Tips on being an ideal cottage guest (and how to get invited back)

Victoria Day and Memorial Day are just around the corner.  And you have been invited to your friend’s cottage for the long weekend!

Ah, the unofficial start to the summer and a much deserved break.

The tranquility.  The water.  Boating.  Casual food and drinks on the dock.

Here are a few pointers on how to be such a gracious guest that you get invited back.  This could also be called Tough Love for Cottage Guests.

The most important thing to understand is that no matter how great the experience is for you, this is still work for your host.  Work that is on their time, at their paradise.

No matter how close you are.

No matter how considerate you are.

No matter what.

But that work can be greatly minimized and a pleasure for your host if you just follow a few basic rules of etiquette.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that you are not going to a Bed and Breakfast.  I see this all the time with fellow cottagers:  The more they make it run smoothly like a B&B, the more their friends and family actually think it’s a B&B.  You’re there during their off-time too.  They bought this place to relax.  If you create any unnecessary additional work for them, you are not a good guest, and you will not be invited back.

Of course, there are the guests who just invite themselves back.  They assume that because they were invited on Victoria Day weekend, that Victoria Day weekend is now their weekend forever more.  Nope.  Unless their name is on the deed, they still need to wait to be invited.  They have other friends and family too.

And don’t invite additional guests to join you.  This means pets, other friends or relatives.

 Mairlyn Smith wrote a fabulous must-read post with excellent advice on how to get invited back to a cottage and God Bless her, she is exactly the kind of guest that any cottage owner wants to have.

As always, Mairlyn gets it.  Follow ALL of her ‘rules’, and guaranteed, you’ll get invited back.

Cottages can be vastly different, so I thought I’d add a few points to Mairlyn’s list. (And to my own friends and family, this is not a hint, so don’t get all paranoid that you’ve done anything wrong.  We’ve been very fortunate to have great guests – who are hand-picked for a reason.)

As a frequent guest at her own friend’s cottage, Mairlyn offers terrific advice on the question of ‘what to bring’.  I am one of those people who tell guests to bring nothing.  Mairlyn says we’re lying. In my case, it’s more that I just haven’t thought that far ahead yet.  If a guest simply says decisively, “I’m taking care of dinner on Saturday night, and breakfast on Sunday morning”, not only will I accept, I can guarantee you that they’ll get invited back.

If you do bring a meal or two, bring the entire meal, not just the steaks, and don’t create more work by needing additional things when you get there.  Don’t assume that they have certain ingredients, condiments, etc.  And don’t do a bunch of prep when you get there.  You’re a foodie?  Fabulous!  Don’t be high maintenance and start asking for stuff that they don’t have, causing a mad scramble to find prosciutto, dijon mustard, fresh tarragon or a food processor twenty miles from civilization.  And don’t create or leave a mess in the kitchen!

Have meat that needs a marinade?  Put it into the marinade in a zip-lock bag while you’re still at home, and bring it that way.  Add some vegetables that are already prepped, also in a zip-lock bag, and then wrap them in foil (that you’ve brought just in case) when you get there, and barbecue everything.

Burgers are another great option.  Mix them up, form the patties, and then wrap them in foil.  Want to do something different?  Try these spicy pork burgers for something different.

Or if you prefer, chicken breasts wrapped in prosciutto are always a hit (just grill them instead of baking them).  Just make them up ahead of time, and individually wrap them in foil.

Or if your host took you fishing, cook up the fish for your hosts.  My cousin Kevin did this – we LOVED it!

Bringing breakfast?  There are a few great options to make it fabulous.  A strata such as this spinach, ham and cheese strata, can be prepped ahead and brought with you.

After you make breakfast, wash the dish and put it with your stuff, just to get it out of the way.  Or use a disposable dish.  Or, make the strata in a nice dish and make that part of the gift for the hostess.  A tart or quiche that you’ve made ahead that works well at room temperature is another great option such as this roasted tomato tart with goat cheese.

Or if you’re carnivores, barbecue a peameal roast (Canadian bacon), bring buns, mustard, and have peameal bacon sandwiches for breakfast.  YUMMY!

Or just keep cottage breakfast simple with cereal, local fruit (that you have already prepped into a salad or at least chopped and put into zip-lock bags, yogurt, milk in tetra packs work well if there is limited fridge space, and you can make ahead scones and bring them such as white chocolate scones or bacon cheddar scones.

Be mindful of allergies of the host.  If someone in the family has a peanut or nut allergy, or shellfish, fish, (a few that I have seen/witnessed), take it from me, this is serious.

Don’t make a dish for everyone else with nuts, and then have a separate one made for the person with the nut allergy.  Keep the nuts/fish/shellfish out of their home.  Find something else to bring.  This is cottage country, and there are a couple of issues with this.

  • First, hand-washing is not always quite as diligent as is back home, particularly with limited plumbing.
  • Second, but just as important, in cottage country, you are often in such a rural environment that it takes a helicopter or the coast guard to get someone out who is having a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction.  Take it from me.  Been there, done that.  It is terrifying.

And aside from life-threatening allergies, consider other dietary issues of the hosts.  If they are gluten free, vegetarian, etc., don’t bring bacon, bread, or whatever the issue is.   There are so many options, books, and AMAZING food blogs out there to help you to bring just the right thing (and if you need to be directed to great food blogs, please let me know.  I personally know many great specialty food bloggers who deal with these types of foods).  But if you are dealing with something that is so serious that they can’t have their food in your environment, they must know.

If they ask you (as they should) about allergies, tell them.  And if you have a peanut or nut issue, or shell fish, or any of the other dangerous allergies, they absolutely must know about it and find a way to accommodate you.  But if you are a vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, or just on a diet, I recommend bringing your own stuff, just in case.  Cottages have limitations (which is part of their charm), but it becomes very difficult to manage food issues/aversions.  Especially if multiple issues come into play.  Just give them a heads up that you will be doing this so that they know how to plan accordingly.

If you want to be a great guest, do the dishes!  Did your host just make you breakfast/lunch dinner, and now you’re standing there asking what you can do to help?  Don’t ask.  Just jump in and take over.

My friend Sandy just takes over and washes the dishes after I cook for her, and I love her for it.  Do you have a Type A host who won’t let you do anything (like moi)?  Kick her out of the kitchen (as Sandy does with me) and tell her you’ll do the dishes.  And when you don’t know where things go, leave them out for her.  You’ve decreased her workload just being doing the dishes.  She may pretend to be miffed, but trust me, she’s not.  This is a great way to get asked back.

Bring lots of booze.  Everyone we know always brings lots, and they’ve all been invited back.  Bring more than you think you need.  Mairlyn makes such a great point on this.  Don’t bring just enough for yourself – bring enough for everyone, plus enough to leave behind to save your hosts the trip.

And take your empties.  Small-town beer stores are brutal for summertime lineups for bottle returns.

Towels and bedding (or sleeping bags for the kids) should be brought along as a general rule.  I actually do have laundry facilities, and since I live at our lake house most of the time, washing an extra set of sheets and towels is not a big deal.  But that’s not generally the case for cottagers.

If there are kids involved, especially if they are swimming, they should have their own towels and sleeping bags (or sheets/blankets).

Life jackets for kids:  We always have enough life jackets for adults, but smaller kids must have their own.  Make sure you’ve dealt with this before you show up so that there isn’t an emergency run to find life jackets (or worse yet, the planned boat ride or tubing can’t happen because the kids don’t have life jackets).

Speaking of kids, bring extra sun block, bug spray, and multiple towels if they are going to be swimming a lot.

More on the subject of kids, pay close attention to them.  Cottages are usually on water, and they can also be in the path of passing boats – a dangerous situation for everyone with kids swimming in the water.  You are responsible for the safety and well-being of your children.

Mairlyn mentions gas for boating.  We always factor this into the cost of having our lake house, since boating is something we do just about every weekend.  But gas is dear, especially when it has to be purchased in rural areas, so it’s a nice thought to consider this  if you are visiting folks with power toys.

Especially if your children have been taken out tubing for several hours, or if you have Sea-Doos.  Offering to help with gas or, again, taking over those meals (which is a direct cost) or booze, goes a long way.

Same deal for hydro.  It can cost an absolute fortune to run lights, an oven and refrigerator.  Delivery charges can be more than the hydro itself, so always turn off lights when you leave a room.

Always pick up garbage.  Rural areas have deer, fox, raccoons, snakes, mice, you name it.  This picture below is a fox who decided to show up at our old place a couple of years ago when he/she smelled the bacon that I was frying up for breakfast.

Leaving anything edible out (even an empty wrapper, bottle or can) is an engraved invitation for trouble.  We had someone leave a beer bottle outside last year, and a dead, petrified-looking mouse was found inside pointed upwards trying to find its way out.  Gross, gross, gross.

Septics are a huge concern.  With the exception of the toilet paper that your guests have in the bathroom, it’s essential that nothing gets flushed down the toilet that wasn’t eaten first.  This is generally a good rule with any toilet, even in an urban environment, but it’s potential for disaster in cottage country.

You’ve all been enjoying a weenie roast outside at the fire?  Bring everything in.  That empty weiner bag will certainly attract a hungry fox.  The empty fruit platter?  Bears just love blueberries.  Pop cans?   Mmm…sugar.  You get the idea.

Same thing to know if you are washing dishes on a septic system.  Don’t let any fat go down the drain.  And if some accidentally does, chase it with lots of dishwashing detergent.  (The only reason I am pointing this out is in case you have in fact kicked your host out of the kitchen, and you are faced with leftover scraps, etc.,  You have to treat septics with respect).

Finally, leave when you’re supposed to leave.  Let your hosts tell you when you’re arriving and when you leave, and stick to it.   Were you invited to arrive on Saturday for lunch and leave after brunch on Sunday?  Don’t say, “Good news, we can come Friday night, and we don’t have to leave until Monday!”  You just took away down time for the hosts who also deserve time off at their vacation home.

Just hug them, and thank them profusely.

And leave.

If you’re still trying to figure out what to bring, here is a list of suggestions:

  • Do they have a Keirig (or similar type of coffee maker?)  Bring a couple boxes with an assortment of coffees/teas that they like.  My Mom, who I insist on spoiling when she comes up since she raised me, is always stumped on this.  Finally, I realized that Keirig cups were a great item for her to bring because then we all get to enjoy what we like.  And while I love my Keirig, the little suckers are expensive at 50-75 cents per cup.
  • You don’t bake or have time to bake?  Just bring some nice goodies from a local bake shop.
  • Does your host have filtered water?  If not, bring water.  They always need drinkable water.
  • Any booze, but buy what they like.  Are they wine drinkers?   Bring a few bottles.  Vodka coolers if they are cocktail people, liqueur such as Bailey’s or Kahlua, and the host’s favourite beer.
  • At least one or two meals.  Really stumped, don’t cook, or you’re short for time?  Costco always has prepped salads, chopped veggies, and great meat.
  • Want to bring a gift?  Bring something that they can use for the cottage.  Never been there before?  The Cottage Bible makes a fantastic gift for newer cottagers, or a gift certificate for summer reading.
  • If you’ve been there before, can they use some DVDs.  Visiting friends of ours gave us The Lake House (how appropriate) and a mix of boy movies and girl movies, along with wine, beer, snacks, and even treats for the cat.  Lovely.  The same friends have also stacked wood, helped with winterizing our boat.  That’s a gift that you just can’t buy.
  • Is the person who is cooking for you a foodie?  Buy them a new cookbook, and even better, a barbecue cookbook.  My cousin gave us this with a lovely picture frame that looks like a Muskoka/Adirondack chair with the William Sonoma Barbecue Bible. Wonderful!
  • My Mom understands my love of making little nibbles, dips, cocktails. So she has brought lovely dishes for cold dips, for hot dips, and a cocktail recipe book.
  • Other gifts that I have appreciated and loved:  Beach towels (we always seem to need them), napkins, both disposable and cloth, platters for nibbles for happy hour
  • And speaking of nibbles for happy hour, any snacks work.  Keep it simple.  Cheese and crackers, fresh fruit, fresh veggies and dip.
  • At a cottage, it is usually not the stuff, but it’s the effort.  Does your host have an issue with the dock or some other thing that needs fixing?  Helping them with your time and/or talent is HUGE.  They need stuff moved to the cottage and you have a truck?  Bingo.

Now, you can be a great cottage guest and if you follow these suggestions, you’ll most certainly get invited back.

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