This past winter I took a weekend trip to the artsy, hilly, wooded Haliburton area in Ontario's Highlands. I, along with two traveling companions, stayed at Sir Sam’s Inn and Waterspa in Eagle Lake (north of the town of Haliburton and about an hour east of Bracebridge or Huntsville). Ideally perched on a small knoll, with its front door and porch overlooking the tranquil lake and surrounded by evergreen forest, Sir Sam’s is an oasis from daily cares. With just about any outdoor activity you could imagine within an hour’s drive and the Haliburton region’s range of local art galleries and studios, there’s certainly plenty to do. Although with the water spa, first-class dining, a ski hill next door, and cozy fireplaces to curl up in front of, you may enjoy a low-key holiday of relaxation instead.

As you drive along the up-and-down, winding rural roads into Haliburton, you can easily tell you’ve entered Canadian shield territory. Rock faces tower above each side of the road and, in the winter, huge icicles formed from frozen water falls loom large. The snow lies deep under the trees, untouched by boots. In the summer, canoeists and waterfowl share the area’s plentiful lakes.

From the moment you step on the wide front porch across the threshold onto the flagstone lobby floor, Sir Sam’s Inn feels like your own cottage hideaway. The exterior appears much as it did when it was finished in 1919: a large informal home with a stone foundation and a half-timbered second storey. The exposed beams and carefully fitted stone of the inn’s public rooms are evidence of skilled craftsmanship.
In the living room landscape paintings by local artist John Lennard, and antique furnishings frame a glowing hearth and provide an intimate setting. In one direction a hallway leads to the water spa, and nearby in the other direction is the Twin Fires dining room. Down the hall is the water spa and across the hall is the formal dining room. At the back of the main floor is a pub decorated with photographs, coat of arms, and memorabilia of Sir Sam, the original owner.

The inn has 25 rooms, some in it’s the main inn and some as chalet suites nearby on the wooded grounds. Each room and suite is different, some having whirlpool baths, wood-burning fireplaces, lake views, or full kitchens. The rooms are furnished with rustic, Canadiana décor, such as plentiful wood accents and plaid curtains, in keeping with the relaxed summer home feel.

When I visited, we stayed in the one of the Glen Eagle suites, a two-storey chalet. The upper storey had a master bedroom and a loft-style second bedroom overlooking the living room. The full kitchen, large bathtub, a small TV and DVD player in the living room, and a deck with an unobstructed view of the lake.
All meals are served in Twin Fires, named after the double-sided fireplace. This room, too, has a wide view of the lake and subtle lighting. As with all the inn staff, the dining room service is attentive and well-informed, yet not intrusive. The dress for guests is casual. The wine cellar here is well-regarded, with over 100 varieties from around the world to choose from.

The menu is diverse, although vegetarians should let the inn know of their preferences when they make their reservation, as all our entree options had meat.

One of my companions started with the leek and potato soup garnished with smoked salmon. The salmon was a welcome addition, yet the soup itself was overly thickened, for our taste. Another companion had almond-encrusted brie served on top a mixture of melon and strawberries and mixed greens with a sundried tomato vinegrette. The fruit combination is a little out of the ordinary in a good way, a delicious complement to the rich brie.

For mains, I had the ravioli filled with prosciutto and leek, served in a bacon and lemon cream sauce topped with crackled-skin chicken. This was probably the favourite dish at the table due to the ravioli which was some of the best I’ve had anywhere. The ravioli were perfectly sized for individual bites, the whole wheat shell was a welcome change, and the filling was savoury and made it difficult to not to finish the whole plate in a hurry.
One of my companions had a half quail with a scallop and double smoked bacon served with a Thai salad. The Thai slaw had quite a nice tang to it, which was a good foil to the mild quail.

The other had the salmon and rainbow trout duo with Tiger shrimp and a chipotle and smoked salmon aioli. The fish was nicely cooked, but not remarkable and the sauces presented a nice contrast in taste. The portions were all perfectly sized and the plates artfully displayed.

With satisfied stomachs, we decided to skip dessert, but there were four options: strawberries and whipped cream, apple crumble with ice cream, chocolate pecan terrine, or crème caramel.
Besides enjoying the culinary presentation at the inn, Sir Sam’s has plenty to do on its property. For summertime fun there are tennis courts, a fitness trail, an outdoor pool and whirlpool, and a waterfront area with waterskiing, mountain biking trails, sailing, kayaking, and canoeing.

For winter, one of the inn’s nearest neighbours is Sir’s Sam’s Ski Area with its 14 groomed runs. The front desk can arrange for cross-country ski, snowmobiling, or dogsledding excursions run by local operators.
I decided to try out this last option on a relatively warm, though still snowy, mid-March weekend morning. You can read this blog to find out more about this experience.

Sir Sam’s competitive advantage is the Waterspa. It is certainly the place to head after using your muscles on the hills or trails. When we visited, the spa was completely unoccupied and peaceful. Not to worry about the lack of staff—clear instructions on the Waterspa ritual are displayed in several places. It all begins with a warm shower, a spell in the sauna, and then a cold shower. We were squeamish about a cold shower, but after the sauna, it felt invigorating and very pleasant—not a cold shock at all.

Then you head to the Waterspa proper where you go through stations for specified lengths of time—unlike the stations you remember from gym class, these are very pleasant! Each station, from “Long Bench” to the “Centre Island” provide water massage for specific areas of the body. From the neck to the soles of the feet, everything is massaged and soothed. The water is a great temperature, not too hot, not too cold. After completing the circuit, you can relax on benches on an elevated deck with views over the waterfront. It’s an easy place to really wash away the cares of the world.

During my stay I also had a lovely and relaxing spa facial, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the spa doesn’t sell a particular line of products, ensuring there are no sales pitches during your treatment. Spa treatments includes facials, massage, and body wraps.

The only complaint during our stay was that on the second night the guests in the suite next to ours in the chalet were reveling late into the night and the walls were quite thin making rest difficult for light sleepers.

All-in-all, Sir Sam’s provides the best of the worlds of high-end dining and cozy accommodations with the laid-back, rural charm of this beautiful part of Ontario.

Room rates vary between $205 and $385 depending on the room and season.
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