Hope for the Cottageless: an insider’s guide to vacationing in cottage country

Hope for the Cottageless: an insider’s guide to vacationing in cottage country

So you didn’t listen when everyone told you to book a rental back in January, and you haven’t yet managed to finagle an invite from cottage-owning friends. We offer hope: an insider’s guide to vacationing in cottage country—where to stay, what not to miss, and how to find urban luxuries in the boonies

Westport and Rideau Lakes

The Anti-Muskoka

Because real cottagers don’t go out for sushi

Left: Rideau Antiques; Right: The Bing Retreat (Images: Jay Shuster) 

Westport is about as back-to-nature as it gets in these parts—without portaging. The area is frequented by families looking for the antithesis of city living (and allergic to posh cottaging). Cellphone service here is patchy, the closest Timmies is half an hour’s drive away (in Perth), and the most illustrious celebrity you’ll spy will be Bob Rae stocking up on organic tea at Rosie Yumski’s Fine Foods (his family cottages in the area). Eastern Ontario’s Rideau Canal Waterway—including Lower, Big and Upper Rideau lakes—is to the east, and Frontenac Provincial Park is to the south. Many of the lakes are still under-developed; you can spend an entire afternoon on Devil Lake without hearing the whir of a boat motor. This makes for uncompromised quiet time and prime fishing. The waters and coves of Loughborough (about 30 minutes south of Westport) are an angler’s eden with lake trout, northern pike and both small- and largemouth bass. The Foley Mountain Conservation Area on Upper Rideau is perched on a granite ridge, making for spectacular panoramas and hiking. And for those who consider shopping a sport, the area is brimming with antique shops proffering rare Canadiana.

WHERE TO SAVE: Ten minutes outside of Westport in Godfrey, the stone and log cabins at The Bing Retreat provide all the cottagey comforts—barbecue, private dock and your own patch of beach on Horseshoe Lake—without any of the maintenance. From $900 a week per cottage. 10090 Canoe Lake Rd., 613-273-3106, bingretreat.com.

WHERE TO SPLURGE: Morning sojourns on Loughborough Lake are more dignified if the evening is spent on the porch of one of Loughborough Inn’s rustic log chalets. A heated outdoor pool, canoes, hiking trails and playground make it family friendly. From $103 per person a night (meals included). 2340 Loughborough View Rd., Battersea, 1-800-201-2837, loughboroughinn.on.ca.

URBAN FIX: The coffee at White Mountain café is fair trade, the ice cream is house-made, and the Wi-Fi is free. Conveniently located next to the LCBO. 15 Church St., Westport, 613-273-8191.

LOCAL INSTITUTION: The crazily crowded lawns around Rideau Antiques, Clifford and Alice Miller’s dilapidated Edwardian a half hour northeast of Westport, is a good indication of what’s inside: rooms chockablock with china, Canadiana, vintage clothing—it’s as though the building is held up by knick-knacks. 104 Rideau Ferry Rd., 613‑283-6490.

PEOPLE WATCHING: Nightlife in Westport begins and ends at The Cove Country Inn, which bustles with a mishmash of locals and guests. There’s blues and jazz four or five nights a week. 2 Bedford-on-the-Water, 1-888-268-3466, coveinn.com.

Prince Edward County

The Grape and the Good

Because some of us want to have our wine and drink it, too

Clockwise from left: The Mustang Drive-in; The County Cider Company; Books and Company; The Eckhart House (Images: Jay Shuster) 

There is a modesty to Prince Edward County that you don’t get around most summer vacation hot spots. The mansions here are mostly Edwardian and tiny by modern standards, while the outbuildings, instead of the helipad-accoutred “bunkies” you get up in Muskoka, are old stone barns or plank wood sugar shacks that have been confected onto their foundations by a century’s worth of boiling sap. People go birding here (Prince Edward Point has 298 species), and to sleepy estate sales, Lions Club pancake breakfasts and time warp church suppers. They buy lumpy, fragrant field tomatoes and sweet summer corn from roadside stands (the best one is Langridge’s on Sandy Hook Road, just east of Warings Corner) with unmanned cash boxes. This is a boom-and-bust farming region, with all of the charm and quiet pride and decay that comes along with such a place. It’s also surrounded by 800 kilometres of the nicest shoreline around. The best of the County’s swimming holes—from the quiet, crystalline coves that nobody’s bothered to name to the baby powder beaches at Sandbanks Provincial Park—are public. There are also great restaurants, gorgeous vineyards and gourmet food shops. And yes, you can still find beachfront rentals for a song.

WHERE TO SAVE: Sandbanks Provincial Park’s sites start at $39.15 a night, but if you’re not into camping, you can rent a tiny, if out-of-the-way, cottage on picturesque Waupoos Island—a five-minute boat ride—for $750 per week. waupoos-island.com.

WHERE TO SPLURGE: The Eckhart House, an 1860s farmstead on the road to Sandbanks, is the pinnacle of County chic. Beautifully restored, it sleeps 10 and has a high-end kitchen, a woodstove and all the best mod cons. It’s also one of the priciest rentals in the County, at $3,150 a week. 1356 County Rd. 11, 1-877-399-2508, theeckharthouse.com.

URBAN FIX: You’re a long way from the backwoods here. There’s Fifth Town Artisan Cheese Co., a newish and architecturally impressive (if outlandishly expensive) dairy (4309 County Rd. 8). Follow it with a tour of the wineries on Greer Road (Norman Hardie and Rosehall Run are standouts), or have a drink at The County Cider Company, perched on one of the most beautiful lookouts in Southern Ontario (657 Bongards Crossroad). If you had the foresight to pick up a Sunday Times at Picton’s excellent Books and Company (289 Main St.), the lookout’s the perfect place to read it.

LOCAL INSTITUTION: You can’t really go to the beach without a stop at Slickers Dari Dip. There are dozens of ice cream flavours, all made locally, many with local produce (try the incredible sour cherry). 13633 Loyalist Pkwy.

PEOPLE WATCHING: Nothing brings out a more fascinating mix than dusk at The Mustang Drive-In. The parking lot is a hayfield, more or less, and the locals usually bring lawn chairs or lounge on the tailgates of their pickup trucks. The garrulous announcer alone, with his ironic hayseed drawl, is worth the price of admission. $10 per vehicle. 1591 County Rd. 1.


Lakes, locks and locavores

It’s time to shed all that ill-founded anti-Kawarthas snobbery

Somehow, in the Kawarthas, the craggy barrier of Canadian Shield has managed to stave off a full-scale invasion. The rural routes between such tiny communities as Buckhorn, Apsley and Bridgenorth provide evidence of the region’s picturesque appeal, but the rough and rugged landscape is the main event. For hikers, there’s a remote gorge to explore—in a conservation area called The Gut, the Crowe River forges a pristine path through Precambrian rock—and aboriginal rock carvings in Petroglyphs Provincial Park (the largest collection in Canada), both to the north of Peterborough. Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park is mostly accessible by canoe, which means few cottages and campsites (and also few amenities) but loads of untouched wilderness. For those who want to revel in tranquility, the aptly named Silent Lake Provincial Park is even less developed, and motorcraft are banned. Farmers’ markets are a matter of local pride around here; in summer, almost every day is market day in one of the towns. Lockside picnics are popular; Bobcay­geon boasts the oldest lock and swing bridge (it dates from 1833), but Young’s Point and Lakefield are also fine little towns.

Clockwise from left: Elmhirst's; Doo Doo's Bakery and Coffee Shop; Hamblin's Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlour (Images: Jay Shuster) 

WHERE TO SAVE: Warsaw Caves Conservation Area and Campground, set into a bend of the Indian River, has 52 wooded sites for campers, plus spelunking. Bring a headlamp (or buy one at the gatehouse). If you’re not in the mood to test your phobias, there are also 13 kilometres of hiking trails, or you can rent a canoe and drift along the placid Indian River. Family campsites are $32 a night. 289 Caves Rd., 1-877-816-7604, warsawcaves.com.

WHERE TO SPLURGE: Elmhirst’s is a 240-acre family-owned resort on Rice Lake, 90 minutes east of Toronto, outside of Keene. The Elmhirst clan raise and serve their own black Angus beef, grow their own vegetables and (endearingly) make their own soap. In addition to the usual hiking, water-skiing and canoeing, guests can charter a float plane for fishing or sightseeing on remote lakes, and even sign up for a flying lesson. There are also spa services, indoor-outdoor pools and a riding stable. The 30 cottages are scattered along the shoreline and fully decked out: Internet access, fireplace, whirlpool tub, personal barbecue. You’ll never be bored unless you want to be: the most popular package is the midweek Couch Potato, in which you really do nothing at all. From $567 per weekend (double occupancy). 1045 Settlers Line, Keene, 1-800-461-1940, elmhirst.com.

URBAN FIX: Cottagers looking for a feast traipse into sleepy Peterborough for chef Brad Watt’s locavore fare at the Rare Grill House. 166 Brock St., 705-742-3737, raregrillhouse.com.

LOCAL INSTITUTION: Sidestep the main thoroughfares, and take Highway 28 north from Port Hope to swing past Doo Doo’s Bakery and Coffee Shop. The pies and butter tarts are dreamy. 187 Hwy. 28, Bailieboro, 705-739-1394.

PEOPLE WATCHING: Hamblin’s Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlour is next to the bridge in historic Lakefield. It’s the perfect spot to grab a Kawartha Dairy cone and watch the bustling waterway traffic. The locks are tough to negotiate, so houseboats in particular can provide hours of entertainment as inexperienced captains curse and sputter their way through. 18 Bridge St., 705‑652-6002.


Rustic chic

When we feel like gazing at both types of stars

Call of the loon? Forget it. These days, Northern Ontario’s celebrated lake district echoes with the sound of beeping BlackBerrys and GPS-guided seaplanes. The proliferation of designer outlets is just one of the developments that has locals referring to the area as Yorkville North or Bloor in the Bush. Gravenhurst sold its soul to a giant Sobeys, a Canadian Tire, a Dollarama and a Home Hardware (which required felling a small forest), but there are pockets that time forgot. In other words, it’s still possible to drive a couple hours north of Toronto and experience the old Muskoka. Plus, there will be times when you’ll be grateful for the selection at Gravenhurst’s mammoth LCBO.

Clockwise from left: Blondie's; Miss Nelle's Antiques; View of the lake; Crossroads Pub and Grill (Images: Regina Garcia) 

WHERE TO SAVE: Pow Wow Point Lodge is one of the few remaining ­family-owned resorts in the region (most of the others have been sold off to hotel conglomerates or are scheduled for demolition). Rooms are located in multi-level cottages divided into separate accommodations, all overlooking serene Peninsula Lake. Cottagey pursuits include paddleboating, waterskiing, lake trampolines, shuffleboard and marshmallow roasts at sunset, but there are also more luxe comforts: an indoor swimming pool with hot tub and sauna and on-site clay tennis courts, for starters. The dining room serves homey meals in a relaxed room with gorgeous views. From $500 a weekend (meals included). 207 Grassmere Resort Rd., Huntsville, 1‑800-461-4263, powwowpointlodge.com.

WHERE TO SPLURGE: If your idea of getting back to nature is lying naked on a massage table to indulge in a $125 white-mud toning wrap, Taboo Resort, Golf and Spa is the place to stay. The 125‑room resort on the shores of Lake Muskoka is a sybarite’s paradise. Besides a full-service spa, there are two golf courses, 300 feet of sandy beach, and a nightly foodie extravaganza known as Culinary Theatre—a three-hour, six-course tasting menu with executive chef Andrew Dymond. From $299 a night (double occupancy). 1209 Muskoka Beach Rd., 1-800-461-0236, tabooresort.com.

URBAN FIX: Craving a buzz, just not the mosquito kind? Then do as the locals do and head to Blondie’s in Gravenhurst, where they dish up comfort food with a side of local gossip (151 Brock St., 705-687-7756, blondiesrestaurant.ca). They do eggs Bennie and prime rib right but also serve sushi for inveterate urbanites. Espresso and cappuccino cravings can be quelled at Port Sandfield Marina (1327 Peninsula Rd. 7, 705-765-3147, portsandfield.com). Oliver’s Coffee Shop, with locations in Gravenhurst, Bracebridge, Bala and Port Carling, roasts its own coffee and has free Wi-Fi (oliverscoffee.ca).

LOCAL INSTITUTION: Miss Nelle’s Antiques first opened as a general store in 1922 and today sells collectibles, old books, fishing gear, tools—an ideal destination for rekindling memories of Muskoka past. There’s also an espresso bar inside and an ice cream shack out back. Look for the distinctive red-and-white-striped awning. 2 Bay St., Baysville, 705-767-2181.

PEOPLE WATCHING: The 125-seat Crossroads Pub and Grill in Rosseau is where Goldie and Kurt, Kenny G, Harry Hamlin and other high-wattage types come to sample the cooking of executive chef Richard Lalonde, formerly of Fairmont’s famed Château Montebello. 2 Cardwell Rd., 705-732-4343, crossroadspubandgrill.ca.


Go-To Town

For a mini-Muskoka in the making

Thornbury is a jewel box of a vacation town that’s starting to give Muskoka a run for its money. The main drag is bustling with three interior design studios, a diamond boutique, a specialty coffee shop, a book store, a martini bar and a country-and-western-singing butcher. The real estate boomlet has much to do with an influx of vacationers drawn by the newly enhanced Blue Mountain resort—a 15-minute drive east—and to the recently opened Raven golf course, home of the Ford Wayne Gretzky Classic charity tournament, a five-minute drive west. Apple growing is the main industry here. Goldsmith’s Orchard, on Highway 26, is where local celebrities—Cowboy Junkie Margo Timmins and talking head Peter Mansbridge, among others—come for their baskets of Spys and McIntoshes and homemade pies.

Clockwise from left: view of the bay; The Ashanti Cafe; Ted's Range Road Diner (Images: Regina Garcia) 

WHERE TO SAVE: There’s the ultra-cheap option—camping at Craigleith Provincial Park (sites start at $32.75 a night)—or the more civilized Bridges Tavern, an 1860s red-brick mansion housing a restau­rant, pub and recently reno’d inn with wrought-iron beds, heated floors, flat screen TVs and bucolic views of the mill pond out back. From $100 a night (double occupancy). 27 Bridge St. E., 519-599-2217, bridgestavern.com.

WHERE TO SPLURGE: If you want to go big and luxe, it’s a 15-minute drive to the Westin Trillium House in the Village at Blue, a 222-room affair built in 2005 in the grand architectural style of old Georgian Bay lodges. The mega-resort houses the Oliver and Bonacini Café Grill and offers easy access to an all-season playground: tennis, swimming, a man-made lake for kayaking. Kids go ape for the adjacent water park, a year-round aquatic centre that offers week-long day camp programs in summer. From $199 a night (double occupancy). 220 Mountain Dr., 1-866-837-4192, westinbluemountain.com.

URBAN FIX The Ashanti Cafe is the place to go for fresh roasted coffee (the owners run a farm in Africa), free Wi-Fi and the Sunday Times, best read lingering in one of the oversize chairs over a latte and heavenly house-made pineapple cake. 39 Bruce St. S., 519-599-5615, ashanticoffee.com.

LOCAL INSTITUTION: Ted’s Range Road Diner looks like a broken-down farm shed, but there’s a reason Hummers and Benzes adorn the parking lot. It’s a wild game lover’s oasis, serving up ostrich, bison, kangaroo and alligator, as well as less intimidating fare. Go on Wednesday nights, when local musicians come to jam. Grey Rd. 112, Meaford, 519-538-1788.

PEOPLE WATCHING: There’s more to ogle at Pamper and Soothe, a Frenchified home decor and beauty boutique occupying the main floor of an old Thornbury mansion, than Paris linens and Murano glass chandeliers. Actresses Cynthia Dale and Sheila McCarthy (who have properties in the area) are regulars. 13 Louisa St. E., 519-599-6461.

Lake Huron

Bruce almighty

When we’d much rather relax than rough it

Clockwise from left: The Southampton Inn; The Benmiller Inn and Spa; view of the lake (Images: Regina Garcia) 

Scenic lighthouses and old fishing wharves give Lake Huron’s eastern shore a nostalgic maritime feel. The long stretches of sandy beach are a draw for Torontonians priced out of Muskoka and Georgian Bay. And unlike Muskoka, with its craggy Canadian Shield and boreal forest, this region is edged by rolling farmland, making it far less buggy. The quaint coastal towns—Kincardine, Goderich, Southampton and Sauble Beach—are white-picket-fence throwbacks. Such laid-back pursuits as birding, biking and antiquing are favourites. For the more adventurous, there are century-old shipwrecks to explore in the waters off Tobermory, an area rated as among the world’s best dive sites. But everything stops for the sunset, when locals and weekenders set up their lawn chairs and break out the beers to sit back and take it in. Life in these towns rarely gets more exciting than this, which, of course, is the attraction.

WHERE TO SAVE: Family-owned Carsons Camp in Sauble Beach has trailers, cabins and cottages for rent at reasonable prices. From $650 a week for a cabin (RR 1, 519-422-1143, carsonscamp.on.ca). Or fork out a bit more at The Southampton Inn for one of its quaint and cozy rooms decked out with lace curtains and four-poster beds. $113 a night (double occupancy). 118 High St., Saugeen Shores, 1-888-214-3816, southamptoninn.com.

WHERE TO SPLURGE: The Benmiller Inn and Spa in Goderich is surrounded by rugged natural beauty. The rooms have cathedral ceilings, skylights, fireplace, Jacuzzi bath, the works. The indoor pool overlooks the Maitland River, and the Ivey Dining Room has expansive windows and a solarium with a view of nearby rapids. There’s also a full-service Aveda spa. From $159 a night per person (including breakfast). 81175 Benmiller Line, 1‑800-265-1711, benmillerinnandspa.com.

URBAN FIX: Two Chicks Cafe has free Wi-Fi, inside and out, plus an espresso bar, fresh fruit smoothies, wraps and panini, and live music Saturday nights. 7 Second Ave. N., Sauble Beach, 519-422‑9988, twochickscafe.ca.

LOCAL INSTITUTION: Duffy’s in Southampton, close to the harbour, serves up super-fresh fare. Specialties include pan-fried Lake Huron whitefish and crab cakes with ranch dip and fries. 151 High St., 519-797-5972, duffyssouthampton.com.

PEOPLE WATCHING: Klara’s Countryside Inn is where you’ll see local OPP officers, scientists from Bruce Power and gussied-up car jockeys from the annual Port Elgin Classic Car Show chowing down on schnitzel sandwiches. Hwy. 21 S., Port Elgin, 519-368-5113, klarascountrysideinn.com.