How to ditch the phones and come together at the cottage

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Sunset-on-Georgian-Bay Paul J. Hartley/Shutterstock

You know that sick feeling you get when you’re headed somewhere new to hang out with people you’ve never met? I’m not necessarily talking about severe, diagnosable social anxiety, just that queasy feeling of not knowing what you’re about to walk into or whether the people there will like you. Well, that feeling is universal. Professor Yuval Noah Harari‎, the historian who wrote Sapiens, chalks it up to our evolutionary history as frail, prehistoric humans trying to survive in a dangerous world full of things that wanted to eat us. We needed each other to survive. Social acceptance was a matter of life or death. And now, even though things aren’t quite so dire, we still get that sick feeling that they are. The worst thing is, this feeling can keep us from connecting with one another. It’s way easier to scroll through Instagram at a party or text your best friend than it is to engage with a bunch of terrifying strangers who might reject you.

It’s not a nice feeling. But I think I’ve discovered the antidote.

Early in June, just as summer was starting to creep into cottage country, I drove up to Honey Harbour, Ont., to meet a bunch of strangers. And, yes, I totally had that queasy feeling in my stomach as I drove closer.

I was there on assignment, at the request of Georgian Bay Spirit Co.—known for their Gin Smash, arguably the best cocktail you’re going to get in a can—who had invited me  to join them for dinner at Sunfish, a small, pop-up restaurant right on the shore of Georgian Bay.

Besides the friend I brought as my date, and the owner of The Hive, where the dinner took place, I didn’t know anyone. And neither, it seemed, did the other guests. Georgian Bay Spirit Co. had invited a handful of lucky winners from their Insiders Club, a loyalty program that keeps fans of the brand in the loop on new products and events. Along with the founders of the company, we were 12 for dinner, and I wondered what the hell we were going to talk about all evening. (Besides, of course, the jaw-dropping view of a Georgian Bay sunset and the six-course meal expertly crafted by chef Derek Blais from locally foraged and Canadian ingredients.)

I shouldn’t have worried. Lauren Patchett, the owner of The Hive, insisted we go around the table and reveal our “rose, thorn, and bud.” That meant each of us had to tell the table about the best thing that happened to us that day, the worst thing, and the one thing we were most hopeful for. Already embarrassed, I decided to go first, get it out of the way. And maybe it was the Gin Smash talking, but I decided to take it seriously and be vulnerable with my answers. I told the table that the best part of the day so far was when one of the other guests and I were talking before dinner, and we had one of those rare Real Human Moments. A moment where one of us asked a genuine question and the other gave a genuine answer and, for a split second, the two of us looked each other in the eye, full of relief at being able to drop the facade and just act like our real selves.

“Oh, how are we all going to follow that?” someone asked, suggesting my vulnerability had set the bar too high. But guess what? They totally did. Every single person at that table gave an honest, heartfelt answer, sharing some small part of themself with the group. And by the time we got all the way around, we weren’t strangers anymore. We weren’t thinking about our next Instagram post or the person we hadn’t texted back, or the work email we should check. We were just humans at a table, sharing stories, coming together, and having a hell of a good time.

Though he didn’t come up with the icebreaker, this coming together was exactly what Georgian Bay Spirit Co. co-founder Tim Keenleyside had in mind when he dreamed up this Insiders Club dinner, and, in fact, when he and fellow co-founder Denzil Wadds started the company in the first place. “We know we’re not curing cancer,” he told me at dinner. “We’re just making good spirits. But our products bring people together. That’s what makes it all worthwhile to us.”

This is what I know about the cottage: it’s a place that makes it easier for people to gather, connect with each other, come closer. But it’s still up to those people to make that connection happen, whether you’re sitting beside a Georgian Bay sunset or not. So, I asked Cottage Life readers to give me a few tips on how they get their friends and family to disconnect from their devices and create the kind of community we know we need. Bring it, cottagers:

“We tell good old-fashioned ghost stories! The best storyteller gets a prize, for incentive. The prize could range from a good book to the last s’more. Together, we vote on the best story. The whole thing connects young and old. (As long as the story is appropriate for younger listeners.)  If the kids are in bed, then it’s no holds barred!” —Barb Avon, Vars, Ont.

“We sit around the campfire and listen to old music.” —Vivian Crilley

“Play catch phrase around a bonfire!” —Carrie Nygard

“We wash and dry our dishes by hand. The kitchen sink is right underneath a window looking out on open water and the horizon, so we get to soak in the beautiful view. Doing dishes is always a collaborative task, and the conversation really changes when we can’t just push a button to do the job. People have to pitch in and help. Washing dishes isn’t even a chore, it just reminds us to rely more on each other rather than on conveniences to get the job done. It totally changes the pace and tone of life.” —Jane Westlake, 12 Mile Bay, Georgian Bay, Ont.

“Unplug the router!” —Amandio Pereira

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Looking for more ways to connect? Join the Georgian Bay Spirit Co. Insiders Club and you could win the chance to access exclusive, free events like the Insiders Club Dinner at Sunfish Restaurant on Georgian Bay.