Soft calls for yoga poses tickle my left ear. The distant sound of ATVs ripping up a dirt trail fill my right. Behind, logs are being stacked for that evening’s fire and, straight ahead, the soft lapping of Calabogie Lake as it kisses the small beach at Barnet Park.
Oh, and then there’s the tiny log sawing of Bella, our 11-pound half-Chihuahua, as she twitches and dreams of the hike we just completed.
I’m not a nature guy, but this certainly doesn’t suck.
As regular readers of this space know, I’m a sucker for vintage motels: the steamy soda- and ice-machines; the paper sanitization “seatbelt” around the toilet; the cramped lobby; the lobby furniture; how owners would try to create identity out of what is, really, a very standard architectural form.
But somewhere around the age of 45, authenticity wasn’t enough, since it often meant musty beds and peeling paint. Or worse. Thankfully, it was around this time that aspiring Ontario hoteliers dialed into what had been happening in the United States for a decade: buy an old motel with good bones in a good location, hip it up, add reasons to stay on the property and the reservations will pour in.
While it’s only been two months, this has been true for Devon Vaillancourt and Joel Greaves at Somewhere Inn Calabogie. What had been the motel portion of Jocko’s Beach Resort – a long, mansard roofed, brick bunker built in 1972 and frequented by hunters and fisherman as much as by families – is now a sleek inn where craft cider and alpaca blankets have replaced dew worms and boat rentals.
“The inspiration, really, was take the feeling that you have when you go to a cottage, and bottle that up and deliver that in a renovated motel,” Mr. Greaves says.
“But with the upscale touches like the Endy mattresses and the soaker tubs,” Ms. Vaillancourt adds.
And omitting in-room television was a conscious choice, say the pair: “We want to encourage people to get outside,” Mr. Greaves says.
That’s good, because while Somewhere Inn isn’t necessarily in the middle of nowhere, there is no small town main street to browse nearby, and there are only a few restaurants within a short drive (Renfrew, Ont., is a 25-minute drive away). Luckily, if the hiking, skiing, off-roading, or swimming don’t float your boat, the quaint lobby/bottle shop’s snacks and ample selection of beer, wine, and cider will.
The plan was to create an “escape” from the city, whether that city was Toronto, Kingston or Ottawa, say the couple, both 34-years-old. It was also to tap into that “nostalgic vibe” of the Catskills. Which meant that, two years ago when they began their search, they were limited to searching in Muskoka, Collingwood, Niagara, or the Ottawa Valley, where they ultimately ended up.
During their previous travels, the couple had noted which motel conversions had stuck with them, and, when they engaged with Keri MacLellan and Andrea Pierre of design studio Westgrove, a trip to The Phoenix in San Francisco was arranged.
When it came time to redesign the rooms, that they were so large – almost 400 square feet each – presented an interesting problem. All agreed they didn’t want to recreate the kitchenettes that Jocko had offered, so what to do? That’s when the idea of gas stoves and a lounge area came to life. And while my ex-interior designer wife, Shauntelle, basked in that warmth each evening, she was also struck by the phalanx of wooden hooks on the wall.
“Hooks in a hotel, you can’t have enough,” Ms. Vaillancourt agrees. “We went to a wedding in a really amazing, quaint spot and there wasn’t a single hook or a closet, so everyone had their suits and their dresses and, literally, no where to hang them.”
One afternoon, while Shauntelle was enjoying the many other ergonomic details done correctly – we’ve stayed in too many hip conversions where good design has been sacrificed for Instagram moments – I took the opportunity to drive an hour north to Pembroke, Ont.
There, next to the Muskrat River, the Pembroke Public Library has stood since 1914 as a testament to the progressive views of this small city. Built with funds from Andrew Carnegie, the atypical design was drawn up by Ottawa-based architect Francis Conroy Sullivan, who studied under Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago, and is credited with bringing the Prairie Style to Canada (it is also believed that, after research turned up a preliminary 1913 drawing in Mr. Wright’s possession, that Mr. Wright helped Mr. Sullivan at the outset).
“You’re here for a tour?” asks library employee Simon Hartwig, who then hands me over to Anna Ritza, who points to the various features that are original, including which walls, since the library has undergone two expansions, one in 1967 and the other in 1974, and accessibility upgrades in 1986.
“It’s a beautiful place to work,” Ms. Ritza says. “The spot in the staff area is just gorgeous with all the windows and the sun coming in.” She’s right, and the hour I spent touring this incredible piece of Canadian architectural history is something I won’t soon forget.
Sadly, even with this sort of pedigree, Mr. Hartwig points to a small oak table – one of three pieces of Sullivan-designed furniture that remain – and says: “I’ve had to rescue this from the garbage two or three times.”
Back at the Somewhere Inn, while Bella zooms around on the big lawn (the Inn is very dog-friendly), I tell my hosts about my adventure but, more importantly, that I’m happy to have discovered Calabogie.
“If you make the hotel good enough,” Ms. Vaillancourt says, “you’ll get a lot of people coming to it without really knowing what’s on offer … and so then you get to essentially introduce people to this place they’ve never heard of.”
Francis Conroy Sullivan (1882–1929) died tragically while working for Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West. In my humble opinion, Mr. Sullivan is deserving of an entire column, if not a whole book, and I’ll try to rectify that in future (his own home in Ottawa is spectacular).
The cost of a portion of Mr. LeBlanc’s trip was covered by Somewhere Inn Calabogie. The owners did not review or approve the content of this article.
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