Recently my wife and I planned a weekend with four other couples. We wanted to meet in the Sonoma Valley to experience its bucolic mix of small towns, cafes, vineyards, dairies, farms, and ranches.
At first we considered booking one of the luxury hotels in the area: Meadowood, Auberege du Soleil, or the Calistoga Ranch.
There’s no question that a hotel has advantages: fresh towels every day; someone else making up your bed; room service; little chocolates on your pillow.
Those luxuries are a treat, as is having easy access to the hotel’s restaurants, bars, pool, spa, and recreational facilities.
But for all that convenience there are expensive trade-offs. If we wanted to be together, we would have to find space in the lobby or restaurant, or break up into small groups to meet in cramped hotel rooms. And with room rates ranging from $550-$850 per night, the cost of all those luxuries and conveniences are pricey.
The alternative was a villa rental. In theory, it allows you to be together with your friends, it’s substantially less expensive, but it does take some homework.
Until you’ve done it before, renting a villa can be a daunting task, especially when planning with a group.
The first step is to email a worksheet to your group and ask some basic questions.
Where do you want to go? In the U.S. or out of the country?
Do you want to be in a big city, in the country, or somewhere in between?
For how long? A long weekend, a week, a month, or longer?
How much do you want to spend a night?
What amenities do you want at the house? A pool and a spa? What about tennis courts?
Do you want to focus your vacation at the villa or would you rather use the rental as a jumping-off point to explore the area?
Once everyone is on the same page, begin your search. Go online and look for “vacation rentals” in an area or city of interest. There are several online brokers, but be aware that each one may have a different focus—some focus on specific regions while others may target upscale travelers.
Beautiful Places (www.beautiful-places.com) specializes in high-end properties in the U.S., Mexico, Italy, and France. Sanctuary Villas (www.sanctuary-villas.com) and In Villas Veritas (www.invillas.com) offer luxury accommodations in Europe and along the Mediterranean coast.
Prices are as varied as the properties. On a recent check of HomeAway, there were no-frills one-bedroom houses for under $130 per night, while luxury accommodations with four to six bedrooms were priced at 20 times that amount. The location, number of bedrooms, and amenities will all affect the cost.
When you go can also make a big difference. Generally speaking, you’ll pay full fare during the high season, about 10 percent less in the shoulder, and another 10 percent less in the off season.
The good news is that one region’s high season is another’s off season. For example, in California’s wine country, Napa and Sonoma’s low season comes at the end of the harvest season (November-March). The shoulder season is in April and May. During the high season (June-October) the region is bustling with visitors and prices skyrocket. In ski areas such like Aspen, Colorado and Park City, Utah, high and low seasons follow a reverse calendar.
Get examples of how much you can save in this video tip: High Season Vs. Low Season: The Caribbean.
FINDING THE RIGHT PLACE
In general, you know what you’re getting with a standard hotel. But the experience in a private home rental varies greatly because the house reflects the personality and taste of the owner.
Look carefully at the photographs you see online or receive from the broker. Do you like the furniture? What about the art on the walls? Pay attention to details. They could affect the quality of your vacation.
Be sure to talk directly with the broker—or better yet, the owner—and don’t be afraid to ask questions: Is the pool heated? Are children allowed? Pets? What amenities and utensils are available in the kitchen? Does the property have a grill? What is the neighborhood like? Are there shopping areas nearby? Will you need a car?
Get as much information as you can. The more you know, the more you can get out of your stay.
Ask about support as well: Is a rental agent available during your stay? If there is a problem, will you get help or are you on your own?
Some Web sites offer reimbursement and replacement guarantees if you aren’t satisfied, but that would be cold comfort for any group on a short visit. As a rule, the more you pay for the rental, the more services and support you can expect.
THE BOOKING EXPERIENCE
With the Sonoma Valley as our objective, we chose Beautiful Places because of its wide range of properties, from smaller, idiosyncratic homes to large estates with vineyards, tennis courts, pools, and spas.
We spent a lot of time on the phone and in emails with our agent. After a series of back and forth questions, she seemed to understand exactly what would make us happy, but, of course, we would only know for sure once we opened the front door.
Besides brokering the rental, Beautiful Places offers concierge services. They could arrange any number of activities: helicopter tours; a hot-air balloon ride; a private tour of a winery; difficult-to-get reservations at well-known restaurants like the French Laundry or Ubuntu.
Many of these activities would add to the cost of a visit but not all. Because of its relationships with local businesses, Beautiful Places can arrange tastings and private tours at no additional cost.
HOW WE SPENT THE WEEKEND
Villa Andrea sits in the hills above Glen Ellen. It’s at least a five-minute drive along a private, narrow road, past stands of trees draped with Spanish moss. Intermittent views of the valley below showed green fields covered with brightly flowered mustard plants.
Arriving at a property you’ve only seen on line is the moment of truth.
The villa we chose was a winner. Surrounded by a 30-acre vineyard, it had all of the amenities of a luxury hotel: beautiful grounds landscaped with native plants, an elegant pool, and a patio that overlooked the estate’s private vineyard.
Three of the bedrooms were in the main house. The other two were in separate bungalows for added privacy.
Since part of our group wanted to spend the vacation enjoying the villa, their time revolved around reading, eating, watching movies in the state-of-the-art screening room, and spending time in the on-site spa with a steambath, sauna and relaxation room.
For those of us who wanted to explore the valley’s incredible culinary bounty, Beautiful Places put together a comprehensive itinerary.
We started our tour of the valley with a stop at the Sonoma Farmers Market a few blocks from the town square.
Then we drove out to the very organic Green String Farm (www.greenstringfarm.com) in Petaluma where chickens fertilize the fields and weeds control the insects.
At the Benziger Family Winery (www.benziger.com), Bob Benziger gave us a private tour of the Glen Ellen vineyard where he explained the principles of biodynamic farming which were similar to the techniques practiced at Green String Farm.
We also took a peek inside their winery cave.
In Sonoma, we took our time walking around the Sonoma Market (www.sonoma-glenellenmkt.com) looking through the extensive collection of local cheeses, dry aged beef, free range poultry, fish, and shellfish, including Dungeness crabs freshly cooked in the market’s kitchen.
At Jack London Village in Glen Ellen we attended a tasting of artisan cheeses at Raymond Cheese Monger (www.raymondcheesemongers.com). Next door at Figone’s of California Olive Oil and Press (www.figoneoliveoil.com) we sat at the bar and tossed down shooters of the locally produced olive oils and balsamic vinegars.
Back at the villa, we unpacked our goodies. Since we wanted to cook together, we needed a large, well-appointed kitchen. Beautiful Places promised us a “dream kitchen,” and it was one. The kitchen featured an eight-burner stove with two ovens, two dishwashers, and two plate-warming drawers.
Beautiful Places suggested that we have a private chef come to the villa so we didn’t spend all our time cooking. The cost was the same as a dinner at a restaurant and was worth the experience.
Margie Tosch and Willy Brooke of Meadow Brooke Catering (MeadowBrookeCatering.com) came to the villa and prepared a wine-paired meal.
For our last night we had a private wine tasting with Garrett Day of Provino (www.provinowines.com) who introduced us to Sonoma Valley’s smaller and very remarkable vintners.
As for the cleanup? There was none. Beautiful Places also provided daily maid service. Split five ways—another advantage of traveling with a group—added very little to our costs.
At the end of the visit we totaled up the cost. And, thankfully the reality lived up to the concept. Ultimately, it cost less than if we had stayed in a hotel and dined in restaurants over the weekend.
It was a win-win situation for all concerned. And there was one more win as well … the couples are all still talking to each other!
Read more by David Latt:
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- Qatar Chronicles: Lounging In Luxury
- Off the Brochure Travel Guide: Doha, Qatar
- A Food Lover’s Five Easy Travel Tips
- Heathrow Offerings: Terminal 5 and Sofitel Style
- Ribs, Ribs and More Ribs: The Biggest Barbecue Cook-Off in the West