Homes for the Holidays

By Pamela A. Keene

Photography courtesy of Leigh McNeely, Moon Hollow Farm, Rosetti Cottages, Seas the Day

Unique — and large — vacation rentals provide a safe way for families to enjoy travel as well as togetherness this holiday season.

The big question each holiday season: Who’s going to host the holidays this year?

With nuclear families spread across the country from sea to shining sea, settling on the right location for a family celebration of the holidays presents challenges. Who’s going to host? Who’s cooking? Where will everyone stay if there aren’t enough sleeping rooms and bathrooms? Do we all go to Mimi and Papa’s house where we all grew up?

Thanks to vacation rentals, the answer has been simplified: Pick the spot for its amenities and nearby activities, then rent the right sized home to accommodate everyone. From homes with eight bedrooms to a cluster of homes that afford more privacy, a myriad of choices can turn a big decision into fun for all.

Leigh Neely and her family have enjoyed vacation rentals for the holidays for almost two decades, traveling from their permanent homes to Pigeon Forge, Tenn., to create memorable holiday celebrations.

“Our holiday tradition started innocently enough,” says Leigh, who with her late husband Richard picked the Smoky Mountains for the first year. “Richard always loved the mountains so deciding on the general area was simple. We fell in love with it that first year and have been going back to Pigeon Forge almost every year since.”

The Neely family had lived in nearly a half-dozen states before Leigh and Richard moved to Leesburg, Fla., 20 years ago.

“Our three children were all scattered, including one son who lived overseas for 15 years in Great Britain, plus we never really had a house that meant home,” she says. “It made sense to pick somewhere that everyone could be together during the holidays. And now that my oldest grandson is off at college, it’s even more meaningful to have this special time at least once a year.”

The family plans their time to share responsibilities; different members fix meals and at the holiday meal they may order a turkey or main dish, then supplement it with favorite family recipes. Part of their success is recognizing that they don’t need to be joined at the hip for the whole week.

“Many times, we’ll have breakfast together, then head out to do our own things. The girls like to shop, plus there are go-karts, miniature golf and enjoying everything the Smokies has to offer, and exploring Pigeon Forge. It’s just a perfect time.”

Over the years, they’ve stayed in different rental properties, but they always make sure that there are enough sleeping rooms for the adults, typically with their own separate bathrooms. The younger grandkids may have their own slumber party spaces.

“It’s a great time for all these cousins to get to know each other better,” she says. “We pick the place based on the number of us who will be there, and then we split the costs among us. It’s worth every penny to have this special time.”

Choice destinations
Vacation Rental By Owner came on the scene in the mid-1990s as a place for owners to rent out their homes. Other companies followed, including Airbnb and Home Away, offering get-away properties all over the world, from flats in Florence, Italy, to bungalows in Alaska and everywhere in between.

Karen Ott Mayer and her husband Kole Conley own Moon Hollow Farm in Panola County, Miss., 45 miles south of Memphis off Interstate 55. Opened in 2015, the rural farm was previously run as a traditional bed and breakfast before COVID-19.

“We both love our 26-acre farm so much that we want to share it,” says Ott Mayer. “People now book the whole two-bedroom, two-bath house called the Country House, a 1923 oversized bungalow with kitchen access. Guests can roam the farm and garden, enjoy the firepit and vineyard and just relax. It’s perfect for families and there’s plenty of room. Although it seems like we’re way out, we’re only about three miles off I-55 and easy to find.”

With 62 miles of scenic shoreline, Coastal Mississippi offers temperate climate in the winter months and a wide selection of activities for the family. In Ocean Springs, the Cottages at Rosetti Park offers two restored homes that can be rented together to maximize the amenities, including the in-ground swimming pool and hot tub.

“We just love this area and how quaint the downtown is,” says Vicki Rosetti-Applewhite, who owns the property with her husband Roger. They also own the adjacent Rosetti Park, site of concerts and special events. “After Katrina, this was the only area that had intact buildings and we’ve made it our home.”

In Port St. Joe, Fla., Julie and Todd Layman offer “Seas the Day,” a spacious four-story home that’s right on the Gulf. With eight bedrooms and eight-and-a-half baths, plus an elevator, the home can accommodate large families. Built in 2014, it can sleep up to 24 guests. It has a private heated pool and three kitchens.

“We’re really close to downtown Port St. Joe, a typical Florida Panhandle small town with shops, a Piggly Wiggly nearby, and great restaurants,” she says. “The beaches are uncrowded almost any time of the year and during the holidays, the weather is generally moderate. It’s a great time to come to the beach.”

To book during the holidays, she recommends calling about eight months in advance. “During the summer season, people book a year or more ahead because of the location.”

Renting a home for the holidays can provide a chance to spend quality time together without putting the burden of cooking and cleaning on one family member. It’s a way to share the time and create new traditions.

Leigh Neely shares her perspective.

“You know, the magic is to have a house where we can all be in one place, like when the kids were little,” Neely says. “That’s where the true joy of the holidays comes from. For us it’s like coming home.”

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