Sheriden Rhodes discovers a luxe exchange program and a home away from home in Bali.
House swapping for holidays is like a game of Russian roulette. You might hit the jackpot with a place that exceeds your wildest dreams, or wind up somewhere a whole lot shabbier and more disappointing than your own home.
I looked at several online house-swap sites and even signed up for one but was disappointed to receive inquiries from people whose homes were outdated, cluttered or, let's be frank, just plain daggy. I wasn't looking for a mansion, just a place that looked special.
I came across a site called Luxe Home Swap and drooled over the possibilities. Perhaps we could live like a Manhattan family in SoHo, or enjoy a slice of life in Sri Lanka's tea plantations?
The website allows interaction with other members and the properties on offer have, by and large, the wow factor I was looking for. You won't find any doilies or floral bedspreads; it's all white linen, designer rugs, infinity pools and magical settings. And the swaps don't have to be at the same time, which allows flexibility for both parties.
In the end, we chose a villa in Bali. I know what you're thinking - not that adventurous. But it was for my family of three. In the sleepy east Bali village of Candidasa in Karangasem district, east Bali, we stayed in a villa surrounded by neighbours working, eating, fishing and going to school. In the week we stayed, we felt we walked in the footsteps of the owners.
The first thing I enjoyed was the interaction with our home-exchangers, Graham and Ella Sasoon. The Australian couple designed and built their villa, one of four in the complex. Graham, a designer, halved my homework by decanting his local knowledge in emails, which we will reciprocate when he stays at our home. He told us the best spot for a morning swim (the protected beach in front of the small hotel next door to the villa; sadly, most of the beaches in Candidasa are eroded). He told us the best places to eat in town (Vincent's and the high-camp Le Rouge just past Candidasa's lotus-filled lagoon).
Villa Sasoon is a treat: a contemporary, two-bedroom property with three pavilions and a pool shaded by palm trees, one block from the beach on a narrow street.
On the two-hour drive from Denpasar airport, we pass lush green rice paddies with soaring kites used to scare away birds, colourful jukungs (traditional fishing boats) and women selling mackerel laid out on wooden blocks by the road.
After breakfast every day, we wander to Candidasa's main street for coffee in the courtyard at Vincent's. Our three-year-old, Ella, makes fast friends with Agus, one of the 13 staff members employed at Villa Sasoon. Another day, we visit the school, set up by a Dutch expat for disabled children, where Agus's wife works. Ella plays on the see-saw with the local children and we chat with the staff.
The locals are exceedingly friendly. It is the tourist low season, so many people are desperate for work. On a moonlit stroll after dinner one night, I receive six offers of transport, one drunken declaration of love and a marriage proposal - and that was just walking down one side of the street.
We arrange for the villa's chef, Yuni, to cook for us one night and it is one of the best meals in town. Another memorable meal is lunch at Seasalt restaurant in the Alila Manggis resort, a short drive from Candidasa. There we enjoy the signature dish, the megibung, a shared meal on a platter unique to east Bali, with pickles, fish skewers, a mountain of fragrant yellow rice, snapper wrapped in leaves, chicken satay, young jackfruit salad and duck soup. By the time we finish our coconut ice-cream, Ella has been taught to make a kite by one of the patient Alila staff members and, moments later, she is delighted when it is airborne.
On the outskirts of Candidasa is Amankila, a striking resort with the best cliff-top location in the area overlooking Lombok Strait. We visit just before sunset and take a swim in the three-tiered infinity pools. A highlight of our Bali stay is cocktails at the resort's bar, then dining in the candlelit restaurant, with New Zealand chef Guy Stanaway in the kitchen.
Other highlights are more everyday but no less memorable: the sweet smell of incense; the sound of a baby crying, a rooster crowing; and the garden outside the kitchen window.
In east Bali, where fishermen sail traditional boats and rice paddies stretch to the horizon, there remains something of the peace and tradition that first attracted travellers to the island. We found peace and a sense of being at home, without any accommodation costs.
Sheriden Rhodes travelled courtesy of Luxe Home Swap.
Luxe Home Swap allows travellers to live like locals without the usual accommodation cost, for an annual membership fee of $175. The site claims it's "the world's first and only socially connected home-exchange site"; you're advised if you have the same Facebook friends as other members, for example. See luxehomeswap.com.
Villa Sasoon in Candidasa comprises four separately owned two-bedroom villas with pools, tour desk and staff, phone +62 3634 1511, see villasasoon.com.
Alila Manggis is a five-minute drive from Villa Sasoon. If you're dining, taking a cooking class or at the day spa, the resort will arrange transfers from your villa. See alilahotels.com/manggis.
Amankila is at Manggis, close to Candidasa, with a day spa, cooking school, restaurant and bar for guests and visitors. See amanresorts.com/amankila.