When the Fogo Island Inn opened in 2013, helmed by the island’s own Zita Cobb and designed by Newfoundland-born architect Todd Saunders, it thrust Canadian boutique accommodation and design on to an international stage.
Inspired by the island’s outport fishing stages – wooden buildings on platforms above the water, propped up on stilts because of the sea bed’s uneven terrain – it got people at home and abroad excited about Canadian design and the potential of sharing the look of local architecture and interiors with visitors from around the globe.
For a while, Fogo seemed to be a one off. But now, a boutique accommodation boom that’s being felt in communities across the country is introducing travellers to a robust portfolio of made-in-Canada design. These hotels and motels are welcoming guests into worlds where, for a few nights, they can live in unabashedly Canadian style. Many of the properties are enjoying acclaim on the international stage. Prince Edward County, Ont.’s Wander is a darling of the design press in France. The June Motel’s expansion to Sauble Beach, Ont., was the subject of a six-episode Netflix series, Motel Makeover. And Kitoki Inn, on Bowen Island in B.C., has been featured in Vogue.
With border restrictions easing, these properties are ready to welcome international visitors as well as locals, introducing them to the country’s diverse aesthetics, and to the challenges of coming up with a succinct definition of “Canadian design.”
“I think that diversity within Canadian design, in a weird way, is what makes it Canadian,” says Anwar Mekhayech, co-founder of the Canadian firm, Design Agency. He says that in countries such as Brazil, Spain or France, which have centuries-old design traditions, it’s a lot easier to narrow down what makes their look unique – something that is less obvious in Canada.
“Whether it’s Vancouver or Halifax, Toronto or Montreal, just within one country, we really have a massively international perspective on design,” he says.
While there may not be a definitive style among them, what unites Canada’s new crop of boutique accommodation is a sensibility. They are designed in such a way that travellers feel as if these places are their second homes (made all the better because they don’t have to make their beds).
Hotel St-Thomas, which opened in Montreal last year in between the Quartier des Spectacles, the Gay Village and Plateau Mont-Royal, is a mix of old and new that mimics the city itself. The 23-room boutique hotel is split over the François de Martigny house, named after the building’s original owner, and a sleek seven-storey black aluminum building behind the historic stone home. “It’s the same thing inside, where you have a mix of the old architecture – with the chevron flooring, marble and gold – but then we modernize it with black steel,” says Jennifer Nguyen, who co-owns the hotel with her husband.
Nguyen says they designed the hotel to attract travellers like themselves: worldly, creative – and parents. Many rooms have furnished balconies that allow guests to lounge while looking out on to the neighbourhood of townhomes and low-rise apartment buildings, and interior design choices are ultra local: plants, coffee and mini-bar treats are all from nearby shops. “The common point for all types of clientele is they are looking for a local experience. They want that human touch,” she says.
Similarly, Shannon Hunter, who owns Wander, says the primary driver for all design decisions at the beach resort in Bloomfield, Ont., which also opened in 2021, was “experience.” “It was like, how do we want our guests to feel when they’re in our spaces? Let’s not talk about colour palette or start looking at tile samples until we really nail down what we want that feeling to be,” she says. “What is it that stays with you, that makes you want to come back, that you know makes you think fondly of your stay here five years down the road? It likely is not what the tile looks like.”
The airy cabins at Wander have a refined but breezy vibe. The lounge seating covered in inviting throw pillows encourages naps and the bathroom towels have a wonderful texture that makes washing one’s hands a treat.
Penny’s Motel, which opened last year in Thornbury, Ont., has iceboxes outside each of its 13 rooms, giving guests a reason to hang out on what is effectively their front porch. In the lobby lounge at the recently opened Modern Wing at Toronto’s Drake Hotel, designed by Design Agency, guests are likely to quickly identify a favourite chair among the eclectic seating options.
Markus Schreyer, who works in hospitality and lives in New York, recently stayed at the Drake during a visit to Toronto. He calls the hotel not just a home away from home, but “a destination itself.” He says he loves the fresh approach of Canada’s design aesthetic because it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
“The Canadian boutique lifestyle hotels landscape offers exactly this: candid and unretouched experiences, matching the travellers’ desire for aesthetics of a different and honest kind,” Schreyer says. “For me as a traveller, I want to stay in a place that offers me a new perspective, which lasts beyond the trip.”
It’s this kind of connection that the contemporary Canadian hospitality scene has designed so well. The metaphorical mats at the front door don’t just say welcome, they say welcome back.
As part of Globe and Mail Saturday on April 9 at the Interior Design Show in Toronto, contributor Maryam Siddiqi hosts the talk, Destination Chic: The Influence of Canada’s Boutique Hotel Boom on our Living Spaces. Panellists include The Drake Hotel’s creative director, Joyce Lo; Wander The Resort founder Shannon Hunter; Beside co-founder and chief creative officer Eliane Cadieux; and June Motel co-founder Sarah Sklash. For more information, visit interiordesignshow.com.