We had left Brittany late for our 2 ½ hour drive to Normandy. We had hoped to be on the road by 3 pm, but we were having so much fun with Monique, Joel and their guests that we couldn’t bear to leave. After spending 2 weeks in Monique and Joel’s house in Morlaix, we had finally met them at the goodbye lunch Monique prepared for us. A four course feast with aperitifs, excellent wines, fresh seafood from the Morlaix market, filet mignon in a mushroom sauce, Breton cakes and then they pulled out the digestifs. Not only were we late to get on the road, we were not fit to drive.
Such are the drawbacks of traveling by means of home exchanging. While my friend Cathy and I were enjoying the quaint 17th century town and the sights of Finistere, the Western-most point on French soil, Monique, Joel and their 27 year old son had been staying in my New York City apartment. It was their first visit to New York and they were smitten, as we were with Brittany. Monique had asked her friend Jocelyne to look after us, as I had arranged with a neighbor in New York. Jo insisted that I climb up all 300 steps to the viaduct, carrying my little dog and had introduced me to the only American in town, who became a good friend.
Most American tourists, checking the guidebooks, would have given Morlaix and the region only a day or two. But we got inside its head. After two weeks, the waiters in our regular café knew us well. We knew where to find the best Kouign-Amann (Breton cake) and the most charming seaside creperies. We had explored, on day trips, a Neolithic funerary monument larger and older than Stonehenge, 17th century enclosed Rococo churches unique to Finistere, the town where Paul Gauguin established an art colony and I had arranged a treatment at the oldest Thalassotherapy spa in the world.
The cost for two weeks was probably not much more than if I had stayed at home, not counting the car rental and gas. While we ate fantastic meals out, having a well-equipped kitchen meant we could prepare meals at home, using ingredients from local farmer’s markets. Famously delicate strawberries from Plougastel, tiny petoncles, sweeter and smaller than bay scallops. There were other perks: aperitifs in the garden, our own washing machine. No noisy hotel guests waking us at 5 am.
What New Yorkers Need to Know about Home Exchanges
New York is one of the most popular destinations for both foreign and domestic travelers, so New Yorkers should be prepared for a deluge of attractive home exchange offers. When I first signed up on homeexchange.com (there are many such sites, but homeexchange.com has among the largest and most active exchange members), I was offered home exchanges in Marbella and Capri, Santa Fe and Hawaii, Greece, Australia and Scandinavia, despite having specified that I was looking for an exchange in France.
Under New York State housing law, apartment dwellers may not rent out their homes for short-term rentals but an exception permits short-term rentals “provided that there is no monetary compensation paid to the permanent occupants.” Owners of co-ops and condos must check their building by-laws or with managing agents. Renters need to check their lease and with the landlord.
As a practical matter, I always make sure the building staff know that I am expecting guests while I am away and I make sure a neighbor is willing to vouch for them, provide the keys and offer practical information.
For my French trip last year, I arranged three swaps—one in Paris, one in Brittany and one in Normandy. These all worked out really well. My guests were very respectful (Monique even did without a hair dryer because she didn’t want to look in my closet) and the apartment was in perfect shape when I returned. I met my Paris guests before I left New York and the other two sets of guests at their homes in France. We had corresponded for months before the exchange and I selected swap partners who were older and presumably more reliable. I arranged with my housekeeper to clean and do the laundry between guests. As to the homes I visited, they were all exactly as represented, or even better. All three had outdoor spaces (a terrace in Paris, an enclosed garden in Brittany and Normandy) well-equipped kitchens, comfortable beds and satellite TV. An equivalent hotel room would have run over $200 per night, much more in Paris. And I had the pleasure of meeting their friends and neighbors, exploring neighborhoods outside the tourist zones, and enough time in each location to really get to know it.
So what were the drawbacks? Not many. Figuring out how to dispose of the trash. Breaking a vase and offering to pay for it (the offer was refused). Getting lost a dozen times as we figured out each new place without benefit of a concierge (though each host left copious notes on the area, along with insider suggestions of where to go). And of course that drive to Normandy, which turned out to be 5 hours, not 2 1/2 , in heavy traffic and with our GPS giving us misinformation. Our hosts in Normandy waited dinner for us until we arrived after 9:30. And then we had another feast, with more wine, seafood, dessert and a cheese course featuring the local raw milk Camembert. Stuffed and exhausted, we settled into our new home and looked forward to exploring Normandy.
*Our blogger prefers to remain anonymous, even though what she is doing complies with NYC housing laws.