Jessica Baldwin roadtests Stay One Degree, the first social network for luxury home rentals…
Fail to prepare and you are preparing to fail, so the old saying goes. Us Brits certainly take this literally when planning our holidays – reportedly spending an average of 5 weeks arranging the big break. But sometimes, chaps, it isn’t what you know, it’s who you know.
I am not saying having Simon Reeve on WhatsApp, Rick Stein on Snapchat or Portillo on speed dial is essential, sometimes you need only to look a little closer to home, at your ‘first-degree friends’ – you know the ones, the Facebook friends that you have actually seen in the last decade and the handful of people on Linked In that you really have done business with.
Playing on the six degrees of separation theory that claims to be able to connect everyone in the world, from your mother to Mick Jagger, through six steps, two friends have created the first social network for luxury home rentals.
Like many of us, co-founder Thomas Bennett had endured a string of bad holiday experiences, from having a tired and intoxicated pilot hand over control of a seaplane to his wife, to discovering covert CCTV in his holiday rental. This, paired with his first ever paying guests trashing his own Spanish villa, made him crave a holiday rental process with a heightened level of trust and respect…step forward Stay One Degree.
This online community gives owners the power to solely rent to their one-degree or two-degree contacts (that’s friends or friends of friends, to you and I). For the renter, the site provides access to some of the most spectacular properties around the world, many of which are not accessible in the standard rental market. Plus, a cheeky ‘friends rate’ here and there and some nice perks – for example, some owners share their cars, their staff or their private members’ club access.
Today, the portfolio has more than 850 hand-selected properties in over 40 countries, varying from the sublime to the ridiculous. At one end of the spectrum you have a £100 per night designer waterfront villa on a remote Greek island, at the other is a £31,000 a night private island in the Bahamas.
I know what you are thinking, what if I have no friends, because I don’t recall anyone at university mentioning owning a private island? Frankly, if my Mum and Mick Jagger have a connection, have a little faith – plus, some owners rent to third-degree contacts (that’s poor chaps with no friends to you and I).
Keen to experience this jet set clique for myself, I signed up and added Thomas Bennett as my first friend…only to discover we already had friends in common, albeit of varying degrees (an employer, a colleague and a drinking buddy from days gone by). The good news was, I was now in the club and had access to secret mountain villas, coastal retreats and sprawling country estates. The bad news was that a link between my Mum and Mick was looking more likely by the minute.
Before I knew it, I was booked in for a few nights at the family’s Spanish retreat, in the under-the-radar millionaire’s playground of Sotogrande. Referred to locally as Soto, the pristine gated community feels like a little slice of California in Andalucía, with its balmy palm-lined streets and Santa Barbara style mansions sprinkled throughout its verdant cork hills. Located between the Med and the foothills of Sierra Almenara its varied landscapes boast quiet beaches, rolling cork forests and views stretching as far as Morocco. Its proximity to the world-class Valderrama golf course and the internationally famous Santa Maria Polo Club, means that this sleepy spot springs to life in Summer when rock stars and royalty flock to its flashy marina and far-flung villa owners make their annual pilgrimage to their European hideaway (well, most of these multi-million-pound pads are second or third homes after all).
Used to holidaying in more rugged, off-the-beaten-track areas, we were unsure of what to expect from this philanthropic utopia, but visiting out of season during an uncharacteristic rainy spell, it seemed that we had the whole of Sotogrande to ourselves – well, what’s not to love about a private marina fringed with cafes, restaurants and boutiques?
When we arrived, Thomas and his wife were dashing out of the door and after a speedy tour of the villa he handed over the keys to his much-loved family home without hesitation. There was no information book with this rental, just a friendly “any problems, WhatsApp me”. “Oh, and there is a great Argentinian restaurant – if you want to go alone, just say and I will book you our babysitter,” he shouted as he headed out of the door before casually adding, “she is a qualified nurse!”. And there it was, our first inner-circle friendship perk: tick.
The elegant five-bedroom house sits in a peaceful spot in upper Sotogrande, with sweeping views over Valderrama Golf Club and onwards to the sea. With whitewashed walls, a traditional terracotta roof and pretty sky-blue shutters, it displays understated luxury.
However, it really comes in to its own when you discover its gardens, which upon arrival Thomas had warned us were in an embarrassing state due to the recent freak weather, “it’s a quagmire out there”, he apologised, “Don’t worry, I have gardeners coming this afternoon to lay new lawns”.
Admittedly, it was wet, but its mature foliage cocooned the property giving it an exclusive, secret hideaway vibe. A chic white sofa scattered with delicate floral cushions in peachy hues hugged the firepit overlooking the grounds and a trickling fountain was the centrepiece to the ornately tiled courtyard. Under the shelter of the house, various verandas set the scene for al fresco dinners with a glimpse of the sea and relaxed morning coffees taking in the dawn chorus. If it looked this good after the storms, I could only image what a verdant oasis it must offer in summer.
Inside, beautiful blue and white patterning jumped out from the light and airy rooms; in the carefully selected artwork, cushions and tiles. Homely touches were evident throughout, with plump cushions adorning the inviting sofas and cosy throws hanging neatly on the ends, waiting for the evening chill to set in. Our daughter was in heaven in the well-stocked playroom, deliberating between the doll’s house, the tepee or the puzzles.
It was a new experience, holidaying in a home, and not just a house. Family photographs and sentimental cards filled the tables and sideboards and bog-standard rental kitchen attire was replaced with bone china cups and fine quality crockery – this is a treat, but admittedly comes with an added sense of responsibility (well, smashing the kids’ favourite cups isn’t the best start to a new friendship). We quickly acclimatised to the Bennett’s pace of life, signing for the family’s deliveries in their absence and enjoying the foodie gifts that they had left us.
Fancy fare aside, I couldn’t help but become an unwitting participant in a holiday special of ‘who lives in a house like this’, piecing together the clues which jumped out at me around the house – by the end of day one we had unintentionally worked out where the globetrotting family had lived through their art, how old their children were from their framed footprints, which school they went to from their tea-towel and Thomas’ love of golf from, well, everything.
Staying in a home, and not simply a house isn’t for everyone. But for those eager to utilise their current connections and make new ones, a little extra responsibility is rewarded with access to some of the world’s most special properties, from a remote sporting estate in the Outer Hebrides, to an award-winning eco house in New Zealand – and everything in between, literally. So go on, give it a go, say you know Jess; after all, we are all friends here.
Stay One Degree allows you to connect with and rent beautiful homes from people you trust all over the world. Jessica stayed in property number 11. Stays in this 5-bedroom luxury Sotogrande villa start from £649 per night. For more details or to book, visit www.stayonedegree.com.