The moment you have kids is the moment most hang up their backpacks and settle into a life-time of family resort holidays. How dull. Yes, they might offer free childcare, play parks, pools and entertainment, but where is the soul, where is the element of adventure and of seeing somewhere, well, different? So picture on a dreary run of the mill English winter's day, an email arriving from a family in America asking us to swap homes for 6 weeks in the summer. We jumped at the chance. With three little girls under 4, seriously itchy feet and, irony of ironies, our adventure travel web-site that needed tending in the mean-time, a house swap was the perfect solution.
Two months later, the five of us were waiting to board a plane. We were headed to Savannah, Georgia, and aside from a cursory look at a map (and reading Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil), had no idea what to expect. Just as we were due to board the plane, my wife checked her messages on her phone. An email from our partners to say three things; don't be alarmed, but they had had two break in's in the past month, don't be afraid of the local insect life; palmetto bugs -- they are like cockroaches; and one more thing they had forgotten to ask us -- could we look after their cat while they were away? My wife, I have to explain, is not known for her feline friendliness.
We boarded the plane feeling slightly ill. All of a sudden, we realised how naïve we had been. We hadn't even googled these people. For all we knew, they could have posted a picture of anyone's house on the house swap website, there's might be a squalid dump on the wrong side of town. That, and the prospect of 9 hours flying with three kids was enough to put me right off my plane food.
We needn't, however, have worried. We arrived hot and tired to a house that was everything it promised, and more. A car with a DVD player inside (the kids were addicted to the Backyardigans before long) and a house full of character. Without communicating about it, we had both left welcome gifts for each other (nice wine on both sides of the Atlantic) and had teed each other up with some social engagements.
Wandering round someone else's house, which is now your home, is a strange experience. You start leafing through their book collection, looking at photos and start trying to piece their lives together. Are they a Democrat or a Republican (ok, the vote Obama bumper sticker gave that away), do they go to church, what makes them tick? Even more surreal, we then got together with some of their friends, enjoying a barbecue. We felt like we were living someone else's life, with none of the hassle. For the children, it was the first time they had ever tried burgers, for the adults it was a chance you NEVER get on a regular holiday -- to quiz the locals about everything; from politics, to religion, to war, to history, to what life is like. My wife found herself having an identical conversation with one of the women about balancing career, children and life. She was fascinated that two women can live so far away, but have the same struggles. Talk of politics, Obama and healthcare bills dominated the evening.
As well as having the chance to meet local people and get under the skin of our host country that way, we also had the benefit of visiting a region with all the insiders tips you could need. We didn't need a guide book; we had restaurant recommendations, tips on where to park, which is the best beach, even a guide to all the local playgrounds. And of course we had our own van thrown in, too.
And in the evenings, once the children were in bed, rather than staying in a soulless motel room, we could barbecue outside in the garden (trust me hot sticky Savannah evenings are a good thing!), or curl up in the den and read a book from the shelves. The kids loved playing with a whole new set of toys and having a base from which to explore meant that we could take the holiday at a gentle pace, enjoying life from a local perspective.
Savannah was a fantastic place to visit. Despite our worries about break ins, bugs and cats, the neighbourhood was great and there were some lovely local excursions, not to mention the wonderful Tybee Island, with brilliant beaches and a super laid back attitude. We never grew tired of the famed Crabshack restaurant, which, clichéd though it may be, is still an incredibly fun and different place. The town itself was nice to explore, with cute little squares and a picturesque waterfront. Nearby, Charleston, Hilton Head and Asheville all beckoned, as did the awe-inspiring Great Smokey Mountains. We visited these, and more, but kept coming back to the beach, loving the warm water and soft sand...
Towards the end of the stay, our thoughts turned inevitably towards our home. Had our guests enjoyed their experience as much as we had? Was our home to their satisfaction? More to the point, was our house still standing, our car still working? We needn't have worried, they looked after our property just as we had looked after theirs. Some wear and tear, as to be expected after 6 weeks, but they had cleaned up meticulously and had clearly taken care of our things while we were away.
Our conclusion? We loved Savannah and loved the experience of swapping homes. Would we do it again? Yes, in a heart beat. Would you? Even now, we are still registered on house swapping sites and occasionally get emails from families in places like Byron Bay in Australia asking to swap for 6 months, and I have to admit, it is very, very tempting...