A hint of spring in the air, and we all start to dream about the perfect summer retreat – days spent lolling by the pool or on the beach and languorous, balmy evenings around the dinner table. For the ideal European summer holiday, it's the Mediterranean that tops most wish lists. Southern Spain, the Balearics, the South of France, Corsica, the western coast of Italy, Sicily, Sardinia and the endless possibilities and soft sands of Greece and Turkey are always popular. But other destinations including Croatia and Montenegro are growing, with equally stunning scenery, often better value and quieter beaches.
"The Mediterranean has seen a resurgence this year with excellent value. Greece and Spain have been highlighted as the best destinations to make your money go further," says Francis Torilla, managing director at villa specialist CV Travel. "It's still not too late to grab some excellent deals for the summer."
Operators are already reporting strong demand this summer. Joanna Wild, managing director of Thomas Cook's retail network, says: "Many of our customers, in particular families and groups, value the independence a villa holiday brings and will always book early to guarantee a favourite villa, and return to the same one year after year. While Menorca and the Algarve are always our top-selling villa destinations, we're seeing more interest in Corfu, Crete and Zante."
There's a bewildering array of options for those looking for a villa, including companies that offer rental-only or package deals with flights and car hire. And there are websites that put you in touch directly with owners such as homeaway.co.uk, holidaylettings.co.uk, ownersdirect.co.uk or more destination-specific websites such as spain-holiday.com.
Many well-established websites have vetting processes, but if you do decide to book directly with an owner, make sure you do a bit of extra research: street-view maps and online reviews will help you to form a more comprehensive picture of your holiday idyll. They will also reduce the risk that your next-door neighbour is a building site or that a five-lane highway crosses your route to the beach.
Erica Chang, senior regional director for homeaway.co.uk, says: "When booking, we suggest you read guest reviews for the properties you like and also get in touch with the owners to find out more. If you make a booking, it is wise to request a rental agreement from the owner which usually covers payment, cancellation policies and house rules."
Reputable companies such as homeaway.co.uk and holidaylettings.co.uk also have secure payment systems to assist you when handing over cash – be cautious about sending money by wire transfer or bank draft. Remember that holidays with individually booked elements are not protected in the way that packages are.
Corfu is a justifiably popular spot, especially among families. This year, CV Travel (020-7401 1010; cvtravel.co.uk) has several new properties on the island, including three villas set in the hills overlooking picturesque St Stephano. Eftihia sleeps up to six, has its own pool and the beach is just five minutes away. A week's rental from 3 June costs £1,585. Flights extra – if you book them in the same transaction as the villa, then you will be protected by the Package Travel Regulations.
As the mercury rises, so do the prices, peaking between the end of July and the end of August when availability in popular holiday destinations is scant. New properties are good to target before word spreads and for better availability during sought-after periods. Shoulder seasons – May, early June and September – often offer ideal weather and better value.
New for this year, Freelance Holidays (01789 297705; freelance-holidays.co.uk) has added Menorca to its portfolio of Mediterranean islands, with seven properties with pools and the choice to arrive any day of the week for any length of time, unlike the standard Saturday to Saturday rentals common elsewhere.
The Thinking Traveller is already one of the go-to agents for villas in the Italian regions of Sicily and Puglia, and has now launched its first foray into Greece for 2013 with Think Ionion Islands (020-7377 8515; thinkionionislands.com). Its newest portfolio has 17 hand-picked villas on the picturesque islands of Lefkada and Meganissi.
The new Cool Rental Guide (coolrental guide.com) also has a host of interesting and out-of-the-ordinary properties to rent across the Med, including a pretty windmill, complete with pool, on the dramatically beautiful Greek island of Santorini.
It's also possible to offset your holiday indulgences, or simply come back a little brighter-eyed, thanks to the Healthy Holiday Company (020-8968 0501; thehealthyholidaycompany.com) which has launched its Healthy Villa concept. Guests can enlist its team of experts and arrange bespoke experiences – daily fitness classes, healthy meals, hiking, morning yoga or a more serious week of detoxing in locations including Ibiza, Mallorca and Sicily.
The Côte d'Azur appeals for lots of reasons, not least its stylish resorts. In Roquebrune-Cap- Martin, Villa Egerton (020-7839 8570; villaegerton.com) will be available to rent for the first time in May. The Belle Epoque villa once hosted Coco Chanel and could be yours for a hefty €45,000 per week for up to 14 guests.
Near St-Tropez, Anglo French Properties (020-7225 0359; anglofrenchproperties.com) has introduced Le Mas de Faucon, above, to its portfolio. The stunning Provençal-style villa in the hills just outside Cogolin sleeps 10; a week in July or August costs £6,890. SJ Villas (020-7589 4390; sjvillas.co.uk) also has collection of luxurious villas in the region, while Balfour France (0845 222 0057; balfourfrance.com) has properties starting at about £2,670 per week.
Simpson Travel's (0845 619 6272; simpsontravel.com) Turkish selection includes Waterfront Cottage, which overlooks the Aegean on the Bozburun peninsula near the pretty fishing village of Sogut. It sleeps two and has its own pool. In May, it's £850pp for seven nights' rental, car hire and return flights from London.
Exclusive Escapes' (020-8605 3500; exclusiveescapes.co.uk) new Turkish properties include townhouses on the Kas peninsula. Seven nights at the Island Villas – Meis cost from £900pp based on 10 sharing, with return flights to Dalaman from Stansted, Gatwick or Manchester, 4x4 hire, a welcome hamper and maid service.
Island in the sun
Casetta Bianca, from Coastline Villas (0844 557 1020; coast line.co.uk), is a two-bedroom pad on Corsica with direct access from garden to beach. The house has a pool and views across Porto Vecchio Bay. Rental starts at £635pp, based on four sharing in September, which includes flights from Heathrow and car hire. Corsican Places (0845 330 2113; corsica.co.uk) also has an extensive collection of villas and apartments across the island.
Croatia and Montenegro are enjoying increased attention thanks to a growing number of well equipped and stylish properties on quieter beaches. On Croatia's Istrian coast, Lucia is a pretty four-bedroom stone house near the fortified hill town of Motovun, known for its annual film festival (27 to 31 July; motovunfilmfestival.com). The beach is a 25-minute drive away, and there is a pool and terraces from which to admire views of the Mirna river valley. It sleeps eight and costs from £1,450 per week in June with Vintage Travel (01954 261431; vintagetravel.co.uk). James Villa Holidays (0800 074 0122; jamesvillas.co.uk) also has various properties in Croatia.
The Budva Riviera is a spectacular seaside stretch of Montenegro, with the restored fishermen's village of Sveti Stefan. Explore Montenegro (020-7118 1002; montenegroholidays.com) has the attractive Crna Gora villa, a two-bed property with its own pool just inland in a scenic hillside setting. A week from 16 June costs £426pp including return flights from Gatwick to Tivat.
La Dolce Vita
Tuscany's coast is often overlooked by tourists. A large portion is given over to the windswept beauty of the Maremma, where quiet beaches are the norm. Tombolino Bolgheri, above, is a historic villa set within verdant grounds and orchards near the bucket-and- spade-style resort of Marina di Bibbona. There are several properties on the estate including the Casa de Pineta and Orangerie that sleep six and four respectively. Beach access is via a 100m private path. Both cost €2,200 per week on selected dates in June, July and August through Trust & Travel (00 33 1 40 29 47 32; trustandtravel.com). At Monte Argentario, a scenic crag jutting into the Med, La Maddalena is a farmhouse that clings to a mountain with fabulous views and a pool. It sleeps six and costs £4,868 per week in peak season – through Tuscany Now (020-7684 8884; tuscanynow.com).
If you don't fancy the idea of cooking and cleaning on holiday, you are not alone. Many companies now offer an array of extra services – such as chefs and nannies, breakfast deliveries and shopping services – to lighten the load. La Font, right, is one of three new Mallorcan villas offered this year by Scott Dunn (020-8682 5440; scottdunn.com). This contemporary villa near the resort of Pollença sleeps six and comes with a chef, nanny, daily maid service and swimming pool. A week starts at £1,020pp in June, based on six sharing and includes five and a half days of full-board accommodation and staffing. Flights and transfers are extra. Mallorca Farmhouses (0845 800 8080; mallorca.co.uk) also offers optional extras, such as private catering, welcome hampers, spa therapists and local activities.