The wood-paneled floors in our Saugatuck, Mich., rental cottage groaned in protest when we walked across them. Floor-to-ceiling windows offered a generous view of a tree-lined street punctuated by stately homes built around the turn of the 20th century. The furniture looked as if it belonged in an antique store.
No doubt about it: our vacation rental was history.
Staying in an older vacation rental can be a real adventure. And we know, because we've lived in a few of them during our year-long trip across the United States. A historic vacation home can bring you closer to a city's traditional downtown area, or to real residents. It can even help you feel like you're a local -- and if nothing else, to eat like one.
But historic homes have, well, histories. The same thing that makes them fascinating can sometimes make them a challenge to live in, from old hardwood floors to funky interior designs. There's no getting around that. But you can hedge your bets by going with a professional rental agency, which will ensure your house is stocked with the basic necessities, up to your standards, and above all, that it actually exists.
In Santa Fe, N.M., we stayed in an authentic adobe we found from a local rental agency. Like most of the historic homes we've visited, it felt a lot like staying in grandma's house -- if grandma was a college history professor with a passion for collecting native American artifacts.
A traditional New Mexican garden, in which a variety of peppers were ripening, colorfully decorated the inner courtyard. The New Mexico History Museum was only a few blocks away, and downtown Santa Fe could be reached within five minutes. Of course, we had to drop by Whole Foods to buy the fixings for tortilla soup with cornbread and green chili stew in the gourmet kitchen. (Anything else would have been improper.)
By far the largest rental we stayed in, located in historic Beverly, Mass., turned out to be the most personal. It featured a private library, a kitchen with servant's quarters, seven bedrooms and a tennis court. But it felt like spending the night at the museum. The owners, direct descendants of one of New England's founding families, greeted us warmly and told us about the special memories the place held for them. They made us feel right at home.
The cozy vacation rental we checked into in Carmel, Calif., only a short walk to the beach, was nestled in a cluster of cottages identified only by a sign stating "No Worries." Funny but important detail: homes in this neighborhood have never used house numbers. But Carmel is quirky, like that. We figured that if we could find the funky yellow 1920s bungalow, we belonged there -- and we did.
Did the rental have it all? No, but it had everything we needed. The kitchen didn't waste a square foot of space and opened onto a private interior courtyard where the kids could play unsupervised. The layout of the home was a little eccentric, driven by extensions made over the years to accommodate a growing family. It had just two bedrooms plus a third, which once doubled as a hallway.
But downtown Carmel, which features coffee shops, fine dining and exceptional take-out options, could be reached in a few moments by foot. And the area's signature attraction, the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, wasn't much farther by car. Our three kids didn't complain, because they felt as if they were staying with a relative.
Not every ocean-side historical rental is that rustic. The one we stayed at in Ocean City, Md., built in the early 20th century, had just been renovated, to the point where it looked like a space station inside. I'm not kidding; the TVs, air conditioner and sound system were controlled by a wall-mounted iPad 3 which we are still trying to figure out how it works. But darn, it sure looked good, and the unit was in the middle of everything, directly on the boardwalk. We couldn't get any closer to the action.
Another nautical-themed -- and historical -- vacation rental happened in Rockland, Me. The area was home to many captains of merchant ships in the 19th century as well as the Navy once our nation was established. Our historic villa was so close to the sea you could stand on our front porch and see boats in the bay, and you know what that means, don't you? Lobster in all its forms, from lobster rolls to seafood salad to lobster bisque. Mainers are proud of their seafood, and rightfully so.
Back in Saugatuck, our vintage rental was just around the corner from the galleries, churches, restaurants and artisan food shops of the town. Still, the kitchen begged to be used, and it was. We cooked up something called Saugatuck Breakfast Squares, which resemble quiche made with fresh veggies grown locally, and served with sourdough toast.
If you try to stay away from chain hotels and fast-food restaurants when you travel, a stay in a historic rental is just what you'll want. It may be more than you want.
Simply put, it doesn't get any more authentic than a historic vacation rental.