It wasn't déjà vu. We'd vacationed at this green and shady acreage in Eastern Ontario decades back. We'd loved our snug wooden cottage then, the resort's homestyle meals with strawberry-rhubarb pie just like Gran's, the crashing of moose under our window. How could we forget?
So, earlier this summer, when my husband and I heard that the Opinicon Resort at Chaffey's Lock on the Rideau Canal had reopened after a two-year hiatus, we had to return.
This grande dame of fishing lodges, 90 minutes from Ottawa, was built as a private home in the late 1800s, morphing into an Adirondack-style lodge that attracted scores of vacationing families. In 1921, the rambling wooden main house and several cabins opened as the Opinicon Hotel. The same family would run the property (and its popular ice-cream parlour) for 90 years. At its peak, the hotel employed 40 full-time fishing guides plus bellhops, and was renowned for its roast-beef dinners. By 2012, when For Sale signs appeared, the Opinicon had earned its storied reputation.
"This place was totally happening in its glory years," says new owner Fiona McKean, whose childhood memories include afternoon boat trips along the canal for ice cream at the Opinicon General Store. When the old hotel, closed since 2012, came up for auction last December, McKean and her husband, Shopify CEO Tobias Lutke, bid on the 110-year-old property. It was a decision based not on logic, but on love.
"We drove down to look, but it was covered in snow," says McKean, who was hugely pregnant at the time. "I blame the hormones," she says with a laugh about their blind bid. This spring, while Lutke's mushrooming business kept him busy, McKean, baby on hip, became restorer-in-chief. "This place was ready for a bulldozer."
Solid community support is one of the couple's rewards for their rescue operation ("The next-highest bidder planned a trailer park," McKean almost shudders). Over iced tea on the big wooden veranda, she confides that 500 people wrote "uplifting comments" on their Facebook announcement page, and an appeal for help clearing the grounds in mid-April brought crowds carrying rakes. By the end of the cleanup day, over hot dogs and pop, McKean recalls locals "telling stories [about the old days] with tears in their eyes."
The resort reopened in June with the important things in place: a liquor licence, gleaming hardwood in the dining room, a barkeep that makes a mean Planter's Punch and chef Angela Baldwin – a "total gem," McKean says. The airy, bright dining room overlooks shaded green lawns sloping down to Opinicon Lake, where yellow kayaks, red canoes and paddleboards await.
The countryside around Chaffey's Lock has long been popular for relaxing drives, with stops at maple syrup producers, cheese mongers and award-winning mustard makers. But the resort's reopening has stirred things up. "Something's happening in Chaffey's Lock," is how the cottagers put it.
While the restoration continues, the Opinicon (open till Thanksgiving) remains in a soft-opening phase. Depending on chance, you get anything from 1960s to 1980s decor in the cottages. There are no TVs or phones, but visitors will find new mattresses, embroidered pillow cases, silky-fresh sheets and a set of Opinicon glasses to take home. WiFi reception is excellent.
McKean promises "big plans ahead" for the resort, which she'll eventually announce on social media. And the look they're going for? "Authentic, but cool," she says. The Opinicon's Facebook friends will continue to play a role, as they did when submitting ideas for ice-cream flavours in the store. (Pistachio was the clear winner.)
As for us, we ate our socks off, danced ourselves silly on Saturday night in the Community Hall down the road and slept like logs in our romantic cottage. No moose woke us. But as we drove away, a deer and her two fawns emerged from the woods.
Editor's note: An earlier digital version of this story incorrectly spelt the resort's name. This digital version has been corrected.