Is the schlep from Toronto really worth it? That’s what my travel companion and I wondered as we wandered warily down twisting country roads, two and a half hours’ distance from the big city.
If it weren’t for Jeff Stober’s involvement, we might not have attempted this trip. But Stober has done amazing things in the past – most notably the revitalization of the Drake Hotel a decade ago that, in turn, led to the entire west end of Toronto becoming a boomtown for artists and hipsters. Since then, he and his band of hand-picked designers have opened the popular Drake One Fifty restaurant in downtown Toronto, as well as three locations of the Drake General Store, which specializes in “curated curiosities old and new.” Now, after two years’ work, the Drake Devonshire Inn, a.k.a. “Drake by the lake,” is ready for its closeup; thus, the car ride to the small town of Wellington, in Prince Edward County, on the stony cusp of Lake Ontario.
We are greeted in the lobby of the small, 11,000-square-foot boutique inn by John Tong, principal of the lead design firm, Toronto’s +tongtong. Actually, we are greeted before we reach the lobby by the sight of a gorgeous, polished bronze “dumpster” crafted by Newfoundland’s Zeke Moores, one of the inn’s several Plein Air artworks curated by Mia Nielson, head of cultural programming for the Drake chain. This Dada-esque piece signals what’s ahead for us: the brand’s signature blend of artistry, surprise and whimsy.
Next to reception, an exposed-brick living room is practically all that’s left of the site’s original structure – first an 1849 steel foundry and later transformed into a bed-and-breakfast lodge. The room certainly catches the eye, with its crazy-quilt floor tiles jostling each other for visual supremacy. Like the inn’s jumbled tongue-and-groove wainscotting and flashes of floral wallpaper, this a nod, says Tong, to the “architectural archeology” of working on old houses: “I’ve renovated so many houses over the years. I wanted to capture those different levels of wallcoverings and linoleum that you find.”
The living room acts as a junction, linking past and present, as well as the new Glass Box meeting/games room and patio to the rear and publicly accessible restaurant on the lakefront. Philip Evans, principal of ERA Architects, has created a building envelope to suit this chronological convergence, with olde-tyme, tin-gabled roofs surrounding a central peak set atop ultramodern glass curtain walls that allow unexpected light and sightlines into the interior. Perhaps as a tongue-in-cheek reference to Wright’s Falling Water, he cantilevered part of the dining room over the tiny creek that runs past the property. Fittingly, for the site’s foundry origins, this entailed the use of a great deal of steel.
Comparisons to summer camp mess halls are inevitable within this barnlike space, with its broad Douglas-fir vaulting and picture windows overlooking water and woods. Echoes of cottage life come from the purposely mismatched chairs and white-washed, engineered-pine flooring. Yet, given the room’s custom marine lights, wood-slat banquettes and “infinity pool” view of Lake Ontario, an even stronger sensation is that of being aboard some beautiful, becalmed ferry. In one swoop, Tong has engendered nostalgia, longing and peace, a perfect setting for chef Matt DeMille’s locally sourced wines, seasonal ingredients and cozily upscale comfort food.
Beyond the restaurant proper, the entertainment area stretches towards another rafter-and-truss room – the screened Pavilion – and spills out into the open air via a huge, connecting cedar deck and bleacher/steps facing the beach. Landscape architect Joel Loblaw has assisted nature here as elsewhere with a variegated selection of native plants and trees.
Amidst all these elements of communal relaxation and refreshment, however, one must not forget that Drake Devonshire is au fond an inn. Eleven cleverly quirky bedrooms occupy the second floor, and two unique suites comprise the entire third storey. All rooms are decorated with custom touches plus a mishmash of vintage and modern furnishings, sourced from antique shops and flea markets by Tong and Drake stylist Carlo Colacci.
Setting the Loft Suite and Owner’s Suite apart are both their size and their vantage points. The Owner’s Suite in particular offers a spectacular, A-framed view of the lake that simply screams Canadiana. This panorama extends through sliding glass doors onto a private, glass-parapeted deck. An adjacent box-room, perfect for a kid or two, has been dubbed the Stargazer for the large skylight directly over its queen-sized platform bed – perfect for falling asleep under the stars.
So, was our trip to Wellington worth the time and trouble? If all of the above is not enough to answer that question, we leave it to New York’s annual Hospitality Design Awards. This June, out of an international field of 560 entries, the Drake Devonshire was accorded Best Boutique/Lifestyle Hotel, Best Boutique/Lifestyle Guestrooms or Suites and, the most coveted prize of all, Best of Show.