Buonvisi villa near Lucca Tuscany

Buonvisi villa near Lucca Tuscany

By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Content Agency

For once, you’re not going to worry about having enough beds over the holidays.

Even better, you won’t have to wash never-ending loads of towels or piles of dishes. In fact, you can gather the gang in a beautifully decorated home without doing all the work that typically entails, and without cooking at all — unless you want to, of course.

And you’ll have plenty of guidance planning activities. Sound too good to be true? All you’ve got to do for such a stress-free holiday is to celebrate at a vacation villa or condo rather than at your overcrowded house.

The Vacation Club Portico — once you pay the annual fee, you have access to a dazzling selection of homes around the world at a discount — has a special collection of holiday homes decorated for Thanksgiving, Christmas or Hanukkah with kitchens equipped with everything you’ll need to whip up a holiday feast, courtesy of Sur La Table, which sells cookware in its stores and online. I was so taken with the kitchen at a Portico house in Snowmass, Colo., we’d rented this summer that I threw a dinner party for local friends.

With my sister-in-law there to help before my two daughters arrived just ahead of the dinner guests, we cooked up a storm — marinated flank steak and chicken, grill-roasted fingerling potatoes, green beans, a green salad and a stand-out dessert — brownies, fresh berries and white chocolate sauce.

Christmas shopping in Rome

Christmas shopping in Rome

On vacation, I figure, you should be able to do what you like, including cook.

We’ve rented apartments in Rome and Paris, condos in ski country in Colorado and Utah and villas in the Caribbean and we’ve never been sorry for opting out of hotels. I like having plenty of space, especially now that fiancees and significant others are part of the equation and we’re also joined by extended family. My gang likes being able to cook as well as explore local markets. It’s all part of the adventure. Besides, anyone who has ever traveled with kids — no matter what their ages — knows it’s more relaxing not to have to go out for every meal — even better when there is someone else to do the dishes!

I remember in Paris sending the 12-year-olds out to buy croissants in the neighborhood for breakfast; In Colorado, exhausted after a ski day, we were happy to eat pasta or chili and not have to drag ourselves and the kids anywhere for dinner.

Here’s a tip from Nantucket chefs Seth and Angela Raynor, who cook for Portico guests on Nantucket: Bring copies of your favorite recipes and make a master list of all the ingredients ahead of time. You can never be too organized for when the chaos of everyone in the kitchen sets in, they say.

If you don’t want to cook, a private chef can create a memorable feast for your family. In Tuscany last Christmas, the Gatch family — 16 of them — even shared Christmas dinner with the owners of the villa they had rented through Doorways. Ltd.

The Gatch family at their Christmas villa in Lucca Italy

The Gatch family at their Christmas villa in Lucca Italy

“The staff cooked, served and cleaned up each night,” said Milton Gatch, a retired professor. “It was extremely nice.” Certainly it wasn’t cheap, he added, but less expensive — and a far more memorable experience — than packing everyone into a hotel. They shopped for holiday gifts in the historic town of Lucca where the grandkids went biking on the city’s famous walls.

“The biggest difference between a villa and a hotel is the privacy,” explains Doorways’ Kit Burns. No one will look askance if the toddler has a tantrum, the tweens can go off safely on their own and grandpa can have a nap. You’re not paying either every time one of the kids wants a snack.

Opt for a villa in Jamaica (Your Jamaican Villas) that is owned by the founder of Sandals or for more modest digs, swap homes on a members-only home-swapping site.

Maybe you want to hit the slopes as soon as you can — say Thanksgiving. Wyndham Vacation Rentals (www.wyndhamvacationrentals.com) is offering 25 percent discounts on ski rentals in Colorado (promo code CARVE) and equally appealing deals whether you want to gather the gang on Alabama’s Gulf Coast (PROMO code Thanks13), the Smokies or elsewhere.

It may be cheaper than you think to rent a house for the holidays — rates for the four-bedroom Portico homes start at under $600 a night. That’s a bonafide bargain for ski country — considering the cost of four hotel rooms — if you split the cost with extended family.

You can save even more if you head to less crowded destinations, according to HomeAway.com, which offers more than 775,000 listings in 171 countries. For example, Sevierville, Tenn., is only 20 minutes outside of Gatlinburg (one of the top destinations they’re seeing for Thanksgiving), but it’s on average around $50 less per night.

HomeAway notes that for just $385 a night for Thanksgiving, $525 at Christmas you could also get a waterfront place that sleeps 10 in Pompano Beach, Fla., (20 minutes from Fort Lauderdale).

If you’d rather rent a couple of units so everyone has their space, the average price for a two-bedroom/two-bath home on HomeAway.com is around $1,500 per week.  Wherever you go, make sure you get the name of an on-site contact or property manager who can help you in case of an emergency and make sure to get everything in writing. (I know of a case where the family arrived only to discover the place they’d booked and paid for had been given to someone else.)

Portico assigns you an “escapist,” kind of a super-concierge who can handle any special requests (say an appearance by Santa), while a villa company like Doorways can offer special expertise in the region you plan to visit. You might prefer to deal directly with the vacation homeowner, like you can on homeaway.com. Often, owners can be terrific resources.

However you book, ask a lot of questions about what is important to you (is the place child-proofed?) Pet friendly? Wheelchair accessible? Can you walk to the beach? The town center? The slopes?

Doorways’ Kit Burns notes that she’s seeing lots more multigenerational groups booking villas. But like the Gatch family, you might need a year to plan. This holiday, she suggests, give everyone the gift of a trip to come.

Are you listening, Santa?