Justine Tyerman chocks up her 10th and happiest home swap, living like a local in Islington, London.
We had quite a few laughs at our Islington home swap last month. Some revolved around oxygen, some concerned socks and others involved getting lost.
London houses grow tall and slim while Kiwi houses sprawl sideways so when we stayed at Marion and John's five-storey Georgian townhouse, there were jokes about needing oxygen to reach the heady heights of the top floor.
And when our London-based daughter descended seven flights of stairs from her bedroom at the 'summit' with only one sock, there were hysterics.
"Think of all the exercise you're getting, kiddo - no need to go to the gym when you live in a house like this," I said cheerily as I skipped down from my second-floor bedroom with all my necessary kit for a day out in London.
I relished the stairs - they were excellent fitness training for hiking the steps and cliffs of the South West Coast Path the following week.
Locating family members in this multi-level mansion was another source of entertainment. There was much hollering up the stairwell and flurries of texts to determine in which room and on what floor the errant mum, dad or daughter was holed up.
Mother, moi, a geography nut from way back, was often drooling over the extensive library of maps and guidebooks in the top floor library; father, Chris, was usually on the ground floor investigating the huge array of spices and herbs in the kitchen pantry to come up with another delicious dinner dish; while daughter, Bridget, could be found relaxing in the elegant formal lounge on the third floor, fascinated by the epic array of CDs, books and travel treasures.
The lovely lush sun-filled English garden was another place to get lost for a while.
The joy of being able to spend a week in such a spacious, luxurious home right in central London was immeasurable. Having experienced a few holidays in cramped, impersonal hotel rooms, we relished the space to spread out and the time and leisure to reconnect as a family after too long apart.
Not to mention the fact we saved an extraordinary amount of money by using the points I had accumulated with Love Home Swap, an international home swap club with thousands of properties worldwide.
I joined Love Home Swap in 2013 and Marion and John's house is one of many fabulous private homes we've stayed at all around the world. It often does not suit members to swap simultaneously so the Love Home Swap points system, a form of currency, provides the flexibility and freedom to stay wherever and whenever you choose. Members earn points when they have guests to stay at their property and those credits can then be "spent" at other Love Home Swap homes. Marion and John earned six nights for our stay which they can use anywhere in the world at any time.
There's a spine-tingling sense of anticipation tinged with anxiety as you turn the key in the lock and get your first glimpse of a home swap you have organised from the other side of the world. Despite having done it many times, I always find I'm holding my breath, half expecting the whole thing to be a figment of my over-active imagination.
The sturdy door opened and I breathed a great sigh of relief. I also experienced a sense of astonishment. How could this 180-year old beauty in central London be ours, free, for a week? Was I suffering delirium brought on by flying 30 hours from New Zealand?
As I wandered around this quintessentially London house, I felt like Alice in Wonderland stepping through the looking glass into an enchanted land.
On the ground level there was a splendid dining room, spacious kitchen with a magnificent gas range, dishwasher and every imaginable appliance and utensil. I loved the wide weathered floorboards in the kitchen dating back to the early 1840s. On the kitchen bench, Marion had left a welcoming note inviting us to help ourselves to pantry supplies, and a comprehensive Islington insider's guide to things to do and places to see.
The kitchen adjoined a sun-filled garden room that opened onto a lush garden with outside seating and a goldfish pond. On the ground floor there was also a guest bathroom and an excellent laundry room with washer and drier. It was also the 'engine room' of the ingeniously-installed underfloor heating which kept the whole house cosy.
Up one flight of carpeted steps, I found the luxurious master bedroom, large ensuite and dressing room with generous storage space thoughtfully cleared for our belongings.
The bedroom windows overlooked the garden, and sun streamed into the room in the mornings. Clever placing of a high window also allowed natural light to flood into the bathroom and dressing room making the space light and airy.
Up another flight of stairs I opened exquisite stained glass double doors to a beautiful formal lounge, sumptuously furnished with comfy couches and antique armchairs. Few homes in New Zealand have such traditional formal rooms these days so we made a point of sitting there and enjoying the refined atmosphere.
The lounge and dining room ceilings had original plaster mouldings with beautiful pressed centrepieces. The lounge overlooked the road so we could watch Islingtonians go about their daily lives - so different from rural Gisborne in New Zealand.
Climbing higher, I came upon the sunny garden-facing family bathroom with a bath, glass walled shower, toilet and marble vanity.
A large bedroom and study belonging to the son in the family occupied the next storey while a pretty pastel guest bedroom with a queen-sized bed and bathroom and shower were located on the top floor, the summit.
Often stairwells in older houses are dark or artificially lit but a window at the top of the steps allowed natural light and sunshine to illuminate the space.
While exploring the house, I also became aware that we were privileged to be living in the home of intrepid travellers who had gathered fascinating mementoes from all parts of the globe. Hence all the maps and guidebooks.
The Islington location was incredibly convenient - a direct train link to Heathrow, just a few tube stops from everywhere we wanted to visit in London and easy walking distance to restaurants and pubs galore.
It was such a novelty to walk a few paces down the road to 'our local' - the Duchess of Kent pub - which served incredibly tasty fish and chips and pies, and excellent beer.
In the sunny autumn days that followed, Bridget showed us 'her' London - fabulous Vietnamese restaurants in Kingsland Road, Shoreditch; Colombia Road flower markets; the Regent's Canal walkway to Victoria Park; the breath-taking view from the top of the London Eye; 19th century Gordon's Wine Bar, the oldest in London; delicious street food at Borough Market; Sunday pub lunches at historic establishments like The Spaniards' Inn, circa 1585; shopping for bargains in Camden Markets; and biking through Hyde and Kensington Parks.
Chris and I also relived the London of our youth, following the elegant horse guards down The Mall to watch the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace, strolling through Hampstead Heath and posing in front of the famous blue door in Notting Hill. I spent a day exploring every nook at the Tower of London while Chris visited Churchill's War Rooms. There's history to suit everyone in London.
And every evening, we returned to our lovely Islington abode, feeling so privileged to be living in a home with such warmth and personality. We had the happiest of times there - and improved our fitness too.
* Love Home Swap membership starts from the equivalent of $20 a month. You can sign up for a free two-week trial to see how you like it. Be warned though: it's addictive.