BARCELONA — Our room at the five-star El Palace Hotel Barcelona was just the first in a series of surprises on the nine-night Connections by A&K Spain: Seven Cities itinerary, set to officially debut this spring.
Given the property's posh decor, elegant bathroom and view of Barcelona's Gran Via — combined with the fact that the tour itinerary kept me too busy to be in it for very long — it was easy to forget that Connections is Abercrombie & Kent's less-expensive product.
Since September, retailers have been able to book Connections, a collection of 17 programs in 22 countries that are priced at about 30% per diem lower than a typical A&K luxury small-group tour. The tours debut this spring, although A&K added preview departures on five destinations due to demand.
One might call it A&K's budget line, but of course, budget is a relative term at A&K, which is known for its intimate, very top-line-luxury tours that include nights at five-star hotels. In other words, Connections is still going to be quite the comfortable journey, with plenty of perks and upscale accommodations to be sampled.
"We made the decision on Connections not to go over the top but to create experiences that guests couldn't easily do on their own or with other tour companies," said Keith Baron, senior vice president of strategic growth and development for A&K.
I was able to get a taste of the type of tour Connections will offer during a press tour of the Spain: Seven Cities offering last month.
In the accommodations area, Baron said, "our objective was to seek out hotels with character that were representative of the destination.
"We don't use all boutiques or international chains, but where we do use chains, they are still high quality, such as Fairmont, Westin, Hyatt and the like," he said, stressing that the Connections properties are focused more on authenticity than elegance.
The Connections programs were created based on the positive response to a couple of value offerings the company put out in 2012 to test the waters. Those packages, to Egypt and Morocco, were not Connections tours per se but were the company's first venture into a new, more budget-friendly market.
Baron stressed, however, that Connections is not an effort to offset flagging bookings on its higher-end products.
"A&K is doing extremely well on the luxury side, and we are first and foremost a luxury company and will stay that," he said.
Connections is aimed at a different clientele that values unique, experiential travel more than mere pampering, he said. The Connections product
The choice of accommodations is handled differently in each destination. In Vienna, guests are housed at the tony Hotel Imperial on the Ringstrasse, while in Paris, the accommodations are in an 18th century Radisson Blu boutique in the Trocadero, with views of the Eiffel Tower.
On the nine-night Spain: Seven Cities itinerary, all of the hotels are four- and five-star, according to Simon Butler-Madden, A&K's regional director for Spain and Portugal, who created the Spain itinerary and who played an integral role in the planning of all six Connections tours in Europe.
In cases where the ideal property happens to have five stars, A&K used its clout to negotiate rates that work with the Connections program and houses participants in lower room categories, he said.
Cost savings are achieved in other ways, according to Baron, primarily by raising the group size from 10 to 18 on a traditional A&K small-group tour to 24 to 28 on a Connections tour, and by dialing back some of the more expensive experiences in the itinerary.
"On the luxury small-group side, we may shut down a museum or arrange a private audience to a tomb in Egypt," Baron said. But with Connections, because A&K has offices all over the world, the company can still create insider experiences without that level of exclusivity, he said.
Connections also trims costs by having guests travel economy on local trains and domestic flights and, in some cases depending on the destination, eliminating a few group meals.
"We're never going to be another tour operator that travels with 40 or 50 guests per tour," Baron said. "We don't like the feel, and we think our guests prefer a more intimate environment."
The Spain trip is priced from $5,495 per person and includes nine nights' accommodations, 17 meals and airfare from Barcelona to Granada.
In Europe, tours also explore Italy, both north and south; France; Eastern Europe, featuring Budapest, Vienna and Prague; and Croatia.
The other destinations are East Africa, Morocco, Egypt, China, Southeast Asia, India, Australia, Peru and three areas of North America: the Canyons of the Southwest, Yellowstone and the Canadian Rockies.No stinting
On our Spain trip, we quickly discovered that although our sightseeing excursions were, for the most part, not behind-the-scenes tours, our itinerary didn't stint on the authentic, experiential vacation moments that A&K is known for and which travelers increasingly say they are looking for.
For example, although the first day was free, leaving participants to nap, explore on their own or, as we did, set out as a newly formed group in search of tapas, Butler-Madden debriefed us on arrival, offered suggestions on great local restaurants and supplied us with maps and a meeting time for drinks and dinner that night.
The restaurant for our first night, the rustic Can Travi Nou farmhouse on the outskirts of town, was carefully chosen, partly for its romantic 17th century charm and partly for its 15 minutes of fame stemming from a recent appearance in Woody Allen's film "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."
We saw some of the same sights I have seen in Barcelona on previous visits, most notably the architecture of famous son Antoni Gaudi, but this time the A&K touch magically got us past the lines that snaked around the Sagrada Familia basilica and inside in a matter of minutes. We also toured the city's Boqueria food market, where our guide steered us through the maze and voiced her opinions on which were the best stalls for fish, fruit and cheese.
At one point, we stopped to watch a churro maker in action as he lifted the coiled pastry from the pan, snipped it into bite-size pieces and wrapped them in a cone of white paper, which we then sampled without even bothering to let them cool.
"Call it an A&K moment," Butler-Madden said, explaining that while we had places to go and things to do, the schedule can never trump the comfort and enthusiasm of the participants.
"Your enjoyment of a destination is enhanced by getting even a little under the skin of a country," he said.
Part of getting under the skin is mixing must-do attractions with more insider experiences, such as playing a game of boule on the Cote d'Azur in France, he said, visiting a mozzarella farm in Italy and tasting oysters from a local fisherman in Croatia.
This philosophy played out in Granada, which we reached the next morning via a short flight for an off-season, guided visit to the famous 14th century Alhambra Palace, followed by coffee in the less well-known Albayzin, the city's Moorish quarter and a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Our digs in Granada, the four-star Hotel Alhambra Palace, were a logical choice, Butler-Madden said, thanks to its ideal location about a five-minute walk from the Alhambra Palace. The property is quirky, with beautifully tiled bathrooms, for example, but with plumbing no one could quite figure out. The overall feel was elegant, Moorish and completely in keeping with the destination. That night we enjoyed what turned out to be some of the highlights of the trip: a private recital of Andalucian music at the hotel followed by a first-rate artisanal olive oil tasting at a local shop in town.
Another example of an A&K moment was a guided visit to the new Carmen Thyssen Museum in Malaga, a sister venue to the more famous Thyssen Museum in Madrid, where we again avoided crowds for the simple reason that the museum was officially closed that day and opened especially for us.
In Jerez, our insider experience included a sherry tasting in a completely out-of-the-way artisanal bodega, which featured, in addition to some serious sherry vintages, paintings done by Picasso when he was about 12 years old.
We spent two nights in Seville at the Hotel Alfonso XIII, a newly renovated, five-star Starwood property that was chosen for its sense of place.
"Are there more expensive hotels in Seville? Yes, however, the Hotel Alfonso exudes Seville," Baron said.
Other Seville highlights included drinks in a private mansion — on the full tour, we would have arrived in a horse and carriage — followed by a rapid-fire flamenco performance and dinner in town. By day we also toured the eye-popping Alcazar, a Moorish palace, and the Plaza d'Espagna, which was redone in splendor for Spain's Expo '92, nearly bankrupting the country in the process, and which so inspired filmmaker George Lucas that he put one of the turrets in a Star Wars film.
This anecdote was just an example of the kind of information provided by the local city guides, each of whom made a point of telling us that he or she had been born and, in most cases, was a multigenerational resident of the city we were visiting.
"One of the strengths of A&K is the quality of the local guides," Butler-Madden said. "This is another area where we will not cut corners to trim prices."
In Cordoba, a destination so picturesque that the entire city is a Unesco heritage site, we followed a guided visit of the Islamic art in the Mezquita, one of Spain's hybrid mosque/cathedrals, with lunch at El Caballo Rojo, deemed the best in town by the guide.
We traveled to Madrid via AVE train and checked into the Hotel Ritz Madrid, a grande dame property that boasts all of the gilt and chandeliered glory of the early 20th century, spent the day sightseeing with a guide and settled in for a last night on the town, during which Butler-Madden attempted to summarize the philosophy of the new program.
"The point of Connections is that it offers luxury and quality without unnecessary frills," he said. "It is designed for a newer generation of traveler, who will travel in a group but who wants to get the real feeling of the country."