Atlantic Canada is a community that stands out in the Canadian landscape for many reasons. The geographical reach and population numbers may be comparatively small, but the locals will say the region packs a mighty punch when it comes to hospitality. As the first stopping point for early settlers, many aspects of Atlantic Canada’s history pre-date any other region in the country. Over the past century alone, a large number of Canadians entered the country through Pier 21, the main immigration gateway, often referred to as Canada’s Ellis Island.
As the focal point for immigration, the region boasts a diverse cultural heritage, from British, Scottish and Irish influences to French and Nordic — many of which are collectively represented within regions as small as Prince Edward Island. The landscape is equally eclectic. Hotel guests can explore coastlines, go whale watching, dine on the ocean floor when the tide is out, photograph majestic icebergs, hike trails, play golf in spectacular ocean-side settings, or visit historical sites and thriving urban centres. “Even though Atlantic Canada is one region, it’s very diverse. The geography is spectacular and there are many things you can do,” says Glenn Squires, CEO and partner at Pacrim Hospitality Services Inc. in Bedford, N.S. “There are very few places where you can experience so many different things within an hour’s drive.”
Despite close proximity, each province adds its own cultural flavour to the mix, he adds. “Even within smaller regions there can be a number of cultures represented. There is homogeneity in many ways, but also a lot more diversity than people realize until they get here and experience the difference. Culinary tourism is also a huge draw. There are more craft brewers per capita than anywhere.”
He notes that overall, the market is dominated by larger, branded properties or small independents, many of which started out as boarding houses. “We’re seeing fewer medium to large independent properties in the region. Almost anything built with 100 to 125 rooms now has a brand affiliation.”
While it may not be experiencing the hotel-development boom evident in other parts of the country, Squires says the most important thing about the industry in Atlantic Canada is its long-term consistency. “Other markets have cycles. Here, everything is stable. I have never lost a minute’s sleep over a property investment here.”
NOVA SCOTIA END TO END
Nova Scotia is noted for two anchor properties: Keltic Lodge Resort in Cape Breton Highlands National Park at the north end, and Digby Pines Golf Resort and Spa, a Norman-style chateau on the Bay of Fundy in the southern region of the province. Keltic Lodge is a sumptuous getaway retreat that is the nexus point between the day-to-day world and Cape Breton Highlands National Park. In existence for 75 years, the property was owned and operated by the province until it was privatized two years ago. In the pre-Depression era, the site was actually home to a summer cottage property for an American family: the Corsons.
According to Graham Hudson, general manager, the property offers some of the most breathtaking views in all of Canada. “We’re out on a promenade in the middle of the Atlantic. A lot of people come because it’s a much more laid-back pace. We don’t get excited about too much around here.”
As part of its many renovations and extensions over the years, the world-class golf course has recently been restored to its 1941 specifications, Hudson notes. “It was originally designed by Canadian golf-course architect Stanley Thompson and is one of the top-five designs in Canada.” (Thompson was also behind the design of the Banff Springs Hotel Golf Course, the Jasper Park Golf Course and the Fundy National Park Course in New Brunswick.) Hudson says with two huge beaches, the proximity to Cabot Trail and the wealth of top-line culinary offerings, there’s no fanfare needed. “There are not many places where guests can sit in the dining room and watch boats catch the lobster they’ll be eating for dinner that night. We really don’t need much sales staff. The location speaks for itself.”
A less out-of-the-way but equally iconic fixture on the province’s hotel horizon is the Westin Nova Scotian in Halifax. It was once a major stopping point for the CN system and ranks as one of the largest properties in the city with 310 guestrooms.
The Nova Scotian opened in 1930 as a 130-room property. Located across from Cornwallis Park, it was part of the South End Terminal project, which included a new hub railway station. Despite many renovations, the site still retains much of its old-world grandeur, in homage to the original architects, Archibald and Schofield.
Directly behind the hotel you will find the legendary Pier 21, where immigrants arrived in droves and transferred to the rail system to reach their respective destinations. Pier 21 was also the entry point for the many young brides who came to Canada following World War II to join their Canadian husbands. “This part of town was the beginning for many people coming to Canada,” says John D. Wilson, general manager at the Nova Scotian. Today, 130 cruiseships visit the port every year, docking directly behind the hotel.
The hotel’s expansive kitchen once served as a supply base for trains. At one point, the property was connected by a tunnel to the Nova Scotia Power Corporation power plant. For some years, it was also used as a radio station, where programs were broadcast from Studio H on the 8th floor.
Queen Elizabeth stayed at the property twice in the 1950s and the 1970s; and Princess Diana and Prince Charles attended a royal dinner there in the 1980s — hosted by then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
The Nova Scotian is also home to the Halifax International Security Forum in November, a worldwide defense conference that draws notable leaders in the field. “Halifax is a great place to come to if you are heading to Cape Breton or the South Shore. It’s the kind of place where people want to start to experience eastern-Canada hospitality,” Wilson says.
PEI: A CULINARY TREASURE
Prince Edward Island may be small, but it’s a perennial favourite haven for travellers seeking down time. At the epicentre of the island’s capital is the Rodd Charlottetown Hotel. Built in 1931 as a CN Hotel, it has all the hallmarks of a historical property, including marble floors and vaulted ceilings. When it was originally built, staff lived in the hotel on the fifth floor, which has since been renovated as a suite.
The property went through several owners before the Rodd family purchased it in 1982, explains Elaine Thomson, general manager. “This is the oldest hotel property in the downtown area,” she says. “Guests love the old-world charm.” In fact, the property still uses the traditional heart-shaped keys — a throwback to its days as a CN hotel.
An advantage for the property, and others in the area, is its close ties to a thriving culinary community, Thomson says. “[The Culinary Institute of Canada] is very close and we usually have students from the program working for us. We also work closely with [chef] Michael Smith — who lives on the eastern side of the Island — for festivals. He has played a big part in taking the culinary experience in P.E.I. to the next level.”
In true Atlantic-Canada spirit, rivalries are as friendly as they can be. “If one of [our hotels] is full, we all have a great working relationship with each other. We send guests back and forth all the time.”
NEW BRUNSWICK GRANDEUR
Matthew Mackenzie, general manager at the Algonquin Resort, has managed a number of properties in Canada, but maintains the area of St. Andrew along the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick is “something unique. It’s a small town that’s mightier than it should be, with an aquarium, public gardens and waterways with whale watching. It has a lot of diversity for such a small area.”
Built in 1889 as a termination point for the rail system before trains made the big turn to the peninsula, the Tudor-style Algonquin is one of the oldest resort properties in Canada. “We also have one of the oldest golf-course resorts and clubhouse; and are one of the only resorts in the four-star/4.5 diamond range within Eastern Canada,” Mackenzie says. The site was also the first Autograph Collection-branded property in Canada.
Almost every Prime Minister in Canada has stayed at the Algonquin. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau carried on that tradition by hosting his new cabinet’s team-building event there. “A lot of events of a private nature come through this facility because of the location,” Mackenzie says. “We have the ability to control the security of the peninsula.”
In 2014, the property underwent a $53-million renovation, including extensive renovations of the Rod Whitman-designed golf course. The property actually burned to the ground in 1914 and was rebuilt within 10 months, Mackenzie notes. “That was unbelievable. The last renovation we did took two-and-a-half years.”
The region offers a complete Maritime experience, Mackenzie claims. “While the word is often overused, it’s authentic. When you come here there’s no feeling of contrived hospitality. It’s all very symbiotic, not orchestrated.”
NEW-AGE ICONIC IN NEWFOUNDLAND
Iconic isn’t exclusive to historical sites. While open only four years, the Fogo Island Inn — situated along Newfoundland and Labrador’s Iceberg Alley — has already achieved global stature. Melanie Coates, director of Marketing and Business Development says it may be a relative newcomer to the hospitality scene, but is making its mark on the community and the industry.
A distinctive and isolated refuge from the everyday world, Fogo Island Inn was designed by Todd Saunders — a Fogo-Island native who now lives in Norway. “His design is what set us apart,” Coates says. “He drew on more than 300 years of inspiration when designing it.” Fogo Island Inn is a social enterprise run by a business trust managed by Zita Cobb and her brothers Anthony and Allan, who are eighth-generation Fogo Islanders. Their mandate for the trust is to help secure economic and cultural resiliency for the island. “The family believes in the power of business to strengthen the fabric of societies and communities and become a restorative force.”
Zita Cobb was the visionary for the Inn, Coates adds. “She did very well in her career in the tech sector, but returned to make a contribution to her community that would encourage people to stay.”
Walking into the Inn is akin to walking into the community itself, Coates notes. Everything about the place reflects that, from the hand-crafted textiles and furniture with heritage designs passed down for generations, to the handmade quilts on every bed and room keys created by local artists. Guests can even go foraging with the chef, or be matched with a community host. “We like to say that Newfoundland hospitality will put you all back together,” Coates says.
Whatever the property in the Maritimes, it’s that community strength that creates a truly unique experience for visitors. As Coates so wisely notes, “A great inn should be the mirror for the place it’s in.”
Written by Denise Deveau