Today's hot vacation: The anti-tourJuly 13, 2012: 5:00 AM ET
The hotel-and-sightseeing trip is so 2007. These days travel is all about one-of-a-kind experiences - and bragging rights.
By Kate Flaim, contributor
FORTUNE – Of the many ways Facebook has changed our lives, one of the more frustrating is how quickly it can take the shine off your best vacations. Thanks to album shares and instant photo uploads, it's now much easier to see just how many of your extended circle have also, say, posed at the same overlook you did in Machu Picchu or spent July bodysurfing at the beach. The trips might always have been a little routine, but now it's painfully obvious.
The latest trend in the travel world aims to help vacationers hold on to their bragging rights. A growing number of companies are offering "experiential travel," trips that veer off the beaten path and focus less on seeing sights and more on having singular experiences. So, instead of trailing along with a tour group on your Mongolian trek, you might bond with a local shaman, then end your day in an exquisitely appointed yurt. Instead of eating at a top TripAdvisor pick, how about spending a few days with a celebrity chef as you explore his culinary influences? Just try finding that on your friend's Facebook page.
Hotel companies are getting into this bigtime, with most of the luxury chains offering "local flavor" in the form of carefully crafted excursions. Travel agents have long focused on creating unique itineraries, but new companies now offer insider adventures for any budget. Even travel guides are getting into the game: Frommer's Remix, a new website from the travel guide giant, generates an itinerary based on your destination and preferences, then sends you a custom-made book with maps centered on your hotel.
These days a new field isn't legitimate until a tech startup enters the fray; last April, San Francisco-based Vayable launched as the "AirBnB of experiences," offering travelers the ability to bid on unique itineraries submitted by locals (offered recently: a street-food tour of East London for $55 per person). The company now has some 10,000 registered users and lists 2,000 experiences -- and last year teamed up with AirBnB to offer unique itineraries to AirBnB renters.
With all the options, there's something for every travel need -- and every budget. From mini-indulgence to a once-in-a-lucky-lifetime splurge, here are three ways to break free of the everyone-else-was-there-too blahs.
On a budget
The average traveler can scour travel magazines and poll word of mouth for the best local ideas, but that takes time and connections. A new New York company, Fortnighter, offers a fix by creating individualized itineraries written by professional travel writers. Fortnighter taps into a pool of some 100 freelance writers from the likes of the New York Times and Condé Nast Traveler, who put together three-, five-, or seven-day plans for trips anywhere in the world for prices ranging from $135 for a one- to three-day trip to $320 for seven-plus days. Users fill out an online form to indicate their interests, specifying everything from early-bird or night-owl tendencies to specific cuisine preferences.
The itineraries can range from a couple of days (a recent mission: Fill in the free time around a wedding in Chennai, India, with cool local activities and a day trip to nearby Mahabalipuram) to several weeks. One client asked the company to structure a three-week road trip through New Zealand. He had heard of caves full of mesmerizing glowworms but didn't know any details, so Fortnighter's writer did the research, tracked down an outfitter to escort him through the caves, and found hotels for 10 stops along the way.
The downside: Once Fortnighter hands over the itinerary in a slick PDF, you're on your own to book the options you find most appealing. Still, a customized vacation without spending endless hours sifting through websites and travel magazines can be priceless.
If you want a rich experience but prefer to base your trip around your cushy hotel, many resorts are beefing up their abilities to deliver unique experiences both on and off their premises. The pioneer here is One&Only Resorts, the upscale hotel collection (rates start at $725 a night) with seven properties scattered from Mexico to Dubai (an eighth is under construction in China). At each location, the staff is empowered to create a "One&Only moment" when the opportunity presents itself. If a guest mentions something like a favorite song, drink, color, or food, the staff do their best to, say, play the song or make the dish appear at dinner. "We understand the importance of the unexpected when it comes to creating a memory," says CEO Alan Liebman, and it's "something that can't be sacrificed at the expense of corporate red tape."
One group of visitors to the company's Cape Town property wanted to explore the region's food and wine, so the managing director called on local celebrity chef Reuben Riffel, who had just joined the resort as executive chef, to lead a five-day culinary tour with top-ranked sommelier Luvo Ntezo. (The excursion costs were on top of the hotel bill.) They traced Riffel's culinary history and visited the producers, markets, vineyards, and restaurants that inspired his latest cookbook. On the last night Riffel and his wife hosted a special dinner paired with rare wines from a nearby cult-favorite vineyard (the winemaker joined, of course). As they'd say in Afrikaans, Gesondheid (Cheers!).
Sky's the limit
Are you royalty? A billionaire? Just sell your tech startup? Based on a True Story could be for you. Founded by British entrepreneur Niel Fox, this Europe-based outfit organizes just a handful of trips each year, but each one is a wish-fulfillment bonanza.
So what do you get when you hand over the AmEx black card and ask for the moon? Imagine a cast-iron canopy bed perched on the edge of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, or a custom-built igloo complex, complete with a hot tub and champagne chilling in the walls, awaiting the arrival of your Finnish dogsledding team. Wherever you go, you'll get all-private transport -- jet, yacht, you name it -- plus a professional photographer cum tour guide who accompanies you, shooting the footage for the book that will arrive after your return home.
This kind of treatment will cost you -- most trips run in the six-figure range or more, though the company has on occasion arranged weekend trips for less -- but the experiences truly can border on magical. (One group of travelers had no idea where they'd be exploring until their private plane touched down and all their phones lit up, saying, WELCOME TO INDIA!) While travel within Myanmar has been limited by the government, Fox has arranged several journeys through the country's rich landscape. One group recently enjoyed a dinner among the temples of Bagan while a monk read their fortunes, then helped them release birds to set the plans in motion. Other travelers, on safari in South Africa, were enjoying a bonfire after dinner when they suddenly found themselves surrounded by the sound of tribal drums. After a brief pause a battle cry shot out, and hundreds of Zulu tribespeople charged down and staged a battle in front of the stunned tourists.
Fox won't name his clients. "No one knows who we work for, and it will always stay that way," he says. But royal families and billionaires seem to have him on speed dial. Better start saving now -- or cross your fingers for that buyout.
This story is from the July 23, 2012 issue of Fortune.