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Whether It's a Mansion on Mustique or a Castle in Cork, Renting A Luxurious Vacation Home May Cost Less Than You Think

Few people live in hotels. For most of us, our home is our most prized possession. So why do so many travelers choose a hotel room for a vacation, when they can rent a home as nice as, or nicer than, the one to which they are accustomed?

You can find every amenity imaginable in some of the world's most luxurious homes, and you have these facilities all to yourself. From grass tennis courts to private 18-hole golf courses, indoor pools to private beaches, home theaters to equestrian centers, these properties and their staffs can rival the offerings of any full-service resort hotel.

"When a client stays in a hotel, they are competing with hundreds of other guests for the services," says Tim Roney, senior villa consultant for LaCure, one of the largest luxury home rental agencies. "In our villas, they have their own maids, their own cooks, their own staffs. You eat what you want, when you want, where you want--on the lawn, by the pool or in the dining room."

The staffing, amenities, architecture and price vary enormously by region. While luxury homes can be rented around the globe, the most popular destinations for U.S. residents are the Caribbean; France, primarily Provence and the Côte d'Azur; Italy, primarily Tuscany; Great Britain, primarily the Cotswolds and Scotland; and the United States, particularly in major ski areas.

Caribbean rental opportunities are quite varied, due to the number of nations and cultures and the abundance of smaller islands. In general, island villas tend to be modern, and many are staffed. Almost all have pools and outdoor dining areas, and many offer tennis courts and Jacuzzis. They are almost always true rentals, where you take the entire property for your party.

Each island or island group has distinctive features. Due to higher labor costs, U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have the lowest levels of staffing. By comparison, homes on Barbados, Mustique and Jamaica are known for having enormous staffs, which often include maids, chefs, gardeners, pool men, boatmen and other personnel. What hotel room could compare, for example, to the Bon Vivant house on Barbados?

A sports lover's paradise, Bon Vivant boasts an Olympic-sized swimming pool, tennis and basketball courts, an air-conditioned raquetball court, a gym (trampoline included), a billiards room, a shuffleboard court, a Jacuzzi and even a playhouse for kids. A golf course is just a two-minute stroll from the house, and the beach (with your own private cabana) is only three minutes away. The house, which contains seven bedrooms, eight baths and spacious common areas, has a staff of 10 that is presided over by the housekeeper. The kitchen staff provides international or local cuisine as requested, and maids collect guests' laundry for washing and ironing. The house rents for about $2,645 per night during the high season and $2,075 in the low season.

The most extensive rental market in the Caribbean can be found on St. Barts, due to the European influence and the absence of large hotels, with the vast majority of tourist accommodations in the form of private homes. Hundreds of properties on St. Barts are available, ranging from one-bedroom condos to luxurious private estates. The largest rental agency for the region is the West Indies Management Co. (WIMCO), based in Newport, Rhode Island.

Charles Healy, a venture capitalist from Cincinnati, has been a longtime St. Barts renter. "In Tuscany I rented a place and it was fine," he says. "There are some really nice places in Provence. But in St. Barts I find it very simple and easy. I rent the same house every year, and by now I'm used to it. I know where the silverware is and how the dishwasher works. I want to go back the last two weeks of February forever."

Like Healy, many renters become repeat customers, taking the same property year after year. This familiarity makes their rental villa a home away from home. One luxury villa owner on St. Barts has several families who return each year, keeping his $10,000 a week cliffside estate rented about half the time.

Luxury homes can be found in every Caribbean country. Another unique attraction this area offers is private island rentals, where an entire island can be taken by a single party. Providing an unusual level of privacy, these properties are often rented by celebrities. The intimate Little St. James is a 72-acre island in the U.S. Virgin Islands that comfortably accommodates two or three couples, while the better known Necker Island off Virgin Gorda sleeps 24 people.

Breathtaking Caribbean properties rent from $1,000 to $2,000 per night in the low season and $2,000 to $3,000 in the high season, although fine homes are available for much less. Unique properties like Necker Island can exceed $10,000 daily. Some of the more expensive staffed villas include food and liquor in the rental price.

Home rentals in Europe are a much different matter. The market is far more diverse, with many types and sizes of homes available. The reason, according to Tracey Vaughan of Hideaways International, a travel club that specializes in villa rentals, is that the market has been around much longer, and as a result, rentals are widely available in all price ranges. "Villa vacationing is much more prevalent in Europe, and Americans have been the last to catch on," says Vaughan. "In 1979, when we started Hideaways, there were no American companies offering these services."

In general, European homes have less staff, are older and are often shared. Unlike tropical villas, which are almost all second homes, many European properties are primary residences. While entire homes can be rented, many accommodations take the form of apartments or homes split into individual suites.

Even the most impressive estates are often divided into areas for rent and areas reserved for the owners. In many cases these properties are owned by landed gentry, fourth- or fifth-generation nobility who no longer have the means to support their ancestral homes. They rent out most of the house while living in a private wing or guest house on the property.

While this may not be as private as an island villa, it can be a much better way to experience local culture. Since many of the owners are, in fact, titled nobility, they often have privileges that can be extended to their guests, and estates that surpass even the finest private homes. Guests might sit down to a private dinner in an enormous banquet hall with a baron and baroness.

In the English Manner is one firm that books such rentals. Spokesperson Joyce Fredo says, "These homes are priceless. You couldn't find them on the market even if you had all the money in the world. It's like walking into a museum." In many cases, these properties have been in the family for several centuries.

Charleton, for instance, is one of Scotland's most spectacular private homes, where your hosts, a young baron and baroness, offer you a warm welcome and a golf experience without equal--Charleton features its own private 18-hole course. In addition to his own course, the baron is a member of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, St. Andrews, just 15 minutes away. When you can tear yourself away from golf, Charleton's 1,000-acre estate offers excellent hiking and is renowned as a first-rate riding center.

Another large Scottish home, Ayton Castle, is billed by In the English Manner as "the sportsman's dream." You can fish for salmon and trout on the Tweed River--which runs through the 6,000-acre estate--partake in game and clay pigeon shooting, hone your swing at a nearby golf course or take part in one of Ayton's polo clinics. Twelve bedrooms (and 12 bathrooms) offer a comfortable night's rest. The $300 nightly rate (per couple) only includes breakfast, but don't pass up a chance to eat dinner with your hosts; the meal--and the open bar--can last up to six hours.

Equally impressive is Mallow Castle, a sixteenth century home in southwest Ireland that also puts golfers within easy reach of several golf courses, including world-famous Ballybunion. Like Charleton and Ayton, there are plenty of other diversions. The white fallow deer, which roam freely on a 20-acre preserve, are a sight to behold, as is the nearby Blarney Stone, while those seeking more heady thrills can ride with the "Dashing Duhallows" on Ireland's oldest hunt or fish for salmon on the estate's River Blackwater. Inside the castle, a special treat awaits cigar lovers. Share a smoke with castle owner Michael McGinn, whose collection of 4,000-plus cigars includes more than 30 brands of Havanas.

Of course, you can also rent entire homes in Europe, as in the Caribbean. Unique to Europe are large homes located on working vineyards or olive-producing estates. Jonathan Peress and his wife, Martha, both attorneys living in Vermont, recently attended a lavish 40th birthday party for a friend thrown in a medieval castle in Tuscany called Castello di Montegufoni.

Jonathan Peress recalls their visit: "The castle was built in the twelfth century, and there were about 25 suites, all unique, with carved wood ceilings, tiled floors and beautiful murals. Some had several bedrooms. We [about 60 guests] had the whole place to ourselves. There was a pool, elaborate gardens, salons and courtyards. It was situated on a hill above the vineyards, and the estate's wines and olive oil featured the castle on the labels. Our stay was so pleasant that I brought home a case of Chianti as a memento."

One of the attractions of European rentals is the history of many of the properties, with some homes dating as far back as the thirteenth century. How about a 600-year-old manor house in the Cotswolds with Roman ruins on the premises? Perhaps a fourteenth century chateau in Côte d'Azur, previously owned, restored and decorated by Christian Dior? Or maybe a nearby stone castle built for King Leopold of Belgium as his summer home?

Many European rental properties feature windmills, chapels, ruins, battlements, walled courtyards and even moats. One English manor, Faringdon House in the Cotswolds, has a swimming pool built in the style of an old castle; the pool is surrounded by water-spraying stone gargoyles. Stately English mansions hundreds of years old begin quite reasonably at about $600 a day. The Cotswolds home with the Roman ruins, for instance, rents for around $650 a night, making the six-bedroom manor far less expensive than a nice hotel. Rentals in Tuscany and the south of France have rates comparable to those in the Caribbean. The Dior chateau, for example, will run you upwards of $17,000 a week during the summer.

The nicest rental homes in the United States tend to be at a handful of resort areas, including some beachfront destinations, but the most popular luxury rentals are at the major ski resorts. Wonder-ful residences can be found in Colorado, at Aspen, Vail, Brecken-ridge and other big ski towns, where many very expensive second homes create a rental market. Skiing lends itself to groups, and skiers often want and need more space than hotels offer.

Rentals in the United States are not as commonplace or as organized as those abroad, and the market relies more on local property management firms. Bob's At The Beach, an agency in Lake Tahoe, California, offers the cream of the crop for rental homes in this four-season resort area. Popular for skiing, golf, gambling and water sports, Lake Tahoe is home to one of the largest congregations of luxury rental properties in the States.

Bob's masterpieces include a 7,000-square-foot home that has appeared on the syndicated television show "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." This contemporary home, which has been a destination for many celebrities, including actors Roseanne and Charlie Sheen, is an exercise in redundancy.

Within the all-glass exterior, this beachfront home offers four bedroom suites, each with its own kitchen and laundry room. There is also a large commercial-quality kitchen and an extensive outdoor barbecue and kitchen center. There are indoor and outdoor hot tubs, an indoor pool and even a waterfall. There are seven fireplaces, seven bathrooms, a dance floor (complete with mirrored ball), a well-equipped gym and seven wet bars, including one fashioned from a 1949 mahogany Chris-Craft runabout. Outside there is a private beach on the lake and boat dock, illuminated with gas tiki torches.

Just as there are a tremendous variety of homes for rent, there are a variety of ways to rent them. One way is to go directly to the owners, who are often found through classified advertisements or by referral. At the other extreme are full-service agencies. The middle ground is occupied by agencies that put renters and owners together. Each method has its advantages.

"By working closely with the owners, we instill a degree of professionalism," says Karen Squires of LaCure, a full-service agency with an impressive catalog. "We go and see the actual homes, looking at the view, the furnishings, the staff and the amenities. We go into minute detail, even checking the linens. We then grade each house by stars. This way we can provide all details of the house."

"We never rent a villa if we do not have an on-island manager," says Jan Gordon of WIMCO, another full-service agency. "Our clients are met when they get off of the plane and are accompanied to the villa. The manager does not leave until they've shown the guests all the features. We don't mail out directions and leave the guests on their own. Every house has been toured by at least one of our reservationists, so we can recommend which houses are best for families with children, the elderly or those who have special needs."

Full-service agencies also offer travel arrangements, such as airfare and car rentals, as well as other services. Popular requests include provisioning the home with groceries and arranging masseuses, babysitters, chefs, yacht charters, and tennis and golf access. These agencies also tend to have someone on-call nearby, in case the guest encounters any difficulties or has additional questions, such as recommendations for restaurants or nearby attractions.

Renting from the owners themselves also offers a few advantages. Hideaways International's Vaughan notes that "since no fee goes to a property manager, you generally get the best price. This is the biggest difference." The owners can also be more flexible in terms of negotiating an unusual deal, such as a longer- or shorter-than-normal stay, or an off-season visit. What's more, no one knows the property better than the owners, who are familiar with all the operational issues, such as appliances, and know the local area more intimately. As Vaughan says, "Many times property managers have never even seen the home."

On the other hand, because owners are more eager to rent their homes, they may be less inclined to discourage guests for whom the home might not be appropriate. Owners generally don't accept credit cards or provide other support services. And, in the event of a disappointing or misleading experience, renters who deal directly with the owners often have less recourse. This is especially true abroad, where you do not have the American legal system to fall back on. Going through an agency, however, does not guarantee satisfaction, and thousands of happy customers have gone direct.

To rent direct, there are two options. One of the best places to find owners is in the classified advertisements of suitable publications, such as a sports or regional publication. Michael Thiel, founder of Hideaways, has published a book, Villa Vacations Made Easy, in which he recommends Caribbean Travel & Life, Golf Digest, Tennis and university alumni magazines as good sources. Others include Ski, Skiing and Islands magazines.

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