Ayers Rock, Australia

Dine in the Desert

At Ayers Rock, the stark beauty of the Australian desert and the 20,000-year-old aboriginal heritage touch the mind, body, and soul. The world's largest monolith, known to the aboriginal people as Uluru, sits in the geographical center of Australia.

There is so much to do, see, and learn that most excursions start at dawn. One way to catch the sunrise over Uluru is from the back of a camel. The more conventionally minded might choose to see Uluru's splendor while cruising along on a Harley-Davidson, enjoying the comfort of a four-wheel drive, relaxing in a coach, or braving the desert on foot. The trek around Uluru is about 5 miles.

For those on foot, a word of caution: Temperatures can climb as high as 118 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer (November to February) in Australia. Walking is best done in the morning or late afternoon. Climbing the rock is permitted, but the local aboriginal tribes prefer that visitors refrain from doing so.

A must for incentive programs, or any trip to Uluru, is the Sounds of Silence Dinner. The experience begins with cocktails on a sand dune overlooking Uluru at sunset, followed by dinner in the desert. It ends with spectacular stargazing led by the Ayers Rock Resort's resident astronomer. Entertainment is provided by the haunting sounds of the didgeridoo and the glorious southern sky.

Ayers Rock is one of Australia's top three incentive destinations, and it works well in a dual destination program. The area is accessible by airplane from Sydney, Alice Springs, Darwin and Cairns, Brisbane and Melbourne. Accommodations are at the Ayers Rock Resort, a Voyages Hotels and Resort complex that includes hotels, shops, apartments, and restaurants.

Sails in the Desert Hotel is the incentive property, and it includes a conference center and an amphitheatre. The ideal group size is 150, as the maximum room block for five-star Sails is 75. For larger groups, accommodations must be made at additional hotels, which have varying levels of service.
Helena Faith Miel

Helena Faith Miel is an environmental consultant. She can be reached at (201) 967-1804, or by e-mail at EarthMum@aol.com.

Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Relax in secluded coastal beauty

Guanacaste, Costa Rica, may be a bit out of the way, to say the least. But it's certainly worth the trip.

The sprawling, hacienda-style Meliá Playa Conchal All Suite Beach & Golf on the unspoiled, emerald Pacific Northwest Coast is an unparalleled spot for incentive trips. With 292 suites, it is Costa Rica's largest, most luxurious resort. On a secluded stretch of white sand beach, it resembles a quaint village surrounded by walkways, fountains, lakes, lush foliage, and the fabulous Costa Rican jungle.

Golfers will encounter the ultimate eco-golf experience. The 18-hole, par-72 Garra de Leon (Lion's Paw) Robert Trent Jones II golf course lies between the mountains on the east and the Pacific Ocean on the west. The resort also has four tennis courts, an open-air health club overlooking the ocean, a disco, a casino, and 11 restaurants and bars. As if this weren't enough, the recreation staff can arrange diving, sailing, sport fishing, horseback riding, and day trips to national parks, volcanoes, natural hot springs, and more.

Meeting facilities are on a hilltop with panoramic ocean and mountain views. An expansive 5,000-square-foot ballroom can be divided into four meeting rooms and can accommodate groups of 20 to 350.
Robin Taylor Parets

Robin Taylor Parets is a freelance writer based in Stoughton, Mass. She can be reached by e-mail at RParets@aol.com.

Cancun, Mexico

Explore the fascinating Mayan ruins

A relaxing cocktail reception in The Lobby Bar Resort — under a towering atrium and hundreds of feet of live, hanging foliage — welcomes incentive qualifiers to Hilton Cancun Beach and Golf Resort. Outside, the hotel's architecture sets it apart from other beach resorts on the Cancun hotel strip: It was built in the form of a three-tiered Mayan pyramid. All 426 guest rooms have panoramic ocean views.

Seven cascading, interlocking swimming pools and two Jacuzzis beckon guests, as does the 600-yard, white-sand beach. A diving and snorkeling paradise, the barrier reef parallel to this coast is home to 2,500 species of marine life. Golfers will marvel at the 18th hole of the Hilton's championship course, which winds around the El Rey Mayan ruin, when they aren't checking out the iguanas, peacocks, and other wildlife that share the links.

To experience Mayan history, guests can take one of the daily excursions to the Mayan ruins at Tulum and ChichÈn Itz, Xcaret and Xel-Ha Ecological Parks, and other attractions.

The resort offers 30,000 square feet of meeting space among 16 banquet rooms that can accommodate 2,000 guests.
Kelle Larkin

Kelle Larkin is a freelance writer based in Portage, Mich. She can be reached by e-mail at Larkin1453@aol.com.

Montego Bay, Jamaica

Choose your style: low-tech luxury or resort grandeur

Elegant, understated Round Hill Hotel & Villas is a Jamaican classic. Villas with drop-dead views of the Caribbean are tucked into the hills. Best for small incentive groups, with a 36-room hotel and 74 suites in 27 individually owned villas, the property can accommodate up to 50 couples from December 15 to April 15, and 90 couples from April 16 to December 14. Each villa has a private pool, open-air lounging areas, a dining area, and a kitchen. All the hotel rooms have expansive windows overlooking the sea and the resort's 60-foot free-form swimming pool. In addition to three dedicated meeting rooms, many of the living rooms at Round Hill's private villas are suitable for receptions.

Larger groups, or those looking for a more active itinerary, might consider Half Moon Golf, Tennis & Beach Club. The beautifully landscaped resort stretches over 400 acres that include expansive beachfront and a par-72 golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones. There are 418 guest rooms in villas, suites, and cottages. White plantation-style buildings and an open-air lobby are juxtaposed with an indigenous island atmosphere with Queen Anne and Chippendale reproduction furniture made on property. Among the many on-site amenities are three restaurants, a fitness center and spa, equestrian center, and 52 swimming pools, including an Olympic-size lap pool.

Eleven meeting rooms and four breakout rooms, including a dedicated conference center that can accommodate up to 500 people, have more than 26,000 square feet of meeting space.

Robert von Hagge has carved a poetic experience of Jamaican light, wind, mountain, ocean, and plantation ruins into the landscape of the Three Palms Ocean Course. Multiple tees at every hole of the 6,637-yard, par 71 course make this an enjoyable experience for every level of play. But Three Palms is just the latest gem in Montego Bay's growing list of attractions.

The plush 428-room Ritz-Carlton Rose Hall opened here last August, followed by its White Witch golf course, another von Hagge creation, offering spectacular sea views from 16 of its 18 holes. The adjacent courses aim to put the Caribbean on the map of top-tier golf experiences.

Air Jamaica, which offers nonstop flights from many U.S. gateways, began flying six days a week from Boston to Montego Bay in February. In June, the airline expanded that service to seven days a week and added direct flights to Montego Bay from Houston. This offers unparalleled on-time service to the islands, but make sure to arrange for your group to be met at the airport and taken through customs, or it could be a long wait.

Note: After the recent violence in Kingston, the U.S. State Department on July 9 advised U.S. citizens traveling to or residing in Jamaica to “exercise caution in Kingston” and noted that there have been no reports of violence in the rest of the country. Despite the civil unrest in the southeastern end of the island, resorts on the northern side of the island are claiming business as usual.
— Regina Baraban and Regina McGee

Nice and Cannes, France

Live the life of luxury on the Cote d'Azur

Nice and Cannes each has its appeal as an incentive destination. But the cities are barely 20 miles apart, so it's easy to combine them for a varied itinerary. For your VIPs, consider inter-city transfers by helicopter: a 10-minute flight over the Mediterranean and the Cote d'Azur.

Cannes is, of course, famed for its annual International Film Festival, which is held at the Palais des Festivals et des Congres, the city's convention and exhibition center. With the addition of Éspace Riviera, the extension that opened in early 2000, Palais des Festivals has 270,000 square feet of meeting space. Receptions can be held on the terrace or on boats moored in the adjacent harbor.

The 393-room Hotel Martinez, on La Croisette, dates from the 1930s but is thoroughly modernized. Its art deco decor extends to its 15 meeting rooms, which can accommodate groups of up to 1,000 people.

A short ferry ride from Cannes is Ile Sainte-Marguerite, an offbeat venue for special events. This is the hilltop fort in which the mysterious man in the iron mask was imprisoned; the cell window is guarded by three sets of iron grates. The fort has spacious grounds, gardens, harbor views, and a museum with artifacts recovered from local shipwrecks.

While Cannes is a seaside resort, Nice is a true city — the fifth largest in France. The famed Hotel Negresco is as much museum as hotel. Its 140 individually decorated guest rooms and public spaces contain many valuable antiques. Nine meeting and function rooms can accommodate groups of up to 400; the circular Salon Royal has a Baccarat crystal chandelier and the world's largest Aubusson carpet.

Nice has notable vineyards, and some of the wine growers welcome groups. At Gaec Massa, for example, groups of 10 to 200 people can enjoy a wine tasting and a lunch of local specialties prepared by the host using many ingredients produced on the family's farm.

Nice's Acropolis, a two-building complex, totals nearly 765,000 square feet of meeting and exhibition space.
Rayna Skolnik

Rayna Skolnik is a New York City — based freelance journalist specializing in the meeting industry. She can be reached by e-mail at skolnikr@aol.com.

Machu Picchu, Peru

Hike the dramatic Inca Trail

The Inca Trail is the best-known and most popular hike on the South American continent. Views of snowcapped mountains and a high cloud forest greet visitors as they walk from one beautiful ruin to the next. At the end of one of the trails is Machu Picchu, South America's best known and most spectacular archaeological site. This treasure, one of the most famed examples of Inca architecture, is believed to have been built in the mid-15th century by Inca Pachacutec. Once lost in history, it was not rediscovered until 1911.

Many groups choose to tour the Machu Picchu area in five days. On the first day, the group visits the colonial and modern areas of Lima. Lunch is served at Costa Verde restaurant on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. After lunch, the group might visit the Criadero 3 CaÒas, a colonial Andean hacienda, for a show of paso horses. The night is capped with a welcome dinner.

On day two, the group departs for Cusco and Machu Picchu. The normal route is by early morning plane from Lima to Cusco, where visitors can acclimate to the altitude by drinking coca tea and resting for several hours. An afternoon visit of the city and nearby ruins is combined with “Lacco Ceremony,” where payment to the earth is made by a shaman. The participants then go on horseback from Quenqo to Lacco.

The third day is dedicated to the Sacred Valley, with a Pachamanca lunch, specially prepared for the group, at Posada del Inca Yucay hotel. Pachamanca is an Andean traditional method of cooking an assortment of meats and vegetables by surrounding the food with heated stones in pits in the ground.

On days four and five, the group transfers to Ollantaytambo station for a 45-minute train ride. This is followed by a short trek to the Sun Gate, where there are dozens of areas to explore, including several mountain peaks. At the final night's Inca dinner, guests are greeted by musicians and dancers in native costume.

This is only a small sampling of the possibilities this exotic and mysterious country offers. A longer program could combine other parts of Peru, such as Ica and the Nazca Lines in the far south, the area around Lake Titicaca and Bolivia, or perhaps the jungle region near Iquitos.
Jim Skiba

Jim Skiba is director of World Incentive Nexus, San Francisco. He can be reached by e-mail at jim@worldincentivenexus.com.

Lake Garda, Italy

Revive your spirit at a 15th-century monastery

You may feel a bit confused as your group exits Autostrado A4 in northern Italy's Lombardy region and wends its way along country roads toward a high hill of chestnut trees, the entranceway to Palazzo Arzaga. But its remoteness is only part of what makes this Italian resort so special: It offers championship golf, a first-class spa, and elegant accommodations in a country manor where a baron is in residence — Baron Lando Lanni della Quara. The baron is president of Palazzo Arzaga, and he poured millions into the renovation before opening the hotel in May 1999.

The Palazzo Arzaga Saturnia Spa & Golf Resort, a renovated 15th-century monastery, is about an hour east of Milan and 25 minutes west of Verona, near Lake Garda.

Some 84 guest rooms await your top achievers. The frescoes in the public areas, on ceilings, around staircases, even in some guest rooms are stunning. Many date to the 1400s and have been restored.

The 1,000-acre resort offers 27 holes of golf: an 18-hole Jack Nicklaus II — designed golf course; a nine-hole Gary Player golf course; and another nine holes in the works, scheduled for completion in 2002. It also offers the Arzaga Golf Academy, a Teaching and Learning Centre of the PGA of Europe.

In collaboration with the thermal spa Terme de Saturnia in Tuscany, Italy, the Palazzo's spa is known for its holistic approach and highly trained experts in massage, herbal wraps, and beauty treatments.

Head east — but about 180 degrees in atmosphere, from country to city — to Venice, in the northeastern corner of Italy. Venezia (Italian for Venice) is a marvel of architecture, history, and waterways.

Stay at the Westin Europa & Regina, a Starwood property on the Grand Canal, minutes from Piazza San Marco, and dine in one of its many canal-side restaurants. Bask in the sun on a terrace in one of the suites, or enjoy complete luxury in any of its 185 hotel rooms. The Westin Europa & Regina, which includes 17 suites, was created from five 18th- and 19th-century palaces and was completely refurbished in 1997 to become a true European grand dame hotel. The two meeting rooms can seat 120 and 30 for banquets, respectively.
— Betsy Bair