05/29/2012 08:20 EDT | Updated 07/29/2012 05:12 EDT

The Beginner's Guide to Cottages


Cottaging is a way of life for Canucks. Going to camp, hitting the cabin, swinging by the lake house/beach/what-have-you: it's in our blood. Slowly but surely, Canadians have gone from rural dwellers to city-livers. As a result, our weekends away have become of paramount importance. Getting out of town and getting into some nature, a slower-paced lifestyle, and a more casual family rhythm, can be a balm that lasts months past the initial application.

When you decide to make your grand escape, there are some basic summer cottage principles to keep in mind:

Leave your computer at home. Same with your smartphone, or any other tech-toy that ties you into work mode. Cottaging is a vacation time, to visit with friends and family, and if you've marooned yourself in the bedroom to finish up spreadsheets, you're missing the point.

Cottages are often much less spacious than regular houses: bedrooms are smaller, bathrooms can be microscopic and common spaces, like kitchens and dens, can have folks tripping over each other. Friends you love having dinner with in the city might become people who seem constantly underfoot, so plan time alone -- both truly solo, and with just your partner/children. If you're feeling cramped in your little house, take advantage of the much larger natural world. Get outside. Swim in the river, go for a hike, sunbathe (use sunscreen!) on a beach. Sure, those are all available in the city, but how often do we use them? Treat the great outdoors like an extension of your cabin.

Don't go overboard with the programming, especially if you have kids. You may find that some structure (maybe in the form of a day camp) can be helpful, but one of the nicest things about getting away from TV and video games is that kids are often forced to come up with their own entertainment. Be prepared for lots of drawings, sand castles, child-created card games with unfathomable rules and dramatic reenactments of Disney movies. Bring some comic books in case you get a rain day, but trust your kids to engage in imaginative play.

If you're visiting friends at their cottage, bring your hosts a gift. Comestibles are an especially popular choice, because mealtimes are often casual, communal affairs, usually focused around the grill. Bring big hunks of meat to throw on the barbecue -- sausages, fish, steaks, what-have-you. Vegetarians are well-served by fresh asparagus or portobello mushrooms. If food isn't an option (long travel times out of the city in a hot car aren't known for their flavour-enhancing qualities), grab booze. Beer or wine can be stashed away and hauled out throughout the week, often at that magic, post-swim, pre-supper time where everyone is feeling hot and tired from the sun. For the cottagers who abstain, due to either age or preference, bring lemonade or artisan crackers.

Going in a different direction, you may choose to bring a cottage knick-knack. Although lots of people seem to think that cottaging "style" is a bit more lax than your regular condo-dwelling decorating, please refrain from bring those plaques that say things like, "If it's yellow, let it mellow," because...gross. Gifts like hammocks, beach towels, great summer reading books, cozy couch blankets and picture frames are much preferred: just because you're at a cottage, you don't have to bump your style levels down to "dowdy."

Get used to the idea that time will run a bit slower. Families that usually sit down for dinner at 5:30 sharp may find themselves setting the table at 7 p.m., and folks who usually wake with the sunrise might sleep in. Bedtimes might become more flexible. Keep everyone hydrated and fed, and let the days unfold with a more languid pace.

Use your vacation time to hit a reset button. If you've had a stressful few months -- kids are going bonkers, work's been hectic, no time to spend with your partner -- the time away from your usual triggers in the city can help reconnect with your family and your values. Don't be afraid to talk about how to keep the vacation energy going at home. Maybe you'll barbecue more, maybe your kids will take an art class, maybe you'll go out on date nights more often. Use your time at the cottage to help recalibrate the rest of your life, and to prioritize the kind of relaxing family connections that going to camp can bring you.