Located just two hours east of Mississauga, Viamede reimagines the cottage resort with a plethora of included amenities, an unmistakable sense of place, and a strong emphasis on the culinary experience that makes it a resort unlike anywhere else in Ontario.
I found myself driving to Viamede in the middle of a snowstorm in early February for The Gathering, a quarterly-ish feast that showcases Viamede's "forest-to-table" vision and locavore philosophy, as executed by Chef Jay Nutt. And boy, was it ever worth it!
The Gathering isn't just a meal - it's an event, and one that upends all your preconceived notions of what gourmet means. If your idea of fine dining involves cloistered, dimly lit tables, an endless array of specialized cutlery, and people murmuring in secluded corners over wines from far-flung locales, well...this isn't that. This is a social event meant to foster a sense of shared experience, so diners sit at one long family-style table that encourages conversation.
It starts with a cocktail hour and table grazing that in our case included a cornucopia of locally-sourced delights - things like mini-tourtieres, primal cuts charcuterie, bannock, and my personal favourite, cured trout with wild leek marmalade. Traditional fine dining fare like foie gras butter shared table space with inventive delights like a particularly delicious rabbit rillette.
The plated portion of the meal kicked off with a soup consisting of a beet broth over a nest of sauerkraut with a sous vide egg that even my normally unadventurous-palated dinner companion enjoyed; this was followed by a main course that included a turkey and root vegetable pot pie so delicious I couldn't resist devouring most of it before I even thought to take a photo; and capping it all off, a sticky toffee pudding that was so good it made me temporarily forget about the snowstorm traffic that I was stuck in for hours.
It may sound like I've just described a lavish, indulgent feast, but I've actually left out more than half the menu (not to mention the specialty cocktails, local craft beers, and wine pairings, all of which are included in the price of admission for you to partake - or not - at your leisure). That's partly to maintain the same sense of mystery and thrill of surprise that guests at The Gathering have - the menu isn't made available beforehand - and partly because delivering an itemized list with clinical precision doesn't do justice to the creativity and heart that Chef Jay Nutt puts into preparing these meals. Viamede's gourmet offering is more about a philosophy and an overall aesthetic as opposed to a few signature dishes.
So, about that snowstorm. See, when I say that Viamede is two hours east of Mississauga, I mean during regular driving conditions and not, say, during one of the worst snowstorms of the year. We ended up hours late for the event, but this is where owner and General Manager Ben Smann and his excellent staff proved their commitment to going above and beyond for their guests. We had let them know we were going to be late while we were stuck on the 407 due to a jackknifed trailer, and we were likely going to miss a good portion of the event, which was scheduled to start at 5:30 PM and go well into the night. We arrived, exhausted and miserable, only to find that Ben and Chef Jay had made the effort to prepare a speed round of everything that had been served before, just for us. We were seated with a group of warm, friendly and inviting guests who made us feel incredibly welcome and caught us up on what we had missed. Every item was presented with meticulous attention to detail and the staff made sure we were never left wanting for anything. Ben sat and chatted with us for some time, treating us like old friends, not merely guests at the resort. Pretty soon, the weather and the traffic were a distant memory. This warmth and gregariousness would prove to be a recurring theme over my weekend at Viamede. Ben is a fixture around the resort, and can be found everywhere from leading groups on nature walks to hosting multi-course meals at Mount Julian, a cozy fine dining establishment on the resort grounds.
Mount Julian is where I spent the next evening, partaking in a seven course meal that crystallized and reinforced the locavore philosophy I had experienced at The Gathering. While the previous night was a social, communal affair, Mount Julian was shockingly intimate. With only 9 tables, seatings staggered throughout the evening, and musical selections from classical to the 1940s piped through an old record player, it's easy to feel like you've been transported to a time and place long since past. You can choose from a five, seven, or nine course meal (with or without some very inventive beverage pairings), with the menu changing weekly or even daily depending on Chef Jay Nutt's inspiration. As always, the menu is sourced from the area, featuring cheese from Ontario producers a few hours away, pork from the on-site farm, and quite possibly the most "local" ingredient of all - micro-greens grown behind the front desk! The highlight of my meal was a Viamede-exclusive spin on "fish and chips" - a crispy pickerel with a winter slaw and spicy aioli.
The ingredients and the atmosphere combine to imbue Mount Julian with the most elusive and desirable element of fine dining - an authentic sense of place. For anyone who has ever struggled to define what "Ontario cuisine" means, Chef Jay Nutt has the answer - it's the bounty of the Kawarthas, and it's on full display at Mount Julian.
If you choose to dine at Mount Julian (and you should!) be sure to inform them of any allergies or dietary restrictions when you book your reservation. They're happy to oblige, but as the ingredients are locally sourced, the more notice you give them, the more flexibility they'll have to create something truly memorable just for you. During my meal I saw them tailor the experience to a variety of requests - non-dairy, vegetarian, non-alcoholic - and every request was expertly handled by Chef Jay and the staff.
After the meal, my partner and I strolled over to Club 1885, the 24/7 lounge area that serves as the main indoor hangout at the resort. Here you'll find comfy seats and a roaring fire (which you're free to throw a log on if it’s looking a little low), an assortment of board games, and complimentary coffee, tea, and hot chocolate. There's nothing quite as relaxing in the winter as playing a game of Scrabble by the fire while sipping on a warm drink.
Club 1885 is also where you’ll find Viamede’s breakfast buffet, consisting of all the usual trappings - eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, cereal, etc. - and as with the coffee/tea/hot chocolate, breakfast is also complimentary with your stay. We started off both our mornings here, enjoying both the food and the view of the frozen lake.
After you’ve had your breakfast fill, you’ve got a lot of options depending on the type of vacation you’re looking for. If you’re interested in an outdoorsy experience, you can head over to the recreation building where you’ll find several winter-fun accoutrements. Feel like heading out on the frozen lake? Grab a pair of skates and go for it (after checking with the front desk beforehand to make sure it’s safe, of course). Maybe you’re in the mood for exploring? Grab a trail map and some snow shoes or cross country skis and head on out! There’s no cost, deposit, or rental fee of any kind for this equipment - it’s all included in your stay. This should be considered when looking at the price per night vs. other resorts, which may seem like a bargain before you factor in breakfast, Wi-Fi, activity rentals/fees, et cetera - all things that are simply part of the Viamede experience at no additional charge. There’s also no extra charge for bringing your pets, which are welcomed with open arms and are free to take advantage of an off-leash area, or accompany you along any of the trails.
The only down side to all the equipment being available for free is that if the resort is busy, you may be out of luck - it’s all first come, first serve. By the time we made our way to the recreation building, all the snow shoes had already been taken, but we still enjoyed a lovely walk through the woods, passing the farm and making our way to a beautiful century-old oak tree that’s one of the landmarks here. We even came across some wildlife - a couple of friendly deer - which made our day just a little bit more special.
For those who are more into the great indoors, there’s still much to love about Viamede. In addition to the aforementioned Club 1885 lounge area, there’s a well-lit and well-appointed gym, as well as an indoor pool with a swim-out area. There’s no feeling quite like being in a heated pool outdoors when the weather is below zero; you stay very warm but can still enjoy the crisp air. There’s also a steam room, which I couldn’t quite figure out how to get working, and a sauna, which I didn’t even attempt to use because it’s only accessible from a door outside the pool area - it’s one thing to go for a brief outdoor swim when you’re mostly submerged in heated water, but it’s another thing entirely to walk along a snow-covered outside deck barefoot and in nothing but swim trunks. I’ll leave that adventurous experience to someone else!
If you're the type who likes to spend a good amount of time in your room, you won't be disappointed in what Viamede has to offer. My stay included an incredibly spacious "Hilltop" room with a king bed, a sofa (which also doubles as a bed}, a whirlpool tub in the bathroom, and a fireplace, perfect for cozying up to at the end of a long winter's night. While I would encourage taking this time to unplug, Viamede has you covered if you just can't rip yourself away from your tech - there's free Wi-Fi, an alarm that doubles as a smartphone charger and speaker, a TV, and a DVD player (with DVDs available to borrow from the same area as the board games by Club 1885). There's also a balcony with lake views, and though you probably won't make much use of it in the dead of winter, it's there if you want it.
This is the first winter that Viamede has been open seven days a week, and the response has been incredible. Events like The Gathering frequently sell out, and between the amenities, the incredible staff, and a world-class fine dining destination like Mount Julian, it's no surprise that bookings have exceeded expectations. If you're looking for an Ontario resort experience that lives up to their slogan, "boldly different" - and especially if you're interested in unique culinary experiences - then you owe it to yourself to explore all that Viamede has to offer.