With guides such as Don McCullin, The Luminaire’s tours shed new light on world wonders

By John O’Ceallaigh

I know it’s becoming boring to bleat on about what we’ve learned from the pandemic (and I’m glad about that), so I’ll just briefly mention that my approach to travel has recently shifted in two notable ways: I don’t want to travel absentmindedly, without a proper motivation or intention for the journey; I want to learn something significant or invest in my self-improvement while I’m away. 

A key experience that alerted me to how beneficial and energising a trip spent with inspiring people can be came during my visit last year to The Aerial, the private-island retreat in the BVI whose self-made American owner Britnie Turner runs inspiring life-coaching courses. Now a newly launched ‘disruptive’ tour operator is playing with the same concepts, albeit pitched a bit more at a European audience. 

Founded by alumni from Cookson Adventures and Aman (Adam Sebba and Nicholas Priest respectively), The Luminaire provides bespoke tours that engage with culture, history, heritage and human endeavour, and that are led by proper, preeminent experts at the top of their game, be they explorers, naturalists, historians or archaeologists. Though that in itself isn’t revolutionary, what’s more unusual here is the calibre of the individuals The Luminaire has partnered with, and the intricacy and finesse of the programmes they’ll lead.

Among the organisation’s so-called Guild of experts are octogenarian war photographer Don McCullin, who will head (presumably risk-free) photographic expeditions through genteel Somerset. They’ll provide opportunities to learn about photography directly from a master of his craft – indeed, McCullin is the only living photographer to have a standalone exhibition of his work show at Tate Britain – but also to query him on a career that extends over half a century and has included perilous stints in Cambodia, an imprisonment in Uganda and escaping bounty hunters in Lebanon. 

Sir Ranulph Fiennes will lead explorations of Antarctica

Luminaire clients might also elect to tour Venice during the Art Biennale with architect and historian Francesco da Mosto, whose family has lived in the city for over a millennium. When I first learned about The Luminaire I was also impressed to hear that Sir Ranulph Fiennes would lead tours of Antarctica aboard Legend, a robust retrofitted icebreaker (which I coincidentally travelled on during my own Antarctica voyage a few years ago – my trip of a lifetime). However, after publication of an earlier version of this piece I learned that specific partnership had fallen through and the hunt is on for a replacement of similarly high calibre. It is, however, still fully confirmed that French historian and author Evelyne Lever, an authority on the French monarchy, will guide tours that delve into the artistic legacy of pre-Revolution Paris and include rarely granted access to little-known stretches of Versailles. (For that last tour, you could consider adding on a stay to Airelles Chateau de Versailles, the recently opened heritage hotel that forms part of the palace grounds.)

Other experiences will take place in Cairo and Luxor, the French Riviera and Argentina, and all those expert insights and that exclusive insider access will be pricey. For a group of six, the five-night Venice itinerary would cost £22,600 per person, with accommodation in a private palazzo. The Antarctica itinerary has been marketed at a cost of £290,000 per two-person cabin for a nine-night itinerary, suggesting Fiennes, initially, and his yet-to-be-announced replacement command a hefty premium. When I travelled aboard Legend four years ago, superyacht specialist EYOS Expeditions was launching a new concept whereby prospective passengers could book passage aboard the superyacht on a per-cabin basis rather than hiring the vessel as a whole; rates started at £44,000 per cabin per week, while chartering the yacht exclusively cost from £430,000 per week.

In determining what their desired customers would like to see and do, the Luminaire team interviewed 170 luxury travellers in China, Europe and the US, with a combined wealth of $4.4 billion. “Enriching cultural experiences” was travellers’ primary desire when selecting a place to stay, or so they said at least. Adam Sebba told me that this was their “top reason for selecting a hotel, whilst room design – traditionally an important consideration – scored the lowest with almost no responses.” I find it hard to believe that this echelon is indifferent to the value of their suite’s aesthetics and is primarily motivated by a desire for life-affirming cultural encounters. Of course a stratum of people are like this but it doesn’t align with what I so frequently hear from my own contacts – I wonder if it’s a case of survey respondents replying with what they feel it’s good to say rather than how they really feel. 

Architect and historian Francesco da Mosto will provide a new perspective on Venice

Nonetheless, the initial response has been good and The Luminaire’s range of itineraries continues to expand. When travel restrictions ease, future tours will take place in the likes of Japan; the roster of experts is ever-growing too. For more on what’s in store, you can read my interview with Adam Sebba below.

Why do you think now is the right time to launch this concept?
While preparing to launch [our research showed that] we are witnessing a shift in what travellers look for when they select their destinations and activities. A new generation of curious travellers has emerged and the industry has yet to connect with these individuals. They want to know more about the world and hear interesting stories about the places they travel. They want to learn new skills whilst they are there, and return home a richer, more aware person.  

Your promotional material says you’ll “reintroduce” cultural and educational travel to a new generation, but this type of travel already exists. What do you mean by that?
Though we didn’t coin the term ‘educational travel’, of course, we feel that this is an aspect of the luxury-travel industry in urgent need of reinvention. To be frank, we feel it is currently seen as something dated and undesirable.

This is the gap The Luminaire intends to fill with our modern, diverse and fresh take on stimulating, curiosity-driven travel – we see art and interest in everything. Our concept, like Masterclass [online tutorials] in real life, gives travellers new and more informed perspectives, changing the world for the better in the process – we hope. 

What other experiences would you like to offer in future?
We are working on new itineraries constantly. I can’t go into too much detail, but we have some upcoming offerings of great personal interest to me and my co-founder, Nicholas Priest, including a mesmerising journey through Japan and something very special in Wyoming. That said, we curate completely bespoke experiences for our guests. So the true answer to this question is ‘whatever our customers wish’. 

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LUTE is a luxury-travel consultant and content agency that works with hotel groups, tour operators, tourist boards, airlines and more. You can learn more about LUTE hereFor frequent luxury-travel updates, follow LUTE and LUTE founder John O’Ceallaigh on Instagram.

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