Clients can take part in a cooking class in the Tuscan countryside. // © 2016 Insight Vacations
Feature image (above): Luxury Gold by Insight Vacations offers intimate VIP experiences. // © 2016 Insight Vacations
It was late afternoon when I stepped ashore from a private water taxi onto the dock of the Bauer Palazzo hotel in Venice. With waves of the Adriatic Sea lapping gently behind me and sunshine glinting off the basilica of Santa Maria della Salute across the Grand Canal, I felt as if I was a member of Venetian nobility who had been magically transported to the city’s gilded era. Though this was not my first visit to Venice, it was the first time I truly sensed its magnificence.
Capturing the artistic beauty as well as the spirit of a destination is part of the goal behind the new Luxury Gold by Insight Vacations collection. With more than 35 years of experience, Insight Vacations is known for offering a premium product. Their escorted tours feature traveling concierges, small group sizes and decked-out motorcoaches. But Luxury Gold Europe holidays take it a step further.
“Our intent with Luxury Gold by Insight Vacations is to offer intimate VIP experiences that enable clients to immerse themselves in the world’s most iconic destinations and soak up its spirit as well as its attractions,” said John Boulding, CEO of Insight Vacations.
My own Venetian experience was only a slice of Ultimate Italy, a 12-day journey from Rome to Venice that visits Naples, Pompeii, the Isle of Capri, Perugia, Florence, the Cinque Terre and Verona. It is the latest addition to the Luxury Gold portfolio, a collection that includes 30-plus itineraries in Europe, Asia, North America and South America.
Realizing the difference in the Luxury Gold experience began as early as my morning arrival at Rome’s Fiumicino-Leonardo da Vinci Airport. After a long flight, I felt grateful to see a uniformed chauffeur waiting to welcome me with a private limousine transfer to my hotel. And since a hallmark of the new Luxury Gold product is its hotels — each is chosen for a unique combination of location, personality, comfort and service — Baglioni Hotel Regina in Rome didn’t disappoint. Situated on leafy Via Veneto, the hotel is close to Villa Borghese, the Spanish Steps and other must-see spots. Although checking out Fendi’s new flagship boutique on nearby Largo Goldoni was tempting, I opted to celebrate my arrival by doing as the Romans do: leisurely enjoying a lunch of springtime artichokes and a flute of bubbly prosecco on a nearby terrace.
Over the course of the following days, luggage was delivered; all tips were taken care of; taxis were arranged; and dinner reservations were made — logistics that happened so seamlessly it was easy to fully immerse myself in the Luxury Gold VIP experience. Highlights included a visit to the Vatican, where we entered the Sistine Chapel before it opened to the public and were awed by Michelangelo’s masterpiece — without being jostled by crowds. In Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, we slipped through an unmarked door to Vasari Corridor, a secret passageway built in 1564. Set above Ponte Vecchio and designed to allow the Medici family to travel safely from the government palace to their residence at Palazzo Pitti, the hushed, portrait-lined corridor offered a rare opportunity to experience the intrigue, danger and privilege of the Renaissance’s most powerful political dynasty.
Gastronomy also defines Insight’s Luxury Gold tours. The Ultimate Italy itinerary includes Michelin-starred dining overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea at Il Riccio restaurant on Capri, a wine tasting at a family-owned winery in the Tuscan countryside and fresh-caught seafood on Burano in the Venetian archipelago.
Although each experience is bucket-list worthy, a highlight for me was the cooking class at Villa Dianella, a 16th-century estate set among vineyards and olive groves. Inspired by generous glasses of rose, our group of travelers bonded while hand-rolling pappardelle noodles and dipping zucchini blossoms into batter for frittelle di fiori di zucca, forging new friendships along with culinary skills.
Yet, despite the sweeping scope of the itinerary, the days never felt rushed. Many mornings didn’t start until 9 a.m. or later, and generous free time allowed for independent exploration. After all, we had to savor “la dolce vita” — the sweet life — in true Italian style.