So the second long weekend of the summer season is upon us, and you still haven't rented a place for your cottage getaway. Nice work, slacker. While it's too late to land one for a Canada Day bash, rest easy, there's still time to find a place on the lake. You may just have to lower your expectations – from size and location to timing and amenities – on what you'll be able to get.
At this stage of the game, there's no point in beating yourself up about it too much. Even if you'd gotten your act together a few weeks ago, you may already have been too late. "The large properties with five or seven bedrooms, that will sleep 14, probably got booked back in December," says Heather Bayer of Cottage Link Rental Management, based in Havelock, Ont. And most last-minuters tend to want places that'll sleep 10 or 15 people, which is a problem in itself. Large groups – particularly of the youthful variety – will find that owners are reluctant to turn their cottage into a part-time party palace.
With the number of summer weekends remaining rapidly dwindling, you need to focus your priorities. So forget about re-living your high-school days with your buds, forgo the full-blown family reunion, and start looking for something just big enough for your immediate family.
As for availability, as in all things real-estate-related, it all comes down to location, location, location. While for many, Muskoka has become synonymous with cottaging in Ontario, its popularity spells the kiss of death for tardily timed rentals.
Instead of heading north, consider east. Once you're outside the city limits, there are a number of zigzagging routes that will lead you to choice spots such as Haliburton, the Kawarthas, or the enticingly named Land o' Lakes. There are also numerous small cottage communities dotting the Lake Erie shore to the west, such as Port Rowan and around Rondeau Provincial Park, and several beach-town options along Lake Huron, including Grand Bend and Kincardine, many only two or three hours from the city.
But if it's Group of Seven granite and windswept pines that you must have, then look north, but instead of veering toward lakes Muskoka, Rosseau, and Joseph, stay on the 400 and make your way towards Parry Sound or the countless inland lakes north of the Muskoka Big Three.
Outside of referrals from a friend of a friend, the best way to finally land a cottage is by searching one of the dozens of cottage-rental websites such as rentcottage.com, cottagerental.com, and cottagelink.com, many of which feature "last minute" sections so you can quickly see what's still available. (Site managers also point out that they get new listings throughout the year, so you should check periodically to see if anything's been added.) "The key is to ask lots of questions," says Mike Campbell, of Ontario Cottage Rentals, which focuses on Lake Huron and the Bruce Peninsula. He also advises you carefully read what's in the listing – and be conscious of what may be omitted – and suggests reading guest reviews, if available, for some honest advice.
One sure way to find a place is to be flexible with your time. "For someone looking to rent specifically for the long weekend, it'll be hard to find something for just two nights," says Laura Gustafsson of Vacation Time Real Estate in Gravenhurst, Ont., pointing out that most owners try to rent by the week, typically on a Saturday-to-Saturday schedule. Which is great if you can manage some mid-week time off, but you're pretty much out of luck if Saturday and Sunday are all you've got.
With the prime-time pickings pretty slim, you'll have more luck if you're willing to take something that's, shall we say, less desirable. "We have some properties where you have to walk a few minutes to get the water," says Ms. Bayer. "Those are always the ones that go last, but you get a really nice property at a great price." These types of places are particularly prevalent in beach towns like Wasaga, where landlocked double-wides a block or two from the water count as cottages.
Ultimately, if your goal is to simply head up north for some time on the water, keep in mind that cottages aren't the only accommodations available. On the high end, there are a number of luxury resorts like Arowhon Pines in Alqonquin Park, or Gravenhurst's Taboo, at the south end of Lake Muskoka. A cheaper option is the many cabin-style resorts that dot lakes across the province, or one of the many small no-tell motels that dot the lake country highways and byways. (It's worth noting that if you're unfamiliar with a particular area, you should ask if there are any resorts or campgrounds on the lake that may disrupt your peace and quiet.) And, in the absolute worst-case scenario, you can always pitch a tent in a provincial park or private campground.
It may not be the cottage dream but hey, when you've left it this long, you take what you can get. Now hop to it, slacker.
BEFORE YOU RENT
Ask these five key questions
•If the online photos don't make it clear, ask for a detailed description of the shoreline. It could be anything from a kid-friendly sandy beach, to a dock on deep water.
•Is there any wildlife or are there other potential hazards (say, prolific poison ivy) you need to be aware of if visiting with children or pets?
•Do you need to bring any of the following: linens, cooking utensils, plates and cutlery, barbecue fuel, drinking water, toilet paper?
•On that note, is there an outhouse, septic system, grey water pit, or composting toilet? And, if you have to ask what any of those are, you'll also have to ask for detailed instructions on how to use them.
•Unless you're specifically trying to get away from them, you may find yourself at a loss if the cottage doesn't have television, cellphone, or Internet connectivity.
Special to The Globe and Mail