COVER

Paradise Lost

Thinking of an idyllic summer retreat? Dream on. Peace and privacy are fantasies. Overcrowding and sky-high prices— not to mention noise —are the new realities

JOHN DEMONT May 28 2001
COVER

Paradise Lost

Thinking of an idyllic summer retreat? Dream on. Peace and privacy are fantasies. Overcrowding and sky-high prices— not to mention noise —are the new realities

JOHN DEMONT May 28 2001

Paradise Lost

COVER

Thinking of an idyllic summer retreat? Dream on. Peace and privacy are fantasies. Overcrowding and sky-high prices— not to mention noise —are the new realities

JOHN DEMONT

in Kingsburg

he reverie begins the moment your car reaches the crest of the hill that first time. You’re still jittery from the 24-hour drive from Toronto or disoriented from catching the red-eye from Calgary. But now, you’re imagining a place where the sullen teen next door does not flick cigarette butts into your spouse’s prized peonies. A place where nobody cares how big your work cubicle is or whether your son only plays house-league hockey. Where nature is not defined as a few forlorn-looking animals at the petting zoo behind a suburban strip mall. And where the sound you hear is something more serene than Eminem pounding from a muscle car driven by someone who looks suspiciously like a younger Tony Soprano.

As you draw nearer, the sun is rising off the tip of Gaff Point on Nova Scotia’s incandescent South Shore. Kingsburg beach blazes white against the deep blue of the ocean. In the distance, a Cape Islander fishing boat puttputts out to sea. Now you can see yourself blowing the steam off a cup of coffee while you stare out at the same scene from the wooden deck of one of the summer homes below. You fantasize about days that begin with the loons call from a curtain of mist and end in an Adirondack chair peering up into a star-filled sky. In between, you’re sure, lie aimless afternoons on the perfect crescent beach, snoozes in the hammock, strolls to the fisherman’s wharf for freshly caught lobster. You picture a refuge that will be your children’s and grandchildren’s, a place somehow ever untouched, unsullied, no matter what the rest of your life may hold.

Ahhh... if only it were so easy to turn those fantasies into enchanted summers. Now for the reality check. The bugs, skyhigh gas prices and kids who’d rather stay home and play Nintendo are bad enough. But there are big questions beyond that: have you got a quarter-million to slap down on a half-hectare property on British Columbia’s Saltspring Island? Are you content to sit out on a dock of a Prairie lake, where the cry of the

loon is a distant memory, listening instead to the Sea-Doos roar?

No one is suggesting the summer home has to stay frozen in the past. And make no mistake: Canada is still a cottager’s paradise compared with parts of the United States. The popular playgrounds outside each nation’s largest city tell an interesting tale. In the Muskoka region, a two-hour drive north of Toronto, a high-end property may occasionally top $2.7 million—still a far cry from New York’s Hamptons, where summer residences fetch $20 million. Yet even in big, underpopulated Canada, the price of paradise is soaring. It’s the grief as well as the dollars: the pensioners blaming the summer people for their rising tax rates; the environmentalists complaining about what the influx of cottagers is doing to the woods, waters and the latest endangered seabird. Your money is more than welcome. But for every smiling Realtor delighted to see you, there seems to be a scowling local grumbling about how those darned outsiders are gobbling up too much of their land.

Not that anybody with full-blown lust for a cottage—and yes, summer places go by other names, but cottage is the most common term in Canada—really worries about such things. Whether it’s a cabin in the Rockies, a chalet among the spruces in Quebec or a rustic camp on a far-off river in New Brunswick, the attrac-

tions of a getaway place are timeless and immutable: peace, quiet, privacy, safety, relaxation, that ineffable summer magic. Witold Rybczynski, the author, architect and social historian, calls the cottage “an antidote to the city.” In Canada, the country getaway is etched deeply in the national fabric. How else to explain You Sold the Cottage, Martha and the Muffins’ 1980s punk paean to “prickle bushes/bloodsuckers between the toes on the lake bottom/falling out of the tree fort/being bitten by the chipmunk that lived underneath the boathouse.” Or that cottage life can even figure in the debates on Parliament Hill, where earlier this month Mira Spivak, a senator and cottage owner from Winnipeg, introduced a bill that would grant summer homeowners across Canada the right to ban “horrendous” personal watercraft from lakes and rivers.

SOME PROVINCES, CONCERNED ABOUT ALL THE `OUTSIDERS,' HAVE ENACTED RESTRICTIVE LEGISLATION

In a country so blessed with rugged beauty, perhaps it’s only natural that cottage ownership is such a common dream. A survey by Royal LePage Real Estate Services Ltd. released earlier this month

showed that 10 per cent of Canadians own recreational properties. But demand so outstrips supply that for every person wanting to sell, three have a hankering to buy. The baby boomers are driving the market, says David Foot, the author of Boom, Bust & Echo and a University of Toronto economist. “They are well into their 50s now,” notes Foot, who owns a four-hectare property in rural Ontario. “The kids are gone, they have money to spend, they want some peace and quiet. What better place than a cottage?”

Many of the boomers are looking for a place to retire, not just to spend a few weeks every summer. Others have their own reasons: the dot.com millionaires picking up properties in British Columbia and Ontario are looking for a little old-style status; for the sports and Hollywood stars who are sometimes their neighbours, the motivations are usually privacy and a better bang for their U.S. buck than in the United States.

No wonder prices in Canada have gone through the roof: in Ontario’s Wasaga Beach—where prices have climbed by an estimated 50 per cent in the past five years—$350,000 gets a basic three-bedroom place. At Alberta’s Sylvan Lake, a standard 93square-metre cabin on a 30.5-m-wide lot starts at $300,000, and in Cranbrook, B.C., an ordinary property goes for $250,000.

The Maritimes still offer some of the best deals around, even if the area is no longer a closely guarded secret. Attracted by the weakness of the Canadian dollar, Americans now own an estimated 30 per cent of the vacation properties in Prince Edward Island. Across the Northumberland Strait in Cape Breton, chances are that when a summer property is sold, the buyer may be a well-off German who can pick up a waterfront lot on the stunning Bras d’Or Lake for $50,000—a fraction of what it would cost, if something comparable were available, back in Europe. The land rush has Maritimers worried: the PE.I. government already restricts out-ofprovince buyers to owning no more than 50 m ofwaterffont; Nova Scotia is midway through a series of hearings to determine the best way to prevent non-residents, who already own 16 per cent of the provinces 7,600-km coast, from buying up any more.

The backlash hasn’t scared the well-off foreigners away. What they want most of all is something on Nova Scotia’s South Shore, where prices for vacation properties have doubled in the past decade. In Lunenburg County, settled in the mid-18th century by flinty Swiss-German farmers and fishermen, the local delicacy used to be home-made sauerkraut. Nowadays, the local supermarket sells shiitake mushrooms and balsamic vinegar, and it could be argued that more elegant restaurants dot the coast of Mahone Bay than are found in the rest of Nova Scotia.

The province’s tourism boom is partly responsible for the transformation. So are the summer folk attracted by the mgged scenery, interesting towns and unique culture. The three counties along the South Shore send some 1,600 property-tax bills to non-residents— Canadians from other provinces, but also Germans and Americans—who own coastal properties. A recent decline in the euro versus Canadian currency slowed the influx of German money. But obviously somebody is still buying: these days, some properties do not last the week when the Realtors sign goes up. “Let’s just say that this is still a market with plenty of upside,” says Bob Douglas, owner of a Mahone Bay real estate firm whose current listings include a 405-hectare acre South Shore island for $2.5 million.

A visit to Kingsburg, nestled in a rugged bay that juts into the Atlantic Ocean, illustrates the forces at work. Fifty years ago, it

was a self-contained village populated by hardworking descendants of the original settlers. Then, in the 1970s, the big fish plant burned down, the Atlantic fishery began its slow death spiral and the young left for better job prospects. Today, most of the old build-

ings, once empty with their roofs caving in, have been gussied up by owners with names unfamiliar to the area—university professors from Connecticut, an Inuit-art dealer from Virginia, a business consultant from Ottawa, a classical musician from Chicago, a surgeon from Halifax. Prices have rocketed. And with land around Kingsburg going for $247,000 per hectare on the ocean—and a cedar-shingled house on a 1.6-hectare lot fetching more than $450,000 recently—everything seems to be for sale. “The more new homes around here the better,” enthuses Carole-Anne Mosher, who owns a pair of summer rental properties in the area and whose husband traces his family back to Kingsburg’s first European settlers.

But almost all of the village’s old clans are gone now. The distinctive South Shore accent is heard less and less. In Kingsburg, one of the essential paradoxes of modern culture seems to be at work: once something is deemed genuine and authentic— whether it’s an island in the Caribbean or a fishing village in Nova Scotia—people flock to it, in the process transforming the very thing that attracted them in the first place. In the end, maybe that’s the true price of paradise.

Should cottage country expansion be more strictly regulated?