Walk down the main street of the village of Creemore, Ont., (pop. 1,500) on any Saturday morning from May to October and you're likely to run into one of your neighbours -- a neighbour from Toronto, that is.
This charming little town at the confluence of the Mad and Noisy Rivers about 100 kilometres north of Toronto and 25 kilometres south of Collingwood has become to Torontonians what the Hamptons are to New Yorkers and the Eastern Townships are to English-language Montrealers.
You might see developer Chuck Magwood sitting outside Creemore Picnic Café sipping a cappuccino and reading the paper. You might run into Toronto lawyer Jane Pepino buying birdseed at the hardware store, or former Toronto Life publisher Bill Duron picking up sheep's milk cheese at the farmers market.
The list of prominent Torontonians who have headed for the hills is long and distinguished. Some are weekenders, others have managed to find a way to leave the city behind for good.
There are the publishers: among them Kirk Shearer (former publisher of Canadian Living) and Jeffrey Shearer (Kirk's brother and former vice-president of Telemedia). There are the media types: Andy Barrie (CBC Radio host) and Hartley Steward (Toronto Sun columnist). The professors: John Crispo (University of Toronto) and Brian Bixley (York University). And the artists: sculptors Rene Petitjean and Ralph Hind. Then there are the lawyers, designers, architects, land developers and CEOs.
Ms. Pepino, who leads the hectic urban life of a prominent lawyer during the week, has been spending weekends at "the farm" since 1990.
She was drawn to her place near the hamlet of Honeywood not just because of the peace and quiet, but for its proximity to the city and because she and her family can use it year-round.
Like most weekenders in the area, she is defiantly not a cottager. "I'm not big on the water and fiddling with boats," she says. "I wanted peace and quiet, something the Muskokas can't deliver."
Weekenders also don't have to endure the multilane madness and gridlock of Highways 400 or 401 to reach this patch of paradise. Creemore is a leisurely, scenic, 1½-hour drive through the undulating Hockley and Mulmur Hills along the never-very-busy Airport Road.
"I've had clients who have been to Tuscany and Provence and the first time they drive up to Creemore, they say it's the most beautiful drive they've ever seen," Royal LePage real-estate agent Susan Brown says.
Ms. Brown says the demand for Creemore getaways has been growing steadily since the real-estate market crashed in 1989, but "in the last three years, it has completely taken off."
"As they approach retirement," Ms. Brown says, "people are taking advantage of high Toronto house prices and cashing out their city homes, buying a condo to keep a foot in the market, and looking for a country place.
"The big places with a view and a river and a beautiful old farmhouse are coming on the market because now we have a market for them." Still, she says, it's not enough. Even though there are more million-dollar properties available than there have been for a dozen years, "we have buyers waiting in line on our database to buy something."
Today, you would be hard-pressed to find a farm with 20 hectares and a renovated old house for less than $500,000. Acreages with a river and a view are going for as much as $350,000.
Why Creemore? Word of mouth seems to have a lot to do with it. William Thorsell, CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum, bought a piece of land with a shack on it after visiting his friend Hugh Brewster (Addison Publishing) in the early '90s. Eventually he bought an acreage with views to the north and west. In 1997, he built his dream house and began inviting friends for country weekends. Some of those guests -- Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente and furniture designer Tom Deacon, for instance -- have followed him into the hills.
"Whenever anybody famous moves here," Ms. Brown says, "we get calls from buyers who have visited these people and decided they, too, want to live here."
Despite the soaring cost of the surrounding farmland, prices are less scary in town. A pretty Victorian on a nice lot, according to local real-estate agent Cheryl MacLaurin, can still be had for $175,000 to $200,000.
The 1987 opening of Creemore Springs Brewery (which was started by a pair of renegade city-dwellers) was the beginning of a renaissance for the town. The brewery has brought jobs (about 50 people are employed there) and tourists. Today, Creemore has an air of quiet prosperity; it is charming without being cloying.
The village sits in a basin surrounded by spectacular rolling hills. Unlike many small Ontario towns, there is no highway running through the community. The main drag, Mill Street, lined with ancient maples and Victorian red-brick houses, doesn't really go anywhere except downtown. The resulting low traffic gives the village a sleepy, calm quality.
Last year, Harrowsmith Country Life magazine named it one of the 10 prettiest towns in Ontario. Indeed, the business district, with its mix of high-end home-accessory stores, trendy coffee/sandwich bars and typical small-town fixtures such as the hardware store and the meat market, has survived the ravages of modernization pretty much intact.
For such a sleepy place, the social life is positively frenetic. According to Ms. Pepino, the social stratum is divided between skiers and golfers. The former join Devil's Glen or Mansfield ski clubs, the latter hang out at the Mad River Glen Golf Club. Creemore also has a tennis club and a movie group that goes to Collingwood to see a film each week.
At the Creemore Equestrian Centre, high on a hill overlooking Georgian Bay, bankers, land developers and academics can be found honing their dressage skills. And the Toronto and North York Hunt Club, long a King City fixture, has located its new hunt kennel in Mulmur Township. The opening meet was held there last weekend.
If one of its members dies, you might be invited to join the exclusive (only 75 members) Noisy River fishing club. The Purple Hills Arts and Heritage Group holds such events as lamb suppers featuring locally famous Metheral lamb and an annual studio tour in late September.
"Many of the weekenders have retired here and they have time to organize a lot of social activities," says wine agent and food writer Anna Hobbs, who, with her husband Bill, moved to the area permanently after weekending for 25 years. "We love it here, it's so casual and warm and friendly."
Phil Stevenson, a retired Toronto businessman who two years ago, with fellow retiree Craig Simpson, bought the weekly paper the Creemore Echo, says the town has avoided the plastic atmosphere of tourist destinations such as Niagara-on-the-Lake. "What makes it special is its realness," Mr. Stevenson says.
Only time will tell whether the area will remain at once remote and accessible. Many weekenders (or hill people, as they are known to locals for their habit of building their houses high up to take advantage of the sweeping views) are fiercely protective of the sanctuary they have found here. One well-known Torontonian declined to be interviewed for this article. "Oh no, please," he moaned into the phone, "we don't want it to be fashionable."