You already know the benefits of choosing a rental villa over a hotel for your family vacation: More space, more privacy, more local flavor, and—if your group is large enough to fill every room in the house—significant savings. What you might not know though, is just how much the property itself—its layout, location, amenities—will affect the group dynamic. So will decisions ranging from which activities you pre-plan to which type of car you rent to whether the fridge is already stocked when you arrive on a Sunday and the grocery stores are closed. As someone who has rented homes for multiple generations of my own family in locales from Tuscany to Jamaica, I am here to tell you that renting through an expert who will level with you about the pros and cons of the neighborhoods and homes at your destination is a priceless advantage.
Mara Solomon, my Trusted Travel Expert for large Italian villas (read her Insider’s Guide to Italian Villa Vacations) does even more than that. Part magician, part psychologist, she can predict potential conflicts within your group…and make them disappear via smart planning. Mara, who specializes in properties that have four or more bedrooms, has compiled 11 tips for a successful villa vacation, and they’re a must-read as you start to plan your summer villa trip:
1. Manage everyone’s expectations. Travel might be the ultimate test of relationships (besides politics according to my mother). We all do it differently and spend time and money according to our own priorities. Manage everyone’s expectations for time together and time apart, for planned activities versus kicking back, very early on. Use Skype or a similar tool to bring the relevant decision-makers together, hash out the basic structure of the holiday and get everyone on the same playing field. A well-structured villa vacation ensures an elder is not over-taxed, a sporting parent gets the exercise they seek, and the kids are well engaged.
2. Divvy up the work and establish authority. Group travel—whether an extended family or group of long-standing friends (with or without children)—does take planning and it is essential for each group to decide who is making the decisions. Then make sure everyone gets behind them and sticks to the agreed upon plan. It’s also important to decide how the planning work is being shared. One person, maybe two if they work well together, is best for spearheading the choice of villa, but there are other tasks. The wine enthusiast can be put in charge of provisioning wine for the house and selecting wineries to visit, for instance.
3. Determine what really matters to your group. If your first conversations are less focused and people are less than candid, that is ok. Listen closely and you will have the keys to success. One person may need nothing so much as a fabulous bathroom. Be sure you have a plan for mornings out walking or taking coffee up to your own balcony or terrace if you need alone time. Maybe your nuclear family runs at a different speed and needs an excursion without the entourage of in-laws and cousins. Americans are used to enjoying their freedom. Be sure to rent enough cars so someone can make a quick get-away if tension mounts.
4. Make the most of the intelligence and insight of the people who have seen the house and know the area. Villa travel is, by definition, different from any other form of travel. The point is to have space as well as time and experiences together. The house matters greatly, even if you are a get-up-and-go group. Sooner or later your paths will return you home. Get this figured out in the early stages. How? Talk to the person or people who have been there and know the house. The accumulated wisdom of their experience can mean you avoid any nasty surprises. We greatly appreciate a chance to share our knowledge and our talents with our clients. This is what we are paid to do and besides the villas themselves, it is what our clients most appreciate.
5. Build into the structure of your holiday as much service as you can afford. You may think you don’t want a full-time cook but we can say from 20 years travel experience cooking services in the house are the amenity our guests appreciate the most and derive the most value. Inevitably people cancel restaurant meals and stay home because the food is so good. And enjoying it all in the privacy of your own Villa in black tie or pajamas (as you prefer) is a priceless gift to share with people you love. Meal organizing, shopping, preparation and clean up is an every-day responsibility for most of us. It becomes a true vacation when you can be at home without the everyday responsibilities.
6. Plan organized group-wide events or activities. Creating joy-filled moments elevates a get-together to the status of life-long shared memory. An excursion of interest to everyone, a special meal with a well-chosen menu or some fun and easy activity local to your destination generates enthusiasm and excitement. But don’t overdo the planning. In Italy, as with so many destinations, the most transcendent moments are often unplanned, so you want to leave room for those as well.
7. Consider seriously the layout and amenities of the property you are selecting. Quality time for relaxing and playing together in various combinations is essential for successful villa travel. The point is to come together in different times and different ways. Where will you gather for apperitivi before dinner? Are there enough chairs? A friendly bocce competition makes great fun all week long and you can end with a tournament complete with prizes.
8. Staying in one place longer makes for a richer, more rewarding experience. One week is most always not quite enough. Ten days is much better but two weeks is really recommended. I know, you may be thinking people will be bored, but I encourage you to give it consideration. A two-week stay means you sink in and get to know the place, find yourself unwinding in ways you may have forgotten. Your group of teenage boys will be transforming a mound of potatoes into that night’s gnocchi. Maybe you find yourself deep in a long conversation that is years overdue. You will have more flexibility in group configuration and size, as not everyone has to be together the whole time. And a well-located villa will have more to do than you think. We hear this quite often when our guests return: “I wish I pushed for that second week in the villa…”
9. It is Your Vacation too. We do not believe in ‘musts’ and ‘shoulds’. A visit to the Leaning Tower of Pisa could be a highlight or the worst day of the holiday. It depends. It depends both on things you control and those you don’t. Make sure you work with people who are listening closely to what matters to you and are facilitating that experience for you. If you are working with someone who really understands your group, the necessary insights, contacts and arrangements can be deployed in a way that meets your needs. And, that travel consultant will have you prepared for the variables beyond your control that are an essential part of the villa experience. Yes, the Blue Grotto is special, but we think having your own boat and exploring the other relatively deserted grottos around Capri is much more rewarding. And if you want to skip Capri altogether, that is fine too.
10. Success is in the details. Location, location, location counts when planning villa travel. With villa travel you might not know what questions to ask, so we suggest you work with people who know the house, setting and local area well enough to tell you what you need to consider. The Amalfi Coast is not well suited to those who cannot manage steps. Do you need running room for rambunctious children with soccer balls? Do you have shoppers or fitness buffs or serious scholars? What about food allergies? Can the staff find gluten-free pasta and almond milk easily if needed?
11. Plan on enjoying yourselves and having fun together. We invite our guests to plan on enjoying themselves and doing things differently. Use your phone or tablet for photos, not for email with the office. Eat gelato at least once every day. Have fun getting lost –you will be rewarded with at least a great story to share over apperitivi back at the house. You are sure to encounter an awe-inspiring moment, great memento or new friend for life. Remember what it is to have a day to fill as you like, without an agenda. This is what we strive for at Homebase Abroad–a well-structured trip whose cadence best matches the needs and preferences of your family and friends. We promise you will be rewarded with an exceptional experience. Maybe even the best vacation of your life.
Thanks, Mara, for letting me share your tips with WendyPerrin.com travelers!