New Motels: 3 Reasons to See Ontario by Car

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Motels have gone from grunge to glam – here are our picks for a fun and escapist road trip through Ontario.

I remember the last time I stayed in a motel. It was 1979, and six‑year‑old me was too entranced by the vanity lights around the mirror – like for a princess – to notice the slippery bedspreads, threadbare carpeting or hear the mournful hum of the ice machine outside the room that counted as the place’s only frill. I haven’t been back since.

Most North American travellers haven’t either. As flying became more affordable, vacationers traded station wagon getaways for cheap margaritas and sunny skies, and the many “motor hotels” that dot North America’s highways fell into disrepair. Motels became places where only truckers and mopey TV detectives stayed. When the creators of Schitt’s Creek needed to trap the once‑wealthy Rose family in the worst place they could imagine, it was in a scuzzy motel. “Apparently,” says Moira in the first episode, “in Hell there is no bellman.”

Well, there’s still no bellman, but motels are back, baby, fuelled by a new generation of owners who are turning the two‑star accommodations of their childhood into Instagram‑perfect destinations. Netflix’s popular Motel Makeover chronicled the refurbishment of the June Motel’s Sauble Beach, Ontario, outpost, and even Schitt’s Creek got in on the trend – the series ended with Johnny launching a business to turn languishing motels into desirable destinations. Over the last few years, there’s been a mini‑explosion of stylish first‑time hoteliers getting into the hospitality game with their own takes on the modern motel.

Thanks to Covid‑19, their timing couldn’t have been better. Cross‑border trips are an obstacle course of travel advisories and testing requirements, and many people are still reluctant to brave communal indoor spaces like hotel lobbies. This has created a horde of travel‑starved zombies who are very ready to board a domestic flight or jump in the car and drive somewhere – anywhere! – to get a view of something other than their Zoom background, and I’m one of them. Travelling in my own backyard has never sounded so good, so when enRoute suggested I embark on a tour of Ontario’s hippest motels with a photographer I’d never met – who could even be an axe murderer for all I know (who cares?) – I couldn’t fill up my travel‑size shampoo bottle fast enough.

April 8, 2022

Penny’s Motel & Après Snack Bar

Penny's Motel & Après Snack Bar
Penny’s is the opposite of a cookie‑cutter motel: Rooms feature graphic wallpapers and modern furnishings.

My travel wife doesn’t seem murder‑y at all (yet!) and we cheerfully pull up at our first stop, a recently renovated 13‑room motel in Thornbury, which is a two‑hour drive north of Toronto, near Collingwood on Georgian Bay. The car trundles across a gravel parking lot, where the sparkling white one‑storey motel is tucked behind mural‑covered fencing.

“There’s such a demand for people to get out of the city now,” says Penny’s owner John Belknap, who also co‑owns John & Sons Oyster House in Toronto. “It used to be a lot of retirees in this area, but now so many younger people are moving up here and opening spots that cater to our demographic. It creates an energy.”

Penny's Motel oyster bar
From cozy firepits to picnic tables and an oyster bar, Penny’s is all about conviviality.

Belknap spent most of the first year of the pandemic completely overhauling Penny’s, which was built in 1974. The dated rooms were gutted and retrofitted with graphic wallpapers, soothing wood floors, modern bathrooms and cheeky touches like the key tray in my room that’s inlaid with a photo print of a tattooed Barbie doll smoking a cigarette. Belknap was, however, determined to keep Penny’s vintage roadside sign, which still boasts that they have “COLOR TV.”

The new Penny’s opened last July complete with a central courtyard surrounded by fairy lights and outfitted with Muskoka chairs, a firepit, a Bocce ball court and picnic tables. The on‑site Après Snack Bar – a small‑plates wine bar serving oysters, sandwiches and tasty cocktails – followed a couple of months later.

bocce ball on Penny’s prettily landscaped
A few rounds of bocce ball on Penny’s prettily landscaped court melts stress away.

We sit at the picnic tables as the sun sets and nibble from a cheese and charcuterie box delivered by the nearby Cheese Gallery shop. The Wi‑Fi that powers the music piped into the courtyard keeps cutting out, and it also happens to be that fateful October day carved forever into the hearts of millennials when Instagram is down for SIX HOURS. We joke that we’ll be riding out the apocalypse at Penny’s. “We’ve got lots of oysters,” Belknap grins. “We’re good!”

Penny's Motel room
Crisp white linens, pale wood and retro design touches make Penny’s feel like an escape.

When You Go

The area around Penny’s is a smorgasbord for outdoorsy types, thanks to its proximity to Georgian Bay, Craigleith Provincial Park, the Bruce Trail and Blue Mountain. Skiing reigns in winter, but the warmer months are for beaches, hiking, cycling, golfing, climbing and kayaking.

Drink

  • Good Grief
 Coffee Roasters,
 Thornbury — Good Grief brings those city‑girl vibes to Thornbury with its dusty‑pink interior, artisanal coffee and all the lavender, turmeric, rose London fog or matcha lattes your little heart desires.
    goodgriefcoffee.com

Good Grief Coffee Roasters
Life is rosy at Good Grief Coffee Roasters.

Eat

  • Pom Pom Treat Hut, Thornbury — Open in the spring and summer, this ice cream shop sells covetable cones topped with its own small‑batch vegan ice cream (Mint Flake, Peanut Brittle or Peach Bourbon) – but if you’re more into the OG stuff, never fear, they serve dairy ice cream from London Ice Cream Company, too.
    pompomtreats.com

  • Gibson & Co.,
Collingwood — Duck down a narrow alley to lunch at this cute café (the smoked trout sandwich is a yes), sip warm spiked cocktails (like the Gibson, with Buffalo Trace Bourbon, espresso, chocolate and steamed milk) or browse its well‑stocked bottle shop for quality whiskys and wines for some back‑in‑the‑room imbibing.
    gibsonandcompany.ca

Cheese Gallery
A decadent spread from the Cheese Gallery.

The Lakeside Motel

 Lakeside Motel’s deck
The swing on the Lakeside Motel’s deck creates a playful vibe.

Our next stop is the Lakeside Motel in Wellington, Prince Edward County (PEC). When we visit in the first week of October, we’ve just missed what appears to have been a booming summer season, much of which I watched on Instagram while whispering, “Soon, my pretty – soon.” With its sparkling pool and restaurant patio overlooking Lake Ontario – and the fact that the main building runs perpendicular to the street as opposed to facing it – Lakeside feels more private and resort‑y than you might expect from a roadside joint on the main drag.

While owner Renda Abdo has a long history in hospitality (she also owns Wish Restaurant and 7 West Café in Toronto), this is her first stab at running a motel. She had always toyed with the idea, but it wasn’t until she noticed a “For Sale” sign on Lakeside after a visit to her parents’ PEC farm in 2018 that the “What if?” became “Now or never.”

Lakeside Motel
The Lakeside Motel’s rooms are perfectly bijou.

“I don’t know how to do anything small,” laughs Abdo, “We just kind of went all in and prayed.”

Over the next few years Abdo stripped the 10 rooms in the circa‑1965 property back to the studs and added fireplaces and new bathrooms. She also installed a pool, sauna, lakeside deck and a restaurant – don’t miss the brunch, particularly banana pancakes with whipped cream and candied nuts, and mini‑quiches with sautéed fennel and local cheddar.

Lakeside Motel shoreline
Swim along the Lakeside's lovely shoreline or, for warmer water, in the pool.

While my standard room is small and my bed feels a little close to the French doors that lead directly outside, once the shutters are fastened it feels like the coziest Scandi‑suave micro‑cabin. It’s very Little House on the Prairie meets Dwell magazine, with country‑chic decor (white walls with pictures of old‑timey schoolkids, and vintage teddy bears on the beds) mixed with modern amenities (black fittings in the rainfall shower, Le Labo toiletries, Apple TV and a gas fireplace).

There’s also a bungalow and a three‑bedroom house for larger groups that practically scream “Girls weekend! Floppy wide‑brimmed sun hats required!” and a tempting wooden tree swing along with a sign that says: “No Swinging – Photos Only.” Alexis Rose would be proud.

Lakeside Motel vintage inspired key tags
The motel is full of charming retro touches, from flip clocks to vintage‑inspired key tags.

When You Go

Prince Edward County is a cornucopia of wineries, beaches and cool antique stores – explore it on foot or hop on one of the Lakeside Motel's complimentary cruiser bikes.

Eat

The Lakeside’s restaurant is only open in the warmer months, but this is PEC and there are several great spots close by.

  • La Condesa, Wellington — Load up on tuna tostada, tres leches cake and as many of the fancy mezcal‑ and tequila‑based cocktails your parched soul requires, all within stumbling distance of your bed.
    lacondesarestaurant.com

La Condesa’s fanciful mezcal-based cocktail
One of La Condesa’s fanciful mezcal‑based cocktails.
  • The Old Third Vineyard, Hillier If you’re up for a quick drive, don’t miss the seasonal weekend pasta bar at this small winery known for its meticulous unfiltered wines, perfect pinot noirs and sparkling apple cider.
    theoldthird.com

Drink

  • Koenji Whisky Bar, Wellington — Whisky lovers can soak up their Japanese or international tasting flights with a small but drool‑worthy menu of Japanese small plates (takoyaki and crispy chicken wings, for starters).
    koenji.ca

Do

  • Heal with Horses, Hillier — If, like me, you struggle to switch your brain off, there’s nothing like hanging with a herd of horses to bring you into the present. These gentle giants will guide you out of your analytical mind and into your heart – or at least distract from the burning question “What’s for dinner?” for a few hours.
    healwithhorses.ca

view over Lake Ontario
Taking in the moody views over Lake Ontario.

Somewhere Inn

Our final destination is Somewhere Inn in the Ottawa Valley. That’s where the thirtysomething Joel Greaves, his wife Devon Vaillancourt and their friends Keri MacLellan and Andrea Pierre from Toronto design firm Westgrove turned a 1970s hunting lodge into a destination for city people who want their outdoor experience with a side of Scandinavian style.

Somewhere Inn bed
The spacious rooms feature striking wall hangings by Blacksaw.

“We wanted to bottle up that feeling you get at a cottage,” says Greaves of the 11‑room property they opened last September.

But first they had to rip out all the industrial carpeting, swap icky kitchenettes for soaker tubs and fresh wood floors, hang hammocks between the massive trees on the sprawling front lawn and build an outdoor lounge area with a firepit.

Somewhere Inn’s tiny lobby/general store
In Somewhere Inn’s tiny lobby/general store you’ll find delights from organic wines to buttery soft alpaca blankets.

While Somewhere is still technically a roadside inn, it’s set back by 92 metres, so it feels somewhat secluded. The rooms are unexpectedly large – one is set up to sleep eight, with a king bed, two queens and two twin bunks – yet my king‑bed hideaway feels surprisingly snuggly for something the size of a starter condo, featuring a fireplace nook with a daybed, rug and rack of vintage magazines. While there’s no on‑site restaurant, guests can arrange to have tasty breakfast bags delivered from the nearby Oh‑el‑la Cafe (I definitely did not scarf my chocolate‑chip cookie before virtuously tucking into the banana).

co-owner of Somewhere Inn.
Joel Greaves, co‑owner of Somewhere Inn.

Greaves, who previously worked in marketing, had been dreaming of transforming an old‑school motel into a boutique property ever since he visited the Jupiter in Portland, Oregon, in his twenties.

“I always felt it was inevitable it would happen in Canada, too,” he says of the motor‑inn renaissance. “People in my generation don’t want to go to a place that caters to my parents.” As for that six‑year‑old girl who thought her motel room was the epitome of glamour? I’m happy to be able to tell her that if she goes back now, she won’t be disappointed.

Somewhere Inn firepit
Set back from the road, the Inn’s lawn is home to an inviting firepit.

When You Go

A visit to Calabogie is all about chasing nature, and Somewhere Inn is close to hiking, cross‑country ski and ATV trails. Calabogie Peaks, the highest ski hill in Ontario, is a five‑minute drive away and the public beach at Barnet Park – a low‑key stretch of sand on Calabogie Lake – is right across the street.

Drink

  • The Calabogie Brewing Company, Calabogie — Sip a flight of craft beer (be sure to try the award‑winning Brown Cow Milk Stout) on this brewery’s large patio while taking in a view of the Madawaska River.
    calabogiebrewing.com

Do

  • Mad River Paddle Co., 
Calabogie — You can rent kayaks, canoes or stand‑up paddleboards from this outfitter and they’ll deliver it right to a launch spot on the beach at Barnet Park. Lessons are available, too.
    madriverpaddleco.com

kayak
A paddler enjoys a mellow evening on Calabogie Lake.

Eat

  • Neat Coffee Shop, Burnstown — Neat is way more than a coffee shop. There’s chewy wood‑fired pizza – each named after a famous musician, like the Weird Al, with pesto, pear, brie and arugula – that rivals anything I’ve had in the city. Plus, it’s a live music venue that hosts indie acts like the Great Lake Swimmers.
    neatmusicandcoffee.ca

food at Neat Coffee Shop
Delicious wood‑fired pizza at Neat Coffee Shop.