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A symphony in a cenote in Mexico? An underwater ballet in Hawaii? Why rare, hard-to-get experiences shape luxury travel

The hot, humid air makes my fellow travel writers gasp, and it’s not just because we’re on the lookout for little furry friends after learning it’s tarantula season here in the Yucatan jungle. That’s because we’ve just arrived 70 feet underground at a red carpet that leads to a cave lit with 1,000 candles and filled with waiters serving margaritas. Dubbed the cenote, the cavern is far fancier than its more somber counterparts, leaving us at a loss for the words “Oh. My. God.”

This particular cenote (pronounced “say-no-tay”), a sprawling and partially submerged limestone cave system called the Rio Secreto, was first discovered in 2004 by a farmer chasing an iguana down a hole, the story goes. This region of Mexico is famous for these sheltered sinkholes – there are thousands of them – formed by the collapse of limestone bedrock, exposing brilliant natural springs. And tonight, Rio Secreto is dressed up to impress.

I’m part of a group of traveling media invited here to witness an intimate performance by a small string chamber ensemble from the local Quintana Roo Symphony Orchestra – its eight members are framed by a gaping, domed cavern whose dramatic stalactite formations resemble a giant dripping sandcastle turned on the head.

With tonight’s concert, the first “Symphony in a Cenote”, the Fairmont Mayakoba in the Riviera Maya uses the backdrop of this natural wonder to create a rare experience, transforming a typical tourist attraction into something otherworldly. Because when it comes to travel, it’s the unusual that moves you and that you cling to years and decades later.

Guests at the event explore the cenote, a cave system called the Rio Secreto that was discovered in 2004.

In the age of Instagram-worthy travel, with so many people flocking to take the same pictures in the same places, the ultimate luxury is to do something surprising—and almost no one else can.

Before making the full winding descent into what is known as the sacred Mayan underworld, our local field guides took us to a shaman who solemnly requested permission to enter from the mythological three-foot tall sprites believed to inhabit the cenote . With our hands on our hearts, we greeted them: “malo’kin!” (hello) and “yu’um bootik!” (thank you).

According to legend, the sprites, called Alux (“Aloosh”), emerge from their hiding places in the evening, which is why most cenotes are closed then. But with the amazing acoustics the cave offers, a live concert makes perfect sense, albeit a logistical challenge. (Imagine hauling down a seven-foot double bass without turning into a sweaty mess.)

The Fairmont Mayakoba limited-time experience is currently scheduled to run less than a few times, including once in January 2023. It includes an elegant lagoon-side dinner at the A-list resort, as well as cocktails and champagne in the cenote, and is priced at $250 (US) each Person. For an opulent resort add-on, it’s reasonably priced — it costs less than your average luxury hotel massage.

The Cenote Experience launches a new Fairmont campaign called “Beyond Limits,” which includes a series of exclusive events taking place at some of the company’s North American hotels and resorts through March. Highlights: Watch a live underwater ballet at the Fairmont Orchid in Hawaii; at Los Angeles’ Fairmont Century Plaza, see a troupe of gravity-defying artists transform the iconic 19-story building into a vertical dance floor; and at the Fairmont Banff Springs, you can enjoy a pop-up oxygen bar on the cliffs at 7,000 feet.

The campaign is in line with a broader trend in the travel industry to redefine luxury. The wealthier you are, the more exclusive, unusual and incredible the experience has to be to really impress, says Jenny Southan, editor and founder of Globetrender, a travel trend forecasting agency in London, England.

“Luxury has always been associated with rarity and things that are out of reach for most people,” she says, but in recent years there has been a shift from investing in tangible goods to prioritizing experiences. For the Fairmont Mayakoba and other top resorts, exclusivity is no longer just about championship golf courses, private yachts and award-winning restaurants.

In the age of Instagrammable Travel, luxury does what (almost) nobody else can.

For example, the Four Seasons Extraordinary Experiences collection includes heli-surfing in Indonesia’s G-Land and floating in a private hot-air balloon from Florence into the Tuscan countryside. Other hotels focus on encounters designed to inspire reconnection with nature or creativity: The world’s first ‘wandering hotel’, 700,000 Heures, can arrange unusual tourist activities such as diving for sea urchins with local fishermen in Ine, Japan. And in Puglia, Italy, experiences at Castle Elvira include spending time with artists Harvey B-Brown and David Scheinmann, who help guests create their own 3D meta-portrait.

Many elite hotels are capitalizing on this demand, realizing they have the opportunity to lean on their local contacts, Southan adds, “to provide access to people and places that others don’t.”

It’s not hard to see the draw. Nothing about the cenote concert is what I expected, including the music itself. Instead of Amadeus and Tchaikovsky, we’re treated to melodies by Adele and Toto. The setlist is a mix of 14 pop hits, ranging from Gloria Gaynor’s 1970s version of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” to Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito,” a song that unabashedly embraced my love of reggaeton and Latin pop near comes heart.

The familiarity of the melodies contrasted with the weirdness of almost everything else, including the oddly intriguing geology, is what makes the whole experience so unexpected.

To top it off, watching a “premier” like this up close is even more exciting — and not just because it’s “a collectable opportunity to make ourselves look good on social media,” Southan points out. Regardless of whether my adventure is documented on the Gram (of course it is), the magic is real and once in a lifetime.

Claire Sibonney traveled as a guest of Fairmont Hotels & Resorts who have not reviewed or approved this item.

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