Since the late seventies our family has opted for vacation rental homes over hotels. We are well into the fourth generation of vacation rental fanatics and we find ourselves drawn to the same places year after year. For us, it is tradition boosted by the enticement of a well-stocked kitchen (helps defray restaurant costs), ample space for the kids to spread out, creature comforts galore, and the familiarity of a place we consider home.
It is the appeal of an afternoon nap on a screened porch . . . lulled to sleep by a sea breeze, the ebb and flow of the waves, and a book slipping gently from our hands. It’s the charm of an open deck with a picnic table set for breakfast or ready for sunset wine and cheese. Later that evening, the same table converts to the perfect spot for a cutthroat game of Tripoley. It is comfy rockers facing a mountain lake or a cozy evening in the hot tub with a glass of wine. A crisp, fall afternoon spent cheering a favorite football team or the welcome shelter of a porch during an afternoon thunderstorm.
Vacation rentals bring with them the annual round of specialty meals: shrimp night, burgers on the grill, Dad’s catfish sizzling in a skillet, Aunt Sherry’s fried green tomatoes, and Mom’s homemade ice cream. It is family time well spent.
Our children grew up spending summer vacations in beach houses on the sugar-white sands of Fort Morgan, Alabama, a sliver of land that dares separate the gentle waters of Mobile Bay from the crashing waves of the Gulf of Mexico. Anchored on the west by the namesake fort that has been around since the War of 1812, and on the east by bustling Gulf Shores/Orange Beach, Fort Morgan is a little piece of paradise, a stretch of private beach homes, most of them vacation rentals, interrupted by a few—very few—condos. It is family beach fun at its best and a place where memories are forged.
Following our annual beach trips, summer melted into fall and October ushered in our longing for a cabin in the mountains. We’d pack up the family and head to the Buffalo River in northern Arkansas. There we stayed in snug vacation rental cabins. By day we hiked the woods, canoed the Buffalo, and fished nearby lakes. At night we grilled our fresh-caught fish under the stars before snuggling under blankets by a cozy fire to play our fierce rounds of Tripoley.
Years later we repeated those mountain trips in cabins in the Smokies and along the Blue Ridge of Georgia and North Carolina. When our oldest son married, our family and friends stayed in inviting homes (vacation rentals, of course) at Grandfather Mountain near Linville, North Carolina. In addition to providing our wedding accommodations for a gorgeous September weekend in the mountains, those houses were the scenes of several memorable parties.
Through the years we’ve enjoyed cottages in England’s Cotswolds, a villa on the northern coast of Spain, both a manor house and a castle in Ireland, and a carriage house in Germany’s Black Forest—all vacation rentals and all embodying the same home-away-from-home spirit and appeal.
For a ten-year period, we literally put the shoe on the other foot and became vacation rental owners ourselves.
We purchased a beach home on the sparkling sands of Fort Morgan and—from our rental agency—quickly learned our guests were, for the most part, repeat renters. We provided a notebook and pen and asked each family to leave comments about their stay. Every summer they logged in to share the highlights of their vacations: which family members came that year, what their children and grandchildren were doing, how many fish they caught, who got sunburned, and whether or not the jellyfish were a nuisance.
Our property manager dealt with disgruntled vacationers, forced from our home by tropical storms, with little hope of getting their money back. (Only a named hurricane in the Gulf resulted in full reimbursement.) From time to time we made split-second decisions to replace everything from a toaster to a hot water heater, all in the interest of keeping our guests satisfied. We re-screened the porch and replaced outdoor ceiling fans as quickly as they rusted in the salt air. And in the aftermath of stormy visitors named Danny and Ivan, we re-roofed and renovated.
Our regular renters became our friends. When each summer season ended we returned to the beach house to find surprise gifts left by happy vacationers: a piece of driftwood hand-carved with our family name, dog-eared best sellers to add to our collection, or a necklace made of seashells.
A few renters acted as if the house were their own, even replacing light bulbs and doing minor repairs. During the holidays our rental manager passed along cards from our guests with glossy photos of smiling family members posed on the steps of our beach home.
We began to realize vacation rentals are never a one-way street. Whatever form they take—beach house, mountain cabin, lakeside retreat, or European cottage—two sets of people love the home. The owners who invest in, maintain, and equip the house. And the renters who enjoy it, make lifelong memories, and, for one or two brief weeks each year, feel that it’s theirs.
It’s a win-win, a love affair from both sides, and there’s no better way to spend a family vacation.
*The author leaves this month to divide a week between a condo in Cashiers, North Carolina, and a sumptuous mountain cabin near Asheville. Both vacation rentals, of course!
By Ren Hinote
Vacation rentals are never a one-way street . . . two sets of people love the home. The owners who invest in, maintain, and equip the house. And the renters who enjoy it, make lifelong memories, and, for one or two brief weeks each year, feel that it’s theirs. It’s a win-win—a love affair from both sides—and there’s no better way to spend a family vacation.