On vacation in a villa

On vacation in a villa
Exterior and swimming pool of Palm Springs villa.

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

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