I am often asked for insider tips on places to stay in three popular European destinations: the British and Irish countrysides, Tuscany and Provence. My favorite answer? Private villas. Renting a villa lets you play at being a native, with all the comforts, self-sufficiency and freedom of home. What's more, even the priciest palaces work out to more reasonable rates than hotels of comparable standards--plus, you typically get a kitchen, so you can cook your own meals if you're so inclined.
To avoid pitfalls, make sure to rent from an experienced, reputable company. Otherwise, the problems can be legion, from ugly decor to funny plumbing, and mistakes aren't easily rectified from a Provençal hilltop. The staff should inspect the properties frequently and personally; there really is no shortcut.
Below are some of the most trusted purveyors of Euro fantasies. Among the offerings, you'll find a range of architectural styles, settings, amenities and prices. All rates are per house, for one week in high season.
British & Irish Countrysides
The National Trust is a national treasure: a charity that tends some 200 of the stately homes of England, and also 300 more modest (and affordable) houses known as Holiday Cottages. Stately homes these are not--although you could play Lady Chatterley in the gamekeeper's cottage ($870; sleeps five) of Norfolk's seventeenth-century Felbrigg Hall, or in the house's recently opened apartment ($675; sleeps two). Most places are no-frills. But when you're staying in, say, the Watchtower ($860; sleeps two), a fourteenth-century cottage built into the walls of Compton Castle in Devon, what you lose in Jacuzzis, you gain in history.
If the castle itself is more your style--and budget--Florida-based Mansions & Manors can oblige, with a small but grand selection of stately homes scattered throughout England, Ireland and Scotland that resemble those curated by the National Trust. How about the 11-bedroom, 5,000-acre, nineteenth-century Eastnor Castle in England's Malvern hills? Not old enough? Try the relatively dinky eleventh-century Kilcolgan Castle on Galway Bay in Ireland. Its six parlors outnumber the four bedrooms. This one charges per person, with rates from around $1,900 per week.
Ten-year-old California outfit Ville et Village, which began with French houses, now also serves as a U.S. agent for the 25-year-old Italian firm Vacanze in Italia. The villas run the price gamut but include many budget-conscious choices, like Casa Gropina ($1,000; sleeps four), in the hills between Arezzo and Florence. The nine-year-old Parker Company also aims to fulfill that very specific Tuscan fantasy--worn cotto floors, beamed ceilings, medieval walled towns--though this Massachusetts operation also covers the rest of Italy. The selection includes dozens of apartments--like La Paiola ($2,000; sleeps six), a twelfth-century farmhouse near Volterra--all backed up by English-speaking customer-support reps, a nice touch. British-based International Chapters, which offers 100-odd tastefully renovated Italian villas, has been in business for 16 years. Anqua ($7,000; sleeps 10) is a typical offering: a sixteenth-century castle still owned by its founding family, it has frescoes and antiques and stands in acres of its own vineyards and olive groves. Anqua will even arrange for a cook, though you may not require one; Tuscany abounds with cooking classes, and some villa rental agencies--including the Parker Company--offer their own culinary programs.
The venerable 50-year-old rental agency Gîtes de France lists a dizzying 42,000 houses on its Web site. The site suffers from some eccentricities--properties are rated by ears of corn (one to five) and a few départements can't be accessed yet--but it's a godsend for bargain hunters. You'll find steals like No. 1733 ($880; sleeps six), a farmhouse with a pool. With this many choices, however, caveat emptor. That doesn't apply at the 29-year-old British firm Bowhills, whose properties include the romantically named ME97 ($3,800; sleeps 11), an ivy-covered home, and the twelfth-century MG321 ($1,400; sleeps five), built into the ramparts of medieval Poët-Laval. At Homes Away, a 10-year-old Canadian firm, only magazine-ready homes need apply. Each comes with a local point person who will arrange anything: a wine tasting, a delivery of langoustines, a child's birthday party. No catalogs here--far too common. You state your desires and are offered choices, such as La Pinède ($14,500; sleeps eight), near Ménerbes, with wraparound terraces and a full-time cook.