As experienced cottagers (we’re currently developing a three-property compound with plans to flip one, turn the second into a small hotel and move into the third as our “forever” cottage), we’re eminently aware that buying a regular home involves a different set of values than buying a vacation retreat. The former, generally speaking, uses the head, straight math and practicalities – cue school catchment and public transport – whereas the heart traditionally measures the latter.
While filming our television show Great Canadian Cottages, the heart-versus-head algorithm was readily apparent. The series, which explores the stories behind some of the country’s most interestingly designed second homes, taught us that when it comes to making a cottage great, it isn’t just about location and view, it’s about how these cottages allow for emotional rebalance and systematic escape from an ever-increasing pressure cooker. If only for a few days each week.
Canadian cottagers love time spent out of the city, but for many, short-term escape is a veritable religion. Pity anything that gets in the way of a family rendezvous on the dock or a barbecued feast around the fire pit. Stolen weekends at the cottage, therefore, propagate social and emotional regrouping. Those precious moments, indeed, indulge recovery, unbridled by the rigours of city life.
One owner, Chris Meiorin, whose hillside escape in Haliburton, Ont., is featured on our show, explained that, while committed gastronomes, he and his wife Susan simply don’t have time in the city, Monday to Friday, to pander to their love of cooking. At the cottage, however, their larder positively groans with the best of everything. From select Italian prosciutto, to triple-matured cheese, and from hand-baked bread to cold-pressed olive oil, a typical group feast is somewhat Bacchanalian, equally befitting of Fielding’s Tom Jones as it would of be his latter-day namesake.
At the other end of the spectrum, we visited Simon Payn, whose tiny cabin, also in Haliburton, resembles a condo model suite: Composed as a single-level, rectilinear compartment – with acres of jet-toned fenestration – it’s an exercise in restraint. For Simon, cottage time is all about relaxation. He certainly loves to cook, but extravagant parties? Forget it. There will be guests, sure, and wine to uncork, but reverie is contained and quiet times paramount. “I’m fortunate,” he says, “to lead a busy, structured life, but when I walk into my cabin, it’s all about unplugging and stepping away from the noise.”
And then there’s Mara Smelters-Wier, who, along with her husband, built a naive 8-by-10-foot log cabin in Torrance, Ont., some 30 years ago. It was a perfect weekend nest, by all accounts, although she had always dreamed of a little more space in which to bake the cakes she sold in a nearby café. And then, like a bolt out of the blue, she won six-million bucks on the 6/49 lottery. As one does.
Determined not to uproot, the couple elected to make just one modification: They built a huge barn, literally over – and around – their cute Muskoka cabin. It’s fair to say the Russian-doll-style abode is astounding, a spectacular fairy-tale mash up, like Hansel and Gretel Through the Looking Glass. For Mara, it’s a place to remember her husband, who sadly died shortly after the lottery win changed their lives. “Being here is like being with him. We spent 30 years in the little cabin, but he also adored the change. So yes, cottaging keeps me close to him.”
Thoroughly diverse in design, and indeed in how their owners use them, our subjects’ abodes share one common aspect: heart. And that tangible pulse reminds us that they are much more than simply bricks and mortar, or logs and chinking: They’re spiritual destinations, decompression chambers, if you will, within which to gather, safely detached from an increasingly madding, urban crowd.
We feel enriched courtesy of the architectural stock encountered during filming, and, at the same time, reminded of the many other places in which we’ve filmed during the last two decades. Aye, some of those in Britain, France, the Middle East and Australia were wondrous, but there’s something more, an intangible “extra,” that pervades the two-dozen Canadian boltholes profiled on our new show. Perhaps it’s the verdant topography and beautiful lakes against which they all sit. Or maybe it’s the multicultural populace from whom we learned so much and enjoyed such welcome. For that’s our Canada, a land where lives are lived to the full in cottages, where sharing, spiritual cleansing and welcome are bywords for a life well-lived.
Great Canadian Cottages airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. (ET) on Cottage Life.