Where to feel like one of the family

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With 2014 marking the 20th anniversary of the International Year of the Family, here’s how to kip with clans worldwide.

Casas particulares, Cuba

Cuban men sitting in a doorway. Image by Mark Hannaford / AWL Images / Getty Images.

Cuban men sitting in a doorway. Image by Mark Hannaford / AWL Images / Getty Images.

The room is a retro revelation: all quirky antiques, faded family photos and leafy plants. A warm breeze teases through the paint-flaked shutters. The table heaves under a mountain of fresh prawns and impassioned conversation about Castro and what’s going on in the soaps. Then the cigars come out... Casas particulares (Cuban homestays), legalised in 1997, provide vital additional income for many locals. For travellers, they provide the best way to stay on the Caribbean Isle: not only cheaper than hotels, casas offer oodles more character, homecooked food and an instant way in to Cuban culture.

Related article: Where to celebrate the dawn of democracy in South Africa

Casas particulares (www.casaparticularcuba.org) are found island-wide.

Ger, Mongolia

Homestays in the Gobi Desert? OK, homes don’t really ‘stay’ here: nomads shift their gers (yurts) at the whim of the weather. But some of these felt tents stay put long enough for steppe-roaming travellers to get a night of local living. There are rules: when approaching a ger, call ‘Nokhoi khor!’ (hold the dog!), the Mongolian equivalent of knocking; on entering, walk to the left (on the right is the family area); don’t sit with your back or feet pointing towards the ger’s altar; and when offered some airag (fermented mare’s milk), accept – even if you’d rather not...

Ger camps open from mid-may. June and September are pleasant; July–August is peak season, though temperatures can top 40°c.

Coconut plantation, Kerala, India

A boatman on a river in Trivandrum, Kerala. Image by Andrea Booher / The Image Bank / Getty Images.

A boatman on a river in Trivandrum, Kerala. Image by Andrea Booher / The Image Bank / Getty Images.

The Keralan coconut trade is not what it used to be. Prices have slumped and youngsters no longer want to spend time scampering up trees to scrape a meagre living. Luckily, the residents of God’s Own Country are a resourceful lot. With the classic crop failing to raise the rupees, many plantation owners in the South Indian state have opened their colonial-cool doors to passing travellers instead. That means opportunities for intimate stays in often elegant, antique-bedecked buildings, with palms and lushness wafting outside the windows, backwaters burbling nearby and delicious (possibly coconut-infused) curries cooked each night.

The main airports are at Cochin, Kozhikode and Trivandrum. The Trivandrum Rajdhani Express (Delhi to Trivandrum) takes 41 hours.

Township house, Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa

In 1904 the township of Klipspruit was established southwest of Johannesburg to house the black-African labourers that officials didn’t want clogging the city. It grew exponentially, spawning the vast, chaotic melting-pot that is Soweto. Today it’s a fascinating mix: tin shacks and shebeens (pubs) lean near glitzy malls and mansions; there’s a Mandela museum (in Nelson’s former home), memorials to the 1976 student uprising, and even a distinct Soweto substyle of youth dress and lingo. Staying overnight with a local family in their township home is the best way to begin to comprehend this vibrant, tough and tenacious multicultural sprawl.

Soweto is reached by MetroRail from Johannesburg Park Station. Guided tours are advised for exploring beyond Orlando West.

Sobe, Croatia

Jump off a bus or hop off a ferry somewhere along the Croatian coast in summertime, and your first encounter is not with the lapping turquoise sea or fish-grilling tavernas, but a line of sobe-ladies – often wizened old grandmas – touting rooms for rent in their homes. ‘Sobe? You want room? I give good price’, is the staccato call. And they’re not wrong. Although quality and style may vary (look before you pay), sobe are a snip, and can come with kitchenettes, cosy beds and even a surrogate mum for the duration of your stay.

Arrive in town early for the greatest choice of rooms and the best bargaining position.

Iban longhouse, Sarawak, Malaysia

Iban men in traditional costumes in a longhouse. Image by Peter Solness / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images

Iban men in traditional costumes in a longhouse. Image by Peter Solness / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images.

Things can get cosy in an Iban longhouse. Members of Sarawak’s largest ethnic group (once known for their headhunting proclivities) traditionally live in communal, wonky, wooden structures that might be home to 30-odd families – and a few curious travellers. Many longhouses are secreted away in the jungle, reached only by boat. On arrival, your first port of call should be the tribe’s chief, who will hopefully grant you permission to ascend into the longhouse’s ruai (common area). This is where it all happens: eating, rice-wine drinking, gossiping, dancing... the Iban like to party, so don’t count on much sleep.

Gifts should be given to Iban hosts, and easily divisible items are best – gifts will be shared among all the longhouse’s families.

Village home, Otavalo, Ecuador

There’s no rest for the guest in the Ecuadorean Highlands – not when there’s corn to be picked or sandals to be stitched. Around the traditional town of Otavalo, known for its colourfully dressed indigenous people and (fairly touristy) handicraft market, a scatter of homesteads welcomes travellers, and encourages them get their hands dirty. Rise with the cock’s crow – it’s worth it to watch the sunrise over the nearby volcanoes – then spend the day helping out, feeding the guinea pigs, planting cabbage or learning Andean embroidery. Efforts will be repaid by generous meals (remember those guinea pigs?) and a more authentic Otavaleño encounter.

Community-tourism operator Runa Tupari arranges homestays and cultural activities in the area; see www.runatupari.com.

Bedouin tent, Wadi Rum, Jordan

OK, the convivial camps that dot the Jordanian desert might not be 100% authentic – you’d need to know a Bedouin family well before they invited you to stay overnight. But the tourist versions still provide a starry snap-shot of this Middle Eastern lifestyle, with the welcome addition of flush loos and solar showers. Head out amid Wadi Rum’s weird rocks by 4WD or camel, stopping to meet some real Bedouin for a cup of tea, and spend the night under canvas, snuggled in blankets while a campfire flickers in the sand and a canopy of constellations flickers far above.

The best months to visit are March to April and October to November; from May to September temperatures can exceed 40°c.

Bure, Fiji

A thatched bure in Fiji. Image by Himani Himani / Perspectives / Getty Images.

A thatched bure in Fiji. Image by Himani Himani / Perspectives / Getty Images.

There’s not much to a traditional Fijian bure – a simple wood-and-thatch windowless cabin with dark, smoky walls and a packed-earth floor. But when paradise lies just outside, no one’s much concerned with interior decor. These days bures might have a few more amenities, but the rest is unchanged: the South Pacific is just as blue, the beaches as Bounty-ad beautiful. Better, though, is feeling part of the Fijian community. Join the ladies on a market shop, sail out with the village fishermen, learn to cook your catch in a lovo (earth-pit oven) or simply sit and shoot the sea breeze.

When visiting a village it’s polite to give a gift of kava root to the host. For homestay options see www.fijihomestays.com.

Couch, worldwide

Beachside chalet, city apartment, bungalow, cabin, mansion, hovel – any one of these could be home for the night, anywhere on the planet. Thanks to the internet, which means you can now contact a bloke in Uzbekistan as easily as you can the man next door, the concept of couch-surfing has gone gargantuan. The idea is that when you’re travelling you can get in touch with willing locals and stay in their homes for free. In exchange, you exchange: this is about cultural mixing as much as bagging a bargain.

The best-known free-sleep network is www.couchsurfing.org; similar options are www.bewelcome.org and www.hospitalityclub.org.