All of us imagine a place to unwind—a theoretical oasis of serenity in a world of tumult about which, during the less frenetic interludes of our daily routines, we sometimes dream: an ideal environment, free of any unpleasant reminders (such as cell phones, contracts, or tax attorneys) of the quotidian, the commonplace, the crude. Such places are not come by easily, and too often, compromise crimps even the best-laid escape plans. The determined fugitive from the cares of civilization must practice careful arts to engineer his getaway.
This predicament is not a modern one. The Roman Emperor Tiberius, for instance, was driven from the Eternal City all the way to the island of Capri to find relief from the pressures that naturally arose from starving his sundry relatives to death, exiling whole segments of his population, and rather stingily denying the remaining populace their gladiatorial games. In his tranquil Mediterranean haven, however, he could indulge himself. He constructed roughly a dozen villas of suitably imperial splendor on the island’s rocky heights, equipping them with all the necessities: exotic baths, temples, banquet halls, underground dungeons, torture chambers, and sites of execution. The complex catered so superbly to Tiberius’ tastes that he never again left the island, surrounding himself with a favored retinue, all of whom were at his disposal—often mortally so. A bored Tiberius made for very nervous courtiers, since few pastimes cheered him like a little morning mayhem or postprandial slaughter. He was, in the end, however, a victim of his own sport: Following Tiberius’ injury in a javelin-throwing contest, his successor, Caligula, had him smothered in his bed.
When it comes to escaping it all, few figures can compare with Henry VIII, whose Nonsuch Palace, completed in 1541, may have been the most remarkable hideaway ever constructed in Great Britain. Located on land that was once a small village, Nonsuch served as a hunting lodge. What made it extraordinary was its whimsical architecture, which combined ancient Roman art, painting, and decoration with exaggerated forms from French and Italian Renaissance designs. Encompassing two courtyards flanked with enormous octagonal towers capped by pinnacles, its fairy-tale features included great plaster frescoes and gilded bas-reliefs of mythological creatures, statues of Roman emperors, and, in the inner court, an enormous sculpture of Henry VIII himself, enthroned. In the same vein as William Randolph Hearst centuries later, he imported Italian and Dutch artists and craftsmen (some of whom worked on Fontainebleau), installed elaborate formal gardens with fountains, and kept Nonsuch’s 2,000-acre park stocked with wildlife, mainly deer. And like Hearst’s San Simeon, Nonsuch had its mistress of notoriety—albeit long after Henry’s demise. The “pearl of the realm,” as the castle was dubbed, was presented by Charles II to his mistress, the Duchess of Cleveland. When the affair ended bitterly, she razed Henry’s legendary resort, much as Henry had done with the town of Cuddington to build it.
Of course, San Simeon’s mistress required her own retreat—in her case from the oppressive gloom of that castle, and the even more oppressive restrictions on cocktails imposed by the teetotaler Hearst. Just south of Malibu, Calif., within view of Santa Monica’s celebrated pier, Marion Davies’ 110-room Ocean House, completed in 1928, boasted 37 fireplaces and 55 bathrooms, and could put up 2,000 guests for the night. Only yards from the rolling Pacific waves stretched a Greek marble swimming pool, and a full-size circus carousel from Warner Bros. Studio occupied one of the patios. But Ocean House’s career was even briefer than that of Nonsuch: After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Hearst deemed this beached white elephant too tempting a target, and the house, which had cost $7 million to construct, was shortly thereafter sold for $600,000 and torn down.
Happily for the modern refugee, sanctuary may be found with far less exertion (and grief) by the initiated. In this issue (page 80), we present 10 of the world’s most enticing pleasure palaces—extraordinary full-service resorts whose settings, decor, appointments, services, and cuisine rival those of any devised by monarch or magnate. Selected from dozens of candidates after exhaustive research, these destinations, we believe, represent your best avenues of escape. Unless, of course, you really want a dungeon: For that, you’re on your own.