Featured Image: Peace, relaxation, and the beauty of the Canadian wilderness with modern touches and an emphasis on comfort and safety. / Photo credit: Arownhon Pines Resort
Finding the Right Balance Between Safety, Hygiene and Experience
There’s nothing quite as exhilarating as observing a wild animal in its natural habitat – in this case, a young moose in Algonquin Park, Canada’s first provincial park and wildlife sanctuary. From only meters away, I saw a large. dark brown form splash into the water joyously — my heart jumped as I realized it was a young moose enjoying his twilight snack.
Without any regard for me in my bright yellow canoe, mouth agape, Junior settled into a lush green sea of lily pads, crunching through them with wild abandon. The wind pushed us closer to him, making me squirm a bit. Knowing that he was standing in about four feet of water, I didn’t want to get too close (I am told they are good swimmers and even can dive underwater!).
Getting to catch a glimpse of iconic Canadian animals is part and parcel of your stay / Photo credit: Carolyn Ray
This wasn’t my only moose sighting – the next day I spotted a female cow in a nearby area. Apparently, the best moose-viewing time is in the early morning or afternoon. And preferably, you don’t want to see them on the road (good incentive to drive slowly).
And the birdsong. The forest is never quiet. Blue Jays, loons, and other creatures greet you in the morning, reminding you that this is their space, for you to share and appreciate. Being so close to nature again after months of downtown life in a small apartment was overwhelming. Within several minutes of arriving at Arowhon Resort, a small boutique hotel inside the Park, I had already jumped into the lake, which was shockingly warm. I swam eagerly to a floating platform, using muscles I haven’t exercised in months.
Created in 1893, Algonquin Park is a wildlife sanctuary for many moose, along with bears, wolves, beavers and more. It was established to protect the headwaters of five major rivers: the Muskoka, Little Madawaska River (including Opeongo), Amable du Fond River, Petawawa River, and South rivers.
For the past five months, I’ve been in a small apartment where I have complete control over its cleanliness. The idea of stepping outside my comfort zone caused some anxiety, but once I had started planning my trip to the Park, my spirits rose. And when I arrived, the smell of fresh pine, a warm, gentle breeze, an isolated cabin in the woods, and a stunningly beautiful sunset with the cry of loons made it all worthwhile. No cell service, no wifi, no TV. Reading, writing, swimming, talking and being present. This was my state of being for four wonderful days in Algonquin Park.
Take a socially-distanced breather by the lake / Photo credit: Carolyn Ray
The Woman Behind Arowhon
The story of Arowhon begins in the 1930s, when entrepreneur Lillian Kates decided to build a lodge to accommodate parents visiting her nearby Camp Arowhon, near Huntsville, Ontario, which sits on the Canadian Shield. My family had cottages on nearby Lake of Bays for decades; I can attest that it is a place that is absolutely ice-cold in the winter and hot and humid in the summers. For many years, it was accessible only by train, which makes the story of Arowhon’s founding even more amazing.
As legend goes, Lillian hired and fired four architects before she found someone who could design a lodge organic to the site. Theresa, one of the current owners, shared an article with me from Saturday Night Magazine written in 1976, which said: “If there’s any justice, one of the next legends to be told around Algonquin Park campfires will deal with a feisty woman named Lillian Kates. She’s eighty–six now, and almost no one calls her Lillian. She’s Mrs. Kates or Granny. In 1934, in the midst of the depression, she took over a failing children’s camp on Tepee Lake in the park. In those days, there was no road to the Pines. No power tools either…only axes, cross cut-cut saws, a hand winch, and a team of horses to hoist into place the building enormous central iron chimney.”
Over 80 years have passed since then, and today, Arowhon is run by three general managers, Theresa, David and Adam, hand-picked by Lillian’s family.
The dining room is clean, bright, and welcoming. / Photo credit: Arowhon Pines Resort
What was it like to travel in a pandemic
Everything we know about travel has changed. Planning, packing and feeling safe – is all different. I reviewed all the articles I could find online, but most were dated, pre-COVID. The only way to learn is by doing. I reached out to the resort to find out how they were adapting and what changes they had put in place.
Using the criteria from our women’s travel checklist (in development), I considered several new criteria in my decision-making process – not just the destination itself, but also how I would get there, onsite healthcare, nearby hospitals and mobility and access.
There’s no lack of health and safety information at Arowhon Pines Resort, a fact that helps to put a weary travellers mind at ease / Photo credit: Carolyn Ray
Arowhon Pines was recommended to me by Tamara, a close, trusted friend. The resort re-opened in early July and caters to solo travellers and couples, with 40 per cent of its guests typically coming from the US or Europe. Its culinary reputation is the best in the Park, and frankly, I was excited to have someone else cook for me!
Not only was the idea of getting out of the largest city in Canada intoxicating, Arowhon is very close to Canoe Lake, where I went to summer camp as a teenager and where the Group of Seven Tom Thompson mysteriously disappeared, bringing an air of intrigue to the area. I was eager to see how my memory matched against what is there now. Let’s just say things have changed in 30 years!
Safety + Hygiene
Something I really admired about my recent stay at Arowhon Pines was the care taken to integrate new safety and hygiene practices into the design of the resort. It felt organic.
Even though there are many things the resort has stopped doing due to COVID-19 (like cooking classes, the sauna, buffets and daily housekeeping service), great effort was made to include reminders everywhere and reinforce safe hygiene, while staying true to the feel of the property.
In addition to operating at half capacity, safety guidelines were shared on the website and upon arrival in a welcome package. Rooms were thoroughly cleaned and disinfected prior to my arrival, and housekeeping staff did not enter while I was there. Instead, fresh linen and towels were placed outside my door. Garbage and dirty dishes were placed outside, and a bottle of disinfectant was in the room (although I brought my own too). Staff wore masks the entire time, but guests were not required to in the main dining room, although many did. Picnic lunches are prepared each morning, and provided in cooler bags. Did I mention the food is delicious?
- Welcome station and contact-less guest registration;
- Sanitizer in a cute ladybug container on all dining room tables;
- Handwritten signs in planters reminding you to wait outside if there are 4 people in the reception area;
- Handwashing stations with fresh spring water along key walkways;
- Old cabin windows were used as glass barriers in reception (instead of plastic) to maintain the feel of the lodge and for ‘Wash your Hands’ signs on the buildings;
- More spaced out furniture configurations in all public seating areas and the dining room (which I quite liked!);
- Main dock and outdoor cushions cleaned daily, and a reminder to use towels on cushions;
- And of course, all staff wearing masks and staying a respectful distance from guests.
Arowhon has accommodation for guests with mobility issues, including full access rooms and rooms closer to the dining room and the action on the main dock. Staff with golf carts can help transport guests to and from the parking lot. Canes are available, but they suggest that people will mobility issues walk the old railway bed which is flat. It’s a short drive away. There is also a pontoon boat for those not able to use the available canoes, sailboats or kayaks. Several hiking trails surround the resort; of them, I would recommend the Medicine Tree Trail through the hardwood forest. The Orange Trail, which runs toward Canoe Lake, is a long one, although there are large rock outcroppings along the way to eat lunch and watch the canoeists.
Photo credit: Carolyn Ray
The nearest hospital is about an hour away, in Huntsville. There is a doctor on staff at nearby Camp Arowhon (when it’s open)
Driving and bus are the most frequent ways to travel to Arowhon, or you can take a bus www.parkbus.ca to the Portage Store where the resort will pick you up. There is also a seaplane available for emergencies only.
Not a job, but a lifestyle
Even operating at half-capacity, Arowhon has found the right balance to instill a sense of safety, while creating a warm, friendly experience.
Theresa Papulin, one of the owners, told me: “The Kates’ always wanted to leave Arowhon Pines to the managers who worked here, who would continue it as it has always been – a warm welcome, tasty food, house made with quality, local if possible, ingredients and a gorgeous respected rustic location. People here feel comfortable and it’s not pretentious. To give it to the long-time managers who realized that maintaining this resort is not a job, it is a lifestyle.”
I also appreciated how Arowhon supports women-owned small businesses in the area. Theresa told me that Blue McKone from Drifts of Blue selects flowers for the tables from her garden; Anna Antonia (Essentials4myskin) supplies us with that lovely soap and shampoo in the rooms; Karen Grey from the Potters Studio Gallery provides pottery for sale; Christine Luckasavitch of Waaseyaa Consulting speaks at Arowhon Pines on Indigenous matters. The food for the resort comes from Bailey at Stittsville 4B Farms, Patricia at Muskoka Roastery Coffee, Velma at Sprucedale Meats and Sharon from Four Season Greens.
Theresa has a question for you: Do you think women would like to do a canoe trip in Algonquin – stay at Arowhon one day, go on three nights canoe (with camp pathfinder) then come here the last night? Let us know, and maybe we can create a special JourneyWoman experience.
Disclaimer: I was not compensated for my stay at Arowhon; however I was offered a small discount and much to my surprise and joy, upgraded to a private cabin. Thank you Theresa!
If You Go
- The drive from Toronto is about 3.5 hours, with the last part along the two-lane Highway 60. Take care to drive with caution, particularly in the mornings and evenings
- Read the Covid updates on their website here
- Arowhon Pines Resort offers private and shared cabin; pricing varies but includes three delicious meals
- Stop by the Portage Store for supplies, rent a canoe or have lunch
- Bring hiking shoes, a hat and bug spray
- Bring your camera, leave your computer
When we hatched a plan to road trip around our home province of Ontario, stay in unique accommodations and evaluate destinations against new travel criteria, we never expected to learn so much about nature, our inner child, and the creativity and innovation of women entrepreneurs.
For people who aren’t survivalists or extreme campers, and don’t want to make a huge investment in camping gear, glamping bring nature and convenience together in a way that gives you the spirit of camping, without the complexity. After seeing the crowded RV site in Algonquin Park, I was grateful to be at one of five glamping tents spread out across hundreds of acres at Four Corners Campground in Whitney, just outside the eastern gates of Algonquin Park.
I’ve always been hesitant to visit overcrowded The Grotto, an open cave hidden in the cliff face of the Niagara Escarpment near Tobermory. But when two adventurous friends and I started planning a girls’ road trip to feed our travel bug during the pandemic, The Grotto, with its timed four-hour parking slots operating at half capacity, started to look more attractive.
When Carolyn and I hatched our plan to explore Ontario towns both familiar and foreign this summer – staying in unique accommodations and creating a post-COVID scorecard to rate experiences on new safety criteria – I knew Muskoka needed to be on my list. And it needed to be a trip I took with my two daughters, ages 21 and 16.
What’s next on our list?
In July, we shared our schedule for July and August, where we’re visiting places close to home to evaluate travel in a pandemic. You can check on our Road Trip progress here.