My family never had a cottage when I was growing up, which might cause you to say: "Well, Dave, that certainly makes you under-qualified to pontificate on cottage etiquette."
To which I say: "Au contraire. It makes me hyper-qualified." I worked hard for those cottage invites, man – and once I got my foot in the door, I was a whirling dervish of good-guestmanship.
Me: "Let me get those, Mrs. Johnson. No worries! I enjoy doing dishes. You know, the mystery writer Agatha Christie once said she got her best inspirations doing dishes – so, since I'd like to be a writer myself some day, you'd actually be doing me a favour letting me do the dishes," etc., etc.
Thought balloon above Mrs. Johnson's head: "Ooh, that Dave Eddie is such a good guest. He can come back anytime."
So I got the good-guest thing down cold. And now that I've grown up and played host to quite a few people at cottages (we rent, but still …), I have a few observations on both sides of the coin.
The first: We claim to go to cottages to relax and unwind, but the experience can, in fact, feel a lot like work – especially if there's more than one family, numerous children and/or teens and no dishwasher.
No dishwasher! People talk about the inevitability of death and taxes but those realities can at least be deferred: Dishes are immortal, eternal, and keep coming around like the refrain of a really bad song.
But the point of going to a cottage is supposed to be to relax and chill, not do chores and suffer. So in the interests of making it a mellower experience for all concerned, I humbly offer a few tips. Many guides focus on good-guesting but I'd like to start with the fraught question of being a good host:
HOW TO BE A LAID-BACK HOST
1. Let your guests know what you expect beforehand. There is nothing wrong in sending a companionable e-mail in advance letting your soon-to-be guests know what you're expecting. If you think about it, being a guest at someone's cottage is an incredibly complex transaction, involving towels, sheets, alcohol, possibly pets, kids, food and so on. Why not let them know in advance, in friendly fashion, what you expect of them and what they should bring? (I get a lot of this from renting, where they're very straightforward about it all.) Personally, I think there's no shame in asking them to bring their own bedclothes, for example. Less work for you.
And also perhaps the broad strokes of what their duties might be once they arrive – e.g., "How about if you guys could get the food and make dinner Saturday night?" It might all sound a bit bossy – but I think it's better to be clear than steam and stew in passive-aggressive fashion at their missteps.
2. But don't expect too much. Some cottage-owners just can't stop working, even when they go up to the cottage – and I applaud that. That's the kind of work ethic that made this country great and probably earned that family the cottage in the first place. But (along with the immortal dishes) don't ask guests to do more than a few minor chores.
I have drywalled at someone else's cottage. Another time, I remember one horrible, hot, sweaty, dirty afternoon at one friend's cottage when we attempted, like so many Sisyphuses, to pry an enormous boulder out of the lawn and transport it to some different part of the lawn. Sure, these types of activities make that dip afterward more refreshing, but it's too much to ask of your guests. Implicit in the invite: "No heavy lifting."
3. However, if your guests start to treat your cottage like a hotel, and you like a combination concierge/butler… You have my permission to speak up. My wife and I had a guest family up at a cottage we were renting once and we were constantly cleaning up after them. At one point, we had just finished cleaning up the kitchen, wiping down the counters and finishing up the dishes, and we wanted to relax, so we went down to the dock. Five minutes after that, they came in to make peanut-butter sandwiches (for themselves, natch), and left all the dirty plates and sticky cutlery on the table, lid off the peanut-butter jar, and ran back down to the dock for more splashy fun.
I'd had enough. I had to say to them: "Hey. You guys. This just isn't right." And delivered a little speech. They were a tad shocked and brought up short, but they upped their game after that. Some people just aren't aware, and I do think it's better to give people a chance to up their game before you decide you're never going to invite them back.
Don't necessarily be like me and cause friction. One cottage maven/doyenne I spoke to says to say simply: "Well, we did everything today. How about tomorrow you," and suggest stuff they can do to contribute the next day.
HOW TO BE A GOOD MOOCHER – I MEAN, GUEST
1. Bring lots of food and booze. I had a guest once, a guy with no driver's licence, come up to a water-access-only cottage we were renting for an entire week – toting a mickey of vodka. Naturally, it lasted him about one night and the next day he had to be ferried across the lake and driven into town for replenishment. Don't be that guy. I have taken a straw poll of owners of cottages and farms and the like and most say: Bring lots of food for yourself, including snacky stuff – especially if you're a family, and it goes double if you have little kids.
I think the reason people get confused on this score is that you don't usually bring food to people's houses in the city. But a different ethos prevails in cottage country – though I should say people I talked to were not unanimous on this score. Some said, "Nah, don't worry about it." But really, how could it hurt?
2. Try not to add to your host's workload. I know. For someone who claims to be writing a "slacker's guide" to cottaging, I'm talking a lot about work. But here's where I maybe ease up and say: You don't have to be puttering and doing chores all the time. Mostly it's enough if you and your family (if you have one in tow) just avoid adding to your host's workload by making a mess, leaving wet bathing suits strewn around and so on. As long as you do a few things – making a great show of them, of course – you're good.
I would say angle to make at least one meal for the whole gang every two days you're there. That's the gold standard and you may get turned down, but at least offer.
Oh, yeah: Do a lot of offering. See, offering's easy. You don't even have to get out of your chair or put down your drink to offer. I have a friend who has an uncanny knack for offering just as the boring chore is milliseconds from completion. Don't be him: It's become transparent over the years he does it on purpose. Make your offer sincere. You'll probably get turned down most of the time, but if you see the host working, offer to pitch in. You'll get hell's own brownie points without even stirring from your chair.
And look at it this way: All that gum-flapping and lip-movement as you loaf around in your Adirondack chair will make you extra-parched and your drink will be more refreshing.
3. Try to fit in with the "vibe." This one's a little murkier, but as an accomplished cottage-surfer (though I have to say those invites really dried up after we had our third kid), I have been to all kinds of cottages. And they really do vary – in terms of rusticity (and P.S., I hope it goes without saying that it's obviously in poor form to blurt out comments about the rusticity of the cottage, or to complain about it in any way) and tone, and I guess basically the hosts' definition of the verb "to cottage."
Some people like to fish, some like to golf, some like to water ski, some like to point out the constellations, some like to skinny dip, some like to go on hikes, some (my personal favourite) just like to sit and chat in a desultory fashion with thrillers and/or magazines in our laps. If your host is a "do stuff" type – e.g., "Hey, let's pack a picnic and hike up to Poison Ivy Point" – certainly go along.
But he/she should also understand if you also need a little down time/"me time" and just want to chillax in the hammock for a spell.
After all, that's what it's all about: an escape from all the frantic busyness and hurly-burly we seem to impose upon ourselves (we're the White Rabbit now, all of us: late, late, late for a very important date), a chance for a little down time, a little me time, to wind down a bit, ideally hear the plaintive cry of the loon at night while gazing at the stars, refresh/recharge your batteries for that inevitable, all-too-soon moment when you have to gather your forces and charge back into life's battle once again.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Mad Hatter was the one who said he was late, late for a very important date. In fact, it was the White Rabbit. This version has been corrected.