The lure of luxury adventure online

Can adventure travel be luxurious?

Can you rough it and be pampered at the same time? Are activities like deep-sea fishing and tennis compatible? Can hiking through the jungle be followed by a five-course meal or a massage? Is it possible to conclude a hard day of Scuba diving with a cocktail reception?

For years, luxury adventure travel has been a favored pastime of trust fund kids and eccentric overachievers and the almost exclusive domain of high-end tour operators like Abercrombie & Kent – in other words, a niche within a niche.

Although there are no reliable figures on the size of this highly specialized market, there’s evidence that the Web is now giving it a boost. Or, at least, that it could be.

Case in point: the Web site for Caneel Bay, the Rosewood resort on the tropical island of St. John built by Laurance S. Rockefeller in 1955. In real-life, the 166-room property is framed by a national park on one side and the Caribbean on the other, but online, it all but promises you the best of both worlds – the excitement of hiking, sailing and fishing; and the sedate, restful vacation you’d expect from a luxury hotel.

I visited Caneel Bay last month to attend a writer’s conference. As a disclaimer, I should note that the hotel covered a majority of my expenses, which effectively means that I never saw a bill. That’s certainly not the norm. A typical guest will part with several thousand dollars to experience a week of this adventurous luxury.

Caneel Bay does an extraordinary job of balancing the guest’s need for relaxation with his or her need for stimulation. The hiking trails through its hills aren’t exactly meant for the sandal-wearing, shorts-and-T-shirt crowd. Long pants, sneakers and a bottle of water are a must for negotiating the terrain that can segue from a gentle slope to a steep incline without warning.

Diving with resident dive expert Bob Carney – a.k.a. “Uncle Bob” – is also no day at the beach. At this time of year, you’ll get ferried out to one of dozens of impressive dive sites in equally impressive swells, and dropped into the azure Caribbean. The sea turtles, moray eels and game fish that lurk in the watery shadows distract you long enough to be surprised by the surge. It’s the kind of diving that’s as rewarding as it is exhausting.

But guests do not rough it elsewhere. Speaking of days at the beach, the stretches of bleached yellow sand are every bit as restful as any at a Caribbean spa. And sure, you can order a massage or take part in Caneel’s yoga classes, and then dine at any of the on-property restaurants, where the fare is decidedly upscale.

How does all of this translate online? To be honest, not very well.

Caneel Bay’s Web site is simple, even simplistic, by today’s standards. While it does an adequate job of describing what guests can expect, it doesn’t draw them into the kind of adventure that the resort certainly can offer. The only way to see how the hotel blends these two seemingly contradictory vacations is to experience them yourself.

That may be the point of Caneel’s Web site, but I doubt it. The hotel industry typically lags behind when it comes to keeping a contemporary Internet presence, and my educated guess is that this particular property had bigger metaphorical fish to fry that to hire a cutting-edge Web design firm. Like renovating the rooms or taking care of guests.

Perhaps there’s little point in pouring money into a flashy site when a good number of your visitors are return-customers who probably didn’t even know the hotel had a site.

All of which brings us back to the issue of adequately describing luxury vacations to the Internet. With absolutely no industry numbers and a case study that proves only that it’s possible to straddle the fence between the two, where does that leave us?

If Caneel’s Web presence is typical for other resorts trying to achieve the same thing (and there’s nothing to indicate that it isn’t) then it means that the player in this “nichy” niche have got their work cut out for them if they want to communicate with their customer.

Assuming, of course, that they want to communicate with their customer online.

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