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The binge-worthy reality TV show that feels like a summer vacation

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Who knew vacation rental hosting could be so juicy?

Three pairs of people sit in front of panoramic views of a rocky landscape in the distance. A table with snacks and refreshments is nearby.
Contestants enjoy champagne and cheese at the Breakaways, a stunning rocky landscape in the Australian Outback.
Courtesy of Netflix

In the spirit of summer fun, Curbed has been turning a spotlight on all things TV this past month, exploring everything from our obsession with TV teen bedrooms to the significance of the kitchen islands on Big Little Lies. Of course, we also set out to finally catch up on some of the year’s most buzzed-about design shows.

As a helpless reality TV lover, I called dibs on Instant Hotel, an Australian import with two seasons currently available to stream on Netflix. After a cursory look at online reviews, some of which said Season 2 was better, I started there. And after breezing through its six hour-long episodes, I came out feeling like I just had one big adventure Down Under with some friends and frenemies in tow—all without leaving my couch.

Billed as a search for Australia’s best “instant hotel”—that is, a vacation rental—the show brings together four pairs of contestants in season two. Each team has carefully prepared a vacation home they own for judging by two experts—British interior designer and TV personality Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen and Sydney-based interior designer Juliet Ashworth—and, dun dun dun, each other.

The properties are wide-ranging, from (mild spoiler alert!) a desert cave home to an elaborate eco-retreat, and they’re all supposed to be judged by the common criteria of the design of the house, quality of a night’s sleep, appeal of nearby attractions, and value for money.

Each episode focuses on one property and involves all the teams arriving to check out the digs, experience an excursion or two (the embedded clip below shows a nature kayaking activity), and then spend the night (expectedly, picking bedrooms becomes the competition within the competition).

While the judging criteria comes off as rigorous, I found the whole judging approach flawed, since style is subjective and higher-end properties will inherently feel like a better experience (and contestants can easily get strategic about scoring each other!). But at the same time, the competition aspect is crucial for getting people riled up (in search of the grand prize of $100,000) and personalities flowing. So I’m fine with naively suspending reality a bit; it’s a prerequisite for enjoying reality shows, after all.

Instant Hotel was so fun because it had a little bit of everything—there’s the vicarious home touring of House Hunters, the decor upgrades of countless other HGTV shows, a dash of Discovery Channel nature tourism, plus the ethos of The Real World (strangers under one roof!) and the intimate competition of America’s Next Top Model (because your home is an extension of yourself and things get very personal).

Perhaps I’m just easily amused, but there were also plenty of laugh-out-loud moments—at one point, one contestant remarks, “no bidet no way!” and I’m thinking bidet brands need to steal that for a tagline. And rest assured there was a solid amount of design talk in the mix as well (note the judgment imparted in the clip above about a “great big pink wall with the yellow circle”).

Despite guaranteed differences in opinion throughout the show, there were nevertheless moments of unanimous approval: Even the most snooty of the bunch couldn’t help but revel in the awe-inspiring sight of the desert hills in the Australian Outback or Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Those humanizing moments come up once in a while, bringing to the show a delightful element of wanderlust.

So if you feel like you should be getting away but don’t actually want to leave the house, Instant Hotel is your ticket to an instant vacation.