Once upon a not-so-distant time, travelers who vacationed at resorts wanted to be in the thick of the action—in a lodge room that was a short walk from the restaurants, tennis courts, and swimming pools.
A pandemic, of course, has changed how we travel—if we travel. While resorts still are luring people who want activities like golf and skiing versus renting a remote cabin with nothing to do, even those travelers want some separation from other guests. Alisa Cohen, founder of Luxe Traveler Club in DC, says the biggest request she’s getting from clients is renting a private house at a resort.
Fortunately, there are many to choose from in the region—most resorts have free-standing houses for rent, often along golf fairways. Plus, says Cohen, Washington-area clients who once didn’t want to drive more than three hours are now willing to drive ten—essentially, up to Maine or down to Georgia—opening up more possibilities.
We asked Cohen to recommend some favorite resorts for house rentals. Here, from south to north, are some of her picks as well as some of ours, all within a day’s drive.
Sea Island / Georgia
The scene: Private beach access and golf carts zipping about give this Southern resort along the Atlantic Ocean an exclusive feel. The list of activities seems endless: kayaking, horseback riding, shooting clays, golf, fishing, and even owl-spotting programs.
The houses: Ranging from two to eight bedrooms, many of the “cottages” have ocean or marsh views and private pools. Some come with media rooms, home offices, or private docks.
What to know: Cohen says rates for the privately owned homes vary greatly, depending on whether they’ve been renovated or have a pool as well as the distance to the beach.
Rates: Starting at $800 a night for a two-bedroom house.
Distance from DC: * 652 miles.
Montage Palmetto Bluff / South Carolina
The scene: This low-country resort about 20 miles outside Savannah measures a sprawling 20,000 acres, making it larger than Manhattan. “It’s like a luxury summer camp—there’s a lot to do outside,” says Co-hen. Among the many diversions: a Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course, water sports along 32 miles of riverfront, and nature trails to walk or bike.
The houses: Cohen says Palmetto Bluff’s homes are newer and more contemporary than at many other resorts. Some have screened porches or movie rooms.
What to know: Most homes do not have private pools, but there are three pools available to those who rent houses.
Rates: $1,300 (two-bedroom home) to $4,200 (five-bedroom) a night.
Distance from DC: 566 miles.
Kiawah Island / South Carolina
The scene: Renting a house on Kiawah feels more like renting at the beach than at a resort. About 45 minutes outside Charleston, the 10,000-acre island with ten miles of beach is known for its natural beauty and quiet.
The houses: Cohen says the reason to come is to get a large house—up to eight bedrooms—with a private pool. The homes are all individually owned, so they vary greatly in decor.
Rates: A four-bedroom house starts at $360 a night in winter.
What to know: House and villa renters do not get access to the pools and fitness center at the Sanctuary, the resort hotel; instead, they use a separate fitness center and two community pools. Renters do get their own concierge.
Distance from DC: 554 miles.
Primland / Virginia
The scene: This luxury getaway in the Blue Ridge makes the most of its remote location, with not just typical resort activities such as golf and horseback riding but also tree-climbing, tomahawk-throwing, fly-fishing, and stargazing at its observatory.
The houses: The 11 “mountain homes,” which range from one to seven bedrooms, sit along the mountainsides, offering views of valleys and gorges, or are tucked into the woods. Some have private hot tubs.
What to know: The mountain homes are much more rustic than the other accommodations and are several miles from the main lodge.
Rates: Starting at $470 a night.
Distance from DC: 311 miles.
Kingsmill Resort / Virginia
The scene: Set along the James River, Kingsmill is a good choice both for golfers (there are two 18-hole courses and a golf academy) and for families visiting Colonial Williamsburg, 15 minutes away.
The houses: Five cottages—either three- or four-bedroom, all with en suite baths—offer river views and locations in the heart of the resort. Or skip a cozy cottage and rent the 7,000-square-foot, four-bedroom Estate, originally built as a mansion for the Busch family (as in the Budweiser fortune).
What to know: The Estate comes with the use of two GMC Denalis and two golf carts, an infinity pool (in season) and hot tub on the private patio, and a “coordinator” to plan your stay.
Rates: From $1,500 a night for a cottage, $5,000 a night for the Estate.
Distance from DC: 156 miles.
Wintergreen Resort / Virginia
The scene: A popular choice for families, Wintergreen offers both mountaintop fun (in winter, think skiing) as well as options down in the valley, where it can be warmer in winter—its Stoney Creek Golf Course, for example, is playable year-round.
The houses: The 17 private homes—most on the mountaintop—range from three to nine bedrooms. Some have game rooms, while others have hot tubs.
What to know: The homes are spread out on the property, and guests have to drive to the main part of the resort.
Rates: Starting at $331 a night for a three-bedroom home.
Distance from DC: 157 miles.
Nemacolin / Pennsylvania
The scene: This resort in the Laurel Highlands may be the region’s most eccentric. Sure, you’ll find superb but not surprising activities—two championship golf courses designed by Pete Dye, plus winter fun such as outdoor ice skating, snowtubing, and a perfect-for-beginners ski slope. But Nemacolin has unexpected offerings, too, including a small animal habitat with tigers and black bears, a pet spa, a holistic healing center, and dogsledding. Oh, and a private airstrip.
The houses: Eight private residences and 40 townhouses range in size from two to six bedrooms. While the detached houses can be far from the main resort—you’ll need to drive or take one of the shuttles—and in neighborhoods next to other houses, the townhouses are right on the resort. In fact, you may wake up hearing the lions.
What to know: Cohen says the houses at Nemacolin book up way in advance, so you need to plan ahead.
Rates: Townhouses start at $700 a night, houses from $2,499.
Distance from DC: 186 miles.
Other DC travel trends, according to Luxe Traveler Club founder Alisa Cohen
The best travel bargains in this region are in cities.
Because travelers want to vacation away from others, city hotels are where the deals are. What Cohen considers a deal is relative: “A lot of hotels learned from 9/11 that if you cut rates, you can’t get them back up. So they are keeping rates consistent and adding extras.” Freebies may include valet parking, in-room movies and popcorn, and breakfast in bed. Cohen points to the Four Seasons hotels in Baltimore and Philly, the Sagamore Pendry in Baltimore, and the Mandarin Oriental in DC.
Otherwise, there are not many nearby deals.
“For resorts within an easy drive that allow for more social distancing, we are seeing weekend rates higher than usual,” Cohen says. “In some cases, you can’t even get in. Everyone wants drivable, local, easy. The deals are in the Caribbean and Mexico now.”
Vacation spots are being more flexible, if you’re game to fly.
Caribbean and Mexican resorts that normally have 90-day cancellation policies are relaxing those rules, often allowing no-penalty cancellations with as little as seven days’ notice. European hotels are taking summer reservations without deposits.
Covid tests? Check.
What’s more likely to spur travel: Many islands—including Barbados, Dominica, Puerto Rico, and Nevis—require visitors to test negative for Covid within days of arriving. “If you’re going to St. Bart’s, you know every person on that plane has had a negative test within 72 hours,” Cohen says. Another trend: rapid Covid tests given by airlines, such as United offering them to its San Francisco-to-Hawaii passengers.