Phileas Fogg went around the world in 80 days. I did it in 23. And I bet I visited more amazing sites than he — India's Taj Mahal, Easter Island, Tibet, Cambodia's Angkor Wat, the African plains, to name a few — all without having to endure the tramp steamers, bone-jarring trains and elephants that Fogg used in 1872. I traveled by private jet. The price of a seat, and all that went with it, was $64,950.
The trip was sold by National Geographic Expeditions, which each year offers at least one and sometimes four around-the-world tours by private jet, a leased Boeing 757-200 that is configured with only 77 super-large and dreamily comfortable seats. The journey I made with 70 or so paying passengers in February was a 33,592-mile ride to nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites. My reward for being a lecturer was a free trip and a paycheck.
We boarded the plane in Orlando, Fla., for the first leg — a seven-hour flight to Lima, Peru, then on to Machu Picchu. Identified as Explorer in big black letters on its fuselage, it had a two-and-two seat configuration and carried a chef, a doctor and a professional photographer. Everyone had been warned not to expect afternoons at the beach. The ground itinerary, led by local experts for each destination, would be full, seamless and structured with an emphasis on education. There would be no overnight flights.
What we could expect, though, was five-star pampering: hotels where rooms cost more than $900 a night, landing cards that were filled out for us at each destination, quick VIP trips through immigration and customs in some airports (not China's), a free $10 packet of currency for every country so we didn't have to change money for an incidental expense.
Across the aisle from me sat Kyle Kitagawa from Calgary, Canada, who brought his wife and two sons, ages 14 and 11. He retired at 42 in 2001 but still buys and sells companies in the oil industry, including a derelict one that he bought cheaply, revived and sold for $800 million. If he had that kind of money, I asked, why rush around the world? "You go some place for two weeks and if you don't like it, you're stuck," he said. "This trip is a sampler, like a buffet. You can always go back for seconds for the destinations you really like."
John Bisignano of Mechanicsville, Pa., who drove in 202 race-car events in Europe and North America and became a network broadcast personality for the sport, had another take. "The price is exorbitant," he said, "so I asked my brother-in-law, a VP at Goldman Sachs, if I could afford it. He said, 'Do you really want to see these places?' I said yes, definitely. He ran some numbers and said it's a good investment. If you bit off these places in four or five separate trips, it'd probably be more expensive and take a lot longer.' [My wife] and I signed up that day."
We reached Machu Picchu, by way of Lima and Cuzco, on the Hiram Bingham, an elegant old train whose two dining cars and bar car had been reserved for our group. Accompanying us, ensuring that everything ran smoothly, were four representatives of TCS & Starquest, a Seattle travel company retained as a subcontractor to operate the Geographic's around-the-world trips.
During the next six days we moved on to Easter Island, which National Geographic identifies as the world's most isolated inhabited island; Samoa; and Port Douglas, Australia, off the Great Barrier Reef. In Samoa, the lobby of Aggie Grey's Hotel was abuzz when Tim and Rachel Wells emerged from their room after an appointment with a traditional Polynesian tattooist. We all agreed that the large body designs were works of art. "The first hour was OK. The second was quite painful," said Tim, a computer guru in Celebration, Fla.
We were traveling at a fast, steady clip, but life did not seem hurried. We had a rhythm and because each destination was different, the sites did not blur into a foggy montage. Perhaps you get a little weary Monday, then the excitement of heading to a new place Tuesday picks you up. No one spoke of jet lag. The fact that we were traveling with the sun, east to west, helped. So did the absence of overnight flights and the familiar presence of the big blue Explorer awaiting us for each departure.
"Eszter [Foldvary, Starquest's expedition leader] said at the beginning the plane would be like our home," Steve Wertheimer, an asset manager from Greenwich, Conn., recalled. "I said, 'No way; I fly so much I hate planes.' But about a third of the way into the trip, when we boarded I'm thinking, 'Hey, we're home.'"
The British crew knew every passenger by name. They knew our cocktail preferences and whether we liked coffee or tea. We each had a private overhead bin in which we could leave stuff we didn't want to lug into the hotel at night. The plane was also a classroom where Kent Kobersteen, National Geographic's former director of photography, historian Paula Swart and I delivered our lectures so valuable ground time wouldn't be lost.
We crossed the international date line, missing most of Friday and setting our watches ahead 20 hours. From that point on, I had to rely on my pill box to know what day of the week it was. We seldom saw a newspaper, never saw television unless our hotel had CNN.
We toured the ruins of Angkor Wat's temples in Cambodia in 95-degree tropical heat, overnighted in Chengdu, China, a city of 11 million where the Panda Research Base offers visitors the free use of canes, umbrellas and sewing kits. We spent two days on the "rooftop of the world," Lhasa, Tibet. The temperature was 22 degrees the morning we toured Potala Palace, former home of the Dalai Lamas. A tall Tibetan in traditional dress shyly approached a member of our group, put out his hand and by way of greeting said, "Johnnie Walker."
Next stop Agra, India, where all the rooms in our hotel, the Oberoi, faced the Taj Mahal and an airport sign said, "Do Not Pay Bribe." What will it be like, I wondered, to return to my real life in Virginia and wake up knowing today is going to be a lot like yesterday?
"I've set up companies in 10 countries all over the world," said Ed Knoph, a businessman from Mercer Island, Wash. "But I'm kind of embarrassed to admit I was never really connected to the world. Traveling wasn't about history or people. It was just do your business and get out. This trip has connected me for the first time."
Knoph and I were sipping wine at tables set up for a barbecue lunch on the Serengeti Plain of Tanzania. The horizon was infinite and the wildlife abundant. Our group's average age was, I'd say, somewhere in the 60s. Many people had traveled extensively for business but seldom had taken the time to do it for pleasure. Virtually all had been super achievers, whether it was in the corporate world or as independent businesspeople, lawyers, inventors or entrepreneurs. The majority traveled with spouses. Money and politics were never discussed.
It struck me, in the emptiness of Africa, that in nearly three weeks I had not heard a complaint or seen a scowling face. Our group was congenial, engaged, curious. I asked Judy Blocker, of Atlantic Beach, Fla., what she would say to someone considering an around-the-world trip. "I'd definitely tell them to do it but don't expect it to be relaxing or even easy. It is very intense."
Intense, yes, but not without some off-hours' fun: packing the Hiram Bingham's bar car to sing and drink as a band played "A Hard Day's Night," dancing with the performers of a cultural show in Jordan, swapping stories with one another and with expedition leader Foldvary, who was on her 16th around-the-world trip; touring an Australian rain forest with a park ranger who said, "There is always something in the jungle trying to harm you. Downstream we've got 15-foot crocodiles, 28-foot pythons, 2-foot rats."
We were in the home stretch now. All that remained were the sandstone ruins of Petra in Jordan and Marrakech, Morocco, with its colorful medina and Djemaa el Fina square, populated by snake charmers, acrobats, magicians, scribes, fortunetellers and an old man who will give you a haircut or pull a tooth for 40 cents.
We returned to Orlando on the afternoon of the 23rd day, having logged three days and 18 minutes of accumulated flying time. My mind was back in China or India, spinning with all we had seen, heard and learned, as I hurried to catch my flight to Washington, D.C. I settled into a middle seat in the last row of economy class. It was a reminder that the entitlements of the last few weeks were never meant to be permanent.