South Eastern Ontario is a world famous destination for summer escapes. Places where you take your family, or friends to do away with the trifles of urban existence. You know what I’m talking about. That place where you can kick back, unwind, and be immersed in pure tranquillity.
Few places are as storied, or as seemingly mythical – as The Opinicon Resort. For over a century this absolutely arresting summer destination has been a beloved, and elemental part of the Rideau Lakes region. Multiple generations of vacationers dating as far back as the 1920s have made the Opinicon their home away from home. “The Grand Old Dame of the Rideau” they would call her.
Confession time. Prior to this assignment, I had never actually been to the fabled Opinicon Resort in my entire life. I had heard about it, of course. More than once, the jaws of my friends had dropped when they learned this.
“You’ve never been to the Opinicon?” They would exclaim.
Well, now I have – and I’m happy to offer a fresh perspective on what I experienced. During my visit, I got to sit down with co-owner Fiona Mckean and discuss the ongoing restoration efforts, and the history of the resort – but also the Opinicon’s future.
That ‘Opinicon Feeling.’
When we first arrived and walked up the path which led to the main building I had this odd sense of familiarity. Not because I had already seen pictures of the building – but because of the feeling in the air. The sound of the wind wheezing through the leaves, the vibrant green glow of being beneath a canopy of tall and ancient trees.
I was taken back to every summer I spent at my family’s cottage, only I was now standing before the “four star” version of it. The main building greets you from the high ground with a grand warmth and architectural nostalgia that speaks to a more vintage age of hospitality. Like, a really cool marriage of Victorian Novel and Dirty Dancing.
The inviting beige colour and forest green highlights of the building(s) make them look as though they’re simply a part of the surrounding grounds. Natural-unnatural formations that have always been there, and always should be.
This might sound super geeky. But first walking up to and beholding The Opinicon – is likely how the Hobbits felt when they first set their eyes upon Rivendell. You turn a corner and boom! There it is.
Yes, it’s that gorgeous.
The Main Lodge & Upper Level
On entering the main building, you will be instantly greeted with a friendly face, and find yourself standing in a bright and radiant main foyer. The dark chestnut coloured flooring on both levels are accented well by the white of the walls and certainly serves to brighten the atmosphere.
On the upper level, you’ll find some gorgeous artwork adorning the walls, and the spectacular Alford Room. This stunning hall can hold up to 100 guests and would be perfect for family reunions, or wedding receptions. The deer antler chandeliers are a nice touch that only enhances the already beaming rustic charm at work throughout the Opinicon.
At the opposite end of the main lodge’s second floor is the “Tiki Lounge,” a tropically themed pub space with what is, in my opinion, a very well stocked bar. There are tables for playing board games, a retro arcade cabinet with hundreds of games, and plenty of spaces for socialising. When you enter the Tiki Lounge, the roof shingles that arc over the doorway are in fact the very same shingles from the original private residence upon which the Opinicon is built.
It was while exploring the main building that we met up with the Opinicon’s General Manager: Peter McFarland, who showed us around further. We discussed some of the ongoing projects, such as the pool. Outside the Southern windows of the dining hall, it was evident that an impressive in-ground swimming pool was being built. There was also a new retaining wall to reinforce to the building’s foundation.
After our conversation with Peter, we met up with the Opinicon’s co-owner Fiona Mckean and made our way back to the Tiki Lounge for a brief interview before lunch.
A Labour of Love. A Chat With Fiona Mckean
Based in Ottawa, Fiona is at the Opinicon two, to three times a week, and every weekend during the summer. A typical day at the resort consists of meetings, interviews and working with her management team to make decisions on how best to tackle the ongoing projects happening at the resort.
“It’s the beginning of the season. During the summer, there’s a natural upswing in energy and enthusiasm – and just seeing people use the site, makes me feel better. I get too close to it, and it’s hard to see the progress. But, when people walk in and say: ‘Holy moly! This is totally different, rejuvenated, and awesome!’
They are loving it, they’re loving the food and walking around – that feels really great. That’s really great because it’s like a downloaded perspective for me, that I don’t get while trudging through the winter and hammering nails in.”
Fiona says that she is most excited to complete the swimming pool – in August hopefully – so her three young boys can spend the day playing in the water, and for The Opinicon’s valued guests to enjoy, of course.
Upgrades to the Main Lodge’s insulation mean that it will remain open through the year for dining, events and special occasions. Fiona also let me know that they plan to develop year-round accommodations, to be built toward the back of the sixteen-acre property – effectively making The Opinicon a four season resort.
One of the main reasons that Fiona wants to operate the resort year-round is to be able to provide year-round employment for her staff – and eliminate the seasonal aspect of the business. She spoke to me about the close-knit nature of her team, and how she envisions The Opinicon as a part of the local community.
“The Opinicon should be a place that gives back. It’s social mandate should be Chaffey’s and it’s renewal and preservation. Also to be that social hub – and connection to people’s lives. That will be a big piece once construction is complete. How to make The Opinicon sustainable, not just as a business but a sustainable piece of the community as well.”
The more I spoke with Fiona, the more it solidified The Opinicon as this fascinating and historic place built upon several generation’s worth of collective stories and shared experiences. A living tapestry, woven from an intricate network of memories, some dating back over a century.
“Guests say: ‘I used to come here every year with my grandparents for Thanksgiving, and then I started bringing my kids.’
“For so many people, The Opinicon, is a link in the chain of their lives, and that chain was broken. It felt really incomplete – and it was hard for them to find something to fill that. They were so thrilled to know that there was a possibility for them to come back. “
Fiona wants to continue being that strong link in people’s chains – and is always brainstorming with her staff to develop new ideas. The main goal is to make The Opinicon an ongoing destination for activities, music, entertainment and special events. Stay tuned to their Facebook page for regular updates!
The Dining Room and Delectable Dishes
Before heading to lunch, I had a quick chat with The Opinicon’s Head Chef: Angela Baldwin. She described their objective to create traditional dishes with a creative twist while utilising local suppliers and market ingredients, which changes the menu seasonally as she adapts to what’s on hand.
When asked about what the most rewarding aspect of her work was, she had this to say:
“Knowing how many people I get to touch every day. We get to see a lot of people, we go out to the gardens and cut our own herbs. The looks you see on people’s faces. It’s nice to know that they appreciate what you’re doing and that you can bring something to the table for them.”
During lunch, we were joined by Peter and Fiona in the extravagantly redecorated dining room. Similar to the main lobby and upper level, the room was very bright and inviting. The furniture was reminiscent of what was likely used in the original dining room, and only enhanced the vintage ambience overall.
The menu was filled with so many delicious choices that it was hard to determine which one I wanted to try. When I saw that they make a Cubano Sandwich with house smoked pork loin, I had made up my mind. For extra kick, it had stinging nettle, cheese and sweet & spicy mustard.
Peter explained that they had purchased industrial-grade ovens for the kitchen that allow them to smoke meats, and control internal moisture levels with precision accuracy. Sold!
It was without exaggeration, the best Cubano I have ever had. When something is smoked on-site, the food has a distinct character and taste that you just can’t get from packaged meats or cheeses. It was fantastic. Now I have to drive to the Opinicon whenever I want a Cubano.
Heidi chose The Opinicon Burger, which consisted of a succulent in-house ground beef patty, smoked bacon jam, fresh mozzarella, crispy leek, maple chipotle, and greens on a brioche bun. The most difficult part was waiting for Heidi to take pictures of the food – before I was allowed to touch or eat it. I did manage to sneak a few fries though.
Respecting the Memories & Forging a Bright Future
After a fantastic lunch, we had roughly twenty minutes before Fiona had to get going. We spent that time taking a brief walk around the resort. The waterfront and surrounding grounds are breathtaking, and everywhere you look you’ll find something to do. There are stacks of kayaks, and canoes prime for paddling. There’s a large lakeside swimming area or some secluded decks with comfortable Muskoka style chairs to spend an afternoon soaking in all the surrounding beauty.
For the last stretch of the walk, as we passed some of the oldest cottages on the property there wasn’t much talking. The sheer beauty of the surrounding grounds, vibrant gardens and rustic cabins more than spoke for itself. I could see why this place has been a small slice of heaven for so many people, for so long.
There is no shortage of love that has been poured into the rejuvenation of this majestic property. As a matter of fact, it’s more of a fantastic rebirth than a simple remodelling. Fiona and her dedicated and passionate team are building a bright new future for The Opinicon – while paying careful respect to its significant and shared history.
The most significant takeaway, for me, is that Fiona and her team are not doing this solely for capital gain. Yes, by all means, and purposes The Opinicon is a business. However, their purchasing, methodical reimagining and reopening of the resort – was an act of pure love. It is also a genuinely noble effort to protect a heritage that means a great deal to a lot of people. To give back to the community and let people continue to experience the resort now, and for hopefully many generations to come.
And, it is this writer’s official (and humble) opinion, that The Opinicon’s future is without a doubt, in the very best of hands.
Before leaving, Fiona walked us to her favourite part of the resort, the Ice Cream Shop. After only spending a few hours at The Opinicon I was absolutely taken with it. It’s purely captivating, and something you’ll have to experience for yourself. I can only imagine how hard it would be to leave after spending a week here.
Thankfully the ice cream added a sweet end to an already amazing afternoon.