One of our favourite stops on the way to our cottage has to be the storied Opinicon Lodge at Chaffey’s Lock. A staple of Canadiana for generations before it fell on hard times and was shut down in 2012, The Opinicon has been undergoing a massive revitalization since new owners Fiona McKean and her husband, Shopify CEO Tobias Lütke, took over in 2015.
Whether stopping for a meal (or an ice cream!) or staying the weekend in one of its cosy cottages (where several of my husband, Stuart’s, paintings grace the walls), this Grand Old Dame of the Rideau is clearly returning to fine form and enchanting new generations of visitors. It really is an amazing place.
Restoring The Opinicon is a labour of love for Fiona. She has fond memories of childhood summers spent at a nearby cottage, with daily pilgrimages to The Opinicon’s ice cream shop. So strong were those memories that she and Tobi found their own place in the area and once again took up the tradition of boat trips to The Opinicon for dinner. And that connection is also what eventually lured them into buying the resort when the opportunity arose.
From the beginning, Fiona’s goal has been to modernize the place while preserving the qualities that have made it so special to so many people. Three years later, the work is still not done – she recently interrupted her work painting “everything” to talk about the lodge – but, she says, it’s “come an awfully long way in the last few years.”
So, what is The Opinicon?
“I always describe it as where the Group of Seven meets Dirty Dancing,” Fiona laughs. The mash-up of iconic Canadian scenery and a movie about summer resort living in the 1960s is apt: it brings to mind a simpler time, nature, hospitality, history and welcome-ness. “It smells of nostalgia – and paint right now,” Fiona laughs again, “but mostly nostalgia.”
Originally built as a private residence in the 1870s, it eventually became a resort with hotel and cottages that became a popular destination for both fishermen and tourists. While deteriorating buildings and declining business led to its closure in 2012, today much of the property has been restored.
The hotel rooms are no more, having been replaced by an expanded commercial kitchen, dining room, pub, Tiki lounge, meeting rooms and event space for up to 100 guests. There are 16 renovated cottages – all named after trees – a private boat ramp, 800 feet of waterfront, a playground, pool, and, of course, the ice cream shop, all set on 16 acres of land on the Rideau Canal at the confluence of Indian Lake and Opinicon Lake.
“Walking up the driveway and seeing this big old building, seeing people walking around with massive ice creams and running off to the playground, you kind of walk into a bit of a magic bubble,” says Fiona.
There are all kinds of activities for nature lovers, from hiking, kayaking and fishing to swimming, canoeing and paddle boarding. Prefer more leisurely activities? While away the afternoon in a Muskoka chair or watch boats go through the canal lock. And it’s worth the 90-minute drive to make a day trip of it and stay for dinner. Just make a reservation first, Fiona warns. She doesn’t want guests disappointed by a full restaurant.
Fiona and her family spend most of their summers at the resort. The kids, of course, love it. “Their cottage has a playground, and ice cream store and now we have a new pool, so they’re set,” she says. “And they love to go fishing.”
From the beginning, Fiona has made a point of including others in the planning and execution of this mammoth project. The first summer, for instance, having just had her third child, she notes that “having lots of conversations with guests on site with a baby on my hip was really insightful and actually altered some of our initial plans … to clarify who, what, where, when. I had the why, everything else needed clarification,” she laughs.
“It’s an incredible story. If you’re into any kind of DIY reno story or even if you’re interested in history or Canadiana generally or just vintage curiosity … it’s a massive revival story.”
She says thousands have followed the story on Facebook, where Fiona’s weekly updates have become a diary of sorts on their progress, from the early days of the main building being condemned due to asbestos to this past Mother’s Day, when brunch was sold out.
The story is not just for The Opinicon itself, she says. It’s for employees (many of whom worked at the old Opinicon) and everyone around it. “This place has seen most of Canadian history. I want it to see all of Canadian history and long may it last and continue to pump joy out into the neighbourhood – and ice cream,” she says, laughing once again.
Want to check out The Opinicon for yourself? Visit the website.