Jordan G. Teicher
We don't fly to Kilimanjaro so much as float there — sailing through the sky in the sort of blissful comfort one could barely replicate in one’s own living room — in KLM’s World Business Class. The Champagne arrives the instant we’re seated. We’re fed almost beyond good reason. And we fall asleep completely horizontally thousands of feet in the air. The impossible awesomeness of such a feat still blows my mind when I think about it.
The next seven days are much the same: a series of improbable luxuries that take the group of journalists with which I am traveling to some of the most beautiful and biologically diverse places in Africa. We take hot showers at a tented camp where the water has to be carted dozens of miles by truck. We eat gourmet lunches in the middle of a crater. We drink cappuccinos in the Serengeti. Cappuccinos. In the Serengeti.
I’ve been thinking about what “luxury” means, and it is, I believe, precisely this: Having whatever you want, whenever you want, wherever you want it, no matter how hard it is to obtain it. Luxury is born where practicality dies.
In this context, Black Tomato, the 10-year-old British travel agency founded by Tom Marchant, James Merrett, and Matt Smith that planned our itinerary and covered our costs, is a purveyor of luxuries in the truest sense. The agency — and its more adventurous expedition arm, Epic Tomato — specializes in holidays that are tailor-made to the extreme. They create trips that weren’t even possible until their customers decided they should be so.
Do you want to hang out with Africa’s last full-time hunter-gatherers, the Hadza, and learn to cook with them? Do you want to make sushi with an expert chef in Japan? Do you want to hunt for truffles in Italy? Do you want to chill with traditional fishermen in Thailand? Black Tomato can hook you up. If you want to do something, they will make it happen, and furthermore, they will make it nice.
“The objective here is to use our experience and strength as destination experts and liaisons to curate a vacation that makes our clients feel this trip was molded just for them and ensure they get what they're looking for out of each destination,” said Marchant via email.
Our travels through Tanzania are a sample of what Black Tomato customers can expect. Before we depart, I speak on the phone with an agency rep to tweak the itinerary (oftentimes, they'll actually send a representative to their customers’ homes to find out how better to tailor a trip to their interests). The final plan comes outlined in an Arts of Travel kit, which is delivered by mail. What follows is pretty much exactly as scheduled — a big, complicated yet totally seamless experience during which my only major dilemma is deciding what food to order.
The journey begins in Arusha at Legendary Lodge, a collection of colonial-style cottages on the grounds of an old coffee estate near Mount Meru, where we hardly have time to drop our bags before we’re served a private dinner — for me, a garden salad with grilled halloumi cheese and an exceptional butternut and feta ravioli — on the veranda.
It’s a sign of what’s to come — a moveable feast where we’re fed before we even realize that we’re hungry and our glasses are refilled well before they’re empty. For the food-focused traveler, it feels like a dream, one made all the more vivid by the scenery: vast plains, lush grasslands, and glorious sunsets that look like painted tableaus.
“Glamping” (glamorous camping) has always seemed pretty silly to me, but I change my tune after staying with Sanctuary Retreats on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater. Sleeping in a personal tent with a hotel-worthy bed, eating dinner by lamplight, and drinking South African wines around the campfire — or what our guide calls “bush television” — I imagine unglamorous camping surely can’t be as fun. By day, we drive around the crater — one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa, where lions, elephants, rhinos, and other blockbuster creatures roam freely — and are surprised one day with a buffet lunch right in the middle of it. We stay with Sanctuary again in the Serengeti, at a campsite that is miraculously constructed in just a few days, and whose location changes thrice annually. The food there must make a long journey by plane and truck from Arusha to our plate, but it is, incredibly, always fresh and delicious.
The crown jewel of our accommodations, however, is Singita's Sasakwa Lodge, a shining compound on a hill in the middle of the bush. At $5,800 per night, the four-bedroom villa where we stay is not for the shallow-pocketed. But if you’ve got a couple thousands dollars lying around, Singita is certainly a good place to spend it. The views of the Grumeti Reserves are stunning, the cottages and the Edwardian-style manor house are impeccably designed, and the food, courtesy of head chef Kyle Ralph, is top notch.
It is pretty amazing how quickly one can get used to such extravagances and how jarring it feels when they suddenly disappear and you find yourself, despite everything, back at JFK airport. Reality, of course, is always waiting for your return while you’re on vacation, but it’s easy to forget that when you’re traveling with Black Tomato. And that’s the greatest luxury of all.