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Cottage etiquette 101 for the August long weekend


Cottage season is in full swing and though being invited to one sounds like a welcome retreat, it has the potential to go awry. But the main thing is to manage the expectations of both the host and guests.

So what do you need to know?

Seasoned summer host and Toronto party fixture Tamara Bahry, has seen it all over the past 25 years she’s been hosting.

She built her Lake Rosseau cottage with her partner Rob White, specifically with entertaining in mind. “Inviting friends into the space that makes me the most comfortable and happy makes me feel closer to them,” said Bahry.“My hope is that everyone that comes through our door can feel that energy.”

Their cottage has been used to host family (she and Rob are a blended family with six kids) friends and charitable fundraisers, even one where she had Sam Roberts Band perform on her dock.

Those who have stayed at her place say she goes above and beyond when hosting. A jet-setter who has stayed at various top-tier hotels, she’s all about hospitality. She has care packages for guests on their bed upon arrival with a full itinerary, toiletries for the weekend, Muskoka merch and a little bottle of whatever her guests favoured drink is. She allows guests to take care of themselves for breakfast at their leisure, then has activities lined up for the day, and she hosts epic meals and dockside snacks as the day goes on.

According to Bahry, being a good guest begins before you even head up.

Ask your host if there’s anything specific you can bring, whether there are any planned meals or dishes you can contribute to, inform them if you have any dietary restrictions or allergies, ask if you should bring your own towel(s), if you can bring a pet and if there’s anything you should be aware of to prepare for your stay.

Once there, she loves it when guests ask how can they can help. “I love just dedicating little chores. Anything from helping me set the table to taking ashes out of the firepit,” Bahry said. She said there’s so much work that goes into a cottage so by asking the host what they need, you won’t overwhelm their system or space.

If like Bahry, your host plans an itinerary for your stay, let them know beforehand if you don’t feel comfortable doing water activities, can’t swim, have a fear of bugs, bats, etc., so they can prepare accordingly without being caught off-guard. Their goal is to make you feel comfortable.

Having clear communication from the get-go is key, said etiquette expert Karen Cleveland. “Never make assumptions about much your host wants to take on. Some people relish taking care of their guests while others are quite happy to leave guests to be self-sufficient,” Cleveland said.

“Leave nothing to chance. Before your stay, ask how they plan to divide meals and how can you contribute. If they reply that no help is required, be a great guest in other ways.” She suggests making yourself available, or at least offering, to pitch in when it comes to prepping food, cooking, cleaning and setting up pillows or patio furniture.

“Cottages are communal get-togethers and everyone should be equally doing their part and no one feels taken advantage of,” Cleveland said. Offering to bring things to and from the dock, and if you’re the first up, putting some coffee on, stripping the bed before you leave … being genuinely helpful is the name of the game.

While there, both women suggest asking if there are any cottage rules (like not bringing food in the bedrooms, or keeping the doors closed to prevent pets from getting into the rooms.) Don’t wear perfume or scents (which attract bugs) and most importantly, don’t complain.

“If you come up north, there’s mosquitoes. Or if you jump in the lake don’t be startled by a fish,” Bahry said. “Remember your surroundings and where you are,” Bahry said. Same goes for poor Wi-Fi and cell service. No one likes a whiner and it impacts everyone’s energy.

Proper etiquette dictates that you not show up empty-handed, even if the host tells you not to bring anything. Cleveland suggests bringing something to show your gratitude, while sticking within your financial comfort level. “A great bottle of wine is always nice, so is a fun board game, swanky candle or baked goods for everyone to enjoy,” Cleveland said.

Another gesture that goes a long way? Bringing ingredients to make a signature cocktail or daytime snack for everyone to enjoy. “If you have something that you love to prepare or drink, it’s nice to bring enough for everyone. For example, offer to make a pitcher of Caesars, not just one for yourself,” Cleveland said.

Some of Bahry’s pet peeves: When guests bring up an entire watermelon, which not only overwhelms her fridge and/or counter space, but requires her to do more work to have to cut the darn thing. “Don’t bring me a watermelon unless you’re prepared to make some sort of cocktail out of the watermelon or cut it up!”

“Another pet peeve is when one guest brings one bottle of wine for a weekend and then drinks 10 bottles of your wine,” Bahry said. “If you’re going to be there for a whole weekend, maybe bring a half a case of wine so you know that you’re going to be prepared to drink all weekend.”

Little freedom or privacy are found at a cottage, so do your best to keep disagreements, disappointments and grievances at bay. If there’s something bothering you, politely pull aside the person you’re upset with or agree to talk to them about it once you’re heading back to the city.

Ultimately the cottage is someone’s home, so treat it with the same respect you would your own home. Contribute, show gratitude, clean up after yourself, be mindful of your alcohol or cannabis consumption, realize your voice travels on a lake and that cottages tend to have thin walls and don’t overstay your welcome.

Before leaving the cottage, Bahry said to ask your host if they mind if you strip the bed, and if you can stick the sheets and the towels you’ve used in the wash or can leave it somewhere for them to wash. Like all relationships, communication and respect is key — as is reading the room – so make yourself at home … but don’t get too cosy.

Jen Kirsch is a Toronto-based writer and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @jen_kirsch

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