Privacy In Paradise

Picture yourself sipping a cool lemonade, lounging alongside a private pool, staring at the crystal blue waters below you. You probably just came up from the beach, where you spent the day absorbed in the first novel you've read in months, while the kids were off snorkeling near a coral reef. Now, you're back home, freshly showered and ready for a night on the town, once the baby-sitter arrives. In the meantime, the kids are watching a Disney flick on the VCR in the living room, and your spouse is napping in one of three spacious bedrooms. Five o'clock rolls around, and the cook comes by to prepare some local fish and vegetables for dinner.

This is no dream. This is Green Cay Village in Orient Bay on the island of St. Martin, one of thousands of deluxe villas available to vacationers throughout the U.S., Caribbean, Mexico, Europe, or almost any destination you can think of. Villa rentals include everything from condos to castles to cabanas, and they are one of the most popular--and fastest-growing--travel alternatives today. Honeymooners, businesses, and families (which make up about 50% of the villa-rental market) are all discovering the allure of a home away from home. The reason: Villas offer luxury, privacy, first-class service, and perhaps most importantly, good value. "It's a dream come true for a lot of people," says Paul Mermelstein, president of Island Hideaways, a first-rate agency that specializes in Carribean properties (800 832-2302).

EXTRAS. At Green Cay, for instance, a three-bedroom, three-bath home with private pool and terrace overlooking the Caribbean can be had for as little as $2,800 a week. That's $400 a night, including maid service, airport transfers, and many other customized extras. Not bad when a standard room at a comparable hotel on St. Martin starts at $300 a night, not including such add-ons as taxes, tips, and steeper restaurant tabs.

Depending on location and individual needs, travel experts estimate that private homes generally go for as little as $700 to as much as $35,000 a week. What do you get for $35,000? A 72-acre Caribbean island called Little St. James, near St. Thomas, all to yourself. It comes with three private beaches, pool, Jacuzzi, speedboat, and full staff--including concierge, boatman, gardener, and cook. The four-bedroom, five-bath estate is one of a kind.

Of course, villas aren't for everyone. For one thing, they offer little flexibility. Once you make a reservation, it's almost impossible to reschedule plans or secure a refund. In addition, some travelers complain that villas are isolating and require too much independence when it comes to finding top restaurants or hot tourist attractions. And for some, the idea of staying anywhere near a kitchen is a complete turnoff. But if these aspects aren't a problem, villa rental may be ideal for you.

Going to a reputable rental agency makes planning easier. Since the homeowners usually pay commissions directly to the booking agents, there's no additional charge for using their services. You can bypass the agency and rent directly through owners, but it's risky. While you may save a bit, the quality and selection of properties are less reliable. When choosing an agency--and there are a lot of them--be sure the company inspects properties personally and provides a local contact at your destination to help with any unexpected problems. Some of the best villa-rental operators include VHR Worldwide (800 633-3284), Villas International (800 221-2260), and Wimco, a Caribbean specialist (800 932-3222).

PHOTO, PLEASE. For the biggest selection, start making plans as much as six months ahead of your departure date. Christmas rentals are routinely made a year in advance. If possible, take advantage of low off-season rates--usually Apr. 15 to Dec. 15 for the Caribbean--and ask if certain accommodations can be prorated so that a couple can enjoy the use of a three-bedroom villa but only pay for one bedroom. Never rent without viewing photographs of the villas you're considering to get an idea of location, amenities, and architectural style. Agents should also be able to give you a complete listing of nearby attractions and services.

Decide at the outset what kinds of la carte options you'll need, such as a rental car, cook, diet plan, sightseeing tour, high chair, or crib. A full-time cook in St. Martin runs $125 to $200 a day with food; the cost is much lower on less exclusive islands such as Jamaica.

Agents can arrange almost any individualized program as long as they're given plenty of notice. When my husband and I were at Green Cay last year, we had one of the best chefs on the island come to our villa to prepare a candle-lit dinner for two, which we ate under the stars on our deck. The best thing about villa vacations, other than being able to eat breakfast in your pajamas, is the ability to create your own holiday. And generally, you find that when you're living in luxury surrounded by a spectacular view, there's no place like home.