It costs £85,000 and features a private jet and some of the world’s poshest hotels. Our writer joins the mile-high-earners’ club
The private-jet lounge at Stansted is as hushed as a library. I sit alone, while a coffee is brought to me. Outside, right by the door, is the gleaming Four Seasons Boeing 757 private jet. It is about to set off on a 19-day tour taking in Moscow, Dubai, the Seychelles, Tanzania and Florence, before returning to London. It will be carrying more than 30 of the world’s wealthiest people — and me, the only person on board with an overdraft.
The Cultural Escape, as the trip is billed, is one of the most luxurious package tours in the world. Priced at £85,000pp, it will see guests stay at Four Seasons’ flagship properties in all the destinations. I’m the first UK journalist to be invited along for the ride. It’s clear that, over the coming days, I won’t just be travelling to new destinations, I’ll be entering a different world.
Jonathan Abel, one of three pilots, greets me at the plane. “Ever flown to Moscow before?” I ask hopefully.
“Do you know the way?”
“I’ve got a map.”
We’re good to go.
The cabin of the refitted 757 is all white-leather seats and gleaming surfaces. I’m usually lucky if I get a free luggage tag as a gift on a holiday. Here, we get an iPad, Bose headphones and Bulgari cosmetics, not to mention the services of our own concierge, chef and even doctor on board. The cabin crew — uniformed, smiley and welcoming — are so numerous, it feels like we have one each. Mine, Kimberley, is adamant I mark my arrival on the jet with Dom Pérignon champagne.
I settle into my seat. It’s fully reclinable and, when I test this out, I realise I have slept in smaller beds. The jet has space for 52 guests, but our trip is not full, which means even more space. My fellow passengers, to my surprise, look relatively normal. I’m not expecting that. Aren’t the rich supposed to be, well, different? All are American, except for one couple from Canada, and they’re all pleasantly unassuming (one even has the good grace to be stunned by the US presidential-election result, which we hear a few days into the trip: “Oh my God! That is unbelievable. What next? The Kardashians in the White House?”).
One of the great things about a private jet is that it leaves when you are all on board. No hanging around. No tedious schedules. We’re airborne before I’ve finished my first flute; I’ve waited longer for the lift at my office.
The private jet is carrying more than 30 of the world’s wealthiest people, and me — the only passenger on board with an overdraft
I get chatting to Scott Taber, the Four Seasons’ senior vice-president of rooms (really). He describes the well-heeled clientele as “adventurous travellers, curious about the world”, before explaining the ethos of the Four Seasons jet packages. “We are combining the hotels with the travel. It is aspirational — an opportunity for some to live in the shoes of the rich and famous.”
New itineraries are always being researched and devised. In May next year, the jet will take off on a Culinary Discoveries tour, arranged with Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, taking in nine countries, all for a very reasonable £108,000 a ticket.
Concierge Javier Loureiro patrols the aisle, while, at the back of the aircraft, chef Kerry Sear prepares our flight menu in a tiny galley. After caviar (well, we are going to Russia), we enjoy a lunch of dishes such as Dover sole and braised pheasant, served with a glass or four of Pouilly-Fumé. I polish this off somewhere over Azerbaijan.
Strangely for the uninitiated, private jets seem smoother in the air — just as limousines are smoother on the road. We don’t do turbulence, nor queues for the loo. The service is impeccable and I feel like I am never more than 15 minutes from the next hot towel. You can demand just about anything. “Do you have Marmite?” I ask chef Kerry, a touch mischievously, at one point. “Of course.”
It is the first flight I’ve taken that I wished was longer, but after a mere three hours, we are landing at a slightly distant airport for private jets just outside Moscow. We are bussed to a terminal to be greeted in traditional Soviet style: standing in the freezing cold while unsmiling border guards check everyone’s papers. Very slowly.
I am expecting at the very least a helicopter transfer. Instead, we are loaded into minibuses, each with a chatty guide, for the ride to the Moscow Four Seasons, perhaps one of the best-situated hotels in the world: Red Square is about 50 yards away.
For such an exclusive group, there’s really only one possible venue for a drinks reception. From the Royal Suite, the view is amazing: overlooking the Kremlin walls, with a clear view through Red Square to St Basil’s Cathedral. Snowfall adds to the atmosphere.
In my room stands a Russian doll bearing the handwritten motif “Mr Gillespie”. It’s even spelt correctly. Virtually everything — including my wake-up call — is controlled by a bedside iPad and there’s a never-ending supply of delicacies. In the bar, I’m greeted with, “Good evening, Mr James…” How do they know my name?
It’s time to put concierge Javier to the test. I want a young Muscovite to show me a lively area. “You know, Javier, bars, clubs, that sort of thing.” No problem.
The following day, Sofia is waiting in reception to guide me through the Metro to a converted chocolate factory now replete with bars and restaurants. It’s where normal people go, but I am not sure I do normal people any more.
We don’t stay long, heading instead to the Park of the Fallen Monuments, a resting place for the very abnormal. This is where the felled busts of former Soviet leaders sit: Lenin, Brezhnev, Khrushchev stare stony-faced across the snow. I see no sign of Stalin, but then he may have been banished to Siberia.
After three nights in Moscow, we’re ready to jet off again in our luxurious cocoon — 2,260 miles to Dubai, and a 30C leap in temperature. Four hours later (again, too short), we pass over The Palm and see Dubai laid out below us, rising from the sand as though it has been designed by a 16-year-old playing SimCity.
The Jumeirah Beach Four Seasons is as refined as we’ve come to expect. I drink champagne while floating in the pool and watch staff manicure the lawns. Some of the sunloungers by the pool stand in the water, and there is a bell for service. Cold towels are brought round, as well as treats such as balls of iced melon on cocktail sticks.
The manager, Leonardo Baiocchi, does not have a royal suite overlooking Red Square, but he does have the Mercury Lounge. Perched on the sixth floor, this glamorous hangout is packed when we visit. In one corner, young Arab men smoke shisha pipes, while Western expats do what expats always do: they party. The air is warm and although we are in a low-rise (by Dubai standards), the views are spectacular: Dubai’s incomparable skyline twinkling away in one direction, the mellow waters of the Gulf in the other.
The next day, I swim in the Gulf, eat sushi at one of the restaurants and consume chocolate made from camel milk. I could get used to this. Sadly, my journey is almost at an end. While the others are heading on to more Four Seasons lavishness in the Seychelles, Tanzania and Florence, I am heading somewhere rather different: back to the real world.
Something tells me it’s going to be a bumpy landing.