Travel Canada: In the big country

The rural cottages beloved of urban Canadians offer peace and quiet close to home - and they're easy to rent.
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The Independent Culture
ON FRIDAY evenings in summer, the motorways leading out of Toronto are a stream of headlights moving north. It's the cottage rush, when city dwellers abandon their urban confines and drive north to be lulled to sleep by the sounds of lapping waves and the lonely call of Great Northern divers.

In a country 41 times the size of Britain, with about half the population, finding a secluded slice of wilderness is easy. The sprawling Canadian landscape, with the clear lakes and granite cliffs that were left behind by retreating ice sheets, is dotted generously with cottages.

The Canadian cottage, though, is a different species from its English cousin - no thatched roofs, wild roses or neatly clipped lawns, and not a scone or a teapot in sight. It can be anything from a simple cabin with no running water, electricity or telephone to a palatial lakeside estate with its own two-boat garage, tennis courts, guest quarters, satellite dish and mini-office.

Find something in between, and you have the perfect summer destination. The most difficult choice you'll have to make is deciding which deserted cove to lunch in, what species of fish to angle for, or which end of the hammock to rest your head.

Of course, it helps if you have Canadian friends, but renting or staying at a lodge is easy to fix up. Most rental cottages come equipped with everything you need, except for food, and often include extras such as a television set and a hot tub. Lodges offer a more pampered stay, but give you less wilderness and privacy.

Of the many cottage areas outside Toronto, Muskoka is one of the oldest. It has attracted wealthy visitors from as far away as Pittsburgh and New York since before Canada was even a country. Families would arrive by train and board steamships that dropped them off at its lavish resorts.

Many of the original resorts - and some of the steamships - still exist. Cruising through Muskoka's lakes, you see mansions that once belonged to some of Canada's and America's oldest families. A few modern celebrities have replaced the old-time indust- rialists; Hollywood couples, such as Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, have been joined by NHL hockey players.

East of Muskoka, though, in the Haliburton Highlands, the lakes are smaller, the cliffs higher, and rich and poor alike dress in simple cottage clothes.

The main advantage to a quieter area is that it will have more wildlife. A moose feeding in a swamp or shallow river is not an uncommon sight early in the morning. Beavers are almost guaranteed, and you may just see an otter. There are also black bears but, fortunately, they tend to hide away from people.

An early swim is the perfect start to the day. Save hiking or water sports for the afternoon and return to the dock to sunbathe, play cards, read, or climb into your boat. Lunch times are for barbecues.

If waterskiing, fishing, sailing, cruising on the lake or a walk through the woods don't appeal, try a solo paddle in a canoe,with little shoals of jumping fish as company.

Then it's back to the barbecue for the cottage dinner. Few pleasures surpass standing under a red sky, drinking beer and listening to steak sizzling. At night, sitting on the dock, stare at the pattern of waves caught by the moonlight and wonder at the sheer number of stars. Listen to the divers and sometimes the howl of a distant wolf, and remember how far away the city is.