Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 26, 2021
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Home away from Home

If your idea of a good vacation deal is a free one, consider a house swap

We'd come halfway 'round the world. The taxi dropped us and our heap of luggage at what was to be our home away from home for the next month.

My husband and I holidayed in Australia last September and it cost us less than if we had stayed in Toronto. While our neighbours at home were packing away their golf clubs and raking leaves, we were enjoying the surf and sun of Aussie springtime.

Am I sounding smug? Sorry, but it gets better. Our accommodation was a private house that rivalled any five-star hotel. We enjoyed grand expanses of white marble floors, a gourmet kitchen stocked with exotic spices and condiments, formal living and dining rooms, a family room, bar, three bedrooms and an office, four bathrooms and a laundry room. There was an outdoor pool and a hot tub and the master suite had a giant Jacuzzi. Plus, we were only five minutes from the beach.

Cost per day for all of this? Zero. Because I cashed in my frequent flier points, my husband Bill and I flew for free. So our only expenses were those we would have incurred back home -- groceries, gas, restaurants and entertainment. With the Canadian dollar buying about $1.24 Australian, we found ourselves ahead of the game.

Welcome to the wonderful world of home swapping. The notion behind home exchange is very simple: you and your family live in another family's house or flat or apartment while they live in yours. Switching houses with friends and relatives has actually been common practice since the Middle Ages. Around 1952, two New York educators, David and Mary Ostroff, revitalized the concept by producing a small directory of home exchange offers that was sold to subscribers. The first customers were mainly fellow teachers throughout the US who were looking to exchange homes for the summer. House swapping has since become a world wide phenomenon and now there are thousands of international home exchange directories.

Getting started
The easiest way to arrange an exchange is to sign up with one of the numerous holiday swap companies. Some run websites with listings, some send catalogues, some charge a membership fee and some are free. We chose HomeLink International, a Vancouver-based organization recommended by friends. We completed the application form, which required general information such as family size, preferred destination and dates, plus an abbreviated description of our house, and returned it with a photograph of our home and a cheque for $165.

When the next edition of the firm's colour catalogue arrived a couple of months later it was like Christmas -- 24 countries to chose from in a 600 page directory that listed London flats, Irish cottages, Mexican mansions and Provenìal farmhouses.

Most of the listings were of upscale homes with professional, often retired owners. That pretty well describes our situation, too. We own a four-bedroom Tudor detached home in North Toronto. But as Jack Graber, president of HomeLink International points out, "Our motto is from cabins to castles and the directory includes everything from a renovated castle in Scotland to a humble flat in Belgium."

When I came across entries that appealed to me I made initial contact by sending a brief form letter introducing ourselves, our occupations and describing our house and the surrounding attractions. The early results weren't encouraging. I sent out about twenty-five letters and e-mails, all of which were rejected for one reason or another. Sometimes the dates weren't compatible. Sometimes it was a matter of family size or composition. Sometimes the hang-ups were smoking or pet issues.

I had begun my search with fantasies about a farmhouse in Tuscany or Provence. I hadn't even considered Australia until the letter from John and Patsy Gallant arrived. They live on the Gold Coast in Queensland, a one-hour flight north of Sydney. For the past five years, these veteran exchangers have come to Canada from June to September, often negotiating one home swap in Banff and another in Toronto as they visit various children, grandchildren and friends.

With both parties mutually interested, it was time to get down to the nitty-gritty. We exchanged more details about our homes and confirmed flight arrival and departure dates. How would we deal with household utility bills, long distance calls, use of computers, collecting keys? Would we swap cars?

It's important to sort out these details well in advance. "Nail stuff down," Helen Hatton advises. She and her husband live in Toronto and are veterans of 15 home exchanges. While she's enthusiastic about their experiences, she says the few unpleasant surprises resulted from a failure to communicate clearly about dates, expenses and location. "'Close to all public transportation,' for example, meant the house in Slough was just off the main runway to Heathrow Airport," she recalls.

Other things that can go wrong with home swaps include cancellation due to illness or death, disputes about excessive mileage on cars and disagreements over housekeeping standards. "The average North American is shocked to find fleas in a Cotswold cottage," says HomeLink's Graber. "But to the British this might not be such a big deal."

By the time we had finalized our arrangements, I was pretty sure we had prevented any foreseeable problems. John is an engineer, so I was confident that he could competently deal with any house or pool problems at our end. Patsy loves to cook and garden, so I knew my beloved roses and herbs would be well tended.

Moving in
We left Toronto and landed in Brisbane two days later. Our house was in Broadbeach Waters, an upscale residential area built along a man-made intercoastal waterway. Most of the homes were modern California-style with private pools and professional landscaping. Nearby was a grand stretch of beach and a variety of good restaurants, cafÄs and shops.


After a quick exploration of our abode, which was even more commodious than the pictures and description, we decided to shop for provisions. We took off to the nearest shopping mall, with Bill driving and me navigating. I have to admit that driving a strange car in a foreign land on the left side of the road for the first time can test even the best relationships; ours was no exception.

We returned home with wine and food. Bill found the outdoor light switch and barbecue tools, while I took inventory of the goodies in the kitchen. Balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, fresh garlic, Dijon mustard -- this was definitely a cook's home. Eventually we sat down to grilled steaks, Caesar salad, a fine but cheap Merlot and some gigantic Queensland strawberries. We bubbled in the hot tub and searched the skies for the Southern Cross. Tomorrow, we decided, we would go exploring and master the creepy-crawler pool cleaner and intercom system.

The Gallant's neighbours (and our guardian angels) Allan and Maxine made a point of dropping by to welcome us shortly after we arrived. They invited us to watch the opening ceremony of the Olypmics and even offered to lend us some mullet heads to bait the crab trap on the dock.

People like Allan and Maxine are part of what makes a home exchange special. Back home, when we were planning our trip, friends often asked if we felt comfortable having complete strangers move into our house. Designating a good friend as a contact person ensures that you have a watchdog for your home, while your guest exchangers have a welcome committee and troubleshooter.

G'day Mate
Queensland's slogan is "beautiful one day; perfect the next." I couldn't argue. I don't think we ever saw a cloud in the sky. This part of the world boasts an average of eight hours of sunshine 300 days a year. In Toronto I hate getting up early. Down Under, I was happy to be woken up by the birds and sun around 6am.

Bill and I quickly fell into a routine. Most mornings we would drive or cycle over to the beach for a jog or a dip, then head over to a sidewalk café for breakfast. My favourite place was Giulios, while Bill preferred traditional bacon, eggs and toast from a Greek kebob place kitty-corner from Giulios.

Soon enough, our Broadbeach Waters address started to feel like home. Unlike a minimally equipped condo or hotel room, everything we could want was at our fingertips. Going for a picnic? Take the beach towels, the bikes and the beer cooler. Finish your book? Pick another one from the library. Feel like a game of cards? The deck's under the bar.

Thanks to John's excellent directions (we never left home without the book of detailed maps he left us), we found the nearest library, tennis courts and golf courses. We took his advice about the half-price lunches at some neighbourhood seafood restaurants and became instant fans of mud crabs and Moreton Bay Bugs (a cross between prawns and lobster, only sweeter). We also found that many restaurants in Australia have a BYOW policy and charge only a minimal corkage. For a change of pace, John told us about the "visitors welcome" policy at all the local Surf Life Saving Clubs along the beaches, so we enjoyed many a sunset drink and bargain dinner with local beach bums at these unpretentious and friendly gathering spots.

The Gold Coast's reputation as the golf capital of Australia was a big reason the Gallant's home appealed to us in the first place.

Bill and I are golf fanatics, and here we were surrounded by championship courses with green fees about half of those in Toronto.

I'll never forget our first game. We headed inland to Kooralbyn Resort for a round on the Copperhead course, where Greg Norman was once the pro. Kooralbyn in Aboriginal means land of the copperhead, a poisonous viper. I'd heard that Australia has more things that can kill you than anywhere else in the world, including sharks, crocodiles, riptides, toxic caterpillars, box jellyfish and the ten most deadly snakes on the planet. "Seen any snakes on the course?" I asked Barry West, the head pro. "Not in the eight years I've been here, but I guarantee you'll see 'roos,'" he replied. And he was right; kangaroos and wallabies are as plentiful here as elks are on courses in Banff or Canadian geese are in Toronto. They were even sprawled out in the bunkers. (And no, they don't rake, either.) In fact, with all the marsupials, flocks of brilliantly plumed rainbow lorikeets and noisy ducks, it felt as if we were playing golf in a game park. I must admit that I find kangaroos much more endearing than beavers.

Road Trip
There were plenty of attractions on the Gold Coast to keep us happily occupied for a month, but we agreed to splurge on a side trip to the Great Barrier Reef. We called the Gallants to tell them we would be away for a few days and also informed Maxine and Allan.

Since seeing my first Jacques Cousteau film, I've imagined myself snorkelling in these crystal clear waters teaming with exotic marine life. We flew north to Cairns and took the bus up the Captain Cook highway to Port Douglas, where the rain forest literally meets the reef. We checked into the Treetops resort and, the next morning, sped out to Agincourt Reef on a huge catamaran operated by the area's largest tour company, Quicksilver. After tying up to the pontoon, the eight of us who'd signed up for a one-hour snorkelling tour with a marine biologist pulled on wetsuits and followed our almost-amphibious guide. Fluorescent Titan fish swam upside down, while giant clamshells, Golden Damsel fish, striped Sergeant Majors and blue-spotted coral cod swayed in all shapes and shades.

The Port Douglas area was teaming with all kinds of Aussie wildlife. At the Rainforest Habitat Wildlife Sanctuary we had real champagne and breakfast with hundreds of tropical birds. We discovered that koalas aren't as cute and cuddly as they look from Toronto. We trekked through a primeval jungle and dense rainforest at Cape Tribulation. We decided not to retrieve Bill's ball from a pond with a crocodile warning sign at the Links Golf Course.

Back in Broadbeach Waters, we had a few more days to soak up the sun, do some laundry, water the plants and give the Gallant's house and car a good cleaning. The month had flown by.

We returned home to find our house just as we had left it, except that my oven was cleaner. The refrigerator was stocked with bacon, eggs, milk and bread and there was a thank-you note on the kitchen table.

Beginner's luck? Maybe, but I can't wait for the new home exchange catalogue.


This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.


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