Eastern Ontario, particularly the Ottawa River Valley, is an area I have wanted to explore for quite some time now. Located between Ottawa and Montreal, this region is a bit off the beaten track, at least for Torontonians like myself. You reallyhave to make an effort to get off the big highways and take some country roads to make your way into the Champlain Township region, right at the border between Ontario and Quebec.
Through the Travel & Transitions website I had connected with Shirley who together with her husband Ed, runs a modern-chic bed and breakfast called Abadin B&B. Once we started talking she suggested that this region was really worth a visit. With Shirley’s and her colleagues’ help I ended up exploring Hawkesbury, L’Orignal and Vankleek Hill, three important communities in the area, in a two-day excursion at the beginning of October 2013. Shirley herself is a fascinating individual – an artist and art therapist, accountant, former motel owner and now passionate B&B operator. Without further ado, let me introduce you to Shirley, co-owner of the Abadin B&B in L’Orignal, Ontario. Here is her story:
Please tell us about yourselves, where are you from, what are your professional backgrounds?
My husband Ed is a “Heilpädagoge” [remedial teacher] and worked for many years in a psychiatric hospital. I am an artist and art therapist, a bookkeeper as well as a kindergarten teacher. In 1998, we moved from Germany to Canada to join Canadian relatives and to start a new life with our two teenage kids at the time.
Some years ago you decided to move from Germany to Canada. What motivated that move and how was that initial transitions phase when you adjusted to living in a new country? What kind of work did you initially do in Canada?
We both worked in our professions as a remedial teacher and art therapist, working with adults with autism. Our motivation to move to Canada came from my family background. My father’s two brothers are Canadians and my aunts and cousins are all still living in Canada. Our kids decided they would rather finally move to Canada instead of moving around in Europe.
You decided to buy a motel in Northern Ontario and start a completely new career. Why did you make that decision and what was it like to be motel owners? Why did you decide to get out of the motel business?
We made the decision to change careers because after 25 years in the pedagogical and psychological fields and with the children leaving for university and college, we needed new challenges and the motel business seemed like the perfect alternative. When I was struck by lupus [an autoimmune disease with intermittent debilitating flare-ups] and couldn’t keep up with the motel business, we decided to scale down and move on to run a B&B business.
After your motel business you decided to become bed and breakfast owners. Why was that and how did you decide on the area you were going to open the B&B in?
The B&B was the logical choice for us because we knew what we had got ourselves into, and having been in the motel business for more than a decade prepared us for all kinds of things related to the accommodations business. We loved it and still do. To say it is such an easy job would be an illusion, but coming from a much bigger scale the B&B is like semi-retirement to both of us.
I chose the Prescott Russell area because it is in the middle between our two major cities Montreal and Ottawa and it also takes only 1 hour to get to the US or a hop across the Ottawa River in Hawkesbury to get to Quebec. There is so much to see and do in this area, and most importantly, we are surrounded by beautiful nature all around us. It could not get any more appealing. We also have lots of eco-friendly and organic agricultural businesses in the area which is an important aspect in our lives.
How did you choose the name for your bed and breakfast?
We actually travelled quite a bit when we were still living in Europe and one place we had travelled through was the town of Lugo in Spain, which had also a Roman history, similar to the town of Xanten in Germany – the little city which we called our home town at the time. And the little township of Abadin impressed us with its secluded charm.
What kind of construction work did you have to do to turn the property in a proper B&B? Your B&B is beautifully decorated. Please tell us about the special design and decorating touches that you added to your property.
The house had been empty for more than two years and needed some updating to be brought to a new and more modern standard. My goal was to design the interior with a mix of modern European and North American coziness 🙂 I wanted to shape and mould the interior of our B&B to create a perfect space that would fit like a glove. That included remodelling bathrooms with glass mosaic tiles, dark and warm colours. Since we have five guest bedrooms I could play with all my favourite colours, some of them unexpected – like black, purple-grey and turquoise. White and beige were the least unusual paint choices but with the right choice of furniture they also became a cocoon of comfort and relaxation.
We just repainted our white lounge in an off-white to give it more “breathing room”. And with our white Eames lounge chairs and our white sofa and ottoman it just feels right. Talking about furniture: My believe is that some pieces are well worth spending lots of money on but I also am the biggest addict when it comes to flea-market finds and yard sale treasures. As an artist, I pull energy from a well designed space and hope that our customers feel the same way.
You are also an accomplished artist. Please tell us more about the art that you have created.
I had an artistic childhood. My dad as well as one of my aunts introduced me to drawing and paintings. I sold my first paintings to my family for a few pennies. From the money I made at my first real art exhibition some 25 years back I bought my first motorbike. My artistic expressions started with pencil drawings of people, portraits and nudes, and I moved on to mixed material paintings, and stepped into the world of steel welding for many years. I welded sculptures and wall installations which were displayed in exhibitions in several countries in Europe. My art pieces always have a psychological background which is like an open book to me but of course hidden to most observers – except if you are an art therapist by trade 🙂
What kind of breakfast specialties do you serve to your guests?
We do not have a restaurant so we are not able to serve guests a la carte. But we try to change menus every morning. Some guest like sweet dishes while others prefer a hearty breakfast. Our specialties are German waffles, egg–bacon muffins, apple cinnamon French toast, carrot-potato-egg patties, local breakfast sausages, and we always try to offer seasonal fresh fruits. Sometimes my artistic urges get the best of me and I carve or create my own little fruit art.
What kind of a daily routine do you have as bed and breakfast owners?
We check guests in between 3 p.m. and 8p.m. Some want immediate privacy while others like to chat with us. At night we prepare for the next day. In the early morning hours we prepare and serve the breakfast to guests. After check-out latest at 11 a.m. we (or the wonderful lady who helps us) need to hurry up to get all rooms cleaned, the laundry washed and the fresh supplies purchased in town. We need to look after our online bookings and answer business correspondence. In the summer time we also have to take care of the outside. All of this hardly fits into the small time window we have between 11 a.m. check-out and 3p.m. check-in of our new guests.
What are the main differences between running a B&B and running a motel?
The motel was way bigger in size and needed way more time and attention although we had staff. At the motel, we employed maids, maintenance staff, a front desk manager and handymen. Work was still harder since the day seemed to have no end to it. The B&B is smaller and we only take online reservations, so no walk-in business, which gives us more freedom and time to manoeuvre. This makes it possible for Ed to run the B&B on his own even when my illness strikes and I am incapable to help. This is a huge plus.
Please tell us about your eco-friendly touches at the Abadin B&B.
During our renovations we added extensive insulation and installed energy-saving windows. We use only natural soaps and shampoos and our cleaning products are eco-friendly and biodegradable. In line with our environmental commitment, we only use real porcelain cups and real glasses in our guest rooms and no Styrofoam or plastic cups. All paper tissue products for bath, guestrooms and kitchen are made from recycled paper. We use recycled paper for all our printers (if available, which is really difficult at times here in our area). We recycle as much garbage as we can and try to prevent garbage creation by buying our fruits and vegetables in markets rather than in grocery stores. We buy organic groceries as much as possible. We also use a high-efficiency washing machine and dryer with self-made laundry soap.
We donate all our linen and towels to charity organizations when their life at our B&B comes to an end. We have a composter in our little garden where all the organic materials go instead of disposing of them in the garbage. We grow some of our own herbs and have a little garden where we have tomatoes, peppers and even cantaloupes at times and much much more …
You have a 4.5 star rating according to FOBBA (the Federation of Ontario Bed & Breakfast Accommodation). What does that mean?
5 stars is the highest rating a B&B can reach. So our quality level is almost perfect 🙂 We are committed to providing the highest standards of quality to make sure our guests know that they will be served at a certain level of quality. We chose to join FOBBA [the Federation of Ontario Bed & Breakfast Accommodation] because this organization sends somebody out to physically inspect a property to ensure modern accommodation standards. They also have a comprehensive ratings system. We did not have anything to hide and wanted to be rated. We think that this is the only way to insure that our trade can show the quality standards we stand for.
Where do your guests come from and what are your most popular travel seasons?
Our guests come from all over the world: England, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Russia, China, Brazil, Germany, the United States, France, Belgium and more. The busiest time for us is July, August, September.
Please share with us your 3 favourite / most memorable moments as bed and breakfast hosts.
Well actually I had 3 that popped into my mind right way:
One was a couple that met up at our B&B, he was from Belgium and she was from Montreal and they had met on the Internet and got married here in Canada after they had stayed with us.Another couple liked their stay and our company so much they offered to build us an additional website for free. And they even came back another time. And the third just happened about two weeks ago. A couple came to stay with us and they were looking for a new house. They liked our neighbourhood so much they bought right the next house beside us. That is what I call LOVE 🙂
What’s in store for Shirley & Ed in the upcoming future?
I want to move into our cottage for good one day and go back to ONLY painting and enjoying nature and Ed wants to travel extensively
Thank you so much, Shirley, for taking the time to talk to us. It was great meeting you and Ed and I hope to see you again soon and explore more of Eastern Ontario. We wish you the best of success for your business…