In the luxury resort industry's never-ending game of "Can you top this?" you might want to start at the bottom. Of the Earth.
In honor of its 10th anniversary in business, an accommodations site in Antarctica appropriately called White Desert has upgraded its "camp" to accommodate not merely hearty survivalists but hard-core luxury travelers, too.
Run by the husband-and-wife team of Patrick and Robyn Woodhead, the site now includes a half-dozen, 20-foot-diameter heated fiberglass "sleeping pods," featuring stylish Saarinen chairs, beds with bamboo headboards, fur throw rugs and personal parkas. Its dining room features the culinary treats of a chef who formerly cooked for the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One racing team.
Folks willing to brave the five-and-a-half hour flight from Cape Town, complete with an ice landing at Unknown International Airport (one of the resort's excursions includes an additional eight-hour flight, with one stop for refueling, to the South Pole), can either revel in activities such as kite-skiing and exploring ice caves or get in touch with their inner Morgan Freeman by hanging out with a few hundred emperor penguins.
The White Desert's upgrades represent the latest batch of projects where resort operators serving the top end of the travel sector promise to bend nature to their will. For the right price, of course.
Another example, for those gaming enthusiasts who get a case of the blahs by the idea of heading to Las Vegas or Macau: Hong Kong-based Imperial Pacific International Holdings this month pitched a "multibillion-dollar" casino resort to be built on Micronesia's Saipan, an island of 50,000 people, a veritable speck on the globe 1,600 miles east of the Philippines and the westernmost U.S. territory.
The resort's first casino opened last fall, and a $550 million section broke ground earlier this year.
The developers promise "a unique, natural Pacific jewel that can't be imitated or equaled by any other destination in the world."
Not to mention free drinks for the high rollers willing to make the long flight.
Then there's the $550 million Rosemont Hotel & Residences, which will open in Dubai in 2018, with 448 hotel rooms and 280 serviced apartments, as part of Hilton Worldwide's Curio Collection. Tasked with luring guests to a resort without a waterfront location, Saudi-based owner Royal International is building a 1.7-acre rain forest, complete with mist shooting out of the trees and a "rain room."
Of course, Dubai warrants its own category when it comes to creating a desired natural habitat by any means necessary, as developers turn oil, or the profits from it, into a variety of unnatural natural environments. This tradition of sorts goes back at least to 2005, which marked the opening of Ski Dubai. That attraction features five year-round indoor ski slopes that cover almost six acres.
It spurred the Kempinski Hotel Mall of the Emirates, which opened the following year, to include three Aspen Chalets, complete with fireplaces, blown-up photographs of snowflakes on the walls and views of the "slopes."
Atlantis the Palm Dubai upped the ante in 2008 by including two 1,800-square-foot underwater suites -- named Poseidon and Neptune, of course -- which give guests a submarine-eye view of 65,000 marine animals in the adjacent lagoon (the Conrad Maldives Rangali can offer similar sleeping accommodations for guests willing to pony up enough to reserve the hotel's underwater dining room and have the hotel convert it into temporary sleeping quarters).
Such seemingly ostentatious efforts might seem gauche in an age where some of the world's largest hotel companies are tripping over themselves to say how sensitive they are to the environment.
Marriott International, InterContinental Hotels Group, Hilton Worldwide and Hyatt Hotels all issued reports each year outlining their progress toward either cutting waste, energy use and water consumption or having its workers and/or guests help replenish natural habitats near their properties.
Even Marriott's well-entrenched Ritz-Carlton luxury brand is planning to roll out social-responsibility programs at all of its hotels by the end of the year, enabling well-heeled guests to give back to the environment by working on projects that include habitat reparations.
Then there's the 1 Hotels brand, which was launched last year by former Starwood Hotels chief Barry Sternlicht, and bases much of its product and service tenets on sustainability and environmental sensitivity.
Instead of trying to trump nature by planting water-thirsty trees in the middle of the desert, the approach is to prevent cutting down more of them by using lots of wood reclaimed from local barns for furnishings and fixtures.
But while such efforts might be well-received by either those with an eye on the environment or prospective corporate clients looking to boost their social-responsibility creds, there's an ultrawealthy class of traveler who takes little issue with the idea of a hotel operator using vast environmental resources to construct a rain forest in the middle of the desert, build a massive casino in the Western Pacific or fly dinner ingredients to Antarctica from Cape Town for a dozen or so guests.
And there's money to be made from that rarified slice of the $7.6 trillion global travel and tourism industry. In 2013, the world's wealthiest 211,000 households spent $234 billion on luxury purchases, according to wealth market-research firm Wealth-X. Out of that total, more was spent on travel ($45 billion, or about $213,000 per household) than on automobiles ($40 billion).
With that contingent in tow, Kempinski can feel comfortable charging $800 a night for its Alpine Suites in Dubai, which is a relative bargain compared with the $7,600 a night that Atlantis the Palm is quoting for its underwater suites.
Of course, that's chump change compared with the $72,000 per person that White Desert charges for eight- and 11-night stays, though that price includes a roundtrip ticket from Cape Town. It's a good thing there's a sense of exclusivity built in, as the resort is only open in November and December.
How much more outrageous these topography-bending efforts will get as the industry evolves remains to be seen. Dubai will continue to make its mark in this arena, as a developer pitched plans at last year's Dubai International Boat Show for a project that's being called the "Floating Seahorse Villas." The 131 planned units each will have three levels, with the bottom bedroom and bathroom level submerged under the Arabian Sea.
In addition, resort owners continue to open properties where mere opulence, top-notch service and endless amenities take priority over either playing or conquering Mother Nature.
Case in point is the $4.1 billion Wynn Palace. The always-thinking-big Steve Wynn opened Wynn Palace in Macau last week. The floral-themed resort has 1,706 rooms and a Ferris wheel studded with more than 100,000 flowers. The resort also goes big on first impressions, as guests arrive via air-conditioned SkyCabs that go over the eight-acre Performance Lake.
To which we say: Meh!