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A Canadian icon rises in the East

For 75 years, the spectacular location of Cape Breton’s Keltic Lodge has impressed guests – but over the decades, the buildings and adjacent golf course fell into decline. Last month, the retreat unveiled the results of a $5-million makeover, phase one of a major overhaul. Guy Nicholson talks to key players about the staying power of this Martime jewel

Keltic Lodge and its Highlands Links were products of the Great Depression and the early-1900s effort to expand the national parks system. (Sherri Poirier/ Pear Tree Photography)

If Atlantic Canada were embodied in a single hotel, it might well be the venerable Keltic Lodge in Ingonish, N.S. Perched on Middle Head, a jagged ribbon of rock between the Atlantic Ocean and the natural splendour of Cape Breton Highlands National Park, the iconic lodge and its celebrated golf course, Highlands Links, were products of the Great Depression and the early-1900s effort to expand the national parks system. The resort, which marks 75 years in operation this month, came to represent Cape Breton Island the way Banff Springs epitomizes Alberta’s Rockies.

That glory had faded in recent decades, but a revitalization is under way. The golf course has been on the mend for several years and the Keltic Lodge has just completed a $5-million facelift under the management of GolfNorth, an Ontario-based company owned by former BlackBerry co-CEO Jim Balsillie, which began leasing the property from Parks Canada in 2015. The Globe’s Guy Nicholson asked GolfNorth CEO Shawn Evans, Ingonish-born historian Ken Donovan and consulting golf architect Ian Andrew discuss about how a Maritime icon came to be, and where it’s headed.

After decades in decline, the golf course is undergoing a revitalization and the Keltic Lodge has just completed a $5-million facelift. (Sherri Poirier/Pear Tree Photography)

The lodge and golf course were established as focal points for tourism development in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Why Ingonish and Middle Head?

Shawn Evans, CEO, Golf North Properties: It is located right inside the eastern gate and there was a history of “lodge lifestyle” there. Middle Head was purchased from the family of Henry Clay Corson, an American industrialist who was introduced to the property by Alexander Graham Bell. The Corsons’ summer house is the template for every other building on the peninsula.

Ken Donovan, retired Canada Parks historian: Ingonish and Middle Head were chosen because of their timeless beauty. Angus L. MacDonald, premier of Nova Scotia from 1933 to 1940, was looking for make-work construction projects during the Depression. The park and golf course were part of that broader context.

Ian Andrew, consulting golf architect for Highlands Links: [Canadian golf architect] Stanley Thompson conceived the idea of getting Parks Canada to build new courses as a make-work project … he actually met with [prime minister] Mackenzie King. He sold it to the government as a way to take the hardest-hit communities and put those people back to work. … The government was interested because the fisheries were in distress and the communities were in decline.

The golf course, which unfolds over rolling headlands with panoramic ocean views, opened in 1941. (Sherri Poirier/Pear Tree Photography)

Why have visitors come to see it as a special place?

Evans: The geography is truly unique; the aboriginal name for Ingonish means, roughly, “remarkable place.” The scenery, the hospitality, the food, the outdoor lifestyle, the best course design by Canada’s best golf designer – you couldn’t recreate what’s here.

Donovan: During the 1920s and 1930s, grand hotels were considered essential to go with splendid golf courses: Think of St. George’s in Toronto and the Royal York, Jasper Park Lodge and Banff Springs, the Algonquin at St. Andrews, N.B. The Keltic fit right in there and there are many other examples in Canada and the United States. These properties were built on a grand scale – beautiful, iconic buildings set in special places with good ground for building golf courses. Of course, I think Ingonish is special.

Andrew: The golf course is an education into the unique geography found on the peninsula. Planned or not, the long transitions between holes help to emphasize the differences between each unique geography. The course unfolds like a series of chapters from a great book: a rolling headland with panoramic ocean views, forested highlands, the wide-open floodplain of the Clyburn River, views out to the ocean, then a walk past the church to a ramble over the rugged headland back toward the clubhouse, finishing on the 18th with two ocean views. Combined together, these chapters make for a wonderful journey through, or story of, the local landscape.

During the 1920s and 1930s, grand hotels were considered essential to go with golf courses. (Sherri Poirier/Pear Tree Photography)

It may have been the right choice for tourism, but development wasn’t universally popular.

Andrew: The golf course was going to be only on the peninsula, but there was no way to construct holes farther out on the point. [So Thompson] selected areas outside the national park for inclusion in the golf course.

Donovan: Approximately 30 families were expropriated to make way for the golf course; most of my ancestors’ lands were taken. Prior to expropriation, which began in 1936, the community had been gathered around the Catholic church up the Clyburn River Valley. After expropriation, the Irish Catholic community became more dispersed.

Andrew: Most ended up on the construction team, since it took a very long time for them to get reimbursed for the land. … The wounds haven’t healed, and frankly, I don’t blame the families for feeling that way.

Evans: It’s still a sore point, and many of our present staff are descendants of those farmers. That said, Thompson employed 200 men for several years during the Depression, and used practically no powered equipment, in order to stretch out that work.

The location of the resort and golf course were chosen because of the timeless beauty of the area.(Sherri Poirier/Pear Tree Photography)

The lodge and golf course were operating by 1941 and saw their heyday after the Second World War. What were those years like?

Donovan: The golf course opened in 1941 but the back holes were closed during the war years. Local residents whose land had been expropriated were allowed to come to get hay for their animals. After the war, tourism started to open up, with wealthy Americans and Upper Canadians visiting. The new lodge was built in 1952 and continued to be run as a government operation. There was great pride taken to operate the hotel as a first-class operation with five-star dining, usually French cuisine. Service was impeccable at all levels. The Keltic Lodge was one of the premier hotel destinations in Atlantic Canada.

Evans: In 1941, the Corsons’ summer house was the original lodge, along with some cottages. In 1951, the present lodge building was opened, along with the Ceilidh Hall (a wartime recreation hall), which we fully renovated last winter. It’s a wall of glass now … – and the best wedding venue in the Maritimes! – but in the 1950s, it was the go-to place in Cape Breton. Many guests were Americans, escaping the heat of the eastern cities in those days before air conditioning. Most people came for a week at a time. The chefs were all French.

in the 1950s, the lodge was the go-to place in Cape Breton, with many guests coming from the U.S. to escape the heat of eastern cities. (Sherri Poirier/Pear Tree Photography)

What were the challenges of running a property of this scale in northern Cape Breton?

Evans: It’s a rocky peninsula sticking several kilometres out into the Atlantic, on the opposite side of a 700-foot cape. The roads were so bad in the 1930s that Thompson never actually drove here. He always came back and forth from Prince Edward Island – where he was also building the Green Gables course – by boat, because it was faster. Staffing is still a challenge; we supply housing to 80 staff. It’s a difficult environment to grow grass. The season is short and everything costs more here, except seafood.

Andrew: Short season, cold spring weather created by the ocean currents and limited local resources make it a tough place to operate a golf course as a business. It’s always been remote. But the cost of staffing it using union employees became a real difficult issue in recent times as Parks Canada saw budgets pared back in their operations, and the costs could not be supported by the income.

About 30 families were expropriated to make room for the golf course, dispersing the Irish Catholic community, which still feels lingering resentment over the development. (Sherri Poirier/Pear Tree Photography)

When and how did decline set in?

Donovan: By 2006, the lodge was getting a little long in the tooth. Former premier Rodney MacDonald, a Cape Bretoner, leased out the the provincial hotels – Keltic Lodge, Digby Pines and Liscombe Lodge – to large American hotels with no experience running seasonal operations. They took their 20 per cent off the top and ran the lodge into the ground. There was a spa built at the Keltic Lodge, but [its reputation] continued to decline without much-needed upgrades.

Evans: The place was still awesome. If anything, it got left behind. The classic lodge, like the classic CP hotels in the Fairmont chain (Banff/Royal York) never really went out of style. That building, along with the Highland Sitting Room and the Purple Thistle Dining Room, feel like something from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. As for every other building in the property, they didn’t age gracefully – particularly the inn, which was built in the 1960s and looked like it. It’s tough for any government, provincial or federal, to make the kind of capital investment that we have – it’s not their mandate.

Andrew: A few decades back, Parks Canada began to treat the golf course as a thorn rather than an important draw to the park. They had stopped investing in the facility and it began to run down. … What further complicated matters were some hardline environmental people [there] who viewed the course as “incompatible with a park” and refused for more than a decade to allow a single tree [to be] removed. As it overgrew, this only sped up the decline and essentially made the situation unworkable. That’s the point [when general manager] Graham Hudson and I began working on the course.

The revamp golf course was based on the historical landscape, meaning the ocean views were restored. (Sherri Poirier/Pear Tree Photography)

What restoration efforts have been made?

Evans: The rooms in the lodge were “demodernized” a few years ago. Carpets were removed and beautiful hardwood floors were exposed. The golf course has been steadily returned to its original state under Ian’s guidance. There was a redesign in the 1990s that most golf purists don’t like to talk about – much of his work has been about undoing that. The course now plays almost exactly as it did in 1941.

Donovan: [The golf work] was a renovation, not a restoration. There was little or no historical research for this project on Thompson’s original design. The restoration work done under Ian … was based on comprehensive research. I know this because I was commissioned, as a Parks Canada historian, to do the research.

Andrew: We convinced Parks Canada to look at this as a historical landscape. This allowed us to clear all the historical corridors to grow better turf, make the course more playable and, most importantly, return all the ocean views. We restored all the bunkers back to their original locations and shapes, undoing all previous changes. And we began some drainage projects.

Evans: The course and the lodge have always been operated separately, but now, for the first time, both operations are under one operator. There are synergies available for everything from staffing to marketing and guest satisfaction. It’s a 42 year lease – so the environment for investment and long-term thinking is there.

What are the long-term ambitions?

Evans: No. 1 destination in the country for golf, food and accommodations.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

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