Europeans discovered the wonders of a private villa holiday a couple of decades ago, but the concept has only really taken hold in Asia over the last five years. Destinations in the East may lack the heritage surrounds, quaint village architecture and promenade cafes of say France or Italy, but the villa experience is equally, if not more rewarding when enjoyed amid jaw dropping tropical localities and attended to by smiling, hospitable staff. Our villa expert Max Vee reminisces on the old and relishes the new.
Although my parents generally opted for self-catering on our annual holidays to the seaside, you would hardly call the houses they chose private villas
. The holiday homes we rented out, though private, were often faded affairs, probably left to someone when their aged aunt passed away and then let out in the summer months to pay for the owners' far more exotic jaunts abroad.
Although I still have a pleasant pavlovian response to the smell of sea salt and rising damp — an olfactory cocktail that brings a smile to my face no doubt through associations with freedom from exams — when I cast my mind's eye rather than my nose back to those halcyon days on the Suffolk coast, images of dust and stained crockery dominate the scene.
A few of my wealthier school friends disappeared to France every summer back then to stay with their parents in refurbished farmhouses, but when I was invited on such an excursion one year I was disappointed to discover that even these continental conversions rarely came with a pool and the only services we were treated to was when the farmer's wife handed over the keys or we set up a badminton net in the garden.
Contemporary manifestations of the holiday home
genre in the West are admittedly a little more sophisticated, with private pools
and flat screen TVs an almost expected inclusion, but when you compare the levels and comfort, range of facilities on offer and types of services included in places like Phuket
, Koh Samui
, the overall experience is still worlds apart, and I mean more than geographically.
In my extensive, and I admit very fortunate experience of staying in private villas around Asia, two USPs elevate the vast majority of them from the divine to the splendiferous — and it's not the private pool or flat screen TVs that impress.
I am not a fan of extravagance, even in a luxury setting, so neither the finest leather sofa nor the most crystal laden chandelier will inspire gasps of "lux-hileration". What floats my exclusive boat is the sense of space and personal freedom a private villa delivers. In fact, on arrival I usually spend the first hour exploring all the places I can pass hours lounging, munching or taking in the meditative views, which happily are all essential activities when writing a useful review of the place.
Kind tropical climates tend to inspire architects to opt for a tempting blend of in- and outdoor alternatives, and I make it a mission to test their vision, dividing my downtime between sun blasted repose, shaded prose, submerged reverie, bubble-soaked sighs, gin-sipping bar time, al fresco gluttony and air-cooled movie marathons. Simply by choosing which parts of the property to pass time in, I quickly fall into a relishable routine that's only broken by a somewhat traditional urge to sleep in a bed and the pesky need to check emails, the latter usually preceding the former.
Of course, you could argue that all these pleasures are also available in a good resort, but even in the best hotels there usually comes a time when you have to brave the public eye in your ill chosen paisley board shorts or feel obliged to don a pair of chinos and loafers while checking out the two-for-one cocktails. In a villa it's off with the socks, on with the boxers and threadbare Bowie tour T-shirt and let the endless personal drifting begin.
This naturally brings me to the second great benefit of a private villa stay —the staff. I have quickly and happily discovered that in the best run holiday properties these people are a breed of their own. Being born into cultures (especially Thai and Balinese) that see hospitality as a positive personality trait they are genuinely
keen to make you feel relaxed, comfortable and well taken care of. Even more gratifying is that they are either trained to be or intrinsically tolerant of foreign peculiarities ( I personally think the latter), so the sight of a crumpled, tomato-skinned alien dragging himself to the breakfast bar for a plate of scrambled eggs and a Bloody Mary not only leaves them totally un-phased, but actually inspires in them a desire to make your life as wistful and uncomplicated as possible.
I actually remember the names of the people that took care of me in many of the private homes I have stayed in more readily than the name of the villas themselves. There was Ton on Phuket who subtly selected a soundtrack from the iPad to go with every meal that perfectly suited my mood, Dolly on Samui who explained the antique artistic treasures that went into building Samudra (ok, I remember the villa name too — spectacular), Rosie in Seminyak, who introduced me to Gado Gado, a simple but exquisite Indonesian dish I have sought out ever since but never found one like hers, and the inimitable May, also on Samui who decided I needed a regular neck and shoulder massage to feel more "sabai", and she was definitely not wrong.
Such delightful local characters and the generous, tailored spaces they dutifully patrol during a personalised island respite are what for me make private villas a unquestionable holiday utopia. The entire obliging experience is certainly a far cry from the weather beaten solace of the modest family retreats in my formative years. I just wish lemongrass smelled a little more like mould.
by LVH Marketing