Autumn Escape to Muskoka

Lake Rosseau

Ever since Barry Manilow made a “Weekend in New England” synonymous with escaping from the city to a place that could “take you away” the notion of fleeing the urban metropolis for even a brief sojourn to tranquility has resonated. And it doesn’t even have to be to spend time with someone you see only infrequently (as the song seems to imply). Our escape to the country this past week wasn’t a weekend (it was a mid-week sojourn which is even better), it was the two of us who spend all our time together (who better to accompany you to commune with nature) and it wasn’t New England (it was the Muskoka Lakes region of Canada). But that’s just splitting hairs. We had a wonderful time.

We leave Toronto and head north toward what is referred to in the city as “cottage country.” This cottage country is situated on the southernmost edge of a landmass referred to as the Canadian Shield. This is a mass of some eight million square kilometres of pre-Cambrian rock face that all good little Canadians learn about in elementary school geography. We have to admit, it more frequently conjured images of flat masses of rock, and although this is the case way up north, this southern edge is largely forested. In the fall, it takes on rich hues of fiery red, vivid orange, vibrant yellow, and rusty brown. What really makes it cottage country, though, is the fact that the region is sprinkled with 1600 interconnected lakes and nineteen watersheds. That’s a lot of waterfront property!

The Muskoka region. We explored from Gravenhurst at the bottom around through Rosseau and over to Huntsville at the very top right-hand corner of the map.

As you can see on the map, many of the lakes are almost shard-like in their configuration, but among them are several sizable lakes. One of the three largest is Lake Rosseau – our destination. The drive north takes us almost three hours (only two and a bit if you don’t count the time it takes to actually clear the city!) and takes us past rolling countryside and lake after lake with cottages dotting the shorelines here and there. But don’t get the idea that these “cottages” are tiny substitutes for homes. There are a few of those, but so many of them have three-boat boathouses on the shore up from which you can glimpse the multi-million-dollar estates. These are the summer homes of the rich and famous, but mostly just rich. (The famous ones with homes here? These include Martin Short, Tom Hanks, Kate Hudson and parents Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russel, Steven Spielberg and even Justin Beiber if you must know.)

The day is rainy and cloudy, but we are never put off by the weather (remember the saying? There is no bad weather, only poor clothing choices. Amen to that). We arrive at our destination: the JW Marriott Rosseau Muskoka Resort and Spa to find that the staff all seem to have evaporated. There isn’t a bell-person or valet in sight. We haul our luggage in the door and once someone realizes that guests have arrived, the staff snap to Marriott-level guest service and we don’t have another complaint.

We arrive at the resort.

Our room has a wonderful view of the lake, a fireplace and a large terrace. Since the weather is a bit brisk, we don’t have much of a chance to sit out and meditate on the water and the clean air, but it’s wonderful nonetheless. Since it turns out that much of the resort is time-shared, the accommodation, regardless of size, seems to all have kitchenettes, eating and lounging areas. Our room was very spacious with a wonderful, large bathroom.

The living area of our waterview room…
Our fireplace…
Our view.

You could be forgiven for expecting this hotel to be a bit like the old-time grand hotels that we wrote about after we visited the Sagamore in upstate New York, but this one was actually built only ten years ago. This actually has a lot going for it since it means that the rooms are much larger and the bathrooms soooo much larger and better equipped.

Lake Rosseau waterfront at the resort.

With the nippy fall day, we really enjoy the two wonderful fireplaces in the lobby areas on the main floor – and a soaring atrium, a few other features that don’t come along with the old hotels. The hotel has two terrific high-end restaurants and we experience both. Teca, the Italian restaurant, is one of those places that make you feel as if you aren’t actually in a hotel rather dining at an esteemed restaurant anywhere in the world. The food and service are both brilliant. The Chop House is also a terrific steakhouse.

The resort from the water side.

So, here we are in Muskoka. What to do? The resort itself offers a few activities, none of which are the kinds of things we like to do, so we decide to explore the area. Each day we head out to explore another road and visit the three largest towns in the regions Bracebridge, Gravenhurst and Huntsville. Bear in mind that the population of Huntsville, the largest, is something shy of 20,000. That being said, we manage to find great places for lunch and Patty finds at least four terrific little boutiques for a bit of shopping. When we arrive back at the resort, the staff have a wood fire burning out front. One day they’re asking us to join them to roast marshmallows. Another day they’re offering hot chocolate. There is hardly another soul around in spite of the fact that a convention has arrived. We love the solitude.

If it had been a bit earlier in the season, we could have boarded one of the vintage lake steamers from the dock at Gravenhurst to tour Lake Rosseau from the water. Maybe next time.

But the highlight of the visit was the young people working at the Marriott resort. They represented a variety of ethnicities and cultures yet seemed all to be acquiring the Marriott culture that is always something we look forward to when we visit other cities and countries. A weekend in New England? How about a mid-week escape to Muskoka? Done!

When both locals and tourists love a restaurant, you know it has to be good: Rhubarb Café in Nova Scotia

img_3994One of the great pleasures of travel is discovering new places to eat. Sometimes, though, revisiting a favourite haunt can be equally fabulous as illustrated by our recent road trip through northeastern US and Canada.

When visiting Halifax, Nova Scotia, it is mandatory to take a trip along what the tourism people call the “lighthouse route.” And for discerning travelers, it’s mandatory to eat along the way. There are choices: you can eat at Peggy’s Cove if all you really want is the view of the lighthouse (the food is secondary), or you can stop in at Hackett’s Cove and eat at the Finer Diner. We aren’t kidding: that’s really their name (the food is okay; the view okay). We’ve eaten at both on more than one occasion. Or you can make the right choice and stop in Indian Harbour at the best of the lot: Rhubarb Café.

Let’s back-track for just a moment. We used to live on the east coast, on the shore of St. Margaret’s Bay about a seven-minute drive from Rhubarb, a restaurant that has had at least three different owners since we first began visiting it. But it wasn’t until the current proprietors took it over that it was truly able to strike that balance that restaurants in touristy areas need – they need to offer something for tourists and locals equally so that they can thrive in both the tourist season and in the off season. Current owner/operators Diane and Jim Buckle have found just the right recipe.

You leave downtown Halifax and take route 333 along the coast, looping past Peggy’s Cove on the way to Indian Harbour. You can eventually close up the loop and head back into the city, or continue along the St. Margaret’s Bay Road (or the highway if you prefer) down along Nova Scotia’s south shore. But before you do, have lunch, dinner or weekend brunch at Rhubarb.

map-to-rhubarb

Rhubarb’s tag line is “…delicious food and welcoming service in a cozy seaside setting…” And it lives up to its press. We first met Diane when she was working at the restaurant at Peggy’s Cove many years ago. We always knew that she had exactly the right personality and customer service mentality to make it on her own in the business if the opportunity presented itself. When she and her husband Jim took over Rhubarb some years ago, we couldn’t have been more delighted for them – and for us.

img_3993
Restauranteur-extraordinaire, Diane Buckle, behind her bar at Rhubarb.

 

Located adjacent to Oceanstone Seaside Resort (but not actually a part of it), Rhubarb focuses its menu on comfort food with a dash of culinary inventiveness. For example, their kale Caesar salad is truly wonderful, as are their pork tenderloin and their crispy haddock – these are favourites of ours. However, we also visit Rhubarb for creative pizzas, and they often offer a specially-topped pizza of the day. Their 10-inch, thin-crust pizzas are really worth trying. Art’s favourite is the Lawrencetown (named after a famous Nova Scotia beach) – bacon, red onion, pineapple and hot peppers. Odd sounding? Maybe, but it works.

So the food is worth the drive. And the welcoming service is worth the drive. What about the ambience?

The cozy dining room has two focal points: the view of the bay beyond (it’s not directly on the water), and the large fireplace. As you dine, you’ll be surrounded by a plethora of local artists’ work. Every time we visit, the art work is different – and it is all for sale. It’s great fun to take a walk around and peer at the walls while waiting for lunch – although if it’s busy you might want to peer from afar so as not to annoy other diners! Feel free to buy one, though.

It’s not often that we focus on just one restaurant or hotel in our stories, but this one is worth spending a bit of time on. Wonderful people serving delicious comfort food. Need we say more?

Visit Rhubarb online at http://www.rhubarbrestaurant.ca/ and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/therhubarbrestaurant/?fref=ts

Making Discerning Travel choices: A tale of two inns

adirondack-chairsThere is nothing quite like an extended road trip to teach you a few things about making discerning travel choices. We have just returned from a three-stage trip that took us from Toronto through the Niagara peninsula to upstate New York then on to New Hampshire, New Brunswick and ending up in (stage two) Halifax, Nova Scotia for a five-day stop to visit friends and family. The third stage took us home from Halifax via Nova Scotia’s south shore, St. Andrews, New Brunswick then on to Wentworth-by-the Sea in New Hampshire and Lake Placid NY before arriving back in Toronto. Planning this kind of trip can tax the discernment of even the most seasoned of us! And plan we do.

There are road-trippers who can just pack a bag, throw it in the trunk and set off in a direction with little idea of where they might be stopping, eating, sleeping or even ending up. We are not like that. We like new experiences and discovering the delights of new places, but we don’t like to be surprised by our accommodation. This may hearken back to Patty’s childhood when family holidays to visit the grandmother consisted of three or four days in the car punctuated by nights in roadside motels – the kind with those plastic chairs outside of every door and your car parked nose up to your window. And of course the choice was based on which ones had “vacancy” signs out front when her father was tired of driving. Leaves too much to chance for discerning travelers of a certain age. So we conduct our due diligence, plot a course, book the hotels and set out. This time we stayed at a few tried-and-true properties, but opted for some new experiences. We were mostly happy, but at least one of our choices taught us yet new lessons about discernment.

As we’ve said before, the discerning traveler is a discriminating traveler.

“This is the traveler who is astute, judicious, perceptive, sensitive, insightful. It’s not necessarily for the ‘luxury’ traveler…travelers who want to see the world and want to do it in a way that is comfortable and makes them feel that travel itself is a luxury…”

In addition to this, discerning travelers want to be assured that they are getting value for the amount of money that they are willing to pay. Almost always, this pays off in experiences that we truly savour. This time we had one experience that didn’t meet its mark. It’s all a matter of expectations. The story involves two inns in the north-eastern US – one in upstate New York, the other in northern New Hampshire in the White Mountains.

The first stop on our road trip was Geneva, New York. A lovely little town located on the northern end of Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes region of New York, Geneva is home to the beautiful Hobart and William Smith Colleges that meant nothing to us until we realized they are the successor of what used to be Geneva College, including Geneva Medical College. We recognized that as the alma mater of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the US in 1849. The campus is beautiful and the ambience very cultured.

img_3874We selected Geneva-on-the Lake, a beautiful inn which is, as its name suggests, on the lake. Its history dates to 1910 when it was built as a private residence for a prominent Geneva resident. After the original owner died, his wife and son expanded the original house relying heavily on an aesthetic they had picked up on visits to Italy: it is reminiscent of the Italian Renaissance. In 1949 they sold it to the Capuchin Fathers, a branch of the Franciscan order after which it served as a seminary and monastery until 1974. Remnants of that life are still evident. For four years in the 1970’s it housed Vietnam veterans as well as students, but had periods of abandonment. It was restored to its current state in the early 1980’s and has been a year-round resort ever since.

We had booked a small suite and when we arrived we found we had been upgraded to a very large one. Knowing we were booking into an old property, we were nevertheless impressed with the upkeep of the building and especially its environment. The dining room was absolutely perfect, serving truly gourmet fare surrounded by a romantic ambience that included a live harpist. And the grounds were a delight. The expensive price tag was worth it. Then we were on to Saratoga Springs followed by Franconia, New Hampshire where we stayed at inn number two.

img_3937The Franconia Inn also has a history. Also situated on a large piece of property (in this case evidently 107 acres), this inn dates to 1863 and its focus is on downhill skiing in the nearby Franconia notch area as well as cross-country-skiing and hiking. It also has a stable for horseback riding.

We arrived at this inn to be greeted by a slightly sloppy-looking, harried front-desk clerk who was on the phone telling a client that indeed they did have rooms available for that night. When we finally checked in, we had to drag our bags up the front steps (yes, there is a ramp, but it does not lead to anywhere near the driveway and lands in an unpaved parking lot shared by the riding stables), then up a full flight of stairs to the second floor.

We had booked what they referred to as a “spacious” room – level three out of four levels they offer (good lord, what must the “cozy” rooms look like?). Anyway, it had no phone to even call the front desk to ask for towels nor did it have a television. This is not a big issue, but it’s the twenty-first century and this is not an ashram hosting a meditation retreat. The bathroom was small and pokey, but worst of all in it was the trickle of water that passed for a shower the next morning. The wallpaper was hideous, but that’s just a taste thing. Then there was the outdoor activity.

First, this inn is not located in the kind of place that Geneva-on-the-Lake is. It is a few miles from town on a small highway with its unpaved parking lot across the street. That meant that we’d focus on the walking trails that the front desk clerk told us were out behind the inn. She handed us a map and we were off.

We found the place where the grass was cut deeper and noted the first marker leading us to the trail, so we were off. It wasn’t long before we began to notice that the trail was not, in fact, maintained. It was only as wide as the horses needed: it was a horse trail. We walked further and found not a single other marker to indicate the direction we should go and the trail got narrower and muddier as we went. Finally, we came upon a small river. Frozen in winter, it would be a simple cross for a cross-country skier or even a horse in summer, but we had neither horses nor skis. The only way out was back the way we came. By the time we emerged from the “trail” our feet were soaked and filthy. When we told the desk clerk about the lack of maintenance, she rather unhelpfully said, “Oh.”

Finally, there ws the dining experience. The dining room is billed online as having “intimate candle lit tables” that take in the “spectacular view of the White Mountain landscape.” We’ll grant them that it was a dull and drizzly type of day, but there was absolutely no view whatsoever, and we seem to have missed the intimacy of this room that simply looked like a dining room in an old restaurant. The food was very good, though. Our main issue was with the service. At dinner that evening, there was a line up for seating in the sparsely populated space – there were servers about, but there did not seem to be anyone seating people. The next morning, we encountered the opposite problem: all the servers (three of them) were seating people, but there was no one to take orders. So we sat at our little table and froze for a while, then fled as quickly as possible to get into the car and onto the next stop.

The bottom line is that both of these experiences cost almost identical amounts of money (fairly pricey), and yet the experience was totally different. Our money was far better spent in the experience at Geneva than Franconia. The lesson for us: you can plan down to the final detail, then you have to let go and enjoy whatever experience pops up. We just laughed off the whole thing.

We look forward to returning to Geneva-on-the-Lake. Franconia Inn we’ll chalk up to experience.