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Image: Easter Island
Courtesy Smithsonian Journeys
Easter Island is one of the stops on the around-the-world tour offered by Smithsonian Journeys.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/18/2011 9:23:46 AM ET 2011-04-18T13:23:46

It's the around-the-world trip of a lifetime.

The itinerary includes Machu Picchu, Easter Island, the Serengeti, the Taj Mahal and 10 other UNESCO World Heritage Sites. And travelers who sign up for this luxury, 22-day Smithsonian Journeys vacation get to fly to all of these destinations in style via private jet.

“I’d just lost my husband of 30 years and really needed a trip, something special,” said Dr. Paulene Popek, 65, an executive director of the Center for Reflective Parenting in Los Angeles. “I was missing him so much I felt like I needed to treat myself. I needed a trip of a lifetime.”

It's one of four around-the-world charters in late 2011 and early 2012 affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution's travel program , which has been combining expert-led tours and life-enriching experiences for travelers worldwide for more than 40 years.

“We have our own pilots, our own chef and our own staff that will know what you want to drink as soon as they recognize your face,” said Amy Kotkin, director of Smithsonian Journeys. The private jet, she added, is a Boeing 757 that typically seats more than 200 “but for us is configured for just 78 with all business class cradle seats.”

Despite the space, on-board snoozing is discouraged; class will be in session. Some of the world’s top experts will join various legs of the trip to lecture about upcoming sites.

If parts of that sound both physically and intellectually strenuous, relax. All the flights are during the day and none lasts longer than seven hours.

“We’re on the ground for about two days at each site,” Kotkin said. “At night we stay at very luxurious accommodations in spectacular settings.”

Treated like royalty
The trip originates in Orlando, Fla., where guests will stay and enjoy an introductory dinner and accommodations at The Ritz-Carlton. Other lodging includes Rambagh Palace in Jaipur, India, and the Palais Jamai Fes in Fez, Morocco.

Image: Taj Mahal
India Tourism Bureau
India's Taj Mahal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the stops on the around-the-world tour offered by Smithsonian Journeys.

Popek says she was treated like royalty during her March 2009 trip — and once by royalty. It was at a sumptuous dinner at Bhutan when Her Majesty, Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, made time to engage in pleasantries with each guest.

“She was so sweet and gracious,” Popek said. “She made it a point to visit with each of us and personally thank us for coming to Bhutan.”

Popek said she was awed by what she experienced every day during the tour.

“You know you’re going to be impressed by Taj Mahal, the Egyptian pyramids and Easter Island, but exposure to some of these tribal cultures in places like New Guinea gives you a profound sense of humility that never leaves you,” she said. “That trip changed my life in so many varied and wonderful ways.”

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Luxury — at a price
So what, exactly, does all this cost? Trips start at $62,950 ($71,100 single occupancy).

At that price, such a luxury trip might sound like an outlandish extravagance, but consider that a year’s tuition at Harvard is now $50,724.

“Depending on their travel aspirations, many people consider this a real bargain,” said Kotkin. “These are iconic destinations so many yearn to visit. Here they’re all together in one package. And there’s always going to be a huge romance with circling the globe.”

The plane also has its own staff and security. Logistics of traveling from continent to continent, such as visas and clearing customs, are handled by Smithsonian Journeys.

“Let’s put it this way,” Kotkin said. “It’s the only time in their lives when many of our passengers will ever fly overseas in a plane with overhead bins that are full of masks, shields and spears.”

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