What could be better than decamping with a selection of your closest friends and family to a rambling old house in some boiling hot, beautiful and bargainous spot in southern France, Italy or Spain for a week?
In your imagination, the seven days stretch ahead in a sun-drenched procession of early morning runs; long, lazy sauvignon-fuelled lunches; river swims; midnight feasts; and time, finally, to talk properly to everyone like you haven’t since you were a student… And the kids will just look after themselves, won’t they? A hotel without the hassle. A home with a better location.
But a break that sounds so simple is actually surprisingly hard to get right. As a host, villa holidaying has its duties and its rules, which you ignore at your peril. And they apply whether you’re holding the fort in a Dorset cottage over a bank-holiday weekend or – I imagine – taking over some ancestral schloss for the ski season.
For one reason or another, I’ve been hosting house parties since I was 18. The first was a catastrophe involving Ouija boards and wasp nests. One tempestuous couple threw their bedroom furniture all over the house and broke up. My parents’ most venerable bottles were devoured during a ping-pong drinking game. And I killed their beloved and equally ancient Saab. It was fun while it lasted, though, and didn’t put me off.
1. Choose your guests with care
This is the trickiest bit, of course, and the success of your week away hinges on your selection. Is this holiday going to be all adults slumping on to sunloungers at 11am like basking walruses (but armed with a nice Provençal rosé), while teenagers cavort in the pool?
Or is this a yoga retreat for divorcees? Are there under-twos, and if so are they insomniac? Are there party animals who are going to want to explore the nightlife? Is there any nightlife? Are the guests friends with each other? Did any of them have a one-night stand back in the day? (You may not know this yet, but you’ll find out.) Are they Brexit-y or arch Bremoaners? Vegans or foie-gras fanciers? Are they showy-off plutocrats or on a very tight budget?
Your best bet – and I’ve learnt this from decades of variously successful and less-spectacular hosting – is to make sure hardly anyone spends the full week, only your most stalwart, relaxed and useful best friends. If tricky customers are only sticking around for three days, everyone’s going to find them easier to take than if, on a Sunday night, you’re all looking forward to six more evenings of People’s Vote vs no deal.
Unknown plus-ones in the form of new boyfriends and girlfriends can be a massive bonus or a disaster, but in the latter event, usually they’re at least entertaining, so welcome them in.
And money-wise, if possible you don’t run a kitty, or divvy things up too mathematically. Be generous and rely on your guests to do the same according to their means. If someone goes out of control and insists on beef fillet, they can buy it (and cook it).
2. Ask for a floor plan and allot bedrooms before you arrive
Oh, the fights you’ll avoid. Keep the sleep fanatics away from the small babies. Put as many children over the age of five together in a bedroom as you can – they won’t get any sleep but they’ll have a lot of fun. Domaine de la Hille, just outside Carcassonne in southern France, which is a test case for the ideal house-party villa, is a jumble of medieval to-19th-century wings all bolted on to each other, with two separate staircases to keep the rival sleep clans apart.
There were 18 of us staying there for a week last June, and the house never felt uncomfortably full. I advise you to give yourself the best room – you’re going to earn it. I bagsed the master bedroom at the Domaine, which was about the size of a quarter of a tennis court (I am not exaggerating in the slightest), with rolling acres of cream-coloured carpet, a giant bed and an equally gargantuan bathroom. It made for an excellent retreat when the madness of a houseful of guests got too much.
3. Get there early
Always factor an extra hour into your drive from airport to house. And never land after about 7pm. You don’t want to be driving down deserted lanes in the backwoods following someone else’s directions and an intermittent satnav in the small hours. And if you’re arriving at a strange, empty house in the dark, you’ll never find the light switches or work out how to turn on the hot water. You’ll hit your head on a low beam and bark a shin on an unexpected step, and you’ll either eat something cold out of a tin or go to bed with rumbling tummies. So get there in daylight and relatively fresh. Or make sure someone else has got there before you. In an ideal world, the person in charge of the house will be there to let you in, show you round briskly and leave. But this is not an ideal world.
4. It’s mostly about the pool
The swimming pool that any proper villa rental boasts is the first essential. It must be big, warm, and within sight of the house. Too small and you’re basically sharing a bath, and that can be uncomfortable. Too cold and, once your guests have dipped a cautious toe in, they’ll never come back. Grown-ups can be more hardy about this, but a warm pool will keep toddlers happy for hours on end, and a cold one will make them phobic about water for 18 months. My expert on such matters says ‘28C is the temperature that keeps kids in the pool’.
As for the location, if getting from your bedroom to your pool entails a 15-minute yomp down a steep slope covered with gorse, you won’t bother to go at all. If it’s right outside the back door (and you can see what’s going on in there while pouring yourself a glass of that rosé in the kitchen), the pool will be the hub of the holiday.
There’s also the small matter of child safety. My back was turned once when my then-two-year-old daughter plunged into a villa swimming pool near Ostuni in Puglia and had to be rescued by her uncle, who dived in fully clad and fished her out. Parental, or in this case avuncular, reactions are fast, but you don’t want to test them. At Domaine de la Hille, the pool is large, has glamorous dark metallic tiles, can be heated and is near enough to the house to be easily policed.
5. Plan for excursions…
No matter how far south you go, the weather can trip you up. Your base should be within 30 minutes of at least two possible all-weather outings, whether they’re medieval castles or zip wires (or both). Our stay at Domaine de la Hille consisted of four sunny days sandwiching three during which it pelted with rain. But the medieval town of Carcassonne was within spitting distance: a huge 13th-century citadel that an eccentric architect, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, restored in the mid-1800s, adding his preferred Sleeping Beauty turrets to its gaunt façade.
The Château de Saissac, a Cathar castle overlooking France’s Black Mountains and a short drive in the other direction from the Domaine, is a pile of rubble by comparison, but far more poetic. Here our older children clambered around the ruins for hours in a way that would probably have had Viollet-le-Duc tearing his hair out.
6. …but explore the house properly
Rental villas are usually far better equipped than your average holiday home. They want repeat business, so they aim to please. Ask the house owner, or caretaker, or whoever’s at the other end of the phone, what they have on offer and you’ll discover surprises. Domaine de la Hille came with bicycles, ping pong and a tennis court designed by former British number one Greg Rusedski. There was a tennis coach on hand, also called Gregory, though sadly not the former Wimbledon quarter-finalist, to hone our skills for a couple of hours.
My son, 10, dug out some bows and arrows (with suction pads not barbs) and spent the entire week pacing the grounds shooting harmlessly at trees like a Lost Boy, completely happy. There were DVDs for rainy afternoons and board games for thundery ones, and fireplaces in the sitting rooms and the most exciting, if terrifying, fire-starting device called a Grenadier, which pumps out flames like a domesticated dragon and will cause the dampest logs to blaze. Sorry, Michael Gove.
7. Eat local
It sounds so obvious, but you really want to eat whatever it is the neighbours do best. In the case of Domaine de la Hille, this was the finest, heartiest southern-French staples. Lots of duck and haricot beans, jambon de pays, cantal cheese, cassoulet, and all the best bits from Jeanne Strang’s classic of the region, Goose Fat & Garlic. Stalls loaded with home-grown salads, home-made goat cheeses and strawberries filled the nearby town of Mirepoix on market day.
I did baulk when one of our friends went off foraging among the stands on his own and brought back a large bag of live snails expecting me to cook them in butter and herbs for a starter. We let them out by the side of the road on the way home. The Domaine itself had wonderful extras in the shape of a large flock of hens at the bottom of the garden, which we could feed on our leftovers and whose eggs we could then collect in a very pleasing and mutually beneficial transaction. There was also a well-kept vegetable garden, which we were allowed to raid for salads, herbs and artichokes for the freshest and simplest of lunches. Weather permitting, barbecue as much as you can to keep the children involved with the meal preparation and the kitchen cooler.
If you enjoy making food, let rip and get stuck in – and let your guests pitch in. I love nothing better than communal cooking and all my best conversations with friends happen over a hot stove. If you don’t, then regular eating out makes perfect sense. Booze-wise, the first, most obvious point is never to run out. At the Domaine, there were two wine fridges kept fully stocked by the very accommodating owners. The one for red was cooled to 13C and the other, for white and pink, a refreshing 5C. So the gourmets around the table could indulge themselves with an Haut-Bages Liberal 2005 or a Poujeaux 2009 – at a price (though not nearly as expensive as a restaurant).
8. Make sure you have fun
You can view hosting as a chore, or a pleasure. But let’s assume, if you are inviting people to spend a few days with you, that you actually want to see them. So make a point of enjoying it. You don’t have to be there making every last person their preferred morning cuppa. Indeed, if you don’t feel like it, you shouldn’t be up in time for breakfast at all. Please yourself and allow your guests to do the same without resenting them for it.
Shake up the combinations, and try to spend time with all your friends and family – and their children – separately. If you’re going on an excursion together, that means mixing up the cars so it’s not always one family per vehicle. It makes for less rowing. One of my preferred invitees makes a habit of taking himself off every day for a private excursion and only turns up around 5pm, ready to get stuck in with the evening fun – and usually bringing a fruit tart and a bottle of wine back with him. How civilised. He doesn’t feel the need for constant socialising, so he doesn’t do it. But he also doesn’t make a big thing of it. In the end, the more relaxed you are yourself, the more fun everyone else is going to have too.
9. One last thing
It is a universal rule that every villa contains one person who winds everyone else up. It’s human nature and discussing their foibles, tics and failings helps the group to unite. Here at least is something everyone can agree on. If you aren’t sure who that person is, take a look in the mirror…
Domaine de la Hille is available from Red Savannah (01242-787800, redsavannah.com) from £8,422 per week in the low season to £15,562 in the high season, for up to 18 guests, including daily housekeeping, Wi-Fi and pool heating.