Five go into the Countryside

Well not quite 5, but I couldn’t resist the “Enid Blyton” analogy


We’re really talking “A weekend at The Cottage – A Great Canadian Tradition”
If you are British or European, this whole Friday night (leave work early) exodus to “the Cottage” up country or by *“The Lake” will be a mystery.
Perhaps I can compare it to the halcyon days when Brits bought property in Northern France and flitted across the channel  (Strikes allowing) on weekends – and actually a journey across the British Channel to a property in Northern France would probably be faster than some of the journeys to cottages in the wilds of  Ontario. It’s not just the distance, there are limited choices of route for travelling north and the traffic is crazy.
Being new to this neck of the woods, the cottage idyll is something we could never entertain as there is too much for us still to see and do in and around Toronto. Also with “the cottage” comes with all the usual home and garden maintenance baggage plus a regular weekend commute often in heavy traffic.
This view of course hasn’t stopped us yearning to “experience” a little slice of the lifestyle and this summer two sets of friends finally took pity on us, with invitations to stay at cottage retreats in Penetanguishene (western Ontario and only about 2 ½ hours from our door), and the other in Ellicottville in New York state US (a mere 3 hours away in the opposite direction)
Oh and before I continue, a Brit’s definition of a cottage (likely as not shaped by our own domestic situation where a shortage of land has historically led to smaller houses), is not that of our North American counterparts. 
The cottage “thing” in N. America started in the 1950’s when the “men” of a household would disappear into the wilds to fish and hunt. Because many Canadians have had a cottage on the family for years, they consider weekends at the cottage to be the norm. It has become completely disassociated with income in one respect as families share the use of and the financial burdens of ownership. Cottages are not normally bought as a second income source because the winters here don’t lend themselves to hospitable country living (unless you are near a ski resort), so you have to factor in that whilst the property will be empty for a good 6 months of the year, it will not be earning income AND it will still need maintenance visits.  Essentially these first cottages were indeed “cottage” sized as we Europeans would see it; cute little clapboard shacks at the water’s edge or buried deep in the woods and requiring a yomp to get to them. Then of course came the roads, “new” money and the new-builds (knocking down the original property and rebuilding). These have reshaped the whole cottage experience. Some of these properties are literally huge mansions, many are built on the thousands of private Islands that dot the Lakes, and most will have a waterfront location (Ontario particularly,  is known for its cottage culture with parts of it referred to as “cottage country”. This term typically refers to the north and south shores of Georgian Bay, Ontario, Muskoka, Ontario, Haliburton, Ontario, and the Kawartha Lakes, Ontario.
So first the Penetanguishene experience. The cottage was PERFECT, not pretentious, not too big; not too small and built on the footprint of an older property. Right on the water’s edge, this new-build had a galleried upper floor housing a large attic room looking over the first floor. Courtesy of a huge floor to ceiling bank of floor to ceiling windows and the cool teal/duck egg blue paintwork, the Lake seemed to reach right into the cottage.
Stunning from every aspect – from the painstaking owner-built landscaped slope above the property to the picture perfect sight of 4 Muskoka chairs arranged at the end of the private wooden pier that stretched way into the lake. The water was clear and invitingly tepid (thanks to the recent heat-wave). Even though there were a lot of cottages lining this smallish landlocked lake, it was incredibly quiet, in a way that living in the City never is. The complete absence of all the usual culprits in the shape of the 103 bus that passes the house twice every 15 minutes, the nerve searing screeching of the underground trains, the endless sirens; planes going in and out of Pearson and City Island airports, and just the general city hubbub (love that word), made me realise suddenly just how noisy the soundtrack to my life normally is.
A trip around the lake on  the new “party” boat – another new experience as we don’t have this sort of vessel in the UK –  which is a pontoon boat with a shallow draft, and awning down one end and aeons of leather couchettes oh and of course the vital cup-holders. Irony, you cannot drink alcohol and sail/drive a vessel (hear, hear) and the boat has to be moored if anybody else on the boat is to drink AND if you are moored on public property you cannot step off the boat with an alcoholic beverage in your mitt.
The weather was absolutely gorgeous- – one of the things you can count on in the summers over here (except last year) – a constant breeze blowing off the lake kept the humidity at bay. A BBQ (of course) and roasting marshmallows on the fire completed the experience. I felt like one of the Famous Five in the “Enid Blyton”  children’s books that myself and my contempories grew up with – without the mishaps and adventure perhaps, just the outdoor living experience,. With the sun setting over the Lake throwing everything into silhouette, the gorgeous deepening pinks and oranges of the Lake; the haunting cries of the loons, a glass of wine in one hand, a marshmallow in the other and good company ……………..
Ellitcottville New York State – a whole other experience. With the season on the turn from summer to fall, the miles and miles of undulating deciduous forests were starting to change their summer outfits – still a little to early in the season for the full colourful performance that accompanies late September/October, the dress rehearsal was most definitely underway with early contenders showing appearing in their best burning reds, rust/terracotta’s, yellows and burnt oranges.
The “cottage” this time a purpose built ingeniously designed “new-build with its deck and windows reaching into the woodland behind. With no light or noise pollution and only the frogs and cicadas as background, life was a simple as it could get; conversation, wine and the heat and glow from the chimera – sigh!.
Another perfectly located weekend retreat within spitting distance of charming Ellicottville –  with its many coffee shops and darling boutiques –  the ski-slopes of Holiday Valley and Allegany state Park on the doorstep. The drive back from the south side of Lake Ontario, through Buffalo and the border, and with a quick stop at the Lakehouse restaurant, Vineland, on the shores of the Lake just west of Niagara, ( took only around 3 hours.
My, we are becoming Canadian – I prefaced 3 hours with the word ONLY!!.

Halo in Ellicottville New York

Image by rita vita via Flickr

So now I get it. I get why my work colleagues leave in their droves early Friday afternoon; work all hours during the week to take flex-time a Monday to extend the weekend idyll.
I would!
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