There are two hot trends for this year as tighter finances force Londoners to become more inventive with how they spend their leisure time: the staycation and the self-catering rental. The staycation — holidaying in the UK — is a clear choice for many (500,000 Britons skipped an overseas holiday in favour of a break on these shores last year), while figures from www.holidaylettings.co.uk show demand for self-catering rentals are up 39 per cent.
In the past many country cottage rentals seemed less home from home, more Cold Comfort Farm. But clever entrepreneurs are providing impressive alternative second homes aimed at a design-conscious generation who can use them to experience an area before they buy, or else as an alternative to owning a second home.
This summer's Olympics and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee should make this a bumper year for London hoteliers. PriceWaterhouseCoopers reports strong demand in the capital from international leisure and business visitors with 5,000 rooms added since 2009 and a further 6,000 planned this year, including five-star openings at Shangri La at Shard and Bulgari in Knightsbridge.
However, not everyone wants to pay typical nightly rates of £270 and even those who can afford top-dollar spots sometimes want a more personalised experience. Onefinestay has a solution. The company aims to let guests live like Londoners by staying in a real house — an "un-hotel" as they call it. This is simply an idea whose time has come says co-founder Greg Marsh. "We have more than 240 properties on our books in prime residential areas of London where you experience life as the locals live it.
"This is a characterful and homely way to stay and that's what more travellers want." Properties range from a bobby-dazzler one-bedroom bachelor pad in Shoreditch to an elegant five-bedroom Grade II mansion in Hampstead, with prices from £150 to £1,000 a night.
More than 70 per cent of homes are primary residences, free to rent for possibly only four weeks a year, when owners are travelling or in their own second homes, and guests can stay for anything from a single night to several months.
Guests range from frequent business travellers to holidaymakers, with Notting Hill the most popular location. All property is immaculate and comes with White Company toiletries, fluffy towels and linens and an intriguing collection of owner's possessions that give renters the chance to guess their character from their books and pictures — a real-life Through The Keyhole.
Guests are met at each property by the company, given a tour and handed a pre-loaded iPhone with relevant information from the owners about the home and location: the best local delis, favourite restaurants, must-see boutiques. Out-of-bounds cupboards are marked by red tape but otherwise guests are free to invite their friends round and treat it like their own home. Visit onefinestay or call 0800 612 4377.
Also, staynearby.co.uk helps visitors find a place to stay near top UK events and attractions including this year's Olympics.
New Forest lodges
For a taste of the luxury rural lifestyle without the ownership headaches of a mortgage and maintenance, enjoy Lime Wood Lodges in the New Forest, a mile from Lyndhurst, with woodland walks on the doorstep and the coast nearby. The 15 lodges are a lesson in interior design — all calming dove greys and soft aquas — and sit in the grounds of acclaimed Lime Wood Hotel, the only five-star country house hotel inside the New Forest National Park.
Guests have use of all hotel facilities — the stress-busting fabulous Herb House Spa, two restaurants specialising in local organic food and room service — but with the exclusivity of a separate home. The lodges, feeling as if they are leaning into the woods, sleeping up to five people, don't have kitchens but come with a complimentary stocked pantry and Bamford toiletries.
You don't even need to pack wellies for walks: full wet-weather gear available. Or maybe just hunker down by your own log fire, surrounded by manicured grounds and carp ponds, safe in the knowledge that it won't be you who has to mow the grass.
Prices start from £345 a night per lodge. Visit Lime Wood Hotel or call 02380 287177.
Cotswolds comfort - and table-ready coq au vin
Chipping Norton is the second-home destination of choice for celebs Kate Moss and Elizabeth Hurley but Helena Bonham-Carter and Tim Burton are among those who, rather than buy a pied-à-terre, choose to relax at the pretty Cotswolds Bruern Cottages.
The 12 cottages, once stables in a courtyard at Bruern Abbey and built in mellow local stone, are the creation of the Honourable Judy Astor, who once lived at the abbey but moved to a nearby cottage after it was sold.
© David Poole
Judy enlisted her interior designer and decorative painter sister, Jocasta Innes, to oversee the cottage makeovers. Deep mattresses, finely woven English blankets, family and French antiques, private walled gardens and five-star home comforts create an idyllic country retreat.
Guests can choose from intimate cottages for two or host a house party in five-bedroom Weir House. There's a children's play area, a small spa with pool and gym and a reception that will provide anything from logs for the fire to a table-ready coq au vin or a private chef in your cottage.
Lisa Brinkworth, her husband Youssef and their three small children spend most of their summer weekends at Bruern. "We loved it so much we went house hunting and are now moving here from London," says Lisa. Youssef will commute from the nearby station.
Visit Cotswolds Bruern Cottages or call 01993 830 415. Prices start from £678 for three nights in Saratoga, sleeping two. Weir House, sleeping 10, starts from £2,304.