Where to start when choosing a vacation house?A rental agency can take the guesswork out of it. Here, T+L's guide to the best
Marie Hennechart

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.

VALUERENTVILLAS.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).

VALUECOUNTRY 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.


PRIVATE WORLD Exotic destinations are business as usual for Private World, a new agency featuring 75 luxurious properties in 37 countries, including Kenya, Mauritius, Tanzania, Argentina, the Philippines, and Morocco. The company was started by Ian Holmes, a former travel writer, and Meryanne Loum-Martin, who regularly rents Dar Tamsna, her two ultra-luxe, ultra-romantic villas set in four acres of walled gardens in Marrakesh. Guests at Dar Tamsna have included Princess Caroline of Monaco, and Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston. Properties: Generous size is about the only thing the agency's places have in common. Laragai, a ranch in Kenya with two sprawling, timbered houses and an open-air pool house with a thatched roof, sits on 35,000 acres near Mount Kenya. Four white Creole-style villas with green pitched roofs occupy the beach on Anonyme Island, a 39-acre private retreat in the Seychelles. Staff: Minimum of chef, maid, laundress, and gardener at all villas. Food is included at some properties. Special services: Classes in cooking or art and local culture, visits from health and beauty specialists, massages, and even costume balls can be arranged, with outfits specially made for guests. 44-207/723-5599, fax 44-207/723-5551; from $3,500 a week, $3,750 in high season.

VILLAS & APARTMENTS ABROAD With more than 30 years of experience in the Caribbean as well as Europe, Sylvia Delvaille-Jones is more adept at pairing a client with a house than practically anybody else in the business. Jones edits her properties decisively. "If a villa has the kind of tile that's dangerous when it's wet, I'll disqualify it," she says. Properties: Villas range from Bolthole, a quietly stylish three-bedroom wood house with a saltwater pool on the Jamaica coast, to Mango Bay, the late Pamela Harriman's sybaritic, Oliver Messel—designed residence in Barbados. Staff: All villas have a maid and a gardener; many come with a chef, concierge, butler, laundress, and chauffeur. Special services: Private planes, masseurs, bodyguards, and even local theater groups can be hired. One client asked that Santa Claus deliver Christmas gifts to his family; Jones delivered Santa in a helicopter. 800/433-3020 or 212/897-5045, fax 212/897-5039; www.vaanyc.com; from $2,000 a week, $3,000 in high season.

WIMCO One of the oldest, largest, and best-known rental agencies in the Caribbean, Wimco rents some 900 villas on 14 islands. The firm, which also has properties in Europe, recently started a special department dealing with super-luxury houses. Properties: Wimco offers villas in every size and price imaginable, such as a simple one-bedroom beach cottage with a pool on Virgin Gorda that costs $1,150 a week and a new $100,000-a-week villa in Barbados. Staff: Some villas come with full staffs. Special services: For an NBA pro, the agency provided a regulation-height basketball hoop and someone to play one-on-one. 800/932-3222 or 401/849-8012, fax 401/847-6290; www.wimco.com; from $900 a week, $1,700 in high season.

ST. BARTH PROPERTIES Peg Walsh started her firm 12 years ago when she became dissatisfied with a local agency's efforts to rent out her own vacation house. She now handles 120 villas and has no plans to add properties outside the island's eight square miles. "I like knowing what's in every kitchen and which rooms have ceiling fans," Walsh says. Properties: Her typical house is casual and unpretentious, with pretty pastel stuccoed walls, a swimming pool, rattan furniture, up-to-date kitchens, and air conditioners in the bedrooms. Beachfronts are rare; most villas perch on hills and have stunning ocean views. Staff: Daily maid service at all houses, except on Sundays and holidays. Special services: Help with air reservations and car rentals; restaurant recommendations. 800/421-3396 or 508/528-7727, fax 508/528-7789; www.stbarth.com; from $875 a week, $1,400 in high season.

VALUEVILLAS CARIBE With 500 villas throughout the Caribbean, this 10-year-old Colorado-based agency offers something for everyone. Clients often make selections from its comprehensive Web site, which posts numerous photos of every property and detailed descriptions down to pool size and square footage. Properties: Villas range from casual beach houses like Beachcomber on Virgin Gorda—a Mediterranean-style house with a red tile roof and lush gardens—to formal coral stone villas in Barbados, with soaring ceilings and arched doorways. Staff: Some come with a chef and maid service. Special services: The kitchen can be stocked for you. 800/645-7498 or 303/680-3100, fax 303/680-3900; www.villascaribe.com; from $700 a week, $1,225 in high season.


The Internet has made finding the ideal villa rental easier than ever. Thanks to portal sites that connect you directly to property owners and managers, you can view thousands of properties around the world at the click of a mouse.

Would-be renters typically start at one of the major search engines and type in a basic request, like "Mexican vacation villas." Several ;ll need to spend a fair amount of time doing research to find the place that best meets your needs.

Sites to check out: Choice1.com, Cyberrentals.com, and Vrbo.com all have comprehensive global offerings and detailed descriptions. When you enter your preferences — geographic region, number of bedrooms, amenities (pool, ocean view) — you'll get relevant choices, usually accompanied by photos. Each property's page contains a phone number, e-mail address, or Web link for contacting the resident or owner. Be sure to vet your options carefully. Check first with any local agencies (Better Business Bureau, chamber of commerce) to verify that no complaints have been filed, and always ask the owner to send you more information as well as pictures in addition to those that appear on the Web site. Ask about hidden costs, read the fine print in the contract, and pay with a credit card for extra protection.