Rebirth of the Rideau’s ‘Grand Old Dame’

It is one thing to restore a historic resort and preserve its Canadiana feel. But it is quite another to go beyond preservation and attract a whole new generation of vacationers by breathing new life into an iconic summer destination.

This is what Fiona McKean and her husband Tobi Lütke, CEO of Ottawa-based tech company Shopify, set out to do with The Opinicon Resort.

Once dubbed ‘The Grand Old Dame of the Rideau,’ the resort appropriately sits on Opinicon Lake, on Ontario’s historic Rideau Canal waterway, northeast of Kingston. The resort, consisting of a two-storey ochre-and-green main lodge and 16 cabins, sits on a 16-acre waterfront property and is experiencing a dramatic rebirth after the couple purchased it at an auction in 2015.

For McKean, the decision to buy the property was personal. Her love for this classic Ontario lodge-style resort goes back to her childhood. “I spent a lot of summers nearby with my family and have fond memories of coming here – especially for the ice cream,” she said.

As part of a close-knit community, “this place was totally happening in its glory years, in the first half of the 20th century,” McKean said. Yet, while it was once widely known as a vacation destination and an obligatory stop along the busy Rideau Canal, business at The Opinicon eventually slowed down. The resort gradually lost its appeal and after years of declining occupancy, finally closed in 2012, as a sad shadow of its former self.

Inside the Ponderosa Cottage. (Union Eleven Photographers)

The Opinicon sat untended and in disrepair and might have been redeveloped as a trailer park had McKean and Lütke not bought it, just days away from McKean delivering their third child. (She has publicly joked that the hormones made her do it!)

With children in tow, McKean quickly dove into the task of bringing the resort into the modern world of destination tourism. Using her strengths in communications, she quickly launched what would become a commitment to engaging with the community on social media, updating them on the challenges and progress every step of the way. She rallied local support, including an army of rake-toting volunteers who came to clear the overgrown property in the spring of 2015. She also hired dozens of local residents and former employees, truly making this a community project.

Despite a sense of urgency to get the business up and running, McKean was extremely careful to respect the character of the original interiors, and to burnish whatever gems were discovered during that process.

During construction, workers found a section of the original roofline of Samuel Chaffey’s house. The contractor said, “We can just put a new shingle roof in there and no one will know,” to which McKean replied, “I’ll know.” She was determined to save it so they stopped everything to work it into the design. “We removed, cleaned and reinstated every weathered cedar shingle,” she said. The roof is now a main feature of the Tiki Room, itself a re-imagining of the original Tiki Room visitors may remember from the past.

McKean tastefully and respectfully updated The Opinicon’s wood-panelled rooms and period furnishings and punctuated the site with Muskoka chairs made in-house and appropriately painted ‘Opinicon Red.’

By June of 2015, The Opinicon was back in business with substantial renovations already accomplished; plus an all-important liquor license, modern guest necessities such as Internet access and Wi-Fi, and world-class cuisine served in the resort’s spacious wainscotted dining room.

The Opinicon’s Alford Room, in the main lodge, is used for events. (Union Eleven Photographers)

Today, Fiona McKean is ensuring that this piece of living heritage has a future as a Canadian destination. More than a business, the restoration of the resort is a way to give back to the community.

“I hope that this place will be a catalyst for other developments in the area that create a larger draw,” she said. In the meantime, “The reward is seeing happy kids with big ice cream cones, the satisfaction of knowing people can reconnect with childhood memories.”

At the same time, McKean’s dedication to creatively respecting Canadian heritage is profound. She has skillfully balanced old and new elements, preserving The Opinicon’s ice cream parlour, with its pale green Formica counters and diner-style stools, while integrating in the main lodge an entirely new but respectfully in-character modern pub. That same balance resonates throughout The Opinicon, inside and out. And not only in the design decisions that create the welcoming atmosphere, but in her hiring and purchasing decisions that favour local staff and suppliers.

For her, it’s about investing in the community. “Most importantly, it’s knowing we are creating good jobs, and relooping the thread of the community,” said McKean.


The Backstory

The Opinicon’s history starts back in the late 1870s, when Samuel Chaffey built the original house as a private residence. Its location on fish-rich Opinicon Lake – created when the Rideau Canal was constructed – made the home a draw for fishing enthusiasts and boat-borne tourists alike. This led to the house being expanded into a summer hotel by the early 1900s; garnering names such as ‘Idylwild’ as it passed from family to family.

In 1921, the property was purchased by W.E. Phillips and relaunched as The Opinicon Club. The first cottages were built (many still in use today), and The Opinicon’s best days began. The lodge was a magnet for people wanting to enjoy its elegant accommodations, cool, breezy property and its renowned roast beef. All of this was (and is) located on a 16-acre site with 800 feet of waterfront, nicely shaded and framed by mature trees. In its heyday, The Opinicon truly deserved its nickname, ‘The Grand Old Dame of the Rideau,’ and it is well on its way to reclaiming that worthy title.