My earliest memory of a family vacation adventure ended with my mother and father falling into each other’s arms and sobbing. I was 7 years old. They were 31. We traveled 11 hours in our black Oldsmobile to a rental my dad had found in the newspaper known as Stony Hill Farm. It was in the armpit of New Hampshire, and we had dreamt of it, talked about it, and planned for it over an entire grim New York winter.
I can still see the scene where we drove onto the property. I was sweating in the back seat with my 3-year-old sister and my Grandma Annie. We had turned off the main road, and when we saw the sign for Stony Hill, we were thrilled that all the days of our two-week vacation lay ahead. Then we saw the “cottages” — tiny, shabby huts that were more than chicken coops but not acceptable dwellings for humans who could walk upright.
We moved in, but not really. At 4 a.m. my parents woke us up, and we jumped into the car and fled, presumably skipping out on our reservation and any financial commitments to the scamming “resort” owner.
The story came back to me this week as I started fantasizing about finding a rental for a few weeks in Maine next summer. I know it’s crazy early for planning anything, but I’m dreaming. I need to buy into a future when we can travel again without risking our lives. In case you’re wondering, everyone is going to Maine; it’s become the “it” place for summer. Ogunquit is the new East Hampton. Part of Maine’s popularity has been its shabby chic, inexpensive cachet.
No more. Long gone are the days when early colonists fed lobsters, considered trash food, to their prisoners.
Since my early trauma in New Hampshire, the renting of vacation properties has become big business on Vrbo, Airbnb, HomeToGo and other platforms that bring owners and renters together — not without issues. The companies have gotten so big, and so many people are looking to escape, that the fees have soared and the potential for scams is always present. That said, we’ve found reasonably good vacation apartments and houses over the past 30 years, and I was looking to Maine for our getaway.
Maine may still be shabby, but the prices are for the rich and famous. For the uninitiated, when you rent on the platforms, for any time from one night to several months, you get to see photos and a list of amenities and house rules and availability.
I am now the world’s expert on deciphering what the house descriptions and photos actually reveal. Wherever you wander, I offer this as a public service:
When reading about a property, look no further if you see the words “cozy” or “adorable.” This is online speak for cramped. You may have to crawl into the dormer bedroom. If the list of amenities includes “washing machine available,” it may be coin-operated. You don’t want to play your washer like a slot machine. “Basic” kitchen supplies is a red flag. Expect only salt and pepper. “Evolving” neighborhood also not a positive.
Study, study, study the photos. The angles can make a 6-by-8 room look like a football field. We nearly booked one appealing place until we looked at a photo of a bedroom and spotted what turned out to be a toilet right next to the bed. Another place had beautiful wood floors, white walls and spiffy-looking appliances, but no other furniture aside from beds in otherwise empty bedrooms and living areas.
“Waterfront” can mean anything from waves crashing on a beach in front of the house to a glimpse of a canal from an attic window.
You must read all — every one — of the house reviews posted by renters. People will write on and on about how perfect the house is and then, perhaps prompted by conscience, add something like, “Just one little thing. There were mice in the walls. But, really, the owner took care of it immediately.”
One house looked very promising until I read a review that said, “This was a spectacular house with a beautiful view of the bay. I would definitely go back again except for the man living in the basement.”
Now I’m pursuing non-Maine properties, slightly off the grid, with more acceptable prices. Canada is a possibility if it stays open to travelers from the U.S.
I did see a nice house in South Dakota. It boasted “stunning mountain views” and a “chef’s kitchen.” But one reviewer complained of bears breaking into cars, more than once. There’s always something.
Copyright 2021 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at email@example.com.