GUSTAVIA, St. Barthelemy -- When I was lucky enough to be on St. Barthelemy for an extended assignment a couple of years ago, I was luckier still to bunk with my sweetheart at a luxurious villa called Vue des Reves. For all of St. Barth's charms, nothing topped hanging out ''at home," and the highlight of every day was to dive in to an infinity-lipped pool and breathe in ''la vue des reves" -- the view of dreams.
We spent hours hovering at the brim of that pool, a glass of good rose close at hand, watching the island's CinemaScope production unfold. There was the buzz of small planes in and out of the airport, pool boys and gardeners fussing with the homes below, stately storm clouds that would roll across the stage with brief bursts of rain, and a play of light and shadow throughout the day. The curtain of night would descend and we would drag ourselves reluctantly from the pool to ponder the night's dining options -- brie and lentil salad we had stocked in the fridge, or one of St. Barth's gourmet restaurants? More often than not, we kept it simple and stayed in.
With the exception of the daily arrival of a maid and twice-weekly visit by a pool cleaner, we had utter privacy and solitude.
The villa vacation comes with the Caribbean's usual supply of sun-filled days and languid nights, but also the kind of true seclusion that comes from owning -- if only temporarily -- the four walls beyond the four walls.
After all, many find a cookie-cutter resort milieu to be half-baked. Maybe what you desire is a place where you and your cherished can romp around like Adam and Eve, pre-apple. Or perhaps you are thinking sensibly: as a way for your family or friends to save resources.
''Villas are still the most economic thing going," says Nancy Anderson of US Virgin Islands-based McLaughlin-Anderson Villas. ''The value increases as the number of people increases -- five couples can rent a nice five-bedroom villa with private pool on St. Thomas for $5,000 a week in winter. It's not a super luxury villa, but think of what five rooms at a good hotel would cost."
Plus, by mid-April the Caribbean hits low season and rental prices drop 15 to 40 percent (high season arrives mid-December).
Like the islands themselves, villa rentals can be modest or extravagant. Across the border from St. Thomas in the British Virgin Islands, a charming, two-bedroom seafront cottage named Bonefish on the barely inhabited backwater Anegada can be had for just $1,250 per week ($1,050 in the summer low season). Or, go to posh Mustique in the Grenadines and rent Mick Jagger's six-bedroom pad. The cost: $16,000 a week ($11,000 low season).
In price, size, and style, most rental homes are positioned solidly between these extremes, but an important consideration up front is deciding whether you are right for the villa lifestyle.''Hotel vacations are a great way to meet new people, villas are contra to that," says Jan Gordon of the Newport-based rental agency WIMCO. ''In a villa, you still have to time your day to provision the house before the supermarket closes. You have to get into the rhythm of getting up early to get the fresh croissants and baked goods before they run out."
Although rental homes are more common on some islands, you can find villas on almost any Caribbean island. The trick is making sure the destination you select provides the lifestyle you want to adopt.
St. Barthelemy didn't invent the Caribbean villa vacation, but it's the island that has most integrated the concept into its tourism product. The island has only 700 hotel rooms. Yet there are about 400 rental villas holding almost 1,000 bedrooms. They range from funky one-bedroom apartments to a six-bedroom home. Few are beachfront properties.
''Most of them are in the hills," says Gerald Hill of French Caribbean International, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based rental company. ''This means betters views and usually more privacy."
The standard of living on St. Barth is probably the Caribbean's most expensive, but the villa vacation can offer savings. ''People can have true luxury accommodations in a villa for less than they would at one of the island's luxury hotels," says Hill. You won't have room service or a concierge within walking distance but you can have someone deliver prepared foods, or hire catering services that will bring an entire staff.
Rates through the largest agency, WIMCO, start at $1,430 for a one-bedroom villa ($980 in low season). Unlike most of St. Barth's villas, this one does not have a pool, but it sits just off Lorient Beach. At the other end is Horizon, a four-bedroom with oversized pool and formal dining room that rents for $26,000 per week ($16,000 in summer).
Lush, gorgeous Jamaica is the place where the rental villa concept may have originated. JAVA, the Jamaica Association of Villas and Apartments, started in the 1960s and has grown to encompass more than 200 units, most of them dotting the north coast from Montego Bay to Port Antonio.
What makes Jamaican villa rental unique is that each house has a permanent staff that lives on property. ''You've got a cook that's like a Jewish grandmother, a gardener, a housekeeper, and laundress," says Linda Smith, of Villas by Linda Smith. ''The beauty of the Jamaican villa vacation is that every night you have a gorgeous dinner table set with candles. You can go in shorts and a T-shirt and receive a wonderful home-cooked meal served by a butler."
Smith's villas start at $1,800 per week ($1,400 low season) for a two-bedroom cottage situated on a tiny beach and with a pool and a staff of three. Smith recommends budgeting $30 per person, per day for groceries, and 10 percent of the rental fee as a staff tip.
The island also has some unique properties, lead by Goldeneye, onetime estate of Ian Fleming. The three-bedroom home is adorned by the author's original furnishings (including the desk where James Bond novels were created), a high-tech media room, outdoor bathtub, and an elegant modern pool. In winter the home rents for $4,500 a day including meals, drinks, tax, and service.
Not all islands flaunt a posh lifestyle, and Bonaire is less known for villa rentals than it is for its fine diving. But divers tend to travel economically and -- since they spend much of their time in the water -- are less concerned with resort-style amenities.
There is one villa rental company based on the island, Sun Rentals. Prices range from $500 per week for a two-bedroom located inland (''No view, except for the donkeys," says Sun Rentals' general manager Josa Cieremans), to $4,000 per week for a five-bedroom including a cook and a maid that fronts two small beaches -- an excellent value for a large group.
A majority of Bonaire's accommodations are found in condominiums, a number of which are lovingly appointed. Rates for a one-bedroom apartment, in an oceanfront complex with pool, start at $115 per night high season ($100 low season). Sun Rentals will stock the fridge on request, drop off dive tanks and gear, and arrange car rentals.
Many people who try a villa rental in the Caribbean never turn back -- either renting the same home annually, or sampling a different island villa each year.
Says Cieremans: ''I think [the villa vacation] is the future. People like to cocoon, and they're getting bored staying with large groups of people at hotels."
David Swanson is a San Diego-based freelance writer and author of ''Frommer's San Diego" guidebook.
A selection of Caribbean villa rental agencies:
Representing villas in the Virgin Islands
Guadeloupe, Martinique, St. Barthelemy, St. Martin
Jamaican Association of Villas and Apartments
Barbados, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Virgin Islands
McLaughlin-Anderson Luxury Villas
Virgin Islands, Grenada
The Mustique Co.
St. Barth Properties
Villas by Linda Smith
Anguilla, Barbados, Cayman, Nevis, St. Barthelemy, St. Lucia, St. Martin, Virgin Islands
Checklist Do your homework
No two Caribbean islands are alike. To find the one that's right for you, spend some time investigating their character and ambience.
Know your needs
Before calling an agency, establish the number of people in your party and the ages of children, the budget and time frame you have in mind, and meet to discuss what kind of vacation you hope to share. Then identify your villa priorities: a location near a beach, a home with a large pool, stellar views, and privacy, etc.
Also consider the option of renting from a homeowner directly. The advantage is (usually) lower cost and more personalized attention; on the downside, you may not have the recourses -- should problems arise -- available through an established company. One gathering place for homeowners around the world is www.cyberrentals.com. Homes available for rent or vacation exchange are listed at www.homeexchange.com.
Ask the hard questions
Has the rental representative personally inspected the villas he recommends or is he working from photos? Is this agency the only one representing this villa? Is an on-island representative available 24 hours to deal with any problems? What is the turnaround time for responding to maintenance issues?
Ask if there a service or administrative charge, and what it covers.
Understand the cancellation policy -- with some agencies, you will forfeit your deposit for canceling as much as 90 days ahead of arrival (trip insurance is strongly advised).
Since there is no villa rating system for comparing properties from one island to the next, ask for references -- previous clients that have stayed at any villa you are considering.
If you're still not sure the villa vacation is right for you, consider renting at a property that bridges the privacy of a home with the ambience of a hotel. For instance, the Villas at Stonehaven on Tobago complex offers 14 three-bedroom homes that are spacious and well appointed, each with a private pool and a short stroll to the beach, but there's a restaurant and bar for socializing, and a front desk that provides hotel-style services. The high season price: $700 nightly for six guests (868-639-0361; www.stonehavenvillas.com).
Other properties that merge villa lifestyle with hotel conveniences include Covecastles in Anguilla, Windjammer Landing in St. Lucia, and Green Cay Village in St. Martin.