Review by Fiona Duncan, published 20th April 2007.
How will you celebrate your next birthday? We can't all be Sir Philip Green, who for his 55th birthday last month flew 100 of his friends to their own private island (and previously spent £4 million on his son's bar mitzvah).
La Maison Arabe has a heady atmosphere and delightful interior courtyards
But even if you can't afford to have your friends serenaded by George Michael or Roberta Flack, taking a group of them for a special weekend away can be a wonderful way to celebrate a milestone occasion - especially if you follow one of the itineraries below.
Of all Spain's cities, Seville is perhaps the most captivating, and the best suited to a weekend celebration. Home of the bullfight, flamenco and Carmen, where hot, dusty days are followed by languorous nights, its appeal lies in its extravagant Moorish architecture, its picturesque, cobbled old town and its exuberant street life.
In the heart of Santa Cruz, the atmospheric old quarter, Las Casas de la Juderia makes the perfect base for a group of friends. Fashioned from several old houses owned by the Duke of Segorbe, the modestly priced hotel is a quirky warren of rooms set round two jasmine-scented courtyards. The main patio, where wicker chairs surround a tiled fountain under pillared arcades, could well be the prettiest spot in the city.
Spend your first day shopping and sightseeing, guided or not as you wish, but be sure to go for a carriage ride through the beautiful park, taking in the Duke's magnificent palace, Casa de Pilatos, and the old tobacco factory where Bizet based his Carmen. After a nap - Seville's nightlife gets going when most of us are thinking of bed - gather for a celebration dinner at a private palacio (there are several to choose from), accompanied, of course, by fiery flamenco. Or you may prefer to mingle with the locals, with dinner in a traditional flamenco house.
Next day, head for the Andalusian countryside and an impressive private estancia 45 minutes' drive from Seville, where first-class bulls and horses are bred for the bullfight, living in harmony in a natural landscape along with many other wild animals and birds. Your party can take a wagon ride round the estate, watching picadors in traditional dress rounding up the bulls, before a leisurely lunch on the veranda. There's also a small bullring, where mock bullfights - with all the beauty and none of the violence - are staged.
A two-night stay, including breakfast, one dinner and one lunch, costs from £250 per person, excluding flights. Contact Fine Art Travel (020 7437 8553; www.finearttravel.co.uk).
Easily accessible for a long weekend, Istanbul makes a thrilling and exotic setting for a gathering. The city is enjoying an economic and social resurgence, and its energy and magnetism can be felt in the streets and along the Bosphorus. Imagine hiring one of the dozens of Ottoman yalis - graceful wooden waterside mansions that struck Byron as "a pretty opera set" - for dinner: a perfect mix of elegance and fun.
Next day, discover the Bosphorus from the wooden deck of the classic yacht Savarona, then return in time for a private tour of one of Istanbul's great buildings, perhaps the Topkapi Palace or Basilica Cistern after they are closed to the public. After-hours visits to artisans' workshops and concerts in private townhouses can also be arranged and your guide could be Istanbul expert Serdar Gülgün, historian, interior designer and connoisseur.
For prices and further information, contact Lanza & Baucina (020 7738 2222; www.lanzabaucina.com).
My own experience of a private party in Morocco took place not in Marrakesh but across the Atlas Mountains, near Taroudant. On the edge of the dusty, shabby town of Ouled Berhil, Riad Hida is an inexpensive oasis with cool, simple rooms set round a peacock-filled citrus grove. The party - a Moroccan feast with local musicians and dancers - was in the hotel's exotic pavilion, and on the next day we drove into the mountains for a guided walk to a Berber village, and a picnic in a Berber tent. Riad Hida sleeps up to 45 people, and there are several similar properties, holding from 12 to 50 people, such as Dar Mimosas in Essaouira and Les Tours Malines near Ouarzazate, which offer a price for exclusivity as well as providing special meals and entertainment, excursions to the mountains or a secluded part of the coast, desert trips, hikes, balloon rides, quad bikes and so on.
Three nights' accommodation at Riad Hida, including breakfast and lunch or dinner, plus airport transfers, costs from £140 per person. Contact Rediscover the World (0870 740 6306; www.rediscover.co.uk).
A riad (converted town house) makes the perfect base for a group of friends, and you can have it all to yourselves. There are more than 400 scattered around Marrakesh, so it's possible to choose one to suit your budget and numbers. La Maison Arabe, for example, with 17 rooms, has a heady atmosphere, with delightful interior courtyards and beautiful ethnic furnishings. There's also a basement hammam and a rooftop Jacuzzi, with a shuttle to a lovely swimming pool.
For an evening celebration, there's nowhere better to begin than Place Djemaa el Fna at sunset, with its snake charmers, fortune tellers and food stalls. From there you might leave for the super-cool Amanjena Hotel four miles away, with a backdrop of mountains, fine Moroccan food, dancers, musicians and thousands of tiny candles.
Two nights' accommodation, with breakfast, at La Maison Arabe, plus dinner at the Amanjena costs from £300 per person. Contact The Admirable Crichton (020 7326 3803; www.admirable-crichton.co.uk).
It's hard to go wrong if you choose Venice for a celebration with friends; it's equally magical for first-time visitors as for those who know it intimately. A popular option is for the host to ask his guests to fund their own flights and accommodation, allowing people to tailor their choices to their own budgets. Some may prefer to club together and take an apartment, others to stay in a hotel, leaving the host to bring everyone together (the city is sufficiently compact) for some memorable entertainment.
That might simply be dinner in a restaurant (followed, perhaps, by lunch the next day: Locanda Cipriani on the lagoon island of Torcello makes a perfect venue), though with the help of a specialist operator you could arrange something more creative. Options for a celebration dinner, for example, include hiring a palazzo on the Grand Canal, the table strewn with roses and lit by candles, with musicians on hand from the famous Caffè Florian. Or consider sailing into the lagoon aboard the last bragozzo (a traditional Venetian vessel) in existence, then mooring in time for a gourmet dinner on deck. In the early evening you might have a private performance of arias at La Fenice opera house, or a private visit to St Mark's Basilica: enter in the dark, and it is slowly lit before your eyes. During the day, there are opportunities to visit workshops not open to the public, such as Bevilacqua, for velvets and brocades, and Archimede Seguso, traditional glassmakers since the 16th century.
For prices and further information contact Bellini Travel (020 7602 7602; www.bellinitravel.com).