Cottage swap: a solution for COVID-19 border restrictions

Published: November 23, 2020

When COVID-19 locked two families out of their cross-border cottages, they came up with a creative solution

two cottage side by side Courtesy of Andy Mullen

When American Andy Mullen realized that COVID-19 travel restrictions would prevent his family from visiting their Canadian cottage this past summer, he came up with an ingenious idea: see if he could find a Canadian family facing a similar predicament accessing their cottage in the U.S and do a cottage swap.

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Mullen, an elementary school counselor in Valley Forge, Penn., had grown up summering along the New Jersey coastline. But when a friend invited him to visit their cottage in the Thousand Islands, about a 6-hour trek from home, it was an eye-opening experience.
“People around here have never heard of the Thousand Islands,” says Mullen. “It’s just magical. I fell in love with it immediately.” So much so that the family bought a parcel of land on Stave Island on the Canadian side of the border, near Gananoque, and built a cottage on it.

“Our children have grown up going there,” says Mullen, who feels the cottaging has made his children, now 15, 18, and 20, “more well-rounded people. If something breaks on the island, you have to figure it out.”

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The thought of missing out on the cottage experience this past summer was deflating until he had his epiphany. His initial sleuthing, which included cold-calling people from a list of Canadians who owned property on the U.S. side of the border that he got from one of the township offices, didn’t pan out.

But then a friend posted his request on the Murray Isle Facebook page. Murray Isle lies a few kilometres almost due south of Stave Island, but on the other side of the invisible border. That’s when Phil Murdock, a retiree who served 41 years in the Canadian Coast Guard, saw the message and reached out. The two chatted on the phone, shared photos, and eventually exchanged their detailed opening up and closing instructions so they could trade properties for the summer.

Google Map of Thousand Islands
Photo courtesy of Google Maps

The two cottages were so close that, “From a high elevation we could actually see our island. It was quite painful,” admits Mullen. That said, he and his family enjoyed the unique experience. “Our cottage is a 14-year-old Viceroy in a very private part of the island. Their cottage, called Goldie’s, is from the 1880s and Murray Isle has a very strong-knit community feel. It was neat to have a new experience. It worked out really well.”

Stave Island cottage
Photo courtesy of Andy Mullen

Would they do it again next year if the two countries are still in lockdown? “We talked about it…but we didn’t really want to jinx it,” Mullen says, half-jokingly.

Do you think a cottage swap might be a way to spice up your holiday plans while cross-border travel is still off the table? There are a number of home exchange websites, including Love Home Swap and Home Exchange, that offer online tools for finding families to trade homes or cottages. Fees for accessing these networks start at about $10 a month.

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