As Bippy Siegal discovered, a dilemma can produce the best travel experience. Siegal, who lives in New York, had been to the Caribbean countless times, each time staying in top-of-the-line hotels. However, one time he and his family were traveling with two other families, and they had a difficult time finding a luxury hotel that could accommodate all of them. Siegal acted on a tip from a friend and rented a house on the island of Anguilla - the lavish seven-room Moorish-style Cerulean villa, complete with pool, tennis court, and chef.
“It was right on the beach, so the location was terrific,” says Siegal. “The chef made anything we wanted - lobster, crayfish, rack of lamb. The beds were comfortable. A tennis instructor and a masseuse came very day. It was an amazing experience. We’re going to do it again next year.”
More travelers are opting to stay in villas when they go on vacation. People love the individualized service and the privacy. It’s an ideal way for families to spend more time together, and not surprisingly, many properties are booked for occasions such as reunions, birthdays, and anniversaries. Another major selling point is the convenience factor. Just about everything is taken care of: Dishes and laundry get done, tee times are made, manicures scheduled, and wine tours organized.
Villa rentals are available predominantly in Europe (Italy, France, Spain, Greece, and Ireland are some of the more popular countries), as well as throughout the Caribbean, Mexico, and in ski resort regions of the United States. So whether you want to stay in a 17th-century castle in Connemara or a palatial beach spread on St. Barts, there are rental agencies that can provide whatever it is you desire. Most stays tend to be one or two weeks, and prices vary greatly, from $3,000 to $20,000 per week.
How do you know which property is right for you? “Most people have a firm idea of their destination and the number of bedrooms needed, which is a good start,” says Kate Newell, travel adviser for Homes Away, a company that rents properties in Italy and France. But, Newell says, sometimes people aren’t quite sure what they want. “I had a woman who was interested in Tuscany, but when she told me what she wanted - didn’t want to travel too far from the airport and wanted to be within walking distance of a village - I realized that Normandy in France would be a better choice for her.”
Speaking with the rental agency’s representatives is essential. Other questions to consider: Do you want views? Pool? Gym? Air-conditioning? Chef? Walking distance to town? What is there for the kids to do?
Know what you want. When Jackie Keller of New Jersey decided to rent a French villa for her husband and three grown children, she knew she wanted to be in Provence but didn’t have any firm ideas about the property. “I just wanted something in the countryside,” she says, “an old house with high ceilings a a lot of local character.”
She chose to rent with Homes Away. “the adviser and I talked over the phone, and then she recommended about five houses and sent color photos, descriptions, and prices,” says Keller. “I picked the one I thought was the best for our needs. It was a huge stone 18th-century hunting lodge just outside of Tarascon. It had seven bedrooms, so I invited a lot of friends. The dining room was regal; you felt like you were in a castle. There was a magnificent backyard where we could smell the lavender surrounding the house. It really worked out perfectly.”
Marni Coyle, the head reservationist at Lake Tahoe Lodging, a company that rents houses on Lake Tahoe near Heavenly Ski Resort, agrees that spending some time on the phone before you rent is the best way to ensure satisfaction. She also finds that most people have very definite ideas about what they want.
“In the winter we get a lot of requests for ski-in, ski-out properties and, of course, people want a big fireplace and outdoor hot tub,” says Coyle. “In summer, a lot of people like to stay near the golf course, and year-round people want to be within walking distance of the casinos.”
Coyle said she recently rented a home to a large group that included seven children. “The parents wanted to make sure that there was enough for the children to do.” she says, “so we booked them into the Pointe, a six-bedroom estate with an Olympic-size pool and a billiard room with a jukebox. It worked out very nicely.”
Keep the Kids Happy. Indeed, parents should remember that keeping the children entertained is one of the key elements to a successful stay. “A couple traveling with four teenagers requested the Cote d’Azur. The teens really wanted to experience the local cafes and night life, but our properties there are in secluded areas,” says Newell. “It just didn’t sound like a perfect fit, so I had to be honest. Nothing can be worse than having bored kids. But we also had four adults with six teenagers staying at one of our castles on a vast estate in Tuscany, and they had a fabulous time. We even arranged for them to go into Rome one night to see a Boyzone concert.” The tickets were procured by the host that Homes Away provides with every rental, an English-speaking local who knows how to get things done.
Keller definitely appreciated the services of her hosts. “They were a gosend to us,” she says. “They told us about intimate, out-of-the-way restaurants, recommended open-air markets and wines. The service was invaluable.”
Mimi Watstein, a Massachusetts resident who has rented a three-bedroom home on Barbados with her husband and thee kids through the La Cure rental agency for the past three years, agrees. “It’s like having a full-time concierge. Whatever you need, they can get, whether it’s a turkey for a Thanksgiving dinner or a Monopoly game. It really makes life much easier.”
There have also been some strange requests. “One guy wanted a chocolate cake from a specific Boston bakery flown down to Necker Island in the Caribbean for a birthday celebration. We were unable to arrange a helicopter to deliver it,” says Geoffrey Williams, owner of La Cure. “We can do just about anything, but I had to draw the line the time a company of ballet dancers on Jamaica wanted enough milk brought in so they could all bathe in it. It just didn’t feel right.”
Normally, the representative or the host greets the clients at the property (or the airport if necessary) upon their arrival and will familiarize them with the inner workings of the house as well as the area in general.
Clients like having someone close by to contact a handyman if something should happen, such as a clogged drain or a broken refrigerator -- or even something more serious. “A woman broker her leg on a hike, and the host took her to the hospital and waited with her, even lent her some clothes to fit over the cast,” says Newell. But barring major accidents, the hosts’ main function is to ensure that your trip runs smoothly.
Seeing is Believing. The house itself and what it has to offer is as important as the level of service provided. When Bippy Siegal (booking through Overseas Connection) was deciding on a Caribbean villa, his top priority was that the house look like it did in the photos and be equipped as he’d been told. “A lot of times you see the picture and it looks so wonderful, but when you actually get there, the furniture is ugly and the floors creak. Cerulean had exactly what we were told it would have. Architecturally, aesthetically, it had it all.”
Even though Mimi Watstein spent a lot of time on the phone with a La Cure agent, she still wanted to inspect the property personally. “If it’s at all possible, I highly recommend inspecting the house yourself,” says Watstein. “That way you know exactly what you’re getting. We looked at several different ones until we fell in love with Waverly Hills, which was built using a local coral stone. It wasn’t rambling, but it was the perfect size for our family.”
Most agencies have signature properties that are much sought after; some even have a celebrity following. Overseas Connections rents St. Catherine’s court, a 14th-century manor in Bath, England, owned by actress Jane Seymour, as well as the white-on-white Cerulean; both have seen a steady stream of well-known clientele. La Cure’s four-bedroom Roaring Pavilion in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, complete with a private beach, spa, and staff of nine, has hosted Celine Dion. Georgio Armani and Tom Cruise have stayed at Dar Tamsna, a sumptuously designed Moroccan villa in a palm grove in Marrakech. Magician David Copperfield rented Snug Hargor, a Lake Tahoe Lodging property that features four bedrooms and unobstructed mountain views.
There are even private islands available (Including Richard Branson’s $22,500-a-day Necker Island, where celebrities such as Oprah and Sting have luxuriated in Balinese-style cottages). “The celebrity aspect is certainly appealing for many people. It’s fun for them to say, ‘I stayed in the same place as Tom Cruise,’” says Williams.
Of course, you can’t exactly call Tom to get a recommendation, so how do you find the agencies with the best reputations? Ask around. “Most of our business is through word of mouth or repeat customers,” says Newell. Ultimately, it’s your decision, and with enough research you should be able to find the right agency and the right property that will make for a truly memorable vacation.
“I’m kind of addicted to renting villas now,” says Watstein. “I don’t know if I could go back to hotels.”