If I told you my trip started by driving into a potential hurricane and included finding a 5-foot-long, hissing, tail-shaking snake in our pool, you might think I had a pretty rotten vacation.
Did I mention that the water coming out of the taps was saltwater?
The first few days of our house swap with a couple from Cedar Key, Fla., did make me wonder if I'd ever try this method of travel again.
After the first couple of days, however, the drama subsided and we relaxed by the pool of our lovely three-story house filled with antiques from around the world, kayaked the bay from our own beach and got to know the locals of this small central Florida island.
The best part was that, apart from the airfare, it was free.
Our unplanned vacation came about by happenstance. Our neighbors belong to an online site in which members offer to swap houses. For a yearly fee, members have access to thousands of homes worldwide. If you can find someone who wants to come to Minnesota, for example, and can agree on the dates, you can simply trade houses and avoid hotel costs.
In this case, the Florida couple wanted to come to Minneapolis because their son was having surgery. They wanted to stay for 16 days, and wanted to care for him in recovery in a condo without stairs. Our neighbors weren't available, so they asked us.
Florida in late June? No thanks.
"Look at the house," said the neighbor.
It was beautiful. On a beach, with a large pool, expansive decks and blissful views from the third-story master bedroom.
Then I checked the weather. It was going to be in the 80s in Florida. It was going to be 100 degrees in Minneapolis.
"I guess we are going to Florida," I said.
Welcomed by crabs
During several phone calls to the Florida owners, we arranged the logistics. The owner's brother graciously offered to pick us up at the airport in Orlando and drive us the two hours to Cedar Key, south of Gainesville.
Meanwhile, we scrambled to get our house ready for them. About two days before our trip, I had a moment of doubt.
"You don't think this is a scam, do you?" I said to my wife. Our neighbors assured us: They had taken numerous trips using home swaps over the past couple of years, always with good results.
In fact, our swappers turned out to be wonderful people. He was a career military man, who also happened to own a clam farm.
So we arrived at the house, welcomed by a big bucket of clams in the fridge. We were also welcomed by Tropical Storm Debby. I was worried at first because it was projected to hit Cedar Key head-on. The owners and neighbors said they would tell us if it was time to evacuate. So the first night we ate clams and watched the waves knock boards out of the dock and nearly sink the neighbor's boat.
You know when you see these storms on television and there is inevitably some idiot who says, "I know there's a hurricane coming, but I'm staying put."
My wife and I got to be those idiots, standing on the main street talking to TV reporters as storm waters flooded the streets behind us.
The storm evaporated the third day, replaced by sunny skies and a cool breeze. But the rain had washed all kinds of critters out of the swamps, and one of them, a huge snake, found its way to our pool. I called the homeowner for advice.
He laughed, then in his soft Southern accent said, "You're having such an adventure we might have to charge you."
Despite my fear of snakes, I was able to fish it out of the pool while my wife stood nearby with a cellphone, ready to call 911 if it bit me.
Meeting the locals
Cedar Key is a quaint town of artists and clam farmers. During the week it's dead. But there are a half-dozen or so bars and restaurants, so every day we'd drive the homeowners' golf cart downtown for a meal.
During one trip, a man approached us outside City Hall.
"You must be Jon and Ellen," he said. He'd recognized the golf cart, with its large Florida Gators decal, and knew we'd swapped houses. (We also swapped cars to avoid rental fees.)
The couple who owned our vacation home met with friends every Friday night at the historic hotel downtown to listen to a country music singer. The man at City Hall invited us to take their place. So we got to know the locals in a way we never would had we rented a hotel room.
The home swap also gave us an opportunity to see a place we would never have considered before. "Old Florida" debunked our notions of beaches strewn with drunken college kids, or conversely senior citizens. We swam every day, read novels, cooked elaborate meals with fresh seafood. Apart from the $300 airfare, we didn't spend any more money than we would have at home.
The owner arranged for me to go out one day with the crew that harvests his clams. In 45 minutes the four-man crew pulled 40,000 clams from the sea. They raced them back to a small building where they were cleaned and bagged. They would be in famous New York restaurants the next day.
Some people might be uncomfortable letting strangers stay at their home. But when we returned to Minneapolis, we found our condo spotless. There were fresh flowers on the table and a beautiful bowl they had bought for us.
Despite my initial misgivings, we found the swap delightful. It's not for everyone, however. You need to have a schedule flexible enough to field offers at odd times of the year, and I'm guessing not many Minnesotans get requests in February from the tropics.
An added benefit to our Cedar Key swap, we discovered, was that the family has another rental property on the island that is not occupied.
"You are welcome anytime," he told us.
Jon Tevlin • 612-673-1702