HALIBURTON, Ont. — BY TOBY SALTZMAN, Special to The Globe and Mail HALIBURTON, Ont.
THE DREAM to escape the pressures of day-to-day life in the city can come to soothing reality deep in the Haliburton Highlands, where, in the lushly treed wilderness, there hides a charming, historic inn that provides a glorious interlude from the work world. The tension starts to melt from your brow as soon as you turn off the main highway onto a road speckled by sunlight filtering through the tall trees of the forest, and approach Sir Sam’s Inn.
Sir Sam’s has had a superb position overlooking Eagle Lake and the Haliburton Highlands since 1917, when it was originally built of hand-hewn logs and fieldstone as a country estate by Sir Sam Hughes, the Minister of Defence in the First World War. Inside the main living room are several interesting pictures of Sir Sam Hughes. He is shown watching the British attack at the Battle of the Somme, receiving a hero’s welcome in Lindsay after the Boer War, and receiving the colors for his battalion from Lady Eaton in 1916. Under his imposing portrait is the quotation, “By His Accomplishments He Should Be Judged.” This estate truly is a beautiful accomplishment.
Estate hidden in Haliburton Highlands
The beauty of Sir Sam’s lies not just in the spectacular peacefulness of the rugged setting, but in the way that the present owner, James Zorr has developed the property into the supremely satisfying inn that it is today. The casual atmosphere contains absolutely no pressure to do anything but relax, and the dressiest daytime clothes required are a t- shirt and bathing suit. The addition to the main lodge and the newly constructed additional chalets have allowed for all the indulgences that people harried from city life would want to enjoy. The rooms have private balconies that provide the ultimate seats for watching the sun set over the lake.
The rooms are beautifully appointed, some with wood-burning fireplaces, some with whirlpools big enough for two. There are no televisions or telephone in the rooms to disturb the quiet rhythm of nature.
The waterfront is equipped with all the toys one could want for diversions, and there is no extra charge for participation in any of the water sports: motor-boating, sail-boating windsurfing, canoeing, kayaking, waterskiing. For less adventurous types there are paddle boats. Some guests just like to find a spot on a chaise longue at the pool and read or just enjoy the view from a seat in the heated whirlpool. Those with anxieties left to burn off can do so in the well-equipped exercise rooms.
In the evenings, guests can visit the disco bar or the theatre room, or simply savor the peaceful country air while lingering over dessert and yet another cup of coffee on the screened-in porch.
After returning to Sir Sam’s Inn each year for 10 years, my favorite pasttime is still unchanged. I am drawn by the free spirit of the logo at the entrance to Sir Sam’s which so appropriately depicts a loon, the symbol of the wildlife in the Haliburton Highlands.
In the hushed hours of the early morning, before the breezes can awaken any ripples in the glassy lake, and the mist suspended over the water is just beginning to evaporate in the air, we set out in our search for the elusive loon.
In excited anticipation, we tiptoe with our canoe and lower it quietly into the water, careful not to create the slightest splash as we push away from shore. Our paddles knife the water in synchronized strokes that propel us silently into the centre of the lake, where we stop, rest our paddles on the gunwhales and float . . . waiting for the call of the loon.
The first signal from the loon is a shiny black flash of upright tail amidst greying driftwood that disturbs the smooth lake with a long narrow ripple that emanates from the driftwod cove. Our paddles are poised. The chase is on – to catch a close-up vision of the loon and if we are really fortunate, to capture her majestic presence on film.
The loon has made her underwater dive and we know she’ll emerge in the opposite direction. Sure enough, a glistening head emerges gracefully to catch the light, and the loon makes her eerie announcement to nature – first a short cry and then a long, plaintiff note. She flaps her wings and raises herself, seeming to walk on the water and then floats erectly, installing herself as the regal force of the lake.
Quickly yet quietly we paddle in her direction. Within moments a pattern of increasing circles appears in the water, surprisingly followed by the tiny head of a baby loon. The baby bursts out with a rambunctious ruffle of feathers, sending a starburst of water droplets into the air. He swims in circles until he catches a glimpse of his mother and then dives into the lake with the flirt of a tiny, upturned tail. The mother loon calls again – a long, low command. In response to her voice, the baby springs out from the water beside her and gleefully chuckles, happy to be at his mother’s side.
We follow as closely as possible and float, triumphant in our still pose as secret voyeurs to the gentle cavorting of the mother loon and her baby as they dip and splash in their morning exercises. The array of colors and patterns of their feathers is magnificent – irridescent blue- green against gleaming black, accented by the contours of pure white feathers.
Our luck is exhilarating. Will it last long enough to capture with our cameras? Will the clever, evasive loon escape us? Carefully silent, I prepare the camera which has been slung around my neck waiting for this precise moment. Just as I am ready the arrogant loon nods her head, giving the signal to her offspring and instantly they dive in unison, disappearing into the dark waters only to emerge with a teasing call 200 metres away.
We turn our canoe to chase her, but we know she has won. The loon’s game with her baby has become a playful lesson in survival – dive to follow the leader and swim far, deeply underneath the surface of the water to escape unknown perils. By the time we have almost reached her new location, the loon has once again emerged, followed by her baby, this time a hundred metres in the now opposite direction.
The loon remains an elusive beauty and we head back to the hospitality of Sir Sam’s Inn and the delicious breakfast that awaits us. In this still early hour of the morning, as we paddle to shore, we are entranced by the sensuous vision of ourselves alone on the lake, a million mental miles away from the hubub of the city, and we think of how lucky we are to have found the perfect place to enjoy this special moment in time.
For more information, contact Sir Sam’s Inn, Eagle Lake, Haliburton, Ont., K0M 1M0, phone (705) 754-2188 or (416) 283-2080 (Toronto direct line). Spring and fall rates are lower than in summer, and provide scenic opportunities to see the greening of the forests or changing colors of autumn. Weekend and weekly packages are also available.
Daily summer rates vary from $109 to $135 per person (based on double occupancy) and include a hearty breakfast and full-course dinner daily, as well as free use of all the facilities and equipment (tennis, pool, whirlpool, exercise room, sauna, water-skiing, windsurfing, sailing, canoeing and paddleboating).
To get there, follow Highway 400 north to Highway 11, north to Highway 118, east to Eagle Lake Road II, which leads to Sir Sam’s Inn Road. An alternate route is available from areas east of Toronto by taking Highway 35 north to Highway 118 east.