‘Friends with benefits’ takes on a whole new meaning in a travel-in-place kind of winter…
By Doug Wallace
Now that we’ve had practically a whole year of schlepping around the province – Brockville? Bewitching! Goderich? Gorgeous! Quinte? So quaint! – where to next? I’ll tell you where: pulling into the driveway of your friends’ comfortable country home for the weekend, that’s where. Oh the weather outside is frightful, but a kind invitation to spend the weekend in a cottage-slash-second-home-slash-woodland-retreat is so delightful.
It all started last spring, didn’t it, when those who could skipped town for hideaways in the hills and on the lakes – lakes you’d never even heard of – oblivious to the jealousy of friends. While the majority of the city sweltered in their condos and lifted weights non-stop to keep from going crazy, the cottage country folks quietly slipped out to wherever to bake bread, stain deck railings, chug Aperol and hunker down in a deck chair to do a Sudoku or two. They seemed to bring on the envy themselves, especially the prolific Instagrammers: so much sharing, taunting with their serene sunsets and lakeview “docktails,” usually with a dog to manoeuvre into the picture for added cuteness. Wildflowers! Hammocks! Big novels with hard covers! Some stopped Facebooking almost as quickly as they had begun after realizing how privileged they seemed. Too late! We already knew who had the empty bunkies, where we could cadge a free bed for the weekend.
My partner and I continue to head out of town whenever we are invited. And when we aren’t, we seem to invite ourselves. This always works. Happily, we find our friends just as we left them: friendly! Some have gone so far as to put their city homes up for sale, switching gears to country living permanently. All are glad to see us. And not sick of each other per se, but happy to see a fresh face and to bend a new ear. And mostly, we get invited back – because all you have to do to my partner is fill him with tequila and set him up in the middle of the room and he will entertain everyone.
If your invitations are not coming as quickly or as steadily as you’d like them to, or if you need some on-the-ground intel this year, here’s some advice:
Be honest. Invite yourself over with a perfectly worded email – then rewrite it a few times to get beyond perfect – being totally up-front. Basically, the message is: “We miss you. We love you. When can we jump in the car and come over for a few days? We will bring [insert something they really like].”
Bring drinks. When things are inked on your calendar, heed the wise words of my grandmother: never come calling with your hands by your sides. In other words, don’t show up at anyone’s house without loads of drinks and a hostess present or two. Bring as much booze as you yourselves will likely drink over the course of your visit, and make a special gift of a bottle of Scotch or Champagne. Of course, if they’re non-guzzlers, bring something else: perfume, hot sauce, whatever their poison.
Bring food. Kitchen items are always nice: a little box of cakes, gourmet preserves, a jar of homemade something or other, a nice ham in a basket. We bring fridge staples. We also bring gummies. Your host will also appreciate a few rolls of paper towels – you will stand out as standout guests. I once brought the weekend hosts the board game Mystery Date and forced everyone to play it. Fun times with the gays and Milton Bradley.
Cook something. Offering to prepare dinner not only takes a meal (or two) off the host’s to-do list, it also makes your visit less expensive. Do you even know how many dollars’ worth of food you can eat in one weekend? Alternatively, you can take your hosts out if the situation allows, or spring for takeout. Doesn’t have to be fancy. And when you’re being cooked for, offer to help or get out of the way, eat what’s put in front of you, and say thank you.
Be low-maintenance. Don’t pitch up and expect to be entertained every minute of the day or waited on hand and foot. Avoid invading their space too much and don’t leave things lying around. Strike off on your own in the car for an afternoon of hiking or shopping, time enough to give your hosts a break. Minimize your footprint and try to contain your mess (i.e., don’t have stuff in every corner of every room).
Sleep in. Nobody wants to get up to find you sitting at the kitchen table twiddling your thumbs. Ask in advance if the host would like you to bring bed linens or bath towels. Offer to strip your bed on the last morning. But ask first – don’t just do it.
Have an exit strategy. As Benjamin Franklin famously said: “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.” Cleaning up after yourself on the way out of the house is crucial, the tipping point for whether or not you will be invited back. Dismiss any tut-tutting – get on the end of the vacuum and make yourself useful.
If you don’t have the ‘right’ friends
The fall was good for heading out on the open highway and chancing visits to various spots in Ontario, little gems we’d all forgotten about. But now, cabins and camping are out, so if you’re not lucky enough to know the ‘right’ kind of people – or if you want to luxuriate without damaging friendships – you may have to splurge on a night or two at a resort or a B&B to get away from the house. Staycations are great, but people really need to get out of Dodge to appreciate the art of escaping. Checking into resorts like Ste. Anne’s Spa in Grafton or The Northridge Inn up on Bernard Lake have their posh perks. Prince Edward County is really good for a nice weekend away. The new Drake Motor Inn in Wellington is fun and fabulous value, down the street from the Drake Devonshire proper. The newly refurbished Merrill House in Picton is landing in all the smart magazines, a stylish mix of trad and modern.
I love visiting my friends in the country. People in their own environment are so much more themselves when they’re at home. Connecting one-on-one for a whole weekend is enormously satisfying. You easily remember why you are friends in the first place. Our pals like us because we are easy-going good sports, but also because we know how to sit in a chair and shut up for a few hours. Practice makes perfect.
DOUG WALLACE is the editor and publisher of travel resource and podcast TravelRight.Today.