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The sharp clean smell of pine trees, a loon’s haunting call, clean air and fresh lake water for swimming and boating – these are just a few of the reasons Canadians look forward to their annual summer sojourn in cottage country. Every province has its own version, including Ontario’s Muskoka, Kawartha Lakes and Georgian Bay regions, Quebec’s Laurentians and the beautiful shores of Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba.
When I was a child, we’d pack the car to the roof with supplies and head north, away from the bustle of Toronto to a cottage at the pristine tip of the Bruce Peninsula, just outside Tobermory, Ont. Our stove and refrigerator were propane fuelled. We had no electricity, the water pump was out back, as was the outhouse. My brother and I would come back to the city brown as berries at the end of the summer, happily sated with our family holiday of snorkeling, hiking in the woods, card games, BBQs, roasting marshmallows, and singing songs around the campfire.
Things are a bit different now. Most cottages have electricity and running water, but the family tradition of heading out to Canada’s beautiful wilderness for a holiday remains strong.
In Ontario, you can experience a cottage-like vacation without actually having to invest in a piece of property. There are a number of lodges and resorts that cater to people who want to enjoy the great outdoors including the lovely Viamede Resort on Stoney Lake, near Peterborough, Ont.
Viamede Resort is actually the amalgamation of two historic holiday destinations, Viamede Resort and the Inn at Mount Julian. Built in the late 1800s, Viamede went through a dramatic revitalization in 2010 when it was bought by Swiss-trained hotelier Ben Sämann. Now featuring an indoor-outdoor pool, fitness centre, and rooms with Jacuzzi tubs, the resort is also true to its roots, with a number of family-style cottages (some are dog friendly) and activities such as canoeing and kayaking, six km of nature trails, a swimming beach, and an outdoor grassy area for horseshoe games, badminton, soccer and football.
Then there’s the food. Breakfast is a delightful buffet with scrambled eggs, crispy bacon, sausages, pancakes, pastries, cereal, toast, fruit, yogurt, juice and bottomless cups of coffee. Dinner is a sensational experience if you book a table at the Mount Julian restaurant for the five, seven or nine-course tasting menu. Chef Kevin McKenna, who honed his skills at top restaurants in England and Canada, takes pride in sourcing most ingredients locally, including from the resort’s farm which raises ducks, chickens and pork.
“That’s wild garlic,” says McKenna, pointing to some tender shoots under a bush. We are standing on the hill in front of the restaurant. It’s a bit early in the season but McKenna explains by end of August his garden is overflowing with luscious heirloom tomatoes, sweet carrots and plenty of greens. McKenna is fearless when it comes to foraging on the 165-acre property and depending on what he finds, the menu might be spiked with cattails, wild leeks, mushrooms or wild blueberries.
Prior to dinner, my husband Steve and I attend a specialty coffee-making seminar in the restaurant’s bar area. “Do you want to try making a B52, Mexican or Hot Russian coffee?” asks Kryshelle, the resident mixologist. Steve goes for the Mexican with tequila, Kahlua, hot coffee and a rim of spiced sugar. He offers me a sip – delicious and not too sweet. “You really want to use a good tequila,” explains Kryshelle, noting that the cheaper brands are harsh because they are not made with 100 per cent agave. I try the Hot Russian, with vodka, Kahlua and a shot of espresso coffee. Yummy. One attendee opts for the B52 coffee with Kahlua, Bailey’s and Gran Marnier, topped with whipped cream. “Just like an alcoholic milkshake,” he reports.
In the charming Mount Julian restaurant, smooth Nat King Cole songs fill the air from an old-style turntable. We opt for the nine-course tasting menu and start with delicate wild leek and rabbit consommé, followed by wild leek maple duck ham with pickled fiddlehead, baby kale and foie gras. The plates are small and the pairings from wineries such as Rosehall Run Vineyards, Chateau des Charmes and Cave Spring Cellars are superb. We sample sunfish with carrots and potatoes, Manitoulin trout, Kawartha lamb, aged Traynor Farms rib-eye steak, a sweet carrot and goat milk custard, Gunn’s Hill 5 Brothers cow’s milk cheese and an incredible chocolate maple mousse with candied cocoa nibs and caramel ice cream.
Steve and I are beyond full when finished. We vow to get some extra exercise the next day. Heading back to our lakeside cottage that night, we agree that what McKenna has achieved with so many local ingredients is amazing.
The food at Viamede is leaps and bounds above that I’ve had at most traditional cottage-style resorts. When you visit this outstanding destination, make sure you arrive with a hearty appetite, and don’t forget to take a hike or visit the farm. That way you’ll really appreciate all the care and respect that goes into chef McKenna’s creations.
For more information: viamede.com