Best Villas by Destination
Sure, you can poke around online and find plenty of villas to rent all over the world, but pictures can be deceiving, and then there’s that whole question of what to do, and who to call when you get there. Enter the idea of travel experts (previously known as agents) who specialize in villa rentals by region: Not only can they point you toward the best places to stay, but they can then line up the chefs, babysitters, and drivers to make it an great vacation. So how does one find and vet these experts? A good place to start is with travel journalist Wendy Perrin—who spent decades at Conde Nast Traveler writing the Perrin Report and traveling the world to vet countless hotels, villas, concierges, and travel experts. She recently launched her own site, where you’ll find recommendations on everything from the best credit cards for frequent flier miles to how to always get an upgrade at a hotel to her WOW List of Travel Experts. Perrin also serves as TripAdvisor’s first ever Travel Advocate, meaning that if you mention a country or predicament, she can tell you who to call. Below, a handful of her favorite villa rental specialists.
Italy: Mara Solomon
“Crafting one-of-a-kind villa vacations is Mara Solomon’s way of sharing, directly and personally, the insights she has gained from her long love affair with Italy. For two decades she has been hand-picking the most authentic and magical homes in Italy, inspecting them seasonally, and strengthening her close relationships with the owners (she speaks fluent Italian, of course). Adept at helping large families and small groups, Mara will build you an itinerary based on a property matched to your group’s unique set of interests, preferences, and energy levels. All guests have the benefit of being brought into Mara’s personal circle of friends and colleagues: chefs, winemakers, artisans, drivers, farmers, guides, and the like—people she knows and whom she feels you will enjoy.”
Mara’s insider tip: Know when to go: Rental villas are priced at least 25 percent lower in May than in June, and the weather is generally lovely; in Florence, for instance, temps range from the mid-50s to the mid-70s (on the flip side, most pools will not be open in May). The Maremma in Tuscany is pleasantly warm in spring because of its microclimate—great for golfing, biking, and taking in Etruscan sites. The Amalfi Coast is better in fall—October and November—than spring, which is often rainy, but rates are usually high through the November 1 Ognissanti holiday. On Lake Como, March and April are when the camellias, azaleas, and rhododendrons bloom, giving visitors an infusion of spring color; repair to the fabulous spa at Casta Diva on the occasional cool day.
France: Annie Flogaus
“Annie focuses only on 200 or so handpicked, guaranteed-to-delight villas and apartments around the country. She and her team all speak fluent French and personally know every one of the villa owners. So comprehensive is their knowledge of each property and neighborhood that they can tell you which appliances are in each kitchen (French press or espresso machine, electric or gas stove) and precisely how long it takes to get to the nearest bakery. Annie herself knows the views from every bedroom and the best restaurants in every village. No matter where or what you rent–whether it’s a farmhouse in the Provençal countryside, a seaside villa on the Côte d’Azur, a chateau in the Loire Valley, a stone cottage in the Dordogne, or a pied-a-terre in Paris—Annie can arrange every last detail, including car rentals, in-house chefs, babysitters, tour guides, and train trips.”
Annie’s insider tip: The towns and areas in and immediately around Cannes and Saint-Tropez are the most overrated locations. Instead, look at the Vaucluse Plateau region northeast of Avignon. Wine is the central activity here—think Chateauneuf du Pape, as well as the top Cotes du Rhone producers. The bicycling is legendary, with the climb up Mont Ventoux on many cyclists’ bucket lists. Rental prices here can be 20 to 40 percent less than a comparable villa near Saint-Remy, in the Alpilles region—and you won’t hear nearly as much English spoken.
Spain: Mary Vaira
“Mary was once a government intelligence analyst, so she’s an expert at gathering information and reading between the lines. These skills have helped her curate a portfolio of well-located, user-friendly villas and apartments throughout Spain—and to match you to the right one for your needs, whether that’s a family vacation in Barcelona, sightseeing in Andalucia, or beach time on Mallorca. A fluent Spanish speaker who once lived in Spain and now visits at least twice a year, she knows which villages are overrun with tourists and which are delightfully unspoiled, as well as the practicalities of getting around efficiently via air, rail, and road.”
Mary’s insider tip: I like Andalusia if you have a large group or family—its hacienda-style homes give you plenty of room to spread out. The villas there often come with some horses or a tennis court. And there’s enough variety of activity in this region that everyone’s sure to find something of interest: sightseeing in Seville, Granada, or Cordoba; visiting the sherry bodegas and Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Jerez; exploring the 500 miles of coastline; or hiking in Doñana, Spain’s largest national park. Sailing and fabulous golf are also easily accessible from here.
St. Barts: Peg Walsh
“Peg Walsh spends half the year (December through May) on St. Barts. Her portfolio includes nearly 200 properties that range from beachy-casual bungalows to chic hillside homes and Architectural Digest-worthy estates. Peg re-inspects them all regularly to ensure they meet her strict standards, so she has an encyclopedic knowledge of each house’s features and amenities: which have heated pools, athlete-worthy gyms, the best wintertime sunset views. Every client also gets Peg’s nine pages of Helpful Hints, advising on all aspects of a St. Bart vacation—from warning people about taking the ferry from Sint Maarten (rough seas) to tipping guidelines—and outlining special perks at certain restaurants and on some excursions. When she’s on St. Barts, Peg hosts a weekly cocktail party for clients at one of the island’s best beachfront bistros.”
Peg’s insider tip: Many first-time visitors think that they need to rent a villa on the beach. Actually, most of St. Barts’ villas are located in its hills and leverage the views and trade winds—not to mention the greater privacy. Each beach has its own personality, so it’s fun to visit several over the course of a trip—and some of the most beautiful ones are undeveloped, so you couldn’t stay there anyway.
St. Martin: Marilyn Pulito
“When Marilyn Pulito struggled to find a rental villa on the Caribbean island of St. Martin for her own family, she recognized a business opportunity. Thirty years later, she represents more than 275 houses and condos on the island, equally distributed between the Dutch side (St. Maarten) and the French side (St. Martin). Pulito lives on the island four to five months of every year, so she knows each neighborhood and property like the palm of her hand and is tight with local owners, restaurateurs, and service providers. She’ll help families find the kid-friendly snorkeling spots and honeymooners find the perfect secluded hideaway. Her concierge team can assist with restaurant reservations, car rentals, babysitters, and private chefs.”
Marilyn’s insider tip: The best location for a beachfront villa is Terres Basses, on the French side: It’s a gated community with large lots, so every villa is private. For a taste of village life, try one of the few properties on the fringe of Grand Case, an adorable little town full of historic French colonial buildings adorned with intricate fretwork. During the high season, the place really comes alive on Tuesday nights for what’s called Les Mardis de Grand Case. Dancers and revelers take over the main boulevard, and the sidewalks fill with food and craft vendors. Especially at this time of year, it sure helps to be able to walk to everything, but to still have the privacy of your own villa.
Cabo San Lucas, Mexico: Julie Byrd
“Julie is convinced that Los Cabos, at the tip of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, scores a traveler’s hat trick: stunning natural beauty, wide-ranging daytime activities and nightlife, and genuinely hospitable locals. Her portfolio of properties includes a range of more than 100 luxurious villas and condos suitable for families, couples, and party-hearty groups of friends. Her frequent trips to Cabo mean that she has deep roots and intimate connections there—you might even think she lived there, given all the Cabo intel in her Twitter feed (she actually lives in Santa Cruz, California). Byrd and her Cabo-based concierge team are available 24/7 during every client’s trip. In addition to villa rentals, they can arrange fishing and yacht charters, ground transportation, destination weddings and other celebrations, and guided tours. A foodie at heart, Byrd has strong opinions on everything from locals-mostly taquerias to fine dining. (For a firsthand account of renting a house through Cabo Villas, read How to Find the Perfect Vacation Rental.)”
Julie’s insider tip: The most critical issue when renting in Cabo is location. Cabo San Lucas is where all the nightlife happens, and it’s the launching point for many land and sea adventures. San José del Cabo, on the other hand, is a quiet, charming city. The 30-mile Corridor between the two is composed primarily of gated communities without a central town. First, figure out what’s important to you: Do you want to be close to restaurants and bars? Do you need seclusion and privacy? Do you expect proximity to a swimmable beach? The answers will help narrow down the right location for your group.
Puerto Vallarta and Riviera Maya, Mexico: Zachary Rabinor
“A guide in Latin America for more than two decades, this New York City native now lives in Puerto Vallarta with his wife and two kids. He spends about a quarter of the year traveling around Mexico—from its well-known resort locales to its hidden corners—testing out the country’s wide array of vacation rentals, hotels, activities, restaurants, and sites. His deep relationships with local guides and communities often translate into special-access visits and off-the-beaten-path experiences that travelers wouldn’t know about otherwise. He prides himself on finding new and exciting ways to visit even the most touristy and crowded locales.”
Zach’s insider tip: Puerto Vallarta’s tourist boom has spread into several neighboring locales. Heading north along the coast, you first hit Nuevo Vallarta, which is full of all-inclusive hotels, high-end condos, and golf courses but lacks local flavor. At the tip of the Bay of Banderas—an ideal location for whale watching and other water-based activities—is Punta de Mita, with its top-of-the-line luxury homes and hotels. Farthest north is Sayulita, a bohemian, once-sleepy fishing village that saw a real estate boom when surfers discovered the great reef break off the coast in the early 2000s.
London: Madelyn Byrne Willems
Madelyn’s mission is to help travelers find a fabulous London apartment and experience the fun of living like a native. Only apartments in top locations and excellent condition make the grade, selected for various tastes and preferences and furnished with fine amenities: high-thread-count linens, plush towels, modern kitchen appliances, comfortable beds and sofas, a supply of drinks and snacks to tide you over until you can get to the grocery store. Each party is met by a greeter who gives a thorough orientation and leaves behind his or her phone number, along with a thick file containing all the information a guest could possibly need.”
Madelyn’s insider tip: The West End is great for theater but not for a peaceful stay. We prefer to hop on the tube after a show and go back to a charming neighborhood like South Kensington or Notting Hill, where there are tons of restaurants, bistros, and pubs. Kensington, a neighborhood of quaint streets lined with Victorian homes, is prized by Londoners but often overlooked as a vacation base. Yet within a short walk of our Kensington properties are Kensington Gardens, shopping along Kensington High Street, the Victoria and Albert and Natural History museums, and the Royal Albert Hall. With buses crisscrossing the area and easy tube connections to all of London, it’s one of the best spots for a holiday rental.