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Lake Erie's north shore: Unpretentious and undiscovered (for now)

Many of us dream of discovering a summer community that offers charm and respite before it's declared the next great getaway. On the shores of Lake Erie last August, designer and illustrator Virginia Johnson captured a spot with the perfect mix of nostalgia and natural beauty

The invitation

My mother called me early last summer to ask if I'd like to go on a writing holiday with her. She was working on her new book and I was finishing a travel guide, so I couldn't think of a more relaxing way to spend a week. A close friend offered us the use of a family cottage that was built at the turn of the last century on the northern shore of Lake Erie for use by families from nearby Chatham, and for Americans travelling from Cleveland and Detroit. It sits in a graceful row of summer homes all facing the lake, linked by a waterfront path.

Small wonder

The cottage is diminutive and full of heart. It was purchased by the current owner's grandfather in 1929 and has since welcomed three generations to read, swim and spend time together. In 1,300 square feet, it packs in a dining room, five bedrooms, a summer porch, a living room, a kitchen and a bathroom. The furnishings are glamorous yet informal – a sideboard is stocked with heirloom dinner plates and a corner cabinet displays crystal wine glasses. But there is no dishwasher, bathtub, washing machine or places to hang up your clothes. The cottage insists you live in a bygone era.

Collectors' items

Exuberant pieces of porcelain and unique textiles reflect the family's eye for beauty; there are linen tea cozies, hand-stitched with animal and flower motifs, little poppy-shaped dishes scattered here and there on tables, a large, scalloped shell found in Florida and zigzag-patterned seat cushions sewn to fit each chair. The kitchen cupboard is crowded with jade-green platters and flower-festooned pitchers. Behind the broom-closet door, various custodians have recorded in pencil every update during the past 100 years: "Living room and bathroom painted 1973 (Oatmeal)."

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Room with a view

The wraparound screened-in porch is the cottage's most divine feature. It's about eight feet deep and L-shaped, so that when my mother and I sat down in the mornings to write, we didn't see each other for hours. We counted 15 mismatched chairs, some of which have been there for over 100 years, made of wicker or wood, all painted white, arranged in clusters as if in conversation. Outside the door, beyond the lakefront path, Lake Erie's waves lap the shore just a few feet away. After the sun had set, we sat in the dark and watched the shadows of people strolling by.

Master retreat

There are three bedrooms on the main floor and two in the attic – each barely large enough for a double bed. Everything has been sewn by a local seamstress, from chenille bedspreads dotted with pompoms to matching curtains hemmed at windowsill length. The parents' bedroom has windows on three sides and its beadboard walls are painted a pale celery hue to reflect the light. A leafy matelassé quilt with scallop-trimmed pillows covers the bed, and framed photos of family adventures hang above a tiny corner sink.

Local flavour

In the afternoons, we ventured farther afield. Some days we swam at the glass-roofed Blenheim Community Centre, a gift to the town from a local doctor, or drove to Chatham to visit the clothing shops on King Street and the second-hand bookstore, Book Brothers. The lakeside town of Erieau has an arts and crafts festival, and there we picked up jewellery, a hand-carved walking stick and crocheted dish towels. For dinner out, everyone raved about the fresh yellow perch served fish-and-chips style at the Sandbar Pub. You'll likely spot a few other tourists there in the summer, enjoying the undiscovered, unpretentious charm of an area on the cusp of revival.

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