Thursday, November 7, 2013

Our Summer Vacation - Lumina Family Resort

Sitting in a resort room while my kids and wife go about the activities, I am left with some interesting observations. The observations are coloured with memories of my childhood and are reflected into my current experiences.

We are staying at one of a handful of all inclusive resorts in Ontario, as I have failed, once again, to get my new passport. I’ve only travelled a handful of times outside of Canada and indeed outside of my birthplace. It is strange then, to be vacationing near where my dad worked and just a short trip to my hometown.

When I was growing up, my mother took on many jobs, some of which were quite busy in the summer. She spent some time working as a cook, both in a resort and in a chip truck. Another set of summers saw her working in housekeeping in another inn not too dissimilar to this one. I remember the times when she came home from work exhausted. There were a few occasions that I went to work with her when my cousin or aunt or grandmother could not make it to babysit. This is why I find my current situation of being at a resort for the first time not far from where my mother spent some of her summers working a bit jarring.

In truth, I have always had trouble vacationing. My parents while not immigrants, lived in an area of Ontario that leaves a little to be desired in terms of economic development. Many families are living near the poverty line and definitely raise their kids within the 3500 to 4000 dollars a year that was recently suggested by the Frasier institute. Vacationing is not something that lower income people have the privilege of doing.

Skip forward. I live in Toronto in an income bracket that could be considered middle high to low upper income. We live just off the Beach which is one of the more affluent areas in Toronto. We live below our means using the combined skills of my wife’s innate frugalism and my life experience of subsistence living. My wife has been requesting that we finally have a proper vacation rather than a weekend away at Great Wolf Lodge or renting a cottage where we do all the work. Her ideal is to lie on the sand, in the sun with a good book and plenty of activities for the children to be kept busy and happy. It is easier to relax when planning has been taken out of your hands. You do not have to respond to requests of alleviating boredom. Our compromise was a split vacation where we spent half the week in a family resort and the other half in a couples resort in Ontario. It is a way of lowering the frog into the warm water, a metaphor that is patently false. Hopefully, the experience doesn’t bear that out.

The Resort

Lumina is located on Lake of Bays near Dwight. It has been around for almost a hundred years and is just outside Algonquin Park. You get activities, meals and maid service in almost wilderness. It is the biggest cottage resort on Lake of Bays. 

The clientele consists largely of middle income surbanites looking for a time for their kids to play safely. The mantra "We do it for the kids" comes up often in conversations. Greater than 60 per cent of the people here are returning families. They live their life, a few weeks at time during the year at vacations such as this. They kid themselves with saying that they are not so competitive the rest of the year but it is a different kind of competitiveness. The Jones’ syndrome lives but they do not recognize it.  

There is a little to begrudge them in spending their hard earned dollars from their white collar jobs of teachers, working in various government ministries, accounts and managers and the like. These are the same people with Costco memberships and this is their Costco vacation. Some of these people would be in the same demographic as Ford Nation. Politics is heard occasionally but only in subdued tones late at night while sharing beers on the patio.


5 bucolic cowbells ring to structure the day: 8:30 breakfast, 10 am activities for the different age groups, many resulting in trophies of mugs or t-shirts. 2:00 pm for afternoon activities, generally for the kiddies, 5:30 for supper, ahem dinner, and 7:00 pm for final kids activities. A silent bell is heard by every adult at 9:00 pm for the beginning of the adult only activities. Local music, euchre, darts and pool are commonly on the list. There are sign up sheets for every special activity.

It seems odd that many leave their 9-5 structured days, along with the structured kids’ activities of hockey, ballet, tennis, swimming, piano and so much more to go and get away from it all where structure is key.  All this structured time exists with competitive middle class games or skill such as ping pong, lawn bowling, pool, and tennis. These are all activities that many of the staff from the surrounding areas would consider upper class frills and perks. As young kids growing up in the area we could not afford such structured activities, I can not skate nor swim. Skating was expensive and there was little time to do these activities. 

never learned to swim in this land of lakes. The idea of a pool was only for the wealthy. I did spend some time at lakes on weekends here and there.  Once, one of my friends had an above ground pool from Canadian Tire that eventually collapsed only a year or two in. 

A pool; this resort that plays on the rustic has a pool. In my childhood, I would consider that only rich people could afford to go here. I am wrong. 

We end up spending most of our time here. The kids have already spent a week at a cottage elsewhere and prefer the warmer temperature of the pool. I can hide my unease and embarrassment of not being able to swim by practicing floating with a noodle while my wife gets her poolside reading done.

Most activities are group activities. Even the free time ends up with grouping along the shores of the lake. Growing up with the lake so near and not being able to get to it seems to be a recurring theme in my life. We live near Woodbine Beach in Toronto but rarely go down. The crowds dot the dirt and squeeze the pleasure of the surf from me. Muskoka seemed like a faraway word describing a faraway world that turned out to be like the Secret Garden, right next door. Tales of million dollar houses made my eyes into saucers and further distanced Muskoka from my everyday life growing up. Pictures by the esteemed Group of Seven seemed familiar but the way people talked of it seemed like some mystical place where individuals strove to find themselves alone inside the wilderness. Algonquin Park, 45 minutes from where I grew up and less than 30 minutes from the resort was this land painted and revered. Meanwhile, notes to remember to turn on the lights, group activities and mass swarms along the beach are wrought by those revering the mystical word Muskoka. 

It is funny to see a place so dependant on nature, ignoring the environment. My mother is the same. When you are so close to the trees, you see the leaves on your lawn, the inconvenience of the wildlife and the inherent dangers. Bears are no longer a photo opportunity. Moose are more dangerous than another roadside attraction. This lodge was built in a time where the concerns of nature had not been put forward before the greater society. Low flush toilets have not been heard of here.


On the first night, a fawn was seen in the bush beside the dining room. So many people dodge and point. A minor interest is created away from the roast beef buffet. Many of the locals and other vacationers from the area come based on the reknown of the Sunday buffet. The fawn is eventually spooked by someone coming from one of the cabin encircling the main lodge. Two days later, I see scat and flies on the lake facing lawn near the ladder ball court. I tell no one. If I was at home, I would take a shovel and put the small round turds into the bushes. My fear is that this would be put into the garbage like much of the other wastes such as grass and stuff.

My mom worked in several resort kitchens. My mother would sometimes copy recipes down. Exotic names like Steak au Poivre, dinner rolls, and others forgotten by me over the years. I now know that many of these dishes were already tired classics at the time but as a child in the late 70s and early 80s in rural Ontario, they seemed as if they belonged in another world. Dallas, the tv show about Texas millionaires nay billionaires was popular at the time and I imagined steak dinners every night for them served with escargots and all those other dishes. Some of these dishes show up on the menu. 

The food at Lumina is above diner food and probably is in line with what we are paying. I will review the restaurant in a separate post. It kind of deserves its own spotlight.

The bar is all standard booze. Even though two local breweries are close by, only one has representation and  the weakest products at that. Very few Canadian or craft brews make their life here. In fact, it seems that localness is left out. There are amazing local goods such as beer, ice cream, desserts, ginger ale and others but none are highlighted. In Toronto, these brand names are nostalgia items that garner a premium. In spite of all that, the bar does brisk business as it does at any cottage.


Looking at Lumina resort, I can see some of the same tensions that my mother spoke about during her working days. There is a natural split between long term local workers who use these jobs to feed their families versus the young adults working away from home and taking board at the resort.

Most of the teenagers and young adults are working for a way out, saving for University or college or just getting some cash for their upcoming wedding. Many of these workers live on site. Their quarters are in the main building above the kitchen. While it is admirable that there is no air conditioning, that must be the hottest spot on the site. If only older thinking of either putting the kitchen in an outbuilding or placing it on the highest floor had been done. Not much changes from year to year. Their summer may be filled with romance, after hours party while their days are filled with serving. The time off is scant, so any chance to relieve stress is filled.

A young bartender comes from the same cluster of small towns and hamlets that I come from. We know the same families but at different generations. It is the equivalent of dog sniffing and we know who each other is by their family. He left the small town to finish high school in Toronto and moved to Hamilton. He has found himself close to home for the past two years. He spends the whole summer without a day off, smiling and serving strangers to him but long time family to the lodge. At the ending of the season, he is a little less attentive but the regulars love him and he will be asked back again and again.

The cleanliness of the rooms would bother my mother who would consider the filth of the city folk sometimes including cases of empties and the occasional improperly discarded condom. I find myself judging to these standards even though my own house could not past maternal muster.

Left behind an armoire, a sweetart and an used Q-tip lie waiting to be cleaned. My son observes that these rooms must not have been used for a while as there is dust lying on some of the surfaces. We share adjoining rooms. Somewhere I have a picture of a bottle opener that I occasionally use to pop some beer tops.

One of the regulars notes that it is a 2 star resort with 5 star people. I assume he means clientele but in my more charitable moments realizes that he means staff.

Last Thoughts

The delivery and service trucks come every day. Propane, appliance repair, sysco all bring the things close from home. Home of the visitors. Very little is from the area. Red snapper, roast beef, chicken are all shipped in. This can almost be forgiven due to the hardship of farming in the area. Most farms are subsistence but if the net is flung farther then Barrie, King City and others could supply what is needed. Not even the trout served one night is from a local source.

All of this is done to provide value but at what cost. This is the echoes that I hear when going travelling. Granted, in Canada, the difference between middle class and lower class is only slight. When travelling to foreign countries, it is much greater. Often I hear this described as white guilt. I am a white male but due to my history, I can see both the server and the served.

When we leave to go to drop the kids off at my mother's, I have mixed feelings. I only started to enjoy the vacation by the time we left. I feel conflicted but can understand why someone would choose this as a vacation. I wonder if I will ever see this place with my family again. 

In some ways, maybe this is a middle class longing to have a permanent vacation in the Muskoka’s? My son asks at dinner time over the final dessert of the trip if we could live here all the time. The conversation revolves on how we could not do that. I never reach back into my past and explain that I did live here. The here that I know is so far away from carefree days of pool, capture the flag and served meals. I never did live here.

Next posts will include Lumina restaurant review, a trip through the park, Couples Resort and Couples Resort restaurant review. 


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