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VACATION RENTALS

A Villa of Their Own

When a dozen friends plan a trip to the South of France, sharing a 17th century house is the cheapest option

April 12, 1998|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Beyette writes for The Times' Life & Style section

MEYNES, France — Can five couples find happiness sharing a villa for a week in a small village in Provence? Mais oui!

When friends and acquaintances were told of our plan to do just that, the universal reaction was, "Are you crazy?" They then reminded us that you never really know people until you travel with them--and then it's too late.

Undeterred, we plunged ahead. Did our grand adventure turn out to be all we'd hoped? Absolutely. Were we all still speaking by week's end? We were, in fact, a well functioning family. There were no cross words, no quibbling (publicly, at least) about who had the better accommodations, no hurt feelings when one or more couples opted out of some planned excursion to spend time alone or go elsewhere.

We had started our odyssey as six couples, but an accident in Barcelona en route forced one couple to return home to get medical attention. Old friends all--save for two spouses who have been embraced by the group--we include journalists, a historian, an FBI agent and an attorney. Recently, we had started a tradition, gathering each year in Seattle for a long Fourth of July break. And some of us had traveled abroad in pairs. But we were well aware that is quite different from being under the same roof 24 hours a day.

Finding the villa of our dreams wasn't easy. For weeks, we pored over catalogs solicited from agencies from Massachusetts to Oregon, answered ads in newspapers and magazines including the New Yorker and San Francisco magazine, scoured the Internet and compared notes by telephone. After all this searching, two of us, working with different agents, zeroed in on the same property about the same time. Our fellow travelers decided to rely largely on faith and friendship.

To make it work, we wanted each couple to have as much privacy as possible. Our ideal villa would have six bedrooms and six baths. (OK, ugly Americans). This quickly eliminated 90% of available properties. There were dozens of lovely looking places with pools, stately salons, baronial dining rooms and accommodations for 12, but with only half enough baths.

Having heard horror stories about villa rentals--swimming pools blanketed in algae, chicken feathers coming out of a water tap and places perched only feet above the roar of the Autoroute du Soleil--we were wary. Ultimately, our quest led us to Ashland, Ore., to At Home in France. A name plucked from a magazine ad, it's an agency that handles only French properties and, we were assured, scouts their villas before recommending them. The amiable agent, Allyn Kaufmann, seemed to be on our wavelength. Where other agents had tried to reel us in by assuring us that we had no chance of finding 6BR/6BA, Kaufmann said it would be difficult but not impossible.

Then one day she called with good news. Though she hadn't seen the property, she had learned of a listing for Domaine Amen, an ancient former convent in the village of Meynes. A colleague had told her it was A-1--and previous renters had made a glowing report. It sounded almost perfect: five bedrooms and a convertible den, four baths and a powder room in the main house, with another bath just outside by the pool; two bedrooms and bath in a guest house only steps away.

The owner, she told us, was a renowned French artist who, with his companion, lives on site. Ordinarily, we would have asked for references from previous tenants, but it was getting to be crunch time. The large properties tend to be booked months ahead. So, we scrutinized the photographs and the drawing of the floor plan and agreed: This was it.

Booking through At Home in France, the rental was $4,200 a week, plus a refundable $1,000 security deposit--to be paid on our return--and utilities and telephone, which came to about $150. The couple who couldn't come paid their share out of pocket as, unlike some of us, they hadn't opted for trip cancellation insurance. Most agents recommend it and will refer you to the Automobile Club, American Express or a travel agent handling such insurance. Because rental agencies have contracts with the property owners, monies are generally nonrefundable in case of a last-minute problem--unless the property can be re-rented.

Split six ways, Domaine Amen came out to about $700 a couple for the week. Where in France can you rent a luxury hotel room for that? And hotel rooms don't come with garden, cherry orchard, vast public rooms and Charles-Louis La Salle, our genial host, descended, he told us, from a Gen. La Salle who fought with Napoleon.

(Currently, the guest house is not available; the villa, now expanded to sleep 14, rents from $3,580 to $7,585 a week, depending upon the season.)

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