By Larissa and Michael Milne
Last Christmas morning, we heard a knock on the door at the studio apartment we had rented in Bali. We opened it to find Agus, the building’s property manager, who held a spiky hunk of alien fruit the size of a football in one hand and a glistening machete in the other.
Smiling, he announced: “Special gift for Christmas. I bring you fresh durian from the tree in my garden.”
The apartment was tucked away in a residential neighborhood on a quiet dirt road in Kuta – just a half mile from the famous beach there, but worlds away from the ubiquitous all-inclusive resorts with their tiki torches and limbo contests.
During our yearlong round-the-world journey, we rented flats and cottages on six continents to save money (rentals are often cheaper because there is no housekeeping staff and guests can cook their own meals). But we soon discovered an unexpected benefit: cultural immersion.
Unlike hotels and hostels, rentals aren’t typically located in major tourist areas. While they may be a bit further afield, they’re near food markets, shops, and services residents use as they go about their daily lives.
After just a few days of patronizing the local butcher, baker, and candlestick maker, we’d be able to recognize a few faces and initiate simple conversations. The universal language of a friendly smile and a nod made us feel like we lived wherever we happened to be at the time.
Recently it has become easier to find vacation rentals online, a boon to travelers and property owners alike. Sites like VRBO, HomeAway, and Airbnb have done for the vacation-rental business what eBay did for just about everything else.
Owners list their properties on one of these sites, which usually provide some sort of booking protocol and payment system. (This varies from site to site; be sure to check the fine print.) Property listings provide detailed descriptions, photographs, and pricing, so searches can be made based on criteria such as neighborhood, amenities, and number of bedrooms.
And you can find a match just about everywhere. In addition to booking rentals in more established hubs like Paris and London, we’ve leased flats in Shanghai, Dubai, and Buenos Aires, cottages in New Zealand and Scotland, even a house on a 3,000-acre cattle ranch in Australia.
To begin your search online, simply enter the term “vacation rental” and your destination. Develop a list of favorites from the many sites that will pop up, then follow up with your top picks through the online form to begin a dialogue with the property owner (most of the time, you’ll finalize arrangements directly with them).
Developing a relationship with the rental’s owner provides an immediate link to the neighborhood before you even arrive. Think of them as your unofficial tickets to cultural immersion.
When we rented that cattle ranch in Australia, the owner, Rob, took us for an impromptu kangaroo-viewing safari at dusk in his battered pickup. And when we visited Porto, we shared a Sunday dinner of freshly grilled sardines in a remote fishing village with our Portuguese host family, including their set of nine-year-old boy triplets.
Since the owner of our vacation cottage in Devon was a lay minister, we discovered that the 900-year-old stone chapel perched atop a windswept cliff nearby held simple prayer services on Saturday evenings. While the wind roared outside, we sang hymns by candlelight with a handful of other worshippers; as our shadows danced across the stained glass windows it was easy to imagine we had been transported back into medieval times.
And then there was the durian back in Bali. The “stinky fruit” our host brought us is banned from most hotels throughout Southeast Asia because the smell lingers in rooms for weeks. But we weren’t staying at a hotel. Agus proudly sliced open the giant spiky fruit, revealing pale white flesh with the consistency of an avocado. As it turns out, they don’t emit a foul aroma if they’re freshly cut. The flavor was sweet with a slightly pungent aftertaste.
We stuffed about two pounds of leftover durian into our fridge, then headed out for a Christmas walk on the beach. When we returned a few hours later, we found cultural immersion of a different sort: a stench that permeated every corner of our flat.
We eventually got rid of the smell, but like the best travel experiences, the memory lingers on.