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Private Travel: Private Landings

The Robb Report Staff

Something Wild
Two female lions, appearing only marginally concerned with our presence, laze around the carcass of the young impala they killed minutes ago. Lions spend as many as 23 hours each day dozing, and these two, not unlike many of us, cannot decide which is the more enticing option: to sleep or to eat.

The lionesses choose to eat, and as their massive jaws tear and chew, the sound of crunching bones is clearly audible from our truck.

Thanda Private Game Reserve.

Around us, the hills of northern Zululand are green from recent rains. The ragged foothills of the Lebombo Mountains rise to the north. The undulating thornveld bristles with acacia trees, their gnarled branches vivid against the cobalt sky. Although wild and remote, this land—23 square miles in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal region—belongs to one of the continent’s most exclusive retreats, the Thanda Private Game Reserve. The resort’s guest accommodations sit on a hillside only a short distance away, hidden within a stand of forest. They include nine richly appointed villas, a wellness center, and a tented bush camp.

Earlier in the day, our Beechcraft Bonanza had touched down at the Mkuze airstrip, concluding a one hour, 45-minute flight from Johannesburg’s Lanseria Airport, which is 350 miles away. The drive from Johannesburg, where we passed through customs, would have taken six hours. Thanda expects to open its own 6,500-foot airstrip within the reserve proper next April. But Mkuze, with a 3,920-foot runway and a spacious parking apron, is located only 25 minutes by car from the reserve.

* Thanda Private Game Reserve *
Access:
Mkuze Airport
Runway length: 3,920 feet
Can accommodate: Bombardier Learjet 60
Distance from property: 25 minutes by car
Restrictions: Visual approaches only
Alternate means of arrival: Fly commercially to Johannesburg, South Africa, and drive six hours.
Future access: Next year, Thanda will open a 6,500-foot airstrip on-site.
Contact: +27.11.465.0765, www.thanda.co.za
Lodging rates: $595–$1,290

We are greeted on the Mkuze tarmac by Michelle Swemmer, one of Thanda’s licensed rangers. Swemmer is trained in the sciences—ecology and wildlife management—but like all of Thanda’s staff, she is no less skilled in the art of hospitality. For our arrival she has assembled a planeside welcome table of Champagne, orange juice, and mineral water. After quaffing these drinks, which are much appreciated in the 90-degree heat, we drive along a rural highway and gravel road to the lodge. Along the way we watch antelope feeding in the bush and a troupe of vervet monkeys leaping between trees.

Thanda’s nine villas straddle a steep hillside, facing east. Each stands alone in its own parcel of forest, visible only by its thatched rooftop piercing the emerald canopy. Measuring nearly 2,400 square feet, each villa features a stone fireplace and freestanding tub and is flooded with light from floor-to-ceiling windows. Sliding doors lead to a private veranda, an infinity pool, and an outdoor daybed area set beneath a thatched gazebo.

Wickaninnish Inn (top), and Cibolo Creek Ranch (bottom). Thanda and the “Wick” are accessible from nearby airstrips, while Cibolo Creek has its own runway. (Click images to enlarge)

A walk outside the villa introduces you to some of the reserve’s avian wildlife. By the pool, I spot an eastern paradise whydah, a male, with a tricolor head and an implausibly long tail—a simultaneously beautiful and ungainly animal. A few minutes later, as I recline in a deck chair, a brown-hooded kingfisher perches on a low-hanging branch, barely an arm’s length away. A casual survey of the surrounding greenery also reveals a crowned hornbill, several iridescent sunbirds, and, given away by the comical claxon of their calls, a pair of hadeda ibis.
 
The main lodge is reached by a short walk along a planked pathway. The property is unfenced, and because of the proximity of animals, house rules require that guests have staff escorts to and from the villas after dark. The complex features a lounge, a library, a cigar bar, a business center with high-speed Internet service, and a two-level dining area with exceptional views and a fine menu.

Richard Phiri, Thanda’s executive chef, received his culinary training in both Italy and the African nation of Malawi, and he deftly adapts traditional African cuisine to Western palates. His dishes include duck and pepperdew kebabs marinated in coriander and orange and served on a bed of salad greens, and springbok loin crusted with whole-grain mustard and fresh garden herbs and drenched in a red wine and plum sauce. Phiri’s specialty dessert is floating islands, a concoction made from egg white, fruit, and lime juice. Almost everything from the kitchen, from the bread to the ice cream, is made on the premises. Phiri is a most amiable sort, but his Zulu accent can create some confusion; several of us thought we were ordering a creation called “Waldorf salad” when in fact we were selecting warthog salad.

When not dining or indulging in an aromatherapy treatment at Thanda’s wellness center, you can take part in a game-spotting drive in the hotel’s open-top safari truck. Guests typically set out just after sunrise for the first drive, then again around 4:30, following midafternoon tea. On a drive, you might encounter any of the Big Five—elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, and rhino—and Thanda also is home to the Burchell’s zebra, a large subspecies once thought to be extinct.

During our afternoon drive, in one 60-minute span, we witness not only the lion kill but also a foursome of Cape buffalo and a trio of the highly endangered white rhinoceroses, trundling past like tanks. These sightings are followed by a sundown respite, during which refreshments are served from the vehicle’s tailgate cocktail bar. The after-dark return provides a chance to glimpse the area’s nocturnal fauna, which includes owls and porcupines. We spot a massive bark spider, patiently spinning its meter-wide web in perfect concentric circles. And then, to cap the experience, we see a 10-foot rock python slowly making its way along one of the game trails, its patterned scales shimmering in the moonlight. —Patrick Smith

 

Northern Exposure
Only a masochist would crave foul weather on a pleasure trip, unless the jaunt is to Tofino, British Columbia, on Vancouver Island’s rugged west coast, and the haven from the elements is the Wickaninnish Inn. The waves that crash on rocky promontories—reminders of the large number of shipwrecks in this region that is called “the Graveyard of the Pacific”—are among the area’s compelling visual attractions, especially during winter storm season.

The nearby town of Tofino is literally at the end of the road. As you survey the scene in Tofino, with its crab dock and herring skiffs limned by the weak winter sunlight, you might see a Beaver floatplane take off, as if to underscore the word remote. Although the Trans-Canada Highway’s official western terminus is the city of Victoria, another highway leads north and farther west, finally ending here, some four and a half hours from Victoria by car. But during World War II, the Canadian military built three long runways within the nearby Pacific Rim National Park that provide much faster access to the inn.

The Wickaninnish, or “Wick,” a Relais & Châteaux property, sits within a UNESCO biosphere reserve on land that the First Nations people have populated for some 10,000 years. The property abuts a rain forest and faces the open ocean. Surfing is possible throughout the winter (the season is stormy, but temperatures remain mild), and each March, guests gather to watch gray whales migrating north. Other outdoor pursuits include hiking, kayaking, and salmon fishing.

* Wickaninnish Inn *
Access: Tofino Airport
Runway length: 5,000 feet
Can accommodate: Boeing 727
Distance from property: 10 minutes by car
Alternate means of arrival: Fly commercially from Vancouver, British Columbia, via Orca Airways.
Contact: 250.725.3100, www.wickinn.com
Lodging rates: $235–$1,360

In the 1960s, hippies gravitated toward Tofino and stayed here. Next came the conscientious objectors of the Vietnam War, who lived on the beaches in the summer. Amnesty was granted in 1977, but many of the objectors stayed. Protesters of the green variety converged on Tofino beginning in the 1980s to campaign against clear-cut logging, sparking the largest mass arrest in Canadian history—more than 800 people—in 1993. For now, turmoil appears limited to the storm season.

Wickaninnish Inn.

Subtle reminders of nature’s wrath decorate the spacious rooms and suites at the Wick. Night-lights convert to flashlights, and the closets hold Hudson’s Bay blankets to wrap up in as you sit on the balcony to watch for eagles, seals, or whales. (All rooms have binoculars.) The Pointe restaurant offers views of ocean spray and serves seafood potlatch and local salmon. Fittingly, the spa specializes in thalassotherapy, or seawater treatments. The 900-square-foot Canopy Suite, the inn’s premier accommodation, is located on the top floor and has floor-to-ceiling windows.
 
“When I was a kid, I always hoped for a big, shrieking storm,” says Charles McDiarmid, the inn’s managing director, who grew up here and returned after four years at Cornell and 13 with Four Seasons. “For many, this is a spiritual place, where you can walk on the beach and in the silence of the forest. Still, people thought we were crazy to build a high-end place in a spot as remote as Tofino. We weren’t sure that anyone would show up for the party.”

Clearly, that has not been a problem. For all its remoteness, the Wickaninnish has no difficulty eliciting RSVPs. —Karen Cakebread

Lone Star Estate
Cherri has spooked the longhorns. The eight-month-old Brittany spaniel is dashing toward about eight of the animals, including two calves and a bull that is stamping the ground, its horns lowered.

“They think she’s a coyote,” explains Bobby Tharp. “They get ornery when their young are threatened.” He gestures toward the rough mountain trail, the upthrusts of volcanic rock, the brown scrub and pale green cacti, and Chinati Peak poking into the sky about a mile away. This dry, desolate, spectacular spread of West Texas landscape serves as the setting for Cibolo Creek Ranch, where Tharp has worked for six years. “Got to watch yourself in these parts,” Tharp says. “Anything that lives here, if it don’t poke you, it’ll bite you.”

Cherri (short for Cherokee) decides that discretion is the better part of valor and scampers back to the Desert Storm–era Humvee, leaping into the back. Tharp drives on.

* Cibolo Creek Ranch *
Access: Airstrip on-site
Runway length: 5,300 feet
Can accommodate: Gulfstream IV
Restrictions: Visual approaches only
Alternate means of arrival: Fly commercially to Midland or El Paso, Texas, and drive four hours.
Contact: 432.229.3737, www.cibolocreekranch.com
Lodging rates: $450–$600

Cibolo Creek Ranch occupies the sites of some private adobe forts that were erected in the mid-1800s as a defense against Apache. Situated within a 32,000-acre working longhorn ranch, the hacienda-style resort is located about 60 miles south of Fort Davis and about 30 miles north of Presidio on the Rio Grande. Because the nearest large commercial airports, in Midland and El Paso, are each about a four-hour drive away, Cibolo Creek maintains its own airstrip—a fortunate decision, as otherwise far fewer people would visit this breathtaking spot in a sprawling valley amid the Chinati Mountains.

Here, at an altitude of about 4,000 feet, the temperature rarely rises to uncomfortable levels, even in the summer. The area also contains a number of springs, a feature that has attracted humans since prehistoric times. (Some caves near the ranch contain ancient pictographs.) Until the early 1800s, the inhabitants were largely Apache and Comanche, who lived off vast herds of buffalo. But in 1855, when the U.S. government built Fort Davis to keep an eye on the border with Mexico, the land captured the attention of a rancher named Milton Faver. Calculating that the new fort would require a steady supply of beef, Faver purchased the land around the streams, built his first fort (El Cibolo, “the buffalo”), and began acquiring longhorns. Despite frequent Indian raids, he prospered, eventually amassing several thousand head of cattle. Meanwhile he built two more forts nearby: La Cienega (“the marshy place”) and La Morita (“the little mulberry tree”). Upon his death in 1889, his three properties fell into disrepair.

 

 

Cibolo Creek Ranch.

They were saved by John Poindexter, a Houston businessman. Beginning in 1990, Poindexter restored the forts at Cibolo Creek, rebuilding their adobe walls, rock corrals, and water conduits, and returned longhorn cattle to the land. At El Cibolo, he created a hacienda that contains 21 rooms. La Cienega holds another 10 rooms, and a cottage next to the old La Morita fort contains a single suite. The El Cibolo fort houses a museum with artifacts from Faver’s day and a good supply of arrowheads.

The rooms are decorated with Mexican and Spanish antiques, including rough wooden tables, old chests, and fine ironwork. Consistent with Poindexter’s determination to restore the properties to their original condition, the rooms contain no phones or televisions, although El Cibolo and La Cienega both have one phone and one TV apiece in common areas. But these amenities are likely to be overlooked, as guests come to Cibolo Creek for its outdoor activities, which include game and bird hunting, horseback riding, hiking, and mountain biking. Ranch tours allow you to view buffalo, white-tailed and mule deer, antelope, quail, javelinas—which resemble small boars—and other local wildlife. The property even has a few camels, recalling a period in the mid-19th century when the U.S. military tested the beasts as a replacement for horses. (The experiment failed, largely because the camels were so nasty.) For those who wish to venture farther afield, Big Bend National Park is about 110 miles away.

But most guests of Cibolo Creek do not venture far, for they seek the increasingly rare attractions that the ranch offers: natural beauty and solitude. And for those concerned about being poked or bitten by something, Bobby Tharp is there to help them navigate the terrain, and Cherri can at least chase away the smaller critters. —Michael Schulze

Required Course
In the mid-18th century, Nemacolin, the chief of a Delaware tribe, blazed a trail between the Potomac and Monongahela rivers in Pennsylvania. During the French and Indian War, George Washington used the trail as he led Colonial troops on missions against Fort Duquesne (now Pittsburgh). Today that trail is U.S. Route 40, and it provides one way to reach Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, a 2,800-acre estate in the town of Farmington in the Laurel Highlands mountains. However, the drive from Pittsburgh International Airport can take an hour and a half, so a more expeditious manner of reaching the resort is to use its on-site private airfield.
 
According to director of resort operations Trey Matheu, 350 to 500 aircraft land on the field’s asphalt airstrip every year. “The aircraft parking area is literally at the resort’s back door,” he says. “If you bring clubs, you have to decide what to do first—play golf or check in—because the first tees of our Links course and Château LaFayette are the same distance from the runway.”

* Nemacolin Woodlands *
Access: Airstrip on-site
Runway length: 3,900 feet
C an accommodate: Dassault Falcon 50
Restrictions: The resort prefers that guests do not schedule early-morning or late-night takeoffs or landings.
Alternate means of arrival: Fly commercially to Pittsburgh, Pa., and drive an hour and a half.
Contact: 724.329.8555, www.nemacolin.com
Lodging rates: $305–$3,000

The château, a 124-room hotel that recalls the architecture of the Ritz in Paris, is a three-minute walk from the airstrip. (Nemacolin will provide complimentary transportation if desired.) At the hotel, you can enjoy a welcoming drink—perhaps a glass of wine from the 17,000-bottle cellar—under the crystal chandeliers in the lobby bar. Then you might repair to the Club Level, with its well-appointed suites with large whirlpool baths and 24-hour butler service.

Once you have settled in, there is much more to discover. Beyond the Links course lies Falling Rock, a 42-room hotel modeled after the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. (Falling Rock architect David Merritt studied at Taliesin, Wright’s architectural school near Spring Green, Wis.) Just beyond Falling Rock’s three-story lobby, the Mystic Rock golf course, the site of a PGA event for several years, rambles over the Pennsylvania countryside. For a less sedate experience, the resort’s Off-Road Driving Academy provides H1 and H2 Hummers for attacking 18 miles of trails and the Crater, a seven-acre, mud- and obstacle-filled test of driving ability. Nemacolin also offers a 140-acre clay-shooting academy, a David Leadbetter Golf Academy, and a pair of spas.

Nemacolin Woodlands. (Click image to enlarge)

The resort’s airstrip, which sits on a mountain ridge at an altitude of just over 2,000 feet, can experience bad weather, even in the summer months. But few guests suffer airport anxiety. On the rare occasions when takeoffs are delayed, one of the world’s most elegant departure lounges—the bar in the château’s lobby—is just steps away. —Mike Nolan

 

Solitary Refinement
During Prohibition, bootleggers used caves in the cliffs that line the coast of California’s Mendocino County to stash liquor. Today, the area retains the qualities that attracted those smugglers: isolation and privacy. And the Heritage House inn, set on 37 acres stretching along those cliffs, offers an elegant way to venture beyond the beaten paths of Napa Valley’s crowded wine country.

Heritage House. (Click image to enlarge)

Roads leading to the Heritage House from the Bay Area are scenic but long and winding, and a car trip from the San Francisco or Oakland airports can require around four hours. However, the nearby Little River Airport has a runway, built as an emergency landing strip during World War II, that can accommodate jets as large as Gulfstreams.

* Heritage House *
Access: Little River Airport
Runway length: 5,250 feet
Can accommodate: Boeing 737
Distance from property: 5 minutes by car
Restrictions: Visual approaches only
Alternate means of arrival: Fly commercially to San Francisco or Oakland, Calif., and drive four hours.
Contact: 707.937.5888, www.heritagehouseinn.com
Lodging rates: $200–$1,300

The inn, which opened in the late 1940s, recently was given a contemporary redesign by its new manager, General Hotel Management. Outside the main building, which houses a dining room and lounge, detached suites dot a hillside that leads to the bluffs. The suites contain telephones and televisions, items that once were lacking. The new interior design combines such rustic touches as feather beds and wood-burning fireplaces with wireless Internet and preloaded iPods that plug into a desktop unit with Bose stereo speakers. All rooms have Jacuzzi tubs, many with ocean views.

Away from the inn, you can explore the region’s many hiking trails, venture into the hamlet of Mendocino, or visit the botanical gardens in nearby Fort Bragg. The area’s coastal vineyards are well known for their Pinot Noir, and along the highway south of the inn, you will find several that offer tours and tastings. —Scott Gummer

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Photo by Janos Grapow