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(Jason Logan for The Globe and Mail)
(Jason Logan for The Globe and Mail)

Etiquette

How to have a conflict-free cottage weekend Add to ...

Cottages, camps, cabins or chalets: Call them what you will, lakeside and mountain retreats are the places across the country where the haves (owners) and the have-nots (their non-owning friends, colleagues and relatives) come together on a regular basis. And while a weekend away can be the stuff of lifelong memories, the experience has been known to turn nightmarish - and permanently kibosh a relationship or two - if hosts and visitors don't follow certain rules. Here's how to avoid being an ungrateful guest or an overbearing owner.

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"Composting toilets are great when they are looked after properly," says an island cottager who wrote to the Globe. But if your guests don't follow the rules, "they quickly degrade into sewage pits that can stink out the cottage."

After fouling the toilet, the same guests also forgot to mix oil with the gasoline when they filled up his two-stroke outboard. It worked long enough for them to get back to the mainland and for the owner to get a couple hundred yards offshore on the return leg. "There the motor seized up, never to work again."

While most visits are less catastrophic, tales of moochers expecting to be waited on or kids gone wild in the wild abound.

Jeff Swystun recalls a neighbour at his old Manitoba cottage who had a knack for arriving precisely when the liquor cabinet was cracked open.

Cottage succession: Avoiding the bites and burns Tuesday at noon (ET), estate-planning expert Elaine Blades answers your questions about inheriting or bequeathing a lakeside retreat.

"With each appearance we would go through a ritual of offering him a drink. He would decline, saying, 'I have my own,' at which point he would pull one beer out of a pocket. Comfortably encamped in our cottage, he would polish off that lone beer and then give our liquor supply a sound stress test."

No one wants to be known as a moocher, so along for directions guests should inquire about exactly what they are expected to bring - from beach towels to the fixings for dinner - and be sure to mention any potential deal-breakers, such as unwelcome pets or kids, or the fact they consider clothing to be optional at the lake.

"Even if the host says, 'Just bring yourselves,' it's not polite to show up empty-handed," advises Winnipeg-based etiquette coach Lew Bayer.

Upon arrival, ask for a thorough tour, right down to where you can find the cooking utensils so your hosts can relax on the dock when it's your turn to prepare a meal. In the interests of self-preservation, you should also ask them to point out any cottage quirks such as wonky stairs or the fact the deck railing is held together with twine.

The No. 1 cottage-guest rule, however, is: Follow any and all rules relating to the toilet. Think of it less as a septic system and more as a private sewage-treatment plant that could easily cost the owner 20 grand to replace.

And even if you do spring for some nice steaks and offer to chip in some gas money for the boat, you still need to pitch in with the chores. You do want to get invited back, right?

"The best guests are those who'll offer to help, who can entertain themselves and will just enjoy the place and let us know they love it as much as we do," says Penny Caldwell, editor of Cottage Life magazine.





Hosts: Tell guests what to expect and what's expected

Outside of Mennonite communities, the cottage is the one place where the communal labour pool reigns supreme. It's only fair that the friends who've been lounging on the old deck or dock for years pitch in and help when it's time to build a new one.

But, as Mr. Bayer rather understatedly points out, "Inviting people to the lake under the guise of fun, then meeting them at the end of the driveway with paintbrushes and hammers is not considered polite."

Katie McKenna will never forget the time a friend invited her up to the family's Lake Muskoka cottage, only to discover the uncle used it last had left faster than rats fleeing the Titanic.

"The bedroom was in disarray. The toilets were leaking. We then made the mistake of opening the fridge; inside was an impressive science experiment which included two-month-old milk and eggs, mushrooms and something we assumed was a red pepper."

Instead of R&R, she got scrub and clean.

Rather than a to-do list, give guests easy-to-follow instructions for any finicky equipment - or make it clear that they shouldn't touch them. (For a more passive-aggressive approach, CottageLife.com has a handy one-page list of "9 ways to be a good cottage guest" that you can post in a conspicuous place, if not laminate and frame.)

And do what you can to pre-empt any conflict. Saving your 30-year-old single malt for a milestone event? Then don't leave it out next to the bottle of J&B.

While it's certainly fair to ask guests to chip in their share of the food and drink tab, certain costs - propane for the barbecue and gas for the boat - are on the owner. You don't ask dinner guests at home to help cover your hydro bill, do you? (Unless, of course, their teenagers came up expecting a weekend-long wakeboarding school.)

On the subject of gas money, while carpooling may be good for the planet, sharing a ride home after a miserable weekend might leave you pondering a sharp turn off Tower Hill.

Of course, some rules are made to be broken.

"I find that my husband expects a lot of my daughters' boyfriends," Ms. Caldwell says. "He'll have them doing all kinds of chores he wouldn't ask anyone else to do. But maybe he's just testing them out."

Keep in mind that you invited these people (daughters' boyfriends excluded) to your sanctuary for a good reason. You just need to set expectations in advance so you all have the great Canadian cottage weekend you'd planned on.

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