It’s easier than you might think
Have you ever dreamed of waking up in a canopied bed, throwing open the curtains to look out over rolling green hills, then dressing in your finest period costume to stroll about those hills with your best friends? Do you fantasize about candlelit dinners in wood-paneled rooms with you and your closest pals all dressed in proper period gear dining upon sumptuous historically inspired food, and then you meander up to your own bedroom after the meal, go to bed, wake the next morning, and do it all over again for a week or more?
This is the costumers’ fantasy vacation, where a group rents out a historic building for the purpose of holding private historically themed events over the course of several days or weeks. It may sound crazy, like something that happens only in the movies or for millionaires, but it’s not. I know because I’ve done it twice now with my friends, and I’m not a Hollywood starlet nor wealthy in the least. I’m an ordinary office worker from the U.S. of A., without a lot of vacation days, but with big dreams and some fabulous friends who aren’t afraid to live out those dreams with me.
You can too. Here’s how…
1. Paint your trip’s Big Picture
The first step in this kind of vacation is to sketch out your Big Picture. What exactly is your costume fantasy vacation? Wandering the English moors like in a Bronte novel or holding elegant teas and balls a la Jane Austen? Do you dream of medieval castles or 18th-century chateaus or Tudor-beamed manor houses or Colonial mansions?
Is there a particular region or country you envision for your own personal costume drama? Perhaps the local culture, language, or geography might feature prominently in your ideal. While both of my trips have been in Europe where you can obviously find very old buildings, if you’re in the U.S. and don’t want to pay for international airfare, consider the historical era of buildings accessible in your own area. And if you live in Europe near those older sites, well, you’re halfway to livin’ the dream already.
2. Count out who will be traveling
Once you have the Big Picture mentally drawn out, you can slowly fill in the details. You’ll probably have an idea of who you want as your travel companions. Start with a general group — the people you know best, plus their significant others — then consider if you want to include more, such as children or other family members or friends of friends.
You’ll want at least 4 people, minimum, to rent any kind of interesting place bigger than a generic hotel room or B&B. But groups over 12 or 14 can be hard to manage, so proceed with caution. Somewhere between 6 and 14 is a reasonable number of people to easily organize and to rent somewhere fabulous, plus have a good time. Note that it may take some months to get people to commit to the trip, and be prepared for someone to need to drop out. At the planning stage, it’s only essential to have a base number and a core group of people who are serious.
3. Consider what the trip will cost and plan accordingly
Yes, this fantasy will cost money. But every vacation does, and this type of vacation isn’t much more expensive, and in some ways is less costly, than others. If you’ve ever rented a beach house for a family reunion or rented a condo at a ski resort, think of it like that. Only historical and with tons of costumes.
Depending on the specifics of what you rent and the country, you could sleep and play in a historic mansion for a week at the cost of US$75 to $200 per night per person. It’s not all that different than the average price of a hotel in a major city like London, Paris, or New York City or the cost of one-day ticket for DisneyLand. Plus, you’ll cook your own food, so you control that expense. Add transportation, which will vary depending on location and season (not to mention if you find deals or have air miles). The total cost can be quite flexible and affordable depending on all the details you choose, just like any other vacation.
So talk amongst your group and set expectations. With these guidelines, find out how much people are willing to spend. Does everyone prefer bare bones or luxury or somewhere in between? Ask what qualities and amenities people are willing to splurge for and what they think isn’t worth the cost. And remember to leave some leeway for very popular places and/or high-season rates.
4. Pick an approximate date for the trip
This vacation is a long-term project — for multiple reasons, you can’t pick up and go in a month or two! The best bet is to plan the trip about a year in advance. That gives everyone enough time to save up money, plus some historic buildings do book up that far in advance. Besides, you’ll want the time to sew new costumes, of course.
Estimate a time of year for the trip. You’ll want to be flexible at this point, since you don’t know what rentals are available, and they can have different rental terms, from 4-day minimum to 1-week minimum, with specific start/end days, etc. But narrow down the month you wish to travel in, considering that warm-weather months (May to September in the Northern Hemisphere, September to February in the Southern Hemisphere) are considered high season and anything related to travel will cost more then, from air fare to the house rental.
5. Delegate people as organizers
It may naturally happen that one or two people come forward as the organizers for this trip. But if not, you should clearly identify a couple of point-people early on. You’ll only have headaches (and possibly never get the trip off the ground) if everyone in the group tries to get their fingers into everything from the start. Divide and conquer!
6. Research rental properties
This is the most crucial job and probably the hardest. You’ll need a month or so (depending on how many hours of web searching you put in and what the details of your Big Picture are). The one or two designated organizers need to focus on finding a short-list of suitable rental properties for the group to use.
The first few passes when you’re looking for rentals will just be identifying the right location, size, historical era, general cost, and availability.
What we’ve done is make spreadsheets listing properties with their websites, locations, costs, and amenities. This made for easier comparison. Things you may want to note: historical period of decor in public rooms (such as living room, dining room), description of the grounds, number of bedrooms (including doubles and singles), number of bathrooms (noting if any are ensuite to bedrooms), amenities such as wi-fi, nearby site-seeing, is there a caretaker onsite, total rental cost, deposits, any other fees, and rental term length. You could also add an estimated cost per person, based on the minimum number of people you think will attend from your overall group (always underestimate the people and overestimate the cost!).
Our main priorities in rental properties have been (1) historically decorated public rooms, especially a dining room for formal dinners, (2) spacious private grounds for picnics, strolling, and outdoor activities, and (3) bedrooms with ensuite bathrooms for most everyone (particularly because our group has a lot of couples). Every group will have their own requirements, so prioritize rentals according to what your group values most.
We searched online using every possible means. In the U.K., the National Trust lists historic properties for rent as does the Landmark Trust. In France, several websites list historic chateaus, such as Simply Chateau. VBRO also lists vacation rentals by owner, and while the selections are not specifically historical, you never know what you may find. Just entering a few of your Big Picture ideal descriptions into a search engine can turn up sites of use also. Note that the same property may show up on several listing websites, plus a property may have its own website, and each of these may provide additional info and photos. Keep plugging away!
Ideally, you want to get down to a list of 3 to 5 good, solid candidates that the whole group can review. Fill out that spreadsheet or make a detailed comparison list so everyone can see all relevant aspects of the different properties side-by-side, plus give everyone the original URLs.
Then set a reasonably long discussion period — more than a week but les than a month. You want to get this done! Let everyone hash out the details of the buildings and really consider the pros and cons in depth. But bring the discussion to a firm closure, and make a final vote that everyone can live with.
7. Assign a point-person for money and rental issues
Just as you wanted one or two people to deal with the rental search, you’ll find it easier to have just one person be the contact with the place you’re renting. It’s also easiest if that same person is handling the rental deposit and payments.
Once you’ve decided on the building, that will determine the schedule for payments. This will then determine when you need people to fully 100% commit to the trip. Add about a week of buffer time between when the rental property needs the money and when everyone in the group is due to pay their share, just to account for delays.
We’ve had success using PayPal to collect money from our groups in advance of each trip. Since these are personal transactions, you can avoid fees by selecting the “Personal” and “Money Owed” options within the system. PayPal is also convenient if you have people traveling from several countries and using different currencies.
8. Expect the unexpected
Planning a trip this far in advance means that things can change. Someone may have to back out. So you need to plan upfront what you’ll do if that happens. Be open and clear with everyone from the start, so you all understand the consequences.
We went into our trips with the understanding that deposits were not refundable, and if you absolutely had to cancel, we’d need to get a replacement or we couldn’t go. On the first trip, we did have one cancellation, and on the second trip, we added one person late in the game. Both worked out fine because everyone let the group know as soon as possible.
9. Try not to over-schedule your costume events
So you’re going to have costumed events on this trip, right? You could go crazy and spend 24/7 in costume, reenacting one specific period, or you could switch it around from era to era, at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
What I’d advise, however, is to be wary of over-planning how much costuming you can do in one short vacation. It’s very tempting to cram every second with costume goodness in such a fabulous setting. But that can also get very tiring very fast. Don’t forget that you’re on vacation — let yourself relax a little. People may have jet lag on the first few days, and some may want to make non-costumed day-trips to the nearby countryside as well. Allow some room in the schedule for these things.
Besides, you may not realize how much preparation goes into each little costumed event. Picnics mean carrying all the food and drink out to that perfect grassy spot. Teas need a ton of little sandwiches and cakes. Fancy dinners require food, drink, china, glasses, candles, tablecloths, etc. You’ll be making and buying all the meals for your events, plus cleaning up all the dishes, not simply swanning around in pretty costumes. That can take a lot of coordination, time, and energy, so leave some space in your schedule.
Our first trip was jam-packed with two costume events each day over four days. It was fun, but we were exhausted! We learned better the next time — we planned about one costume event every other day over the course of two weeks, with an occasional extra costume event thrown in if we felt like it. That pace was much more enjoyable and flexible.
10. Just do it!
Maybe this should be the first step. But I think you need to understand the mechanics of planning this kind of trip to get over the idea that “it’s too hard / it’s too expensive / it’s too complicated” and all the other excuses people throw out for why they can’t possibly live this dream.
What it really takes is the guts to make this fantasy trip take place. Do you want it bad enough? Do have the follow-through to make it happen? Don’t put it off, don’t wait till “someday.” Don’t dream it, be it.
Gather your friends together, pick a date, and find that house. With a year to plan and save money (and sew costumes!), most anyone can create a fantasy costume vacation on some scale. And once you do a small one, you’ll realize how manageable that is, so you’ll want to do a bigger one in the future.
The videos here are from the documentary “The Blo Norton Experience,” a 55-minute film chronicling our adventures planning the first of these vacations. We show how you can do it yourself, plus you’ll learn about 16th-century manor houses and the countryside, as well as see how we cram three centuries of fun into four days.
This article was originally published in Your Wardrobe Unlock’d.