Monday, November 14, 2011

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Home Away from Home

Rosewood Little Dix Bay, British Virgin Islands; Exclusive Resorts

Picture your family in a seven-room apartment in the 16th arrondissement of Paris. It’s a five-minute walk to a café and patisserie and a 20-minute walk to the Eiffel Tower. For ten days you live as Parisians in a 19th-century building from the Baron Haussmann era.

Back home in Wellesley, the French family in whose apartment you are living is enjoying suburban life. They visit North Shore beaches, Boston museums, and New York City for the weekend. They drive your minivan equipped with navigation. In Paris, you walk the streets for hours or hop on the Metro that’s just down the block. Your families have exchanged life in Paris for life in Wellesley. Your vacation homes-away take you beyond the typical tourist experience and offer the chance to gain a greater cultural understanding.

Wellesley resident Anne James and her family had just such an exchange in 2007 through HomeExchange.com. Staying in a hotel in Paris with the children (ages sixteen, fourteen, twelve, and nine) would have been costly. By staying in a home instead, they had a fully-equipped kitchen, living areas in which to gather and relax, and enough bedrooms for everyone to have privacy. “We spent the savings on activities and food,” James says. “I loved watching the kids try escargot.”

Deer Valley, Utah; Exclusive Resorts

Their HomeExchange partners, the Madeline family of France, matched theirs with four children of similar ages. The families got acquainted through e-mail and a phone conversation as they worked out their exchange. “It was a vacation we will always remember,” James says. “What nice people they were! The Madelines came early to Logan on departure day so they could meet us upon our arrival with our car. When you home exchange you are appreciative of what others have done for you, and you reply in kind.”

HomeExchange.com was founded in 1992 by Ed Kushins, who is also its president, to save families vacation dollars while giving them a unique, authentic travel experience. Today the home swap Web site offers more than 38,000 listings in 137 countries. HomeExchange.com was featured in the 2006 Sony Pictures film The Holiday, with Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet, and interest surged. Now about 60,000 home exchanges take place each year. Members pay a fee to join, create their own listings, and arrange the terms of each exchange. In 2010 the company launched HomeExchangeGold to make it easy for owners of extraordinary properties to locate comparable partners.

Laura Winig and her family have had two successful exchanges with families in California and New Jersey. In 2006 the Wellesley residents swapped homes with a family from San Diego. The Winig daughters were thrilled to discover their West Coast home included a tree house and the use of a sparkling-clean convertible car. The three California boys loved the pouring rain and thunder that occurred much of their week in Wellesley and the wayward moose that walked through their backyard on its way to shutting down Route 9. “When we got home we were amazed that our neighbors were referring to our exchange family by first name,” says Winig. “They had invited them for over cocktails and gotten to know them.”

Sea Island, Georgia; Exclusive Resorts

There are plenty of moving pieces in a home exchange. When you’re dealing with four children and two adults in two families, getting 12 schedules for school and work to match can be tough, Winig notes. Weather shortens the Wellesley and Weston exchange season. Plus it’s best to find partners who offer an equivalent exchange, primary residence for primary, vehicle included or not, for example. Most exchangers leave a file or welcome book with information about the house and the surrounding area. “In a way, it’s a great leap of faith,” James admits.

With a short-term vacation rental of a house, condominium, or villa, you can choose the place and dates that suit your family. On VRBO.com, the Vacation Rentals by Owner Web site, property owners post photos of their homes, its features and amenities, information about the surrounding area, and rental rates by day, week, or month. Established in 1995, VRBO® currently has 160,000 rental listings worldwide, with many second homes. Often for less than a hotel, properties offer more space and privacy as well as a full kitchen and off-street parking. Property rentals often aren’t subject to hotel occupancy taxes, but there can be housekeeping fees, security deposit, and utility charges for heating a pool or spa. Since each home is unique and self-described, surprises can occur. Photos can be outdated. The listing may boast it’s close to shops and restaurants, but does that mean it will be noisy at night?

For busy and far-flung families, vacation is an important time to bond and make memories. The right setting makes all the difference, but who has the time and expertise to plan the perfect vacation especially if there are children of many ages and two or more generations? Wimco Villas, founded in 1983, offers luxury vacation villa rentals throughout the Caribbean and selected locations in Europe and North America. You choose the place and dates, and a Wimco representative will guide you to an appropriate vacation home. Villas are privately owned and beautifully appointed, with spectacular views. Most have private pools, top-of-the-line kitchen appliances, fine linens, and Bose sound systems. Rental includes daily maid service and an on-site concierge. By arrangement, Wimco staff will stock the kitchen with groceries or book a babysitter or private chef. They will meet you at the airport and walk you through your villa.

St. Bart’s, Caribbean; Wimco Villas

Stiles Bennet, Wimco president, notes that Wimco villas provide access to high-end homes often for less than the cost of multiple hotel rooms. You gain privacy and a unique travel experience. Stephani Clough of Weston and her husband spent their honeymoon in the Caribbean in a Wimco villa on St. Bart’s more than 20 years ago. They have returned every year, tailoring their choice of villa to the size and needs of a growing family. On a recent visit, they chose a location where their children could walk to a local spot for pizza. “We have a big family, with kids from ages nine to seventeen, so a hotel doesn’t work,” she says. They enjoy relaxed meals at home on the villa’s poolside terrace where the sunsets are lovely. “It’s our own piece of paradise,” Clough says, “and it’s a great place for workaholics because you really get away.” Villa rentals are ideal for adults of all ages and are a great value for couples traveling together.

The luxury destination club Exclusive Resorts provides a second home experience without the down payment and carrying costs of a second home. Nor are you limited to one location. Exclusive Resorts offers membership for 10 to 60 nights a year for a one-time membership fee and an annual fee. Founded in 2002, Exclusive Resorts has grown to 3,300 members and more than 350 multi-million dollar private residences in 39 destinations worldwide.

Teton Pines; Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Exclusive Resorts

There are about 100 member families in Massachusetts with 15 members from Wellesley and Weston. Weston resident Kate Ellis and her family have traveled with Exclusive Resorts to locations including Steamboat Springs, Colorado; Deer Valley, Utah; and Sea Island, Georgia. “All we have to pack is our clothing,” Ellis says. Besides lovely linens and top-of-the-line audio equipment, there’s always a Pack ’n Play available, she notes, and their family’s favorite board games. Ellis says, “Our manager has helped us to explore new places, with confidence that the property will be ER-standard and the staff will make sure we enjoy our vacation time.”

Exclusive Resorts members have a member service manager in Denver who plans and books their vacation and a concierge at the properties they visit. Members can call their concierge at any time for restaurant or activity reservations or for help with a medical emergency. When traveling with young children and aging parents, it’s great to know that there is someone who can accompany you to the best medical center and translate if anything comes up. “With our own concierge and their experience with the area and with other ER families, our vacation fun begins the moment we arrive,” Ellis says. “We can be sure all ages will get a lot out of the trip.”

For busy families in Wellesley and Weston, vacation is precious time to regroup and make lifelong memories. A home-away provides a great setting for casual interaction and varied interests. It’s about having breakfast in your pajamas in your own kitchen, collapsing on the sofa after a day at the water park or museum, or sitting on your private terrace with a glass of wine or a book. Whether you home exchange or rent a villa or fine home, you will gain space, privacy, and value while living closer to the culture or places you visit.

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© 2011 Elm Bank Media | Beth Furman, Publisher | Beth@ElmBankMedia.com