You know those photographs you see in the glossy travel magazines? The ones you look at and dream that somehow, somewhere, someone will whisk you off to some paradise location with a private butler, 800 thread count sheets on massive four poster canopy beds, horizon pools that end with palm trees and ocean views, a masseur that rubs aromatic oils into your back as you sip from a fresh coconut and dining by candlelight on fine food prepared by an in-house chef.
The dream can become a reality if you look beyond the five-star resorts and boutique hotels and set your sights on a private villa, especially in Asia, where your dollar travels further and Asian hospitality always translates to superior service.
I just spent a week of indulgence, pampering and serene luxury at Villa Salika (www.villasalika.com) in Phuket, Thailand and I strongly recommend the villa option over any other accommodation option.
This five bedroom/seven bathroom home (the spacious yoga room can be easily converted to become a sixth bedroom if required) comfortably sleeps up to 12 adults (and I am sure you could throw a few extra kids in there as well). To be honest the villa's website doesn't really do it justice and it is only when you arrive after being picked up your own personal car and driver, Jack, at Phuket Airport that you get a sense of just how stunning this villa really is. As we pulled in to the driveway, Sanya, the villa manager and the entire villa staff were waiting for us armed with cool scented towels, fresh juice and flowers to welcome us. The expansive living and dining area, complete with an eight-foot high majestic Buddha, opened on to the picturesque horizon pool set in manicured gardens featuring fountains, sculpture, exotic plants and ponds lined with colourful and fragrant water lilies.
The centrepiece of the garden was the monolithic "sala" a traditional Thai pagoda style room -- an oasis from the sun during the heat of the day and the perfect location to watch the sunset over Chalong Bay. None of this intense beauty prepared me for the master suite which was an entire floor complete with sitting area, romantic mosquito netted king size four poster bed (ironically, almost identical to my bed at home) and my person favourite -- a bathroom the size of a living room leading to a huge outdoor sunken bath tub and private massage pavilion. The rest of the suites were spread out across the property to ensure maximum privacy and comfort -- so even if you decided to rent with a number of couples or friends, your sense of personal retreat would never be compromised.
If you think this level of luxury is out of your reach -- think again. Villa Salika was priced from $800 per night (for a week's stay) in low season, so if you divide that by 12 adults, that's less than $70 per person per night. That price included accommodation, the use of a private car and driver, the villa staff and sumptuous daily breakfasts (usually served in the open air sala). The villa staff can assist with everything from recommending restaurants, chartering a boat, ordering local take out, setting up your daily massage appointment or taking you to a secluded nearby beach. They can also arrange to prepare banquet style meals at reasonable rates, plan you personal menus and even take you to the local markets to choose the produce -- from freshly caught lobsters to exotic home grown fruits.
I found Villa Salika after doing some relatively intensive online searches as well as placing a free online ad in the Phuket Gazette specifying my requirements and budget. I'd never been to Phuket before so researching the location was equally important and the Villa certainly didn't disappoint. Liaising directly (through email) with the Villa's owner was also a big plus because I received very personalized attention and every detail and request was handled quickly and efficiently. I had some complicated arrival and departure issues due to the fact that I had family members flying in from various countries on different dates but all airport pick ups and room set ups were handled meticulously. I also had the good fortune of meeting with one of the owners personally during my stay.
Obviously Villa Salika isn't the only option available on Phuket (but in my case, it was certainly the best), in fact there are literally dozens of private villas available for rent throughout the island ranging from one bedroom cottages to huge 10 bedroom complexes (although the larger villas are more difficult to track down and tend to book out far in advance). Here are a few resources that I found useful in my initial search -- obviously a comprehensive "google search" will turn up thousands of results -- some relevant, some ridiculous, but if you are very specific about what you want, you should be able to narrow your search by location and overall requirements.
Perfect Places (www.perfectplaces.com) is a website that features over 10,000 villa rentals around the world. The website is easy to navigate and allows you to save favorites and sort by destination (72 in Thailand), price per night/week, number of bedrooms or guest capacity. In Phuket for example you can get cosy in a one bedroom cottage for as little as $270 per week and still enjoy traditional Thai architecture and bay views. At the other end of the scale, you can stay at Villa Katamanda in Kata Beach, a six-bedroom property priced from $1200 per night in low season -- going up to $2000 a night in high season. Most prices appear in U.S. dollars, but there are certain properties that display prices in Euro or U.K. pounds.
Villas of the World (www.villasoftheworld.com) likewise offers a beautiful selection of villas through Asia, Europe, the Americas and the Caribbean. It also provides information about yacht rentals. World Rentals (www.world-rentals.com) has a combination of villas, luxury apartments and suites in highly sought after locations and there are numerous destination specific websites that cater for individual markets (i.e. Italian Villas, Caribbean Villas, Balinese Villas, etc.).
It is important to bear in mind that often a single villa may have multiple listings on different websites to better there chance of securing rentals so when doing your research try to remember the name of your villa choices so you can compare rates and availability. Also if the website gives you the option to contact the owner directly, this will always be an advantage over dealing with a middle man or third party. It may also mean a saving in cost or commission and the ability to negotiate smaller details like additional beds in rooms, late arrival times, special dietary requirements and so on.
If there isn't a direct link to the villa's website through one of the villa search engines, try using the villa's name in a general online search and finding your own way to its website (if it actually has one). Factor in what is included in the quoted price when making comparisons. Some villas include a chef and/ or driver, others just offer accommodation without staff or additional perks. Dates will often affect price significantly and being a little flexible could save you thousands of dollars (i.e. choosing to travel to Phuket in November rather than December).
Another option is to search local official tourism authority websites, real estate listings and brokers in your chosen destination. Apart from selling these properties and renting them out long term, many agencies can negotiate short term rentals directly with owners and may have access to a larger database of homes not advertised on traditional tourism sites. A week is usually the minimum stay at many villas (would you really want to stay for less?) but like all business people, owners are generally happy to bend the rules, offer incentives for longer stays or provide last-minute specials. In terms of payment, especially if you are dealing directly with property owners, many villas will require an international wire transfer to be made from your bank directly into their account, including full payment before arrival -- so trust is an issue. You should feel confident that the person you are dealing with is a legitimate business operator with the correct licenses and reputation. If in doubt, you can always contact a destination's local tourism authority for verification.
My only warning is that after a stay in a private villa, you may never wish to stay in a traditional hotel again. But that's just the risk you'll have to take to experience how the other half lives ... even if it is only for a week or two.
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