Justine Tyerman’s obsession with home swapping goes up another notch after a weekend at one of Australia’s most exclusive beaches.
Our friends decided to form a local branch of the Sceptics Society after I showed them website photos of the divine house we were heading to at Palm Beach, an hour north of Sydney.
"We're off to 'Summer Bay' for Queen's Birthday Weekend," I said to our mates, none of whom picked up my casual reference to the beach made famous by the Home and Away TV series. "We're staying at this gorgeous house - and no money is changing hands."
I had been rabbiting on for weeks about my latest obsession, Love Home Swap - an international home swap website - and getting that you've-got-to-be joking look.
"You'll get there late at night and find it's all a hoax," they said. "You can't stay in a house like that, gratis. It probably doesn't even exist!"
We got horribly lost on the way from the airport and did arrive late at night - they were right about that part.
There are seven Woodstock Streets in Sydney and the GPS, in a fiendish fit, decided to take us to the one which ended in a dark, dead end on the wrong side of town.
We sat in the shiny Rav4 rental in the pitch dark trying to remember how we found our way around the world in the pre-tech era, with vague recollections of pieces of stiff, folded paper with multi-coloured lines and many indecipherable place names on them, while our younger daughter calmly took control and reprogrammed the misbehaving beast, this time with the correct area code.
Then, with our Sydney-based elder daughter successfully collected from her Bondi Junction Woodstock Street apartment, we set off for Palm Beach on our much-anticipated family weekend. There are a multitude of Palm Beaches in the world too, but with two tech-savvy young ones in the car with iPhones to back up the wayward GPS, we managed to find Casa Bella on Whale Beach Road with no further dramas.
Arriving on a black, moonless night, we parked in the six-car garage, tiptoed up the steps tingling with anticipation, and unlocked a house so lovely I felt tearful after our earlier stressful lost-in-Sydney experience and the scepticism of our friends.
Sleep was top of the agenda for husband and daughters but I wandered around the exquisite two-storey, three-bedroom, three-bathroom house, patting the furniture and ticking off a mental checklist of all the features I recognised from the website. I stood on the balcony and could hear the waves and see the reflection of lights on the water - amd breathed a sigh of deep relief. Casa Bella was indeed real.
I awoke at first light, slid quietly from the sumptuous king-size, four-poster bed and peeked through the white shutters of the upstairs master bedroom. I gasped at the sight and rummaged for camera, iPad and iPhone to record the most spectacular of sunrises over the Pacific Ocean. The dark pink horizon was gold plated as the enormous fiery orb leapt from night hiding, flooding the living-kitchen-dining area downstairs with dazzling light. Rushing from room to room to throw open all the shutters and capture the vision from every window and balcony, I woke the family to break the news of the wondrous dawn. They assured me they were really thrilled but expressed a puzzling preference for more sleep.
All four bedrooms and living areas at Casa Bella look out straight out to the ocean with the golden sands of Palm Beach just 300 metres away.
Downstairs the front of the house is glass from floor to ceiling providing maximum light and an uninterrupted panorama. The space and light give one a sense of floating in mid-air above the water. Louvres allow the sea breeze to cool the house while sun-filter blinds offer shade when needed.
Double doors open on to a balcony with utterly breathtaking views - I watched the breakers swirl and crash on rocks below and the Palm Beach peninsula stretching away to the left bounded by the rocky Barrenjoey promontory with its working lighthouse.
The chefs in the family put the full kitchen to good use. Anchored by a long, wide granite bench, it is equipped with every appliance, dish, platter and utensil imaginable and has a view of the sea beyond a weathered-wood, eight-seater dining table.
Black leather couches fill the other end of the living space, facing a TV-entertainment system encased in a handsome antique cabinet from China.
The Oregon pine floor, constructed with wide boards from the old Grace Bros building in Sydney, adds a warm mellow glow to the downstairs area while a tall urn on a long slim antique table forms an impressive centrepiece.
Indonesian artworks, shuttered mirrors and graceful statues and busts decorate walls and tables.
But the pièce de résistance is a grand, ornately-carved antique Balinese day bed with an opera-box view of the ocean, a position where we plotted our day's activities in the morning, read magazines and dozed in the afternoons and sipped pinot grigio in the evenings.
Twin doors lead to a large patio with a concrete table and chairs, BBQ, tropical plants and that same stunning vista.
There was also no need to use the spacious upstairs lounge because we were out and about every day but the large flat-screen TV and comfy reclining couches looked an enticing option for wet-day entertainment.
The three blue tiled bathrooms upstairs have glass-walled showers and the master ensuite has a bath as well. White seashell insets in the tiled walls provide a pretty contrast in keeping with the beach setting.
Seclusion, peace and security are absolutely assured at Bella Casa where the only sounds are the waves and the birds.
The beach, teeming with tourists in the summer months, is serenely quiet during the winter with just a few hardy souls surfing the near-perfect waves.
If you can drag yourself away from the intoxicating views, a stroll down the golden sand beach, past the set of Home and Away to the picturesque Barrenjoey Lighthouse is a must followed by lunch at the Boat House. The panorama from the lighthouse is awesome, offering an elevated perspective of the narrow peninsula with its surf beach on one side and sheltered Pittwater harbour on the other.
The tiny settlement is noted for hosting such celebrities as Elle McPherson and Nicole Kidman in opulent mansions built into the hills above the township. Right on the beach are well-established mansions owned by Kerry Packer and others, shaded by mature palm trees.
We were in a state of euphoria the whole weekend - absolute bliss for a family seldom together these days.
It was our first Love Home Swap experience and will be a hard act to follow. Having saved about $2500 in accommodation costs, my obsession with searching the website now borders on fanaticism.
The Love Home Swap experience
The sublime experience of staying at Jack and Tong's seaside house at one of Australia's most exclusive beach resorts began about two months ago. It came in the form of an email a couple of weeks after my first tentative foray into the realm of international home swapping. Ever the optimist, I had looked for the most beautiful houses I could find on the Love Home Swap website and sent off emails in gay abandon, hopeful of a positive reply. My heart skipped several beats when Jack replied in the affirmative. Casa Bella was by far the most splendid of all.
There followed a friendly exchange of emails about dates for a non-simultaneous home swap, details about activities in the area and the delicious sense of anticipation tinged with slight disbelief that maybe the whole thing was indeed, too good to be true.
Semi-retired, Jack, an Australian, and his Thai wife Tong, are veteran house-swappers who have been Love Home Swap members since October 2011. They love to travel and prefer home-swapping to hotels because it provides home comforts and saves vasts amounts of money.
They have met many interesting people and have only had one bad experience in 15 swaps. Swaps include houses in Chiang Mai, Thailand; Galle, Sri Lanka; Goa, India; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Marau, Brazil; Vleesbaai, South Africa, Mui Ne, Vietnam; Da Nang, Vietnam; Bawley Point, NSW, Australia. Their next swaps are in Scandinavia with exchanges set up in The Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark.
We hope to see Jack and Tong in Gisborne next year.