We were preparing for a wintry long weekend: the CD mix -- Temagami Tunes -- had been downloaded, the car was overpacked, a list of downtime activities swirled in my mind and a warm lodge waited, 4½ hours north. But on this trip, one thing was different: the kicking, squealing toddler, our holiday's new backseat driver.
I wanted to expose my 1½-year-old daughter to real winter: the smell of cold air and wood smoke, the sensation of making snow angels on a frozen lake, the look of evergreens turned white, the sound of black cap chickadees in a still forest. Pepina's world view was still forming, but I had noticed that her vocabulary included the word "car," but not "tree" or "bird." Her view on the way to daycare every day was of concrete and the grey-brown slush along Toronto's Gardiner Expressway. During the global-warming winter the city has largely experienced this season, our sled sat idle. It seemed time to seek out winter.
When a child can entertain herself with a drinking straw and an egg carton, one has to wonder how much effort -- and money -- to invest in travel. When Pepina was 10 months old, we flew to Italy to show her off to my husband Mario's relatives. Roman ruins, seaside trattorias and art masterpieces were at our doorstep.
But Pepina's twice-a-day naps and early bedtime kept us close to the casa. There were side trips to the beach on the Tyrrhenian Sea and frequent forays to the cucina to eat (and eat) with the famiglia, but it made me question if she was too young for all us to benefit from another stamp in our passports.
For many city dwellers lacking a cabin in the snow belt, experiencing winter can take several forms. Self-catering cottages can be rented -- and offspring can shout until the parental breaking point. But what if parents want a holiday too, a reprieve from frying pork chops and washing sippy cups?
I'm part of the new generation of families who want their children -- and their cake too. We want to take our kids to yoga classes and sushi restaurants and dance parties at hip hotels. And we want to travel with them without always sacrificing adult content and comforts.
So I started an online search for a rustic-yet-somewhat-luxurious winter getaway. I looked into bigger inns in Ontario and Quebec -- big enough that we could blend in with other noisy families -- but I wondered: Would we really be getting away from it all when there's a full-service spa and lap pool?
Smoothwater Outfitters and Ecolodge looked promising: cross-country skiing, organic cuisine, nearby dogsledding and an outdoor sauna. As well, it offered artistic and often family-friendly programming, such as bread-baking lessons and snow-flea hunts. But would the five-room lodge be too intimate? An e-mail from proprietor, artist and head chef Caryn Colman assuaged fears: "Imagine getting a photo of her doing snow angels," she wrote.
Colman and Francis Boyes, escapees from Toronto, bought the lodge on James Lake on the northern reaches of Ontario's Canadian Shield in 1994. They created an eco-resort for travellers -- "pilgrims," Colman calls them -- in search of a shot of nature. Everything is recycled and composted. Guests are given a cloth napkin for mealtimes. And a note in rooms reminds guests that the toilet paper is chlorine-and bleach-free, is made of post-consumer material, and that they "don't have to flush every time."
Colman, a watercolour artist who wears a jangle of silver bracelets, calls the property a "front-country lodge with backcountry trails." Guests can walk out of their rooms, snap on their skis -- or slip into canoes in the summer -- and head out into the surrounding Crown wilderness.
The sun had set by the time we pulled into Smoothwater's driveway Friday night after a 6-½-hour drive delayed by multiple stops. As we motored north the snow got deeper. Warning signs to leave a safe space between cars were replaced by marked moose crossings. Snowmobiles lined up outside gas stations, dog sleds were spotted on car roofs, and antlers hung outside an LCBO. Towns got progressively smaller: Barrie, Orillia, Huntsville, Powassan, and finally Temagami, population 1,000.