For the next two or more weeks, the place is yours. No handing in keys at reception (or mistaking your flexi key for your Visa card), no fake ‘good morning’ smiles, no queues checking in or out, no fire alarms going off at inopportune times, no maids knocking on your door just as you’re stepping out of or into the shower. Welcome to the villa lifestyle.
Yes, welcome to the villa lifestyle – you shop for your food, you eat what you cook, you buy the (remarkably cheap, high quality) wine from the nearby vineyard and drink it with your friends and family. Your neighbours are not strangers. Rather, they are real people leading real lives – they work, they play, they potter around their garden, just like you do when you’re at home. Surrounded by locals, you have a prime opportunity to get a sense of where you are – its culture, its environment, its atmosphere. You look around you at the end of the first day, and you realise you never want to check into a hotel again.
You are not alone. Villa rentals – particularly in southern Europe, in and around the countries of France, Spain and Portugal – have increased over 100 per cent in the past ten years. According to Suzanne Quinn, MD of Holiday Homes Direct, an Irish owned company dedicated to helping Irish people find their perfect holiday rental accommodation, the majority of clients are families.
“A villa lends itself well to families because of the space and flexibility it offers them,” she points out. “If you compare a villa to a hotel, it’s much more attractive for a family to choose the former. The other things that people seem to like a lot is the privacy you can have, with the likes of a private pool, and the fact that there’s a lot more space for extended families or groups of friends. The luxuries from having effectively a home from home is that if they want to relax in the evening time they have the scope to do that with their own children.”
All of the above taken into consideration, there are negative aspects, as Quinn admits that such facilities aren’t for everyone. “Some people like having the facilities that hotels can offer. If you want to have a concierge or go downstairs and have breakfast then maybe a villa holiday isn’t for you. Maybe some people have done the self-catering thing when their kids were a lot younger, and they’re now looking for a particular level of service that you can get from a hotel.”
What is, perhaps, the biggest bonus with this kind of holiday is the price difference. Prices vary from location to location, of course, but there’s little doubt that on a person-per-person basis the savings can be huge. Even with the cheaper package holidays, certain travel dates are restricted, whereas with a villa you can virtually pick and choose when you want to go, and for how long – and the locations can be more interesting.
“There’s no doubt that the travel industry has experienced some bad times over the past few years, but our own experience has been slightly different,” says Quinn. “We’ve seen an upsurge in the amount of traffic on our website with people booking their holidays, and the reason for that is from a value for money experience there is no comparison. Our homeowners, though, seemed a lot more nervous last year, and so there are a lot more negotiations going on. Everyone is looking for a deal, and rates are being reviewed.”
A Private Pool: They might be reasonably commonplace in the US and Australia, but in Europe, UK and Ireland a private pool is something of a luxury. And it’s an amazing, almost empowering feeling, on a scorching hot day, to walk mere yards from the bedroom to a shimmering, translucent pool. With a rubber alligator. Woo-hoo!
Lots Of Space: There’s nothing more enjoyable than going on holiday, opening the door to your accommodation and realizing that your own house just doesn’t quite match up to it. The sense of superiority you feel is tremendous, while the thought of going home fills you with dread. Happy holidays!
Domestic Facilities, Home Comforts: One of the best things about a villa is that it has all the comforts of home without actually being your home; in other words, you know how to use the kitchen equipment, but if for some reason an appliance breaks down you don’t have to phone the service engineer – the owner does it for you.
A Private Garden: Although not necessarily a luxury, it’s a nice touch if there’s a garden with the villa. Stroll around it, pretend you’re really interested in learning the Latin names for all of the plants. Impress the owner by doing a bit of watering. Annoy the person employed to do same.
The BBQ: Close to the garden, even closer to the pool, and right beside the extra large ice bucket – which is fit to bursting with beer, wine and champagne – is the on-site BBQ. We’re not talking about a piece of metal, some grubby charcoal and bits of burnt, rotting chicken meat with a squiffy bottle of petrol beside it. Oh, no, we’re talking about a state-of-the-hearth, prime-time cooking unit that scorches the meat and the veg just the right side of bungalow bliss. And you can use it all year round – not just the few days after you bought the feckin’ thing from Homebase.
Location, Location, Location: If you’re in the villa for more than a weekend, you can assuredly get a sense of what the local area (and beyond) is like. Would you actually want to live there? Does the region beat to your rhythm? Would it look as pretty in the winter, when the rain is making bullet holes in the pool and the wind is whipping around the nuggets of burnt coal?
Solitude: We love hotels, especially all the free goodies, the interior design you wished you had for your own sleeping space, the massive flatscreen television, and so on. But what villas have that hotels have not is a sense of ownership; you could imagine yourself living in a villa because it’s a domicile in a different country, but unless you’re an unstable rock star, who’d want to actually live in a hotel? All those smartly dressed people you’d have to be insincerely sincere to? No thanks – we want a space where we can be ourselves.
The Owner’s Knowledge Of The Area: We particularly like flicking through the villa owner’s well thumbed recommended list of things to see and visit in the region, as well as local restaurants to eat in (although we have discovered something of a bias in that on more than one instance, the villa owner is best mates with some of the restaurateurs).
Personal Family Photos: The last thing you want to see hanging on the bedroom wall (or on any other wall, for that matter) is a photo of little Francois or Franny in their school uniform, clutching onto a rugby ball or a Lacrosse racquet. Or , may the good Lord preserve us, ‘cute’ baby photos. You really don’t want to be reminded that you’re living in someone else’s house, do you?
Damage Deposit: Although understandable, an average cash against-damage deposit of 500 euros impacts on cash flow. Like, don’t you trust us? Er, no.
Owner Visits: Yes, we know it’s not our property, and we know previous visitors have messed you around by chipping the bone china cups and misappropriating the silverware, but we’re not like that, so there’s no requirement whatsoever for you to pop over for a ‘chat’ to see how our holiday is going. Two nice words: Stay Away.
Proximity of owner: In the brochures or the website blurb, it states that the owner “lives nearby”. Be careful to check out exactly what this means: within a mile or so is fine, but next door (in a small apartment, perhaps, crouched in a foetal position, grimacing, while you and your family are lounging around the swimming pool) means they’re within earshot. Which means, no, you can’t make sarcastic comments about the bathroom tiling, the pitiful DVD collection, the state of the towels, or the fact that Francois or Franny looks a little bit wonky.
The Answering Machine: An activated answering machine is an aural reminder that it’s not really your space at all. Imagine the scenario: you’re very much relaxing over the third bottle of wine (hey – it’s a holiday, remember?) when the phone rings, and Benicio from Galicia starts a rambling, incomprehensible conversation that lasts about ten minutes. It’s a timely reminder to unplug the phone (just remember to plug it back in, though, before the owner calls over for their little ‘chat’).
Paying For Cleaning Service During Stay: Don’t you think we have paid you enough already, without having to fork out more money? Really!
Location, Location, Location: Villas are rarely in the centre of things, so from a practical point of view you’re going to have to rent a car (or two) in order to get to the bigger shops and the better restaurants. More expense – dammit!
The Owner’s Final Visit & ‘Chat’: The last day arrives and you just know that Mr or Mrs Whatsit will be coming along to view the property for wilful damage, accidental mishaps and other signs of recklessness. Frankly, it’s embarrassing to have to virtually stand in line and hold out your fingernails for inspection. But you bite your tongue, say thanks for the memories and, before reaching the airport or ferry, make sure you pull the car over and place the carefully wrapped broken pieces of a bathroom fixture into a rubbish bin.
(A different version of this first appeared in The Irish Times/Go, July 2010.)