There used to be two categories of holiday-goers: those who travelled all-inclusive, be it through Sandals in Barbados or Butlins in Skegness, and those who did it DIY, booking everything themselves. I expect most Spectator readers fall into the latter category. We book ourselves a villa – CV for Italy, Landmark Trust for Cornwall – or a hotel, look up local restaurants, buy the guidebook. It’s fun, all the planning. In fact you could go so far as to say it’s the entire fun. Reading up on charming little locals-only tavernas down by the beach will always surpass the experience of eating sandy, over-ripe fish while the sun beats down on your head and flea-infested cats wind around your ankles.
But for the super-rich and super-busy, there simply isn’t time to pore over Lonely Planet for hours on end, scheming and daydreaming. Which is where the new category of holiday comes in: the Personal Assistant-designed holiday.
The point of the PA holiday is to make everything as easy as possible for their fat cat employer. He or she wants to be picked up at home and dropped down in their destination with as little fuss – and as little contact with the public – as humanly possible. However, after a few days of decompressing, they want some entertainment shipped in – and that’s where you, the employer’s friends and acquaintances, come in. You are the entertainment. Because of the immense privilege of being invited on holiday by some mega-rich hedgie or famous actress, you jump at the chance. But little do you realize quite how much you’ll have to pay for this “free” holiday. The PA only cares about their boss, so you will be left to plan – and pay for – your travel arrangements yourself. Then there’s the pressure to be twinkly and cooing and appreciative of everything. You have to play with the ‘adorable’ toddlers, ignoring the streams of expletives and spittle coming from their little mouths. You have to take the hosts out for at least one back-breakingly expensive meal. And you have to produce a constant stream of celebrity gossip.
There are two warning signs that a holiday has been planned by a PA. The first will be the inaccessibility of the location. The stressed-out employer will have made a vague but strident demand for ‘a Greek island’ or ‘one of the Maldives’ and the PA, not knowing any better, will pick whichever looks the prettiest. This will inevitably be the one that is hardest to reach: you don’t get crystal-clear water and unblemished coral reef when there are thrice-daily ferries. And it’s all very well for the hosts, who will probably be travelling by private jet, helicopter or chartered yacht, but pity the poor guests trying to reach these spots on a budget. First, you’ll have to take an extremely expensive flight. Then at least two of the following: connecting flight, seaplane, ferry, catamaran, train, tram, taxi, hot air balloon or – heaven forfend – bus. The journey can take two days, cutting into vital holiday time. And the prospect of having to do it all over again at the other end shatters any hope of a restful break.
The second sign comes about a fortnight before the holiday, in the innocuous form of an emailed itinerary. The poor PA can’t possibly be expected to know what everyone will feel like doing at any given point, but she also knows that a blank day will mean disaster. One girl who gave her boss a day off from activities received a telephone call at 8am complaining of boredom. She promptly had to fly out to Ibiza with a suitcase full of the top 100 charted DVDs, CDs and video games – all because the boss couldn’t be expected to entertain herself for a day. The canny PA will plan a mixture of pampering and adventure: a typical itinerary might read: ’11:00: hike into foothills with local archeology expert; 13:30: lunch at local schloss with Count X; 16:00: masseuse to visit villa; 18:00: cocktails on the terrace.’ Needless to say, all these activities are voluntary: who cares if a sherpa is kept waiting around for a day or two? But the guests, scrabbling to look appreciative, will sign up to everything. Cue sore feet, furious hissing arguments about tipping and utter exhaustion.
The super-rich are also super-private. They can’t risk being papped, so the holiday villa is likely to be behind high fences, far from the nearest village. You can go off-compound when it has been meticulously planned, but other extra-curricular activity is discouraged. A tour around a local market to buy woven baskets is acceptable, for example. A wander into town to have a beer at the grimy little bar is not. You might get talking to an undesirable – and besides, there’s better, colder beer at home. This can lend an ersatz, soulless feel to the proceedings. There are concessions to local culture – rum in the Caribbean, pasta in Italy, a trip to a bullfight in Spain – but, for the most part, you could be anywhere in the world.
Of course, the PA-planned holiday has its advantages. You are likely to be staying in the height of luxury. You will eat the finest food, see the most extraordinary sights, not have a second of boredom. And when you get home – with no laundry because of the maids and no sunburn because of the expensive Factor 50 beside every sunlounger and no holiday paunch because of the daily yoga and holistic chef – you will collapse on your sofa and think: ‘That was amazing. Never again.’