On vacation in a villa

Casa do Lago on Portugal’s Silver Coast. -- PHOTO: CASA DO LAGO
Casa do Lago on Portugal’s Silver Coast. -- PHOTO: CASA DO LAGO

Staying in a country home gives travellers a taste of the local lifestyle and can be cost-effective for big groups

Every July and August, when their hometowns are overwhelmed by heat and tourists, thousands of French families lock up their urban apartments and fly south for the summer.

For decades, the Spaniards, Italians and even English have followed similar migratory paths, and now, Singaporeans are getting a slice of this laid-back country life.

With the help of rental websites such as AirBnB, Vrbo, HomeAway and FlipKey, savvy Singaporeans are taking up temporary residence in countryside and beach houses in places such as Provence, Tuscany and northern California.

Vacationing with a large group of family and friends by renting a villa or country home for weeks at a time is a cost-effective way to relax with one's nearest and dearest - and to live like a local.

Mr Chai Jia Jih, managing director of AirBnB South East Asia and India, says the practice echoes a style of vacation already popular for Singaporeans vacationing in Bali and Thailand.

"We expect to see the continued rise of this trend, particularly as more Singapore travellers become aware of the benefits of staying in villas, such as privacy, convenience and luxury," he says.

The demand is largely fuelled by the wide array of rental listings on websites such as AirBnB that suit various budgets and preferences, and by people looking for unique travel experiences, he adds.

Mr Chai says: "Villa rentals, which are typically located away from the city, allow travellers to venture off the beaten track and to live like a local."

Ms Emmeline Yong, 38, director of Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film, rented her first villa with friends in Tuscany in 2006. The two-storey threebedroom villa became the base from which she, her husband and three friends explored Florence, Tuscany, and nearby Umbria for two weeks.

She and her friends use websites to find their holiday houses, checking the property's testimonials carefully before contacting the landlord or management company. Payment for the rental usually goes through the website or management company to avoid any fraudulent charges.

They focus on rentals outside cities, preferably in wine regions.

Ms Yong says: "Wine regions tend to be near enough to a major city - San Francisco, Florence, Marseille - so you can do a lot of touristy stuff if you want to, but you can have days where you are just relaxing and taking in the nice pace of holiday life."

For their most recent trip in March, they stayed in a 650 sq m, seven-bedroom Tuscan-style villa. Located on a 14ha vineyard estate in Napa Valley, the rental included access to a pool, hot tub and vineyard, with spectacular views of the surrounding valley for less than $200 a person a night.

"Renting a villa sounds daunting and expensive, but it's quite cheap to rent cars in the United States and Europe. And when you are cooking and eating most of your meals at home, you save quite a bit," says Ms Yong.

Villas are listed in any price range, such as the beautiful eight-bedroom Chateau du Marquis de Tracy in Auvergne, France, which starts from US$390 a night, or a cosy four-bedroom stone cottage in Galicia, Spain, which costs US$163 a night.

TripAdvisor estimates that a vacation rental costs 20 to 60 per cent less than a hotel stay, not including savings on meals, with larger groups benefiting most.

Ms Laurel Greatrix, spokesman for TripAdvisor Vacation Rentals, says the key benefits of staying in a holiday home are cost, space and amenities.

"Most rentals will have at least a kitchen and living space, while many houses and villas will have backyards or gardens, dining rooms and more. It's not uncommon for these to include a pool, a well- equipped kitchen, BBQ pits, a pool table and, on the luxury end, homes can include a private chef, infinity pool or even a boat," she says.

She advises travellers to sign a rental contract that includes the terms of the rental; the services that are included or not, such as cleaning fees or breakfast; and payment and cancellation policies.

When renting a holiday home, travellers will forgo a hotel's on-site services, such as concierge and room service. Instead, they will stock their own refrigerator, clean up after themselves and tidy the property before they leave.

Because many of these rentals are located on the outskirts of town or deep in the countryside, a rental car is also required.

But for some travellers, including Kiss 92FM DJ Maddy Barber, 42, driving around and exploring the countryside is a highlight of a remote holiday home.

Her favourite trip was one she took with her husband, two daughters, parents and in-laws in 2012, when the family rented a converted 18th-century farmhouse in Provence, France.

The family spent a week swimming, reading in the garden, barbecuing on the lawn and taking long walks through the orchards.

Though Barber does not plan to give up on hotels entirely, she cherishes villa stays for the chance to experience another way of life.

She says: "You interact with the locals, meet the neighbours or the owner of the house, who often leaves a file of local sights, markets and notes on restaurants in town, so you gain local knowledge and get a sense of the country and what it's like to live there."

vlydia@sph.com.sg

Additional reporting by Ong Kai Xuan


10 VILLAS AROUND THE WORLD FOR RENT

1. Casa do Lago on Portugal's Silver Coast

The sprawling villa on the picturesque coast is one for the kids. Children and teenagers will enjoy the playground, heated pool and mini golf course, as well as make use of the bicycles and play table tennis, table football and darts. The house is child- and handicap- friendly - the pool even comes with a hoist.

The villa also boasts a gym, a sauna, a jacuzzi, barbecue facilities and hammocks. The property has easy access to activities such as horse riding, water sports, karting, tennis and golf. There are also historic towns and museums to visit nearby.

For €2,345 to €4,725 (S$3,515 to S$7,082) a week, up to 11 people can live in the villa. That is about €30.50 to €61.40 a person a night.

Reservations: casadolago.pt

2. Villa in Palm Springs, California

In Palm Springs, known for its sunshine, sprawling golf courses and sensational music and arts festivals, groups can rent a private villa once owned by singer and actor Bing Crosby.

The restored property offering a mountain view can house up to eight people in its four bedrooms for $929 a night ($116 a head). A one-time $275 cleaning fee will be levied.

Despite its rusticity, the villa exudes luxury with its heated pool, wet bar, ping-pong table and screening room, which comes complete with a film collection.

Downtown shops and restaurants are a three-minute drive away. Ruth Hardy Park - with a playground and tennis courts - is just across the street.

Reservations: www.airbnb.com.sg/rooms/722266

3. Wildside Getaway in Ruapehu, New Zealand

Those who revel in the great outdoors can consider Wildside Getaway, an eco-lodge in the volcanic district of Ruapehu in New Zealand's North Island.

Adventure-seekers will be thrilled by the opportunities for snowboarding, skiing, hunting, fishing, mountain biking, canoeing and kayaking in the vicinity. For entertainment, the three-bedroom lodge is equipped with a games room and a large projector screen.

It costs NZ$180 (S$178) a night for two people and NZ$40 for each additional adult or NZ$30 for each child. The lodge can house up to 10 people.

Reservations: www.bookabach.co.nz/10364

4. Wynchelse, East Sussex, England

Those seeking a beautiful backdrop for photography may wish to lease Wynchelse, a white-washed wooden cabin in East Sussex. The quiet cabin can house up to 10 for £1,500 to £2,000 (S$3,114 to S$4,153) a week. That is about £21.40 to £28.60 a person a night.

A car is needed to get to this location in the coastal village of Winchelsea Beach. The shore is just a two- minute drive away while the ancient town of Rye is five minutes away. The renovated house, built in the 1930s, exudes rustic peace, but if guests desire the hustle and bustle of a city, London is just 11/2 hours away by car.

Reservations: www.homeaway.com/vacation-rental/p1109752

5. Villa in Sydney, Australia

The three-storey villa overlooks the coastal walk from Bondi to Coogee, one of the top attractions in Sydney, Australia. The villa has a back gate leading to the beach and can house up to 12 people in its six bedrooms.

The luxurious property has a salt-water infinity pool, an outdoor spa, a baby grand piano, a snooker table, an entertainment area and sundecks.

Conveniently located, it is a 15-minute drive from the city, Sydney Harbour and the airport. It costs A$990 to A$1,690 (S$1,054 to S$1,800) a night to rent. That is about A$82.50 to A$140.80 a person a night.

Reservations: www.stayz.com.au/52791

6. Chateau Du Marquis De Tracy in Bourbonnais, central France

The chateau is suitable for extended families. For £1,808 to £2,476 (S$3,754 to S$5,141) a week, up to 15 adults, three children and one baby can stay in the castle's eight bedrooms. That is about £13.60 to £18.60 a person a night.

Children can play at being period royalty without sacrificing modern facilities - the chateau is equipped with Wi-Fi as well as television sets in every bedroom and the living areas. If guests tire of the private pool, library and table football on the grounds, they can go hiking or visit the nearby amusement park.

Reservations: www.oliverstravels.com

7. Looe Island View villa, Cornwall, England

Cornwall in West England is best known for its rocky beaches and carpets of bluebells in spring - and the Looe Island View villa is perfectly positioned to admire this vista. The hilly regions along the beach offer elevated positions for panoramic sea views and the holiday home has balconies and decks for that purpose.

Located 300m away from the local beach and amenities in Downderry village, the house is also a short drive from other attractions such as the Monkey Sanctuary.

For £1,360 to £2,982 (S$2,823 to S$6,192) a week, up to 10 people can stay in the house. That is about £19.40 to £42.60 a person a night.

Reservations: www.looeislandview.com

8. Villa Ixia, Rhodes, Greece

The villa on the Grecian island of Rhodes is centred on its stunning swimming pool. It can house up to seven people in its three bedrooms for $925 a night.

With a public bus stop 120m away and plenty of parking spaces, it is easy to get to and around Villa Ixia.

Restaurants, bars, cafes and shops are within walking distance and a kite surfing centre is a five-minute walk away. The villa is also close to beautiful beaches that the island is known for.

Reservations: www.airbnb.com.sg

9. Villa Limeri in Crete, Greece

Perched among mountains at 420m above sea level, Villa Limeri is a lovely escape from the hectic daily life.

A car is needed to get to the villa and guests can choose to have a helper cook the meals.

They can leave the villa to go hiking, mountain biking or bird-watching. If they wish to travel further, the old town of Rethymno is a 20-minute drive, while the beach is 40 minutes by car.

Up to seven guests can sleep in the three rooms for €160 to €280 (S$240 to S$420), depending on the time of year.

Reservations: www.cretevillas4u.com

10. Villa in Galicia, Spain

Galicia in north-western Spain is known for its scenery and history. Here, in the village of Noutigos Carnota, travellers can rent a stone house built around 1920.

The restored structure can house up to seven people for €100 to €125 (S$150 to S$187) a night. That is about €14.30 to €17.90 a person a night.

In 2013, the house was refurbished with the aim of keeping the original stone structure, while the interior design was updated in a sleek and contemporary style.

Guests have easy access to the nearby beach as well as scenic areas. They can also visit the biggest granary in the world in Carnota village.

Reservations: www.costameiga.com