Our neighborhood in Rome earlier this summer

By Eileen Ogintz
Tribune Media Services

Where’s the toilet paper?

We’re jetlagged from the flight across the Atlantic and can’t find a roll anywhere. And we can’t call housekeeping either because instead of a hotel, we’re ensconced in a charming fourth-floor flat in Rome on Via Del Gambero, a short walk from the Spanish Steppes. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize that such necessities — no paper towels either — would be our responsibility. Luckily for us, Jill Kammer who, together with her husband Leon, runs www.italy-accom.com from whom we rented the apartment lives in the same neighborhood and brought us some from her house so I didn’t have to rush out immediately and look for a store.

But searching out those markets and meeting the locals who shop there is all part of the charm of renting a flat in a strange city or a villa in the countryside. We sleep with cherubs over our bed and hear the noises of a city neighborhood — a baby crying, a couple jabbering in Italian and music playing.

Tourists don’t surround us. In fact, it seems as if we’re the only Americans at the neighborhood trattoria. By the second day, the owner of the corner cafe and the woman selling fresh fruit across the street — cups of juicy berries, pineapple and kiwi — recognize us and nod.
“It’s less expensive and more room,” says Kammer, herself the mom of two teens and a veteran of flat rentals. Certainly with the Euro so weak against the U.S. dollar, it’s appealing to get a flat that will sleep the gang for less than two hotel rooms would cost. It’s a plus to eat in as well. One night, exhausted from sightseeing, we gorged on Italian cheese, fresh bread and wine.

Last year, when we rented a villa in a small village outside of Florence (we booked Casa Limone through Hideaways.com), we loved hanging out on the patio overlooking the vineyards drinking the estate’s wine so much that, despite all my research into local restaurants, we only went out to dinner twice. We joked that if we’d been there in summer with the kids, we would never have been able to get them out of the pool to see Florence.

There are tradeoffs, of course. In Rome there was no one to make our beds, no room service and no one to get a taxi. Jill Kammer said her office helps fill the void and, in fact, she hooked us up with guide extraordinaire Rita Clemens of Customized Italy (www.customizeditaly.com). Clemens is originally from Minnesota.

We didn’t miss the minibar or room service. I wouldn’t have used them anyway. And I loved discovering the local markets. I hated leaving “our” neighborhood in Rome just when I was getting to know my way around.

Sound appealing? If you are the kind of traveler who prefers navigating solo, it probably would. If you want to be pampered (and can afford it or have enough hotel points or airline miles to cover the freight) opt instead for a hotel.

That’s what we did on our next stop in Sorrento, the postcard-pretty Italian town along the Amalfi Coast, where my daughter Reggie and I — the trip was her college graduation present — totally pampered ourselves at the 377-room Hilton Sorrento Palace (www.hiltonworldresorts.com). Just 15 miles from Pompeii, the Sorrento Palace has six outdoor pools, an indoor pool, tennis courts, lush gardens, and a view to die for overlooking the Bay of Naples. It even has a playground. (Check out the mini-break packages that include a second room at half price offer and a some-kids-eat-free option.

After fending for ourselves for several days in a foreign city, we loved being pampered by an English-speaking staff. Even better, on the Executive Level there was another pool, a huge terrace and complimentary breakfast, drinks and food all day. That saved us all a bundle with the dollar so weak. The other Americans we met agreed. And it was fun to trade travel tips with other tourists.

A lot of families have discovered the pluses of these extra concierge-level amenities. Even if they pay for the upgrade, it’s certainly cheaper than a family breakfast at a hotel, and a lot easier than getting the kids to sit quietly while they wait to be served. In these lounges, you serve yourself — and you can even make dinner out of late-afternoon snacks.

There’s another option, especially in Europe. On the next leg of our trip, Reggie and I switched gears again, staying at small, locally run, three-star hotels along the Amalfi Coast. I’d checked out the hotels on Tripadvisor (www.tripadvisor.com) — a great way to see what others have to say about a place — but Backroads (www.backroads.com), the American company that had arranged our group hiking tour, had already vetted the place for us. Each property had something we especially liked — the cappuccino at the Hotel Aurora (www.aurora-hotel.it), the garden at the Grand Hotel Due Golfi outside Sorrento (www.grandhotelduegolfi.com) and our little balcony overlooking the Mediterranean at the Hotel Montemare (www.hotelmontemare.it) in Positano.

Our last night in Naples, we chose a stately historic hotel — the Hotel Excelsior (www.excelsior.it), a Starwood hotel, for its location. We walk along a waterfront lined with cruise ships, beautifully crafted wooden boats and every kind of seafood restaurant. At the end of a two-week trip, we’re glad to be able to kick back and watch an American movie in our room.

We eat the city’s famous pizza for lunch and stroll over to tiny Del Borgo Ristorante for dinner, which is along the waterfront and displays fresh seafood outside. We drink local wine out of a small carafe and eat sauteed mussels and seafood pasta. We’ve never tasted fresher tomatoes. The one disappointment — they are out of tiramisu.

We go to bed happy — and ready to come home.

For more on Eileen’s travels, read her TRAVEL DIARY elsewhere on this website.