People who have journeyed on some of humankind’s most expensive, amazing trips gathered at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York last weekend to celebrate a kind of travel that often means forgoing hotels or restaurants— exploration. The annual mid-March tradition is known as ECAD- (The Explorers Club Annual Dinner.)

Winners celebrating exploration travel. Erden Eruc, the first person to circumnavigate the globe via human-power and Don Walsh, the first human to visit the deepest part of the ocean.

John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Charles Duke, and Don Walsh all traveled in very cramped quarters (Mercury capsules, the last Apollo, and the Trieste submersible ) in the 1960s to push the boundaries of human exploration travel up- orbiting earth- and down to the deepest ocean floor.

They enjoyed greater amenities last weekend, when they joined a sold-out crowd in the three-tiered Waldorf-Astoria ballroom to receive their own kudos, and to honor other intrepid luminaries including James Cameron.  Cameron took time from Avatar movie sequels, to receive the prestigious Explorers Medal, in his words “the Academy Award of Exploration” and a greater honor. His latest feat was to the depths of the Marianas Trench.

Erden Eruc, the first per­son to cir­cum­nav­i­gate the globe via human-powered travel (row­boats, bicy­cles, walk­ing) received a Certificate of Merit. Exploration exemplars Chhiring Dorje Sherpa, Christos Nicola and Monika Rogozinska were also given awards and shared inspiring words about their contributions to exploration.

Crocodile or alligator? Part of the wild appetizers for ECAD.

Many of the guests, outstanding explorers in their own realms (caves, mountains, deserts, rain forests, cultures,) with their own exotic exploration travel tales came to New York for the events, and were staying at the historic and elegant Waldorf-Astoria. Every President since 1931 has rested his head at the Waldorf and the corridor walls are lined with black and white photos of famous people who walked the halls.

Overlapping the two illustrious worlds of exploration and the Waldorf Astoria  created intriguing juxtapositions of kinds of privilege.  In the Waldorf Tower suites, the bathroom alone and the chandeliered dressing room were probably bigger than the honorees’ rare exploration vehicles (space- capsules & highly customized submersibles)

Great views and lots to write home about from this corner of magnificent, antique-filled Waldorf Towers suite on Explorers Club weekend.

The lofty views of bridges rivers, and skyscrapers, from my 41st floor suite were from only a fraction of the altitude of Mt Everest, a very different vista that  seemed particularly wondrous after meeting Jim Whittaker the first American to summit Everest, and another of the weekend’s honorees.

Upscaling the kind of food that explorers sometimes eat, “The Exotics” served at ECAD have become a culinary tradition and good for press.  Appetizers before dinner included unusual game and champagne drinks with a male goat’s private skewered instead of an olive or lemon. The popular dessert tables were eaten out before I could get to the fare, but I heard about it.

The next morning at  the hotel’s luxurious Peacock Alley Sunday brunch, the pastry chef recalled, “Instead of our normal adornments, we were adding crickets, mealy worms, and tarantulas to desserts.”

In view, the Lobby’s iconic gold clock tower chimed. Other times, live music wafts from a nearby grand piano that once belonged to Cole Porter who lived in the hotel and refers to it in his song “You’re the Top.”  Celebrities from Marilyn Monroe to Paris Hilton, and gangster Bugsy Siegal to inventor Tesla have also had Waldorf addresses. Last weekend the hotel was visited by people who summit and dive and crawl and kayak, and measure, record, and observe endangered species and remote geographies, when they aren’t wearing their ECAD best.

For decades, The Explorers Club  (TEC) arguably the world’s most distinguished club to honor and promote exploration, has hosted ECAD (Explorers Club Annual Dinner)  at the historic Waldorf. Tickets for members and their guests range from $350 to $40,000. Proceeds go to help further exploration for the sake of scientific endeavor and knowledge.

The Sunday after the dinner and post-parties, the Club also offered an Open House at its legacy-filled HQ building on East 70th, another New York architectural treasure.  I loved visiting with some of the honorees and other explorers including Milbry Polk who founded Wings WorldQuest and is author of Women of Discovery, underwater queens Sylvia Earle and Anne Doubilet, and Jeff Blumenfeld who publishes the captivating (for people who love exploration) Expedition News . It’s titilating to hear where they are traveling next. Sylvia to the Maldives and Jeff to Nepal on a humanitarian expedition. It’s inspiring to hear about the huge efforts being made to conserve natural and cultural systems.

A schedule of lectures about current explorations interwove with informal visiting as people cross-pollinate and gather support for future expeditions.  What advances can be made to technology and knowledge and human spirit before the next ECAD?

Post Script:

Retrieving Lost Treasure

After heady conversations about advances in technology and the glories of curiosity in action, I returned to the Waldorf for my late check out. Ironically, only when I was in the clouds 40,000 feet over the U.S. flying back to Los Angeles, did my head come out of the clouds (and sea trenches and caves) to remember that I had opened the safe in my room but forgotten to take out my jewelry and pack it.

I reminded myself that the Waldorf was among those highest-end hotels where you could probably count on getting your things back and the staff members I had seen all seemed wonderful, but it’s a rough economy and challenging times, with people’s views of entitlement sometimes morphing. I called the hotel when I landed at 11pm, and left a voice message with security. It was a “first” for me and I hoped it would have a happy ending.

Since the weekend was a special trip and I would see international friends, I had eclectically brought some of my favorite pieces – unusual amber necklaces given when I was covering space in the Soviet Union, a bracelet from a recent trip to Morocco, a hand-made woven necklace from a Karawari tribe in Papua New Guinea, sea fossil earrings from when I worked on a television series with the Monterrey Aquarium in California.

None of it has significant monetary value, especially compared to the jewels that have adorned other guests of the Waldorf like the Queen and Elizabeth Taylor. But they were unique and had sentimental value as catalysts of memories and stories. I thought about the curiosity cabinets people used to fill with artifacts gathered from around the world to inspire. And wondered how many other people used jewelry these days in a similar vein.

John Glenn and Jim Cameron had both talked about the driving force of curiosity in shaping the world’s history and economy via initial explorations.  I thought how fortunate I was to have spent the weekend with remarkable people who are still questing, and ponderd gratefully for perspective of the times I had been able to be even a tiny part of expeditions and explorations. The “things” from the trips are not the true riches of these experiences.

Still, when a package arrived this morning with my little treasures, I admit I was glad- to have them back and to witness integrity.  I would like to give call out thanks to the Waldorf’s security and house-keeping staff –Javier Carranza, Erika Gonzalez, Sam Koening and Eric Perez- for honesty and efficiency!   On the phone, Perez told me calmly, “This happens everyday. People leave things from cell phone chargers to a child’s favorite teddy bear to thousands of dollars of jewelry. We get it back to them. That’s what we do.”

-Lisa TE Sonne, Luxury Travel Mavens