monday.

In Washington, I'm Neal Conan. You've been listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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