Travelers know that renting a house instead of staying at a hotel adds a more intimate dimension to a vacation. Aside from the seclusion, there's your own stocked refrigerator if you crave a midnight snack, and often a staff to clean up the swimming pool, tennis court, and garden. It's also a great way to get in with the locals — suddenly you're the new neighbor. When you factor in the per-day cost as well as room for family members or friends sharing the tab, a week or two at a spacious villa can cost far less than a hotel.
There are countless houses out there, of course, so using an established vacation rental agency is the quickest and easiest way to cut through the clutter. The best agents combine the skills of real estate broker and psychologist, and take the time to match the right renter with the right house. They inspect each property, know the owners, and sometimes have even stayed in the house themselves. In short, they do the legwork for you. All you have to do is slide the key in the lock, and it's home sweet home.
THE BEST IN ITALY When she realized her summer house in Siena was standing empty most of the time, American-born Contessa Simonetta Brandolini d'Adda decided to rent it. She was so successful that her friends began asking her to do the same for their villas in Tuscany, Umbria, Amalfi, Rome, and the Veneto. Most are filled with objets, sculpture, and fine paintings, and many have swimming pools, book-lined libraries, and stables. Properties: Set on 50 acres in Tuscany with a billiard room, seven bedrooms, and a chapel, the 1830 Villa Pisana is Brandolini's showpiece. (Tom Cruise and Sting have both stayed there.) The Villa di Montessassi, another of her places, is a four-bedroom, 13th-century watchtower with rustic exposed beams, set on an estate in Chianti that produces wine and olive oil. Staff: Most villas come with a chef, maid, and gardener. Larger ones may also have a butler, housekeeper, caretaker, and laundress. Special services: Guests can request tours led by art historians, cooking classes with chefs from local restaurants, wine tastings, and performances by folk musicians or opera singers. 39-055/223-064, fax 39-055/229-8912; www.thebestinitaly.com; from $7,000 a week (two-week minimum in summer).
IN VILLAS VERITAS After years of hunting for houses in Italy and France to rent for herself, New Yorker Laura Blair chose to use her experience to help others find the perfect place in Tuscany, in the south of France, and on the Amalfi coast. "I knew what to look for, which questions to ask, and how to evaluate what you see in an ad or brochure," she says. Blair and associate Pamela Murdock also offer such exotica as an open-air house in Bali and a great camp in the Adirondacks. Properties: One of their most popular is an antiques-filled, five-bedroom 18th-century villa in Positano with sweeping Mediterranean views. Sharon Stone and Banana Republic founder Mel Ziegler have rented Château d'Aix, a 17th-century manor house that has a disco in the cellar. Humbler but still homey is a two-bedroom house on the rolling plains near Lucca. Staff: Housekeeping is included at most villas. Chefs, drivers, and baby-sitters are available at additional cost. 831/626-7810, fax 212/755-3270; www.invillas.com from $900 a week, $1,400 in high season.
HOMES AWAY More than a rental agency, Homes Away is a veritable vacation planner. Each villa (22 in France, eight in Italy) comes with an English-speaking host who will ease linguistic difficulties and point you in the right direction. Every step of your stay is mapped out, so you'll know which restaurants to try and where to find the best biking trails (the five-year-old agency was once part of Butterfield & Robinson). Properties: The villas, second homes for French and Italian city-dwellers, are diverse in size and style, but most have large rooms, terraces, swimming pools, superb views, and even the occasional copper bathtub. Highlights include a four-bedroom stone-and-timber manor house in Normandy. Staff: Some come with a maid and chef, or you can hire them for an extra charge. Special services: A detailed booklet provides listings for guided tours, hot-air balloon rides, and bike rentals. 800/374-6637 or 416/920-1873, fax 416/920-8754; www.homesaway.com; from $3,600 a week, $4,400 in high season.
VALUE—RENTVILLAS.COM Launched in 1984 as Rentals in Italy, Rentvillas.com is now one of the best European resources on the Internet. Besides Italy, houses are available in France, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Great Britain at a wide range of prices. Most are rated one to five stars for the quality of the view, garden, rooms, and noise level. Properties: The restored Casciano farmhouses north of Rome are simply classic, with stucco walls and beamed ceilings, while a one-bedroom flat in a terraced row house in London's Notting Hill costs just $1,040 a week. Staff: Weekly maid service. Chefs and baby-sitters available at an additional cost. Special services: Referrals for private wine tastings, cooking schools, and tours available upon request. 800/726-6702 or 805/987-5278, fax 805/482-7976; www.rentvillas.com; from $400 a week, $600 in high season.
EXCLUSIVE VACATION PROPERTIES This small agency was created just over a year ago by two established Aspen brokerages to handle the cream of their rental crop—150 spectacular houses in Aspen and Snowmass, each worth between $2 million and $27 million. "No seventies condos with green shag rugs," declares rental manager Carrie Bryant. Properties: All less than a decade old, the houses have wood beams and stone fireplaces. Seven-bedroom Blue Sky Estate is a glamorous mountain lodge with a wraparound deck and a tepee in the back yard; fly fishermen can test their skills in the Roaring Fork River, which flows by the house. Staff: Daily housekeeping. Butlers, maids, and catering cost extra. Special services: Massages, personal training, ski lessons, and more are available for an additional charge. 877/387-8664 or 970/925-8667, fax 970/925-8670; www.aspenrqirentals.com; from $7,000 a week (holiday-season prices are 60 percent higher).
VILLA NETWORK Only pristine villas in prime Hawaiian locations make it into Jim Duggar's blue-chip rental portfolio. A former corporate travel agent, Duggar zeroed in on the kinds of places his clients would appreciate on Maui, Hawaii, and Oahu. Along with ocean views, some of the most coveted—and costly—offer golf, tennis, and beach privileges at such resorts as Mauna Kea on Hawaii and Kapalua on Maui. Properties: Duggar rents big, gleaming, marble-filled playgrounds with billionaire amenities like heated swimming pools, multiple Jacuzzis, and vast entertainment rooms that have 72-inch TV's. The houses are decorated in a sleek, modern style, often with Polynesian accents. The seven-bedroom Oahu estate of hair-product magnate Paul Mitchell even has a tatami room and Japanese ofuro bath. Staff: Daily maid service and butlers are available for an extra charge. Special services: Helicopters, boats, and luaus can be arranged. 800/845-5278 or 214/352-2800, fax 800/845-5231; www.villanetwork.com; from $2,450 a week (holiday-season prices are 30 percent higher).
VALUE—COUNTRY VILLAGE RENTALS This seven-year-old agency has houses on Nantucket as well as in the Caribbean and the Bahamas, but its widest selection is in Stowe, Vermont, where founding partner Douglas Foregger grew up. Properties: Houses range in size from snug one-bedrooms to palatial five- or six-bedroom showplaces. There are fireplaces and hot tubs in many of the Stowe houses, from traditional peaked-roof chalets with spiral staircases to Cape Cod—style cottages with mountain views. On Nantucket, the agency rents modern and historic houses, wood-shingled or painted gray in the New England tradition. Staff: Housekeepers and chefs are available for an extra charge. Special services: In Stowe, you can bring in a chef from the nearby New England Culinary Institute for private lessons (just $30 an hour). 800/599-7368 or 508/228-8840, fax 508/228-8804; www.countryvillagerentals.com; from $875 a week, $1,400 in high season.