Over the past dozen years, my family has traded our cozy cottage in Victoria for apartments in Paris, Madrid, Lisbon and San Francisco. We've exchanged for a coffee plantation in Hawaii, a gated condo in Santa Fe, suburban homes outside Montreal and Grenada, old farmhouses in Tuscany and on the coast of France, and a sprawling estate in Aix-en-Provence.
Through our membership in InterVac (short for International Vacation, with a nominal membership fee of $129 a year), travel has become a bargain. It makes it easier to splurge elsewhere when you save by cooking your own meals. But more important, staying in a home provides insights into the culture you're visiting. With a house exchange, you're not in a hotel zone. You're in a real neighbourhood. Shopping for food and visiting local cafés and restaurants for a couple of weeks has an intimacy no hotel stay has matched.
I used to think this was the best thing about a house exchange. But because our last three visits to Spain and Portugal were non-simultaneous, and with families with second homes, we managed to meet our hosts. Now, I think the best thing about house-exchange vacations is the new friends you make.
Have we had bad experiences? Items broken or stolen, unexpected nightmares? In our 15 exchanges, we had one non-wonderful weekend: a Seattle home with a kitchen that doubled as a filthy hangout for the family cats. So we ate all our meals at local restaurants. Not bad.
All the rest have been exciting, insightful adventures, problem-free. And in real-estate terms, we've always traded up.
We were nervous about our first exchange – so anxious that we painted our house. (It's a converted dairyman's shed built for one of Victoria's original farmhouses, and it never looked better.) When we departed for Paris and our apartment near Centre Pompidou in the trendy Marais neighbourhood, our place, cleared of clothing and valuables, was positively spotless. When we returned from France six weeks later, our house was exactly as we had left it – except for a fresh bouquet of flowers and a note thanking us for our hospitality. We've had similar experiences every time since.
InterVac ( intervac.ca), which was started in 1953 in Switzerland, has thousands of members in more than 50 countries (mainly in Europe). The annual membership fee provides the initial connection between the organization's families, and with e-mail and photo sharing we've met our exchange families and negotiated terms (including cars, bikes and kayaks) for each exchange.
Our house in the hills above Aix-en-Provence was a gated beauty with a swimming pool and a brand-new Renault (French soccer star Zinédine Zidane and a huge entourage lived next door).
For Christmas in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, we were met by a gang at our gate. They turned out to be neighbourhood teens, our suitcases dumped, unceremoniously, from the cab at their dusty feet. Upon hearing my halting Spanish greeting, they broke into grins under their grimy headbands and by the end of the week in the elegant, art-filled home, the "gang" had painted a stunning Madonna on our gate.
Our exchange home on the outskirts of Montreal was pink on pink. Even the books on the pink chintz living-room shelves were wrapped in pink covers. Everything was pink – except for a white, long-haired cat.
My daughter had always wanted a dog – until we stayed at a coffee plantation near a beach on the big island of Hawaii. That week, as we ate papayas that had ripened on the tree and avocados off the farm, my daughter fed and cared for the host family's three mangy, neurotic dogs. Besides providing surfing and snorkelling with the sea turtles and tropical fish, our Hawaiian exchange erased her wish for a dog.
At our home on Lake Atitlan, the Guatemalan site that author Aldous Huxley called the most beautiful lake in the world, we were served by a staff of five who brought us fresh fruit every morning.
Our San Francisco exchange was a beatnik bachelor pad, a North Beach bed and tiny kitchen. Our modern apartments in Madrid and Lisbon were spare. But wherever we go, the friendships with our exchange families – fuelled by wine tastings, restaurant dinners, coastal tours – are anything but.
KEYS TO SUCCESS
In our experience, InterVac seems to draw from an educated, upper-middle-class demographic. We've met open-minded, curious, thoughtful, well-travelled and multilingual families; most have been English-speaking academics, musicians, engineers, scientists, writers and lawyers. InterVac has a code of conduct: If two members complain about another member's actions, it will lead to termination of membership at the discretion of the national representative and the board.
While we negotiate an exchange for our home, we always cover the following points:
- How many people are coming? Are there children? What ages? Will the exchange family expect other guests?
- What other house exchange experiences have you had?
- Does anyone smoke? (We don't allow smoking in our home.)
- What amenities do we need instructions for? (Figuring out foreign appliances, cars or even the TV can be tricky.)
- What's nearby? Find out about neighbourhood walks, shopping, restaurants and landmarks.
For more information, go to intervac.ca.
Special to The Globe and Mail