The insider advice on this page is from Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for Spain Villa Vacations: Mary Vaira of El Sol Villas.
Mary was once a government intelligence analyst, so she’s an expert at gathering information and reading between the lines. These skills have helped her curate a portfolio of well-located, user-friendly villas and apartments throughout Spain—and to match you to the right one for your needs, whether that’s a family vacation in Barcelona, sightseeing in Andalucia, or beach time on Mallorca. A fluent Spanish speaker who once lived in Spain and now visits at least twice a year, she knows which villages are overrun with tourists and which are delightfully unspoiled, as well as the practicalities of getting around efficiently via air, rail, and road. Mary was also included in Wendy’s prestigious list of top villa specialists, which was published annually in Condé Nast Traveler magazine from 2006 to 2013.
Where to Rent
Most underrated locations
Galicia, in Green Spain, is not much visited by Americans. But the wine and food (particularly the seafood) are great, the countryside is lush, and there are beautiful beaches along its northern coast.
While Barcelona gets all the attention from Americans, Madrid has more art than most European capitals, and outstanding restaurants and shopping. It’s a wonderful walking town. And this being the geographical center of the Iberian peninsula, there are many wonderful day trips, such as to the historic town of Toledo and the World Heritage cities of Avila, Salamanca, and Segovia.
Best location for sporty travelers
Andalusia has great hiking, bird watching, skiing, and golf. Catalonia offers excellent cycling. Asturias and Galicia have many rivers ideal for canoeing, kayaking, and even whitewater rafting. Tarifa, on the Costa del Sol, is home to the best windsurfing in Europe.
Best location for families with young children
Barcelona. The Gaudi buildings look like they’re right out of a Dr. Seuss book; there’s a wonderful aquarium, an IMAX theatre, and a zoo; and many of the museums and galleries offer special kids’ activities and workshops. Poble Espanyol is an open-air museum that mimics the characteristic architecture of many different regions of the country, and the Ciutadella is just one of the city’s lovely parks, where you can let the kids run around. Plus, the hop-of/hop-off sightseeing buses make it easy and affordable to move about. And of course there’s five miles of sandy beach with a large marina, for when you’ve had your fill of culture.
Best location for a big group
I like Andalusia for its hacienda-style homes, which give you plenty of room to spread out. The villas there often come with some horses or a tennis court. And there’s enough variety of activity in this region that everyone’s sure to find something of interest: sightseeing in Seville, Granada, or Cordoba; visiting the sherry bodegas and Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Jerez; exploring the 500 miles of coastline; or hiking in Doñana, Spain’s largest national park, which is considered Europe’s most important wetlands area and is home to many endangered species. Sailing and fabulous golf are also easily accessible from here.
Best location for home cooks
There are a lot of wonderful restaurants in Catalonia, including several that specialize in molecular gastronomy, and once you’re inspired you can head to one of the many village markets in the area to stock up on provisions for your own culinary experiments back at the villa. In Barcelona, Boqueria is one of the most outstanding markets in all of Europe.
Do’s And Don’ts
Worth splurging on
Even if you have a rental car, book a driver for a night or full day to take you to a fancy dinner, or on a particular tour that is some distance away—such as the drive from Ronda to Granada, to see the Alhambra.
Not worth splurging on
Air conditioning. Many fabulous homes don’t have it and don’t need it. In most cases, if A/C were required to make the house more pleasant, the owner would have installed it.
Bathrooms for every bedroom. Some of our guests insist on a certain number of bathrooms, often giving up a villa that has everything else they want to settle on something lesser with that extra bath.
In southern Spain, the best times are spring and fall, when it’s T-shirt weather but not overbearingly hot. Spring in Andalusia (the country’s southernmost region) is especially pleasant, with loads of wildflowers throughout the countryside and dramatic religious celebrations during Easter week. Though be warned: Easter week also brings crowds.
Summer has the most reliably dry weather in northern Spain (aka España Verde or Green Spain), which is usually a wet and temperate. San Sebastian has a wonderful jazz festival every July and the raucous Semana Grande in August—seven days of parties, parades, and fireworks. Catalonia, especially the towns along the Mediterranean coast, is also at its best in summer, with daytime temps in the 70s and 80s.
Madrid and Barcelona are good to visit all year long, as they have a lot to offer regardless of the weather.
Summer in Andalucia can be very hot. Resort destinations such as Ibiza, Mallorca, and the Costa Brava are sleepy in the winter.
Typically Saturday to Saturday, especially in June, July and August; a few villas allow Friday to Friday. In spring and fall you can sometimes do five instead of seven nights. Over the holiday season, many owners require that you book the specific days from Dec 24 to Jan 2.
Not realizing that villas require a little more work than hotels. Unless you pay extra for a cook, housekeeper, or, in some cases, a full-time concierge, you’ll need to prepare the meals, make the beds, and head to the store for soap, toilet paper, and other basic essentials.
* What’s the access to the villa like? Is there an unlit entrance road that is hard to drive at night? (This is common in the countryside.)
* Is the house near a busy commercial area, a construction site, or a noisy highway?
* How far is the nearest town or village? It may be close but not within walking distance (and does that matter to you?)
* If you need to stay connected, does the house have internet and Wi-Fi? Is there a landline, and is it available for local calls? It’s usually cheapest to use your cell phone for international calls, and the house phone for local calls.
A shawl or light jacket for the cool nights that can occur at any time of year; bath soap, since some villas may not have any and you may arrive too late to go to the market; and bug spray, depending on where and when you rent.
In Madrid, we can sometimes get our guests invited to a fabulous cocktail party or small dinner at a penthouse apartment, right across from the Prado. The host brings together a group of friends from various fields (business, antiques, real estate), giving visitors the chance to meet locals and hear their thoughts about the city and the country of Spain. This is a rare opportunity, as most Spaniards do not entertain at home, and so it’s particularly hard for an outsider to get such an invitation.