IT TAKES A VILLA

Forget overpriced and impersonal hotels. Savvy wine lovers know that, to get to the heart of a terroir, there's no place like home—even if it is someone else's.


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The climate most conducive to growing grapes—lots of sun, warm days and cool nights—is equally delightful to wine lovers looking for the perfect vacation spot. And, for many people, renting a home or villa elevates a wine-region holiday to the level of perfection.

"Your surroundings are part of what makes the wine great, and you truly feel connected to the culture," says D.C.-area lawyer and villa-rental devotee Christina Franz. Italian wine enthusiast Tom Hyland agrees, adding, "Spending time in a region gives you a great appreciation for what the wines are all about."

Renting a home or villa provides freedom from a rigid itinerary, privacy, and the chance to experience a destination like a local. We've all dreamed about having the run of a castle that overlooks Chianti—so why is it that so few of us have gone through with our fantasy? We talked to some globe-trotting wine enthusiasts (and the villa rental experts who cater to their wanderlust) who will coax you from armchair.

Fantasy Meets Reality
Though fantasy-filled hours surfing the Web is a fine way to begin conceiving an itinerary, first-time renters ought to engage a reputable U.S.-based agency for bookings. A good agent has years of experience, knows the territory, can overcome language barriers, and clarify the terms of your rental in a detailed contract. Agencies worth their salt will also provide references of former customers who can attest to the quality of their services.
Suzanne Cohen, of Suzanne B. Cohen and Associates in Augusta, Maine, has been in the villa-rental business for over a decade and stresses the value of the insight that comes with an agent's experience.

"Often it's what you can't see that can be a problem with renting," she explains. "If a house is too close to a corner on a narrow road, every car that goes by is going to honk its horn. An experienced agency will be better able to anticipate such issues, and will carefully listen to a client's needs before matching them up with a rental. This helps prevent unfulfilled expectations." Ask agencies that you are considering how often they inspect the properties they represent; a good rental company should visit the homes in their brochures at least once a year. Even better rental companies are personally acquainted with the owners and caretakers of the properties.

Before you run off to have your passport renewed, think hard about what you expect from a villa holiday in wine country. However romantic your notions of a 16th-century French farmhouse may be, bear in mind that such properties may or may not be equipped with the amenities that you take for granted. Rustic villas are, well, rustic—if you can't go a week without Internet access, air conditioning, daily linen changes (or, in some cases, heat), consider vacationing at a resort, rather than a charming, old country house.

A Euro-Saving Way to Travel
Many people don't realize how much of a value villa-renting can be: The cost of a short-term home rental can be as low as a third of the price of staying in a hotel of comparable quality. Travelers who do as the Romans (or Californians) do, and make their own meals out of market-fresh, local ingredients, will save even more dough.

Once you've decided when you want to travel and which villa you'll temporarily be calling home, you'll have to secure your reservation with a 25 to 50 percent deposit (the balance is typically due a month or two before your arrival date). Another benefit of working with an American property-rental agency is that you'll pay in dollars rather than in local currency, thereby eliminating worries about exchange-rate fluctuations that can blow your vacation budget. And while we're on the subject of unforeseen expenses, make sure that your reservation won't be subject to price escalations: The price you agree upon at the time of booking should be the price you pay, if you are reserving within a year of your vacation date. If you're getting a jump on, say, your fall 2004 holiday, you have to allow for the probability that rates will go up sometime before you travel. Some agencies, such as The Parker Company, allow clients to make reservations now based on the villa's current price, and will refund your deposit if the next year's fee goes up more than 15 percent.

Planning your trip months—even a year—in advance is a good idea. For peak-season travel (summer, in most regions), it's wise to reserve a villa in tourist-heavy areas such as Tuscany and Provence 12 months in advance. More off-the-beaten-track places can be booked as little as a month in advance. Though spontaneous vacationers might come across a last-minute special on lodging fees, your savings will be more than eaten up by last-minute plane fares. High-season travelers with somewhat flexible schedules can shave a good chunk of change off their rental fees by booking the week before, or the week after, the high-season cutoff. Chances are, the weather will not drop by 30 degrees, or the landscape become 25 percent less scenic in the week that separates high season from low season. Oftentimes, these cutoffs are determined as much by local school holidays as by their random ideas of when international "tourist season" begins.

ITALY
Prices for Italian villas can vary widely, depending on the region and time of year you choose to travel. Tuscany, the Amalfi Coast and the Italian Riviera command top dollar—and amenities such as staff, pool and ornate furnishings add to the total.


According to Julie Carnevale of The Parker Company, in undiscovered regions such as Abruzzo, two-person apartments within stone farmhouses rent for as low as $350 per week. Over-the-top luxury villas can go for as much as $25,000 a week, though most places fall in the $5,000 to $10,000 per week range. When in Tuscany recently, Tom Hyland stayed at an apartment at the Azienda Agricola Castelvecchio in Chianti Colli Fiornetini. These apartments, which rent for 700 Euros (approximately $756) per week, includes an on-site chapel, swimming pool and estate winery. Many rentals in Tuscany drop to about a quarter of their summer rate in the off-season (find out up front who is responsible for heating costs, as that can easily add up to $200 per day).

In-the-know Italy experts are flocking to Abruzzo (in the southwest, bordering the Adriatic Sea) and Campagnia in the southeast. Colle d'Argento, a Parker Company property in Abruzzo, is a restored stone farmhouse with stunning mountain views that sleeps 11 to 15. It has rustic beamed ceilings in its spacious living/dining area, as well as a patio for alfresco dining. It rents for $1,360 to $1,995 per week. Carmel D'Arienzo of Villa Concierge also suggests exploring the Maremma, which "offers the beauty of Tuscany, but you also have the sea close by."

A few final tips before you pack your bags for Italy: Don't be surprised by power outages, warns Suzanne Cohen. If thunder and lightning happens within 30 miles, the country's electrical system is devised in such a way that the power will go out to keep your house from being struck. If you're planning on doing a lot of touring while you're in Italy, Cohen also suggests that you not rent a place too far from the Autostrada—the extra twenty minutes into the countryside may not seem like much, but it can be tedious day after day.

For more information:
Azienda Agricola Castelvecchio; tel.: 39 055 8248032; www.castelvecchio.it
The Parker Company; tel.: 800/280-2811; www.theparkercompany.com
Suzanne B. Cohen and Associates; tel.: 207/622-0743; www.villaeurope.com

Best time to visit:
The summer is the most popular time of year to vacation in Tuscany. Experts advise that the wintertime can be a bit lonely in the north; however, the south can be quite pleasant in the off-season.

The Best of Times,
The Worst of Times

"The place we rented was set in a vineyard—when you opened the window in the morning all you saw was grapes," says Peter Larsen, a San Francisco real-estate executive who recently rented an 18th-century farmhouse near Poggibonsi. Larsen's rental was just a half-mile from a winery where he and his family enjoyed tastings, and other hidden gems. "I loved driving the winding back roads over to towns like Greve in Chianti—and as you go [there are] these one-lane roads, and little mom-and-pop wineries that offer tastings," Larsen says.

Though most renters are filled with glowing memories of their villa experience, Los Angeles- based writer Tara Weingarten's was unfortunate. "The manager at our luxurious villa in Tuscany ruined the trip for me—he was incredibly intrusive, and would come over every morning under the guise of 'seeing if we needed anything' and would not leave!"

This points to the importance of carefully reading an agency's problem-resolution policy, which is usually spelled out on their Web site, or in their contract. If there's a difficulty, policies may range from correcting a deficiency as swiftly as possible (hiring someone to make repairs, say), to moving you to another villa. Some agencies, including The Parker Company, have company representatives scattered throughout the region—even 24-hour "resource centers"—that are at clients' disposal should holiday-time problems arise.
So where should you go and when? Try some of these wine-country getaway spots…and don't forget to send us a postcard.

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