Navigating Socially-Distanced Travel During COVID-19

Illustrations by Maxwell N. Burnstein

Discovering contactless travel in a touch-and-go world.

Franklin was standing very close. So close that, if he had been wearing a mask, which he was not, I still would have noticed his severe underbite and strong jaw. I had to think hard to remember the last time I’d been this close to a stranger. It had been a good three months—decades in COVID-19 time. But since we were out- side, surrounded by the Rocky Mountains, and the wind was blowing—oh, and did I mention that Franklin is a llama?—I wasn’t particularly concerned with this unfamiliar closeness.

Which was ironic, because I had come to Colorado, right in the middle of the biggest spike in US coronavirus cases to date, to put some distance between myself and, well, everybody else. Since early March, I had been hunkered down in my upper Manhattan apartment, cycling through the phases of pandemic life, which, it turns out, aren’t all that unlike the Kübler-Ross stages of grief. I went through denial and anger, depression and acceptance, but also claustrophobia, hibernation, and the phase in which I had recently found myself: wanderlust. Months of scrolling through old travel photos had me pining for a change of scenery, but while everyone else seemed to be packing up their RVs, the thought of all those gas stations and rest stops was keeping me in place.

Related: What Does the Future of Luxury Travel Look Like in a Post-Coronavirus World?

Of course, travel anywhere had become so uncertain as to feel almost impossible. To witness the latest in maskless skirmishes and middle-seat melees, all I had to do was spend a few minutes on Twitter. But thanks to three months of shutdown, I had mastered the art of going contactless in a multitude of ways: grocery and meal delivery; socially distanced alfresco cocktails; even running with a piece of cloth on my face that constricted my breathing. All had become normal. Surely, a contactless vacation was possible too.

I wasn’t the only one who thought so. Kenny Dichter, the founder and CEO of Wheels Up, told me his company, which like other private-aviation firms relied heavily on business travel before the pandemic, has had a 40 percent increase in new members—all of them leisure travelers—since last summer. “We’re seeing new membership numbers that we have never seen before,” he told me on a phone call in July. “In a COVID-19 world, for a lot of folks, private aviation isn’t considered a luxury anymore—it’s a necessity.”

A recent study by the consulting firm McKinsey found that the average commercial flight can expose travelers to up to 700 “touch points”—places where you have no choice but to touch something or share close proximity with a stranger. The number of touch points for the same trip flown by private plane, the study says, works out to be around 20 to 30. Flying with Wheels Up between New York and Vail, Colorado, I counted even fewer. By the time our Citation Excel/XLS touched down at Eagle County Regional Airport, my husband and I had interacted with just three people. A driver, masked, gloved, and arranged by Wheels Up, had dropped us right on the runway, where the pilot checked our IDs, held out at arm’s length. The plane, we were told by the copilot, had been cleaned according to rigorous standards established in a partnership with Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner and regular on the pandemic news circuit.

In Vail, another driver transported us from the plane to the Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch, where Crystal Cisco intercepted our arrival from the usual procession of valets, bellhops, and desk clerks. Cisco works as a concierge for Cuvée, a villa-rental company that owns estates throughout Colorado (as well as in 15 other locations around the world). She acted as our proxy during our stay, checking us in and depositing us at West Wing—a two-story, four-bedroom, chalet-style penthouse, where a bottle of hand sanitizer was prominently placed in the entry—all from a distance and in a matter of minutes. The entire day had exposed us to just five people over more than 1,800 miles—fewer than if we’d taken a cab to dinner back home.

Like Wheels Up, Cuvée had the contactless bit down long before coronavirus—a direct result of regularly hosting celebrity and high-profile guests. As if to make the point, Cisco told me via a FaceTime tour of West Wing that the grand piano in the living room had been added at the request of another visitor, Justin Timberlake. During the next several days, the concierge became our lifeline to the outside world, arranging meals, activities, housekeeping, and anything else we needed (including canned oxygen for high-altitude hikes), while adhering to strict social-distancing rules. Meals prepared by a private chef were delivered in the afternoons, while we were out on our daily treks. We returned to gourmet dishes like salmon baked in garlic butter and mush- rooms stuffed with goat cheese. On days we felt more ambitious, multicourse meal kits with directions were delivered instead. And when we felt especially lazy, Cisco arranged contactless delivery from the hotel’s restaurant.

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Every day I woke up the same way I did back home—compulsively mining the latest coronavirus data for spikes and dips—but each day of hiking, sunbathing, and generally ignoring the world beyond our little bubble eventually rendered my phone and its never-ending New York Times alerts less essential. By the time we met Franklin and his keeper, Will Elliott of Paragon Guides, at the Grouse Lake trailhead, I had finally managed to stop worrying. It was the most sociable we’d been in a long time—mask and six feet of distance notwithstanding—even as it seemed we had the entire valley to ourselves. This wild expanse at the foot of Grouse Mountain has been a place of social distancing for centuries. The shepherds who looked after their charges in these hills were famously lonely—so much so that the herdsmen carved drawings of women on trees to keep themselves company. At the top of the trail, we discovered a rather adeptly drawn mermaid, her tail upturned as if splashing her way toward her creator. At the bottom of a hill, on the edge of a vale carpeted with canary-yellow wild- flowers, a siren etched into another tree took a more devilish form, with horns and a tail. We settled down next to the drawing, Franklin lowering himself onto his haunches to chew on grass while we reclined with our own snacks of chocolate bars and carrots.

Hiking with a llama isn’t just a highly Instagrammable way to take a picnic up a mountain. Franklin also carried with him a tranquil demeanor that quickly rubbed off on me, like a 300-pound emotional- support animal. It turns out he might offer the cure for COVID-19 too, Elliott told us as we crossed a stream, which Frank- lin gently plodded across over a handful of stones before landing with a rather elegant thud on dry land. “They have special antibodies that we don’t have,” Elliott said, referencing recent research released by the National Institutes of Health that suggests isolated llama antibodies may be engineered to block the virus. “If he spits on you, that’ll be an extra charge,” he added with a chuckle.

Related: Embrace Nostalgic Travel by Road Tripping the U.S. in These Luxe Campers

That evening, we settled on our terrace overlooking the Ritz-Carlton’s pool and outdoor bar just as the Saturday night scene was starting. Guests distanced themselves with cocktails on well-spaced picnic tables and cushioned wicker sofas. We watched from above, our own cocktails in hand—mine a gin spritz made with berries plucked on our afternoon hike; my husband’s a dram of Noah’s Mill Bourbon from the wet bar—and eavesdropped on the bits of chatter and music that floated up to our private aerie. The bird’s-eye view gave a new perspective on the realities of maintaining distance, especially when a bit of social lubricant is involved, and as the sun started to set, the bar began to grow more crowded. Even from above, I could sense the energy, and though I wasn’t quite ready to join in the merriment, I relished it without anxiety for the first time in ages.

The next day we returned home having eaten well and slept even better. Of course, we’d forgone some of the pre-pandemic hallmarks of a good trip—the ones that are inherently contact-full: the mind-blowing meal at an incredible restaurant, the exhibit at a major museum, the casual conversation at a bar that sometimes turns into a lifelong friendship. Those will have to remain on hold, and there’s even a comfort in knowing they’ll be waiting for us on the other side of this. Back in our apartment, however, we brought with us the requisite tan and attitude improvement that one enjoys in the aftermath of a successful vacation. And when we tallied the list of everyone we had come into contact with—drivers, pilots, concierge, and guide—the total came out to just nine. Ten, if you count Franklin.