Sleep tight: can the ‘tiny homes’ movement redefine holidays?
It seems appropriate somehow that we miss the turn-off for Tiny Homes Holidays. The sign is so small that we drive straight past the entrance. But then, being small and unobtrusive is exactly what this new tourism venture on the Isle of Wight is all about. In a field a couple of miles outside the island capital Newport, on the edge of the Parkhurst forest, sit three compact wooden cabins. If you didn’t know better, you might mistake them for posh garden sheds, but in fact they are at the cutting edge of a new lifestyle movement that could radically change the way we think about holidays.
“It’s quite . . . small, isn’t it?” observes my mum as I open the front door to “Silva”, a pointy A-framed structure that is to be our home for the next two nights. The clue is in the name, I suppose, but the compact size does come as something of a surprise. My eight-year-old daughter is delighted with the Wendy-house proportions and wastes no time in clambering up to the mezzanine sleeping area. “It’s just like being in a nest,” she shouts down, happily.
Cynics might sniffily write the whole thing off as a middle-class version of caravanning, but once we’ve got our heads around the diminutive dimensions (Silva’s footprint is about 6 metres by 3.25 metres), we can start to appreciate the charm and ingenuity of the design. Each of the three cabins has its own style; ours is best described as Scandi-meets-psychedelic, with larch-clad walls enlivened with bold 1970s-inspired prints and fabrics in shades of brown, orange and green. Every inch of space has been utilised. The ladder to the mezzanine doubles as shelving space and the two armchairs in the lounge unfold to create a double sofa-bed (each cabin sleeps up to four). Even the coffee table doubles as storage for bedding. Pared back it may be, but nothing has been skimped on when it comes to quality — from the fine cotton bed linen and comfy mattresses to the high-spec wood-burning stove.
“It’s back-to-basics, but it’s not roughing it,” says Helen Cunningham, who launched Tiny Homes Holidays with her husband Frazer in October. “The cabins are all architect-designed and have been considered very deeply; we wanted them to feel stylish, streamlined and uncluttered.”
The couple have form when it comes to offering quirky holiday accommodation. The word “glamping” hadn’t even been invented when they launched their first tourism venture, Vintage Vacations, 15 years ago, renting out a handful of restored American Airstream trailers as retro-styled holiday homes. Having decided to put that business up for sale last year, they were looking for a new challenge when they came across the “tiny house” movement.
With its origins in America in the 1980s, the movement began as a backlash against consumerism, with proponents advocating a simpler, less materialistic and more environmentally friendly way of living. Pioneers designed prototype homes, often on wheels to subvert planning rules. “Tiny living” was quickly championed as a solution to the problem of rising house prices and lack of available land for new building. The movement has since spread as far afield as the UK, Japan and Australia.
The Cunninghams were no strangers to the concept of downsizing, having swapped a four-storey townhouse in London for a two-bedroom bungalow when they moved to the Isle of Wight. Helen says they found the experience “liberating”, so set about applying the principles to designing a holiday home. The result is this trio of off-grid cabins, which run entirely on solar power and have their own waste-water filtration system and composting toilets.
One of the first to spot the potential crossover between tiny houses and tourism was builder Mark Burton, who has been running a successful business, Tiny House UK, hand-crafting beautiful timber houses, for just over six years. He estimates about half of his clients are people wanting to offer holiday accommodation, whether it be farmers wanting to diversify or homeowners looking to make a bit of extra income from renting out a garden room on Airbnb.
But perhaps the sign that this counter-cultural movement has truly entered the mainstream is that Japanese brand Muji recently launched its own version of the “tiny house”, a slick, prefabricated nine-square-metre hut clad in charred black wood, which is currently on sale in Japan for ¥3,000,000 (£20,989).
Of course, the romantic notion of the cabin in the woods as a retreat from the cares of the modern world is not a new one. In the 1850s, American essayist Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden, a memoir documenting a two-year stint living in a humble cabin in a forest in Massachusetts, which went on to become cult reading for generations of disillusioned young urbanites. It seems appropriate, then, that Massachusetts should be the birthplace of a dynamic new company that has (perhaps somewhat ironically given the anti-consumerist ethos of the book) taken the Thoreau dream and turned into a successful business model.
Getaway was launched by two Harvard graduates as a way of offering stressed-out city dwellers a quick escape from the rat race. The concept is simple: a collection of minimalist micro-cabins in woodland settings within a two-hour drive of major US cities. Starting out with just three cabins in 2015, the company has expanded to operate more than 60 cabins in Boston, New York and Washington DC, with plans to expand into 30 cities by 2022.
“Our dream is that we can be the rip-cord that you pull when you are sitting at work and bored or stressed out, and two hours later you’re in a totally different place physically and hopefully mentally,” says co-founder Jon Staff.
Staff has described what Getaway is offering as “the anti-vacation”. It’s not about what there is and what you can do. It’s about what is not there and what you can stop doing. To this end, the exact location of the cabins is kept secret until just before the departure date so guests are not tempted to plan their trip.
Furniture is stripped back to the minimum — bed, seating, table, sink, stove, cooler, toilet and shower — and, perhaps most controversially of all, no WiFi. Guests are encouraged to lock their phones in a safe for the duration of their stay.
In a tourism industry where the sales pitch tends to focus on how big the accommodation is, how many facilities are available and how many great attractions are on the doorstep, this approach may seem counter-intuitive. But the gamble has paid off. Staff says the cabins have been sold out since day one, with weekends typically booking up three or four months in advance.
Back in the UK, it is early days for Tiny Homes Holidays, but Helen Cunningham says feedback from guests so far has been positive. As well as offering a certain novelty factor, she hopes that her new tourism venture will give people a chance to test drive tiny living. A new studio space has just been completed, paving the way for retreats and workshops in 2018 on everything from yoga to upcycling. There are plans to build three more tiny homes on the site this year, and a kitchen garden, which will give guests the chance to pick their own fruit and veg.
“It’s a way of dipping a toe into this lifestyle and also a way of getting people thinking more about how much energy we use and whether we need so much stuff around us,” says Helen. But most of all she hopes it will give families a chance to “reconnect”.
“People are telling us that they’re sitting and chatting and playing board games and doing all the things that they imagine in their heads they might do on holiday but don’t usually get around to,” she says. “It’s a chance for families to be in the moment with each other.”
In fair weather, the meadow where the cabins are situated will be a great place for kids to let off steam, and the red squirrels and walking trails of Parkhurst forest are right on the doorstep. When we visit, the island is shrouded in fog and drizzle so we plan a couple of excursions to avoid succumbing to cabin fever. Fortunately, our central location means that most of the Isle of Wight’s main attractions — the gloriously old-fashioned Blackgang Chine theme park, Queen Victoria’s favourite former residence Osborne House, the yacht town of Cowes and the charming seaside resort of Ventnor — are within easy striking distance. But it’s when we return to our triangular abode each afternoon and fire up the stove that our “tiny holiday” really comes into its own. Without the distraction of smartphones, laptops and TVs, you really do have to make your own entertainment. I’m ashamed to say my daughter had never played Happy Families or dominoes. She’s now an expert at both.
Whether the prospect of being confined in close quarters with your nearest and dearest in a WiFi- and television-free zone has you breaking out in a cold sweat or bonding over the Scrabble board will depend largely on the family dynamic. But if you’ve tried glamping and are looking for a grown-up alternative that might just make you question the amount of baggage — literal and metaphorical — that we drag around with us when we travel, then a tiny house holiday could be for you.
Joanne O’Connor was a guest of Tiny Homes Holidays and the Isle of Wight tourist board. Two-night stays cost from £175; ferry crossings from Portsmouth and Lymington cost from £61 return for a car and four passengers with Wightlink. Getaway rents cabins within two hours of New York, Boston and Washington