Vacation Revelation

When I left my job, we knew that many luxuries would have to go.  But every family needs a holiday.

We have tried to vacation at home in the past.  In theory we should have been able to forego the cost of a hotel and simply enjoy the many activities available in our local
community, but invariably chores crept in.  We found ourselves taking on gruelling projects like re-staining our backyard fence or cleaning out our basement storage area.  Jack and Taylor would complain about how bored they were, and Craig and I would bitterly wish that we could be so lucky.

So we have concluded that from time to time, it’s important to get away from home.

Back in the days when money was no object, we once took three vacations within a span of six months.  Jack and Taylor’s first trip on an airplane whisked us away to a luxurious Acapulco resort with Craig’s parents.  The kids had a great time dashing from pool to pool, sailing down the ‘mountain’ water slide one minute and traipsing across
a wooden suspension bridge the next, safe in the care of their beloved Grandparents while Craig and I took time out to enjoy the on site golf courses.

A few months later we took our first family trip to Walt Disney World in Florida.  We stayed on the resort for an entire week in a spacious suite and visited a theme park every day, each more impressive than the last.  We filled ourselves full on the deluxe dining plan, complete with mouth watering desserts and seemingly endless snacks.  And we travelled with another family so the kids always had a willing playmate close at hand.

Our third vacation that year was a mere four days at Fern Resort in Orillia, a family run operation within driving distance of our home.  A special deal had motivated us to book a basic room which meant that I shared a bed with Taylor and Craig shared a bed with Jack.

“Taylor!  Stop digging your foot into my back!”

“Daddy is snoring.”

“Jack!  You just slapped me in the face!”

Three very different holiday experiences.  So that fall, as we began to think about our
vacation plans for the following year, I asked the kids, “Which vacation did you like best?”

Without hesitation, in unison Taylor and Jack said, “Fern!”

Really?  I knew they had enjoyed their stay at Fern but it was no Disney.  Sure there were pools, but no character themed thrill rides or fantastic parades.  In fact, the activities we most enjoyed at Fern couldn’t have been more low-key.  Bingo games in the poolside gazebo, jumping on one of three trampolines and playing endless games of mini putt on a basic course in need of a paint job.  The highlight for both kids seemed to be dangling crude homemade fishing sticks off the dock to catch sunfish.  And yet this, was the vacation they enjoyed the most.

Last week we were back at Fern Resort and I had an opportunity to speak with one of the owners.

Mark Downing and his sister Laura represent the fourth generation in this family owned business, carrying on over one hundred years of history on the property.  You might think that having grown up on the resort and then been handed a thriving business, Mark would be sitting back enjoying the fruits of his ancestors’ labours and letting
peons run the show.  But this is not the man I met.

At our scheduled meeting time he entered the tiny lobby bar with a flourish, carrying a glass of water and plate of carrot sticks.   A few days before, I had seen him attempt to
leap off a ramp in the middle of the lake into a barefoot position behind a speedboat as part of the water ski show.  He does this kind of thing fuelled by carrot sticks?

When I told him about my kids’ love for his resort in comparison to more elaborate vacation destinations and asked him about the ‘magic’ of Fern he had a ready response.

“I’ve heard this comment from other families, so I’m not surprised to hear it.   The difference at Fern is that it creates a community where friendships are built quickly and
easily.  Everything at the resort is designed to promote this sense of community.  Everyone eats together at the same time in the dining room.  We hire staff that are outgoing, salt of the earth types who endear themselves to guests immediately and we treat our staff well so that they come back season after season.  And we offer activities that attract small groups of guests who bond together through a shared experience.

“One year I had a guy come in and tell me that our best asset on the resort was the lake view.  He told us that we should tear down our poolside bar and barbeque gazebo
so that people could see the lake from the lounge chairs.  But if people want to spend their time looking at the lake, they would be going to Muskoka.  At Fern we want our guests looking at each other!”

When Mark told me this, it immediately rang true.  Like Cheers, where everybody knows your name, Fern is a place where our family feels part of something bigger.  After just one visit, we felt that we knew many of the staff and had built friendships with other guests that made us all want to go back.  And when I more closely watched our kids catching fish off the Fern dock, I realized that they spent as much time chatting with the teenage boys hired to put worms on hooks as they did with their lines in the water.

In fact, a main motivator for leaving my career was the desire to build stronger relationships with my family and friends.  Building relationships and enjoying a sense
of belonging is something that is difficult to do in our fast paced society, but I believe that it is something that we all (kids included!) long for.

Sports Director Mike Stewart is a warm and charismatic man with 32 years of tenure at Fern Resort.  On one of our daily morning walks, he summed up the magic of Fern in a simple phrase, “Fern is a feeling.”

He’s right.

We may have some great photos of spectacular sights and sounds from those other resorts but the feeling of Fern is something that seems to live on in our family long after our stay is over.  And that’s exactly why we’ll be back again next year.

For more info on Fern Resort and what it has to offer, check out their website at


Coupon Hangups

Ever since I left my job, in a desperate attempt to maintain some of the quality of life to which we have become accustomed, I’ve been doing some fancy footwork when it comes to shopping for food and basic household supplies.

Each Thursday the local paper lands on our doorstep and I race for it, eager to scour the grocery flyers for fantastic deals.  Butter for $2.97??  I put it on the list and plan to take full advantage of the customer limit of four.  Our favourite laundry detergent for $4.97?  That’s less than half price!  And the cheese!  Every week the jumbo size seems to be on sale for less than $5.00.  Once I spotted it at an all time low of $3.97.  I can’t
believe I ever paid full price for this stuff and we’ve never had cheesier meals.

In pursuit of these deals, I’ve learned to love the discount grocery environment.  Thanks to repeated coaching by elderly Italian gentlemen, I eventually got the hang of the grocery cart release mechanisms.  FYI, those contraptions look similar from store to store, but the quarter can go in a variety of places, and that pointy thing at the end of the chain sometimes goes in and sometimes pops out when you get the quarter in place.  Now I’m a pro, and I sometimes look for struggling amateurs with whom to share my expertise.  The stores themselves were a bit of a shock at first but I’ve learned to love them in all their cardboardness.   I dance around the aisles picking up incredible deals on peanut butter, taco kits and frozen vegetables, and wonder why my fellow shoppers seem so grim-faced.  Why doesn’t everyone shop here???  Could people really be so put off by misshapen green peppers to pass up such deals?

However, I still haven’t quite got the hang of couponing.  I’ve started to think about
it lately because my kids have become captivated by the show Extreme Couponing.  They want to know why I’m not shopping with stacks of coupons and leaving the store with a cart full of goodies for just $1.54.  I tell them that the show takes place in the United States and the rules are different, which is true, but the fact is that I don’t use coupons at all.

I do clip them.  Along with my Thursday flyer ritual I pull out the coupon booklets and tear out offers for products we often use.  I even occasionally rip them out of magazines.  Then I place them in a manila envelope I keep in a basket on our kitchen counter.  But somehow the contents of that envelope only make it out of our house every six months or so when I sort through it and throw out the offers that have expired.  And each time I do this, I ask myself WHY I bother cutting them out and saving them when I NEVER use them.

Well one reason, is that I tend to forget about them.  I go shopping with a list but I never seem to take that step to pull out relevant coupons and bring them with me.  But I think the main reson I ‘forget’ to bring them, is that I have an image in my head of coupons being in the same category as food stamps.  Only the desperately poor use them. Once, in my twenties, I tried to use a coupon and was loudly refused by the cashier because it was expired.

“Really?” I said.

“Yes.  Expires September 30th.”

“But isn’t that today?”

“Yes ma’am.  It’s expired today.”

I felt the eyes of the other customers in line boring into the back of my head, heard one of them sigh deeply, and felt my cheeks turn red with deep shame.

I also remember being a busy career woman and how annoyed I felt when the customer ahead of me pulled out a stack of coupons at the last minute.  With each one, the cashier felt a need to verify that the product was indeed somewhere in the bags of purchases before she would ring it through.  That time it was me who looked at my watch and uttered a heavy sigh.

But I think I’m going to give it another go.  The other day I finally got up the nerve to
take advantage of my local discount grocer’s offer to price match advertised competitor prices.  I carefully folded the competitor flyer to the appropriate page and placed it on top of the matching item amongst all the other things on the checkout belt.  My heart began to race as the conveyor chugged forward and I held my breath as the cashier’s hand reached out for the flyer.  Would she know why it was there?  Would she have to call her supervisor to get some sort of authorization?

She simply picked it up and made the adjustment without even saying a word.  Easy peasy.  Just like that, I saved $2.47!

Flipping through my current collection of coupons I see at least twenty dollars in savings to be had.  Surely I won’t feel any sillier using them than I did a couple of months ago when I checked through with a shopping cart full of cans of soup at the hot price of 44 cents each.

Is this increase in bravery due to my current economic situation?  Maybe I’m simply reaching the age when I just don’t give a crap anymore.  Let the customers behind me think what they like…. all I see are dollar signs!