The Critic

Andrew Harper roams incognito to review top destinations

Travel enthusiast Andrew Harper has spent 25 years ferreting out the best and worst in luxury travel for readers of his monthly Hideaway Report ( Harper, who uses this pseudonym in his writing so he won't be recognized at the places he reviews, recently spoke with Associate Editor Diane Brady about his experiences on the road.

Why did you start the Hideaway Report?

I came up with the name when my wife and I were at yet another disappointing destination -- something we had read about that wasn't at all like the description. It made me think there must be a market out there for a publication that covers peaceful and unspoiled places, but mentions the good things and the warts, too. I travel under my real name and pay the same rate as everyone else. We accept no advertising. It works. I never thought honesty would be such an unusual trait.

Who is your typical customer?

Over 93% are 45 to 65, and they tend to be successful. But most of them have earned their wealth rather than inherited it, so they know the value of a dollar. They want to go to places that are a bit out of the way. Like me, they cannot stand hotels that drop celebrity names. The fact that Ben Affleck stayed at a hotel does not make it great. More than anything else, they're looking for personal service. That's the heart and soul of a hotel.

How has the travel landscape changed over the past 25 years?

People today are far more adventurous than they used to be, in part because there are more boutique hotels in exotic locations. One of the pioneers of that was Adrian Zecha with Amanresorts in Asia. Oberoi Hotels has done the same thing in opening up India, one of the last great frontiers. Like Aman, they have a wonderful sense of place. It's not like the old Ritz-Carltons, where you would see the 18th and 19th-century equestrian prints no matter where you were. The world is opening up, and more people have the disposable income to travel.

What are the consequences?

The future isn't all that bright. You're going to see more people pouring into these places. I think the world will become more homogeneous and less exotic. If you want to see a place like Costa Rica, you better do it in the next five years because development is booming.

Have some destinations improved?

Sure. Let's take Bali, which has had a lot of boutique hotels move in. It still has those wonderfully mystical highlands. The people have held on to their values. They truly believe their island is a pantheon of gods.

For me, one of life's last great adventures is an African safari. The experience is never the same and where else can you venture forth into a primitive world devoid of modern-day pretensions? I tell people to go to East Africa to experience that epic annual migration of more than a million wildebeest. The Serengeti is awesome. For something different, I would go to Botswana to the Okavango Delta area.

Which places are overrated?

Tuscany is a beautiful area but I don't think it will hold on for much longer. You do see a lot of Americans, and some people will look for quieter places. But it's all relative to the time that you're living and traveling. Where Tuscany might not be as appealing to me as it was 10 years ago, someone else who goes there for the first time might find it fabulous.

One destination that disappointed me was China. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao obliterated that country's heritage. I go to places like Hong Kong and Singapore, and I don't quite get it. I see all the stores I see back home, only there are eight of them. And Russia, aside from St. Petersburg, is really quite gloomy to me. You can see the despair and disillusionment that years of totalitarian rule have wrought. I was also disappointed in Jerusalem. Here you have a real spiritual epicenter, and there was an air of discontent.

Any bright spots?

There are so many magical places. Big EZ Lodge in Montana is truly incredible. I love colonial Mexico. The Hotel La Perla in the Dolomites of Italy is something else. In Morocco, La Gazelle d'Or is a beguiling place. What's nice is that with more money and better infrastructure, more people will experience places like Patagonia. Travel really is the best education. My advice is, if you want to see a place in the world, don't wait.

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