Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 4, 2009

The Canadian B&B: an Artful Blend of Canadiana, Style, and the Personal Touch

O bed! O bed! delicious bed! That heaven upon earth to the weary head! — Thomas Hood (1799–1845)

I love to travel, but I also love my bed; that inward comfort zone far from the madding crowd. And although I have stayed in lots of very nice hotels, and have slept in many high quality industry-standard beds, it’s rare that a hotel bed induces the lulled state of mind that my own does.

I am also well aware that the two most precious luxuries in our western culture may well be personal privacy and a bed of one’s own. (Surely Virginia Woolf would concur.) And therefore, the bed — the core element of our much-needed nocturnal repose — plays a much deeper role in our lives than we might at first realize.

Have you ever been in the last stages of a seemingly interminable and very uncomfortable overseas flight when you would sell your soul (or at least your luggage) to be instantly transported to your own bed? It’s at moments like that when I realize all that a good bed can be.

And while for the traveller the bed can be a principal medium of sweet dreams or nightmares — an apt analogy for the risks we take when we travel — it does not exist in isolation; it is a part of the whole. A touchstone for assessing the talents of the innkeeper, the bed can embody that complete sense of snuggle down comfort and ease of mind the temporarily bedless traveller looks forward to. My kingdom for a bed!

The Bed in B&B

Having stayed at a good number of Canadian bed and breakfast establishments, I am pleased to announce that the “state of the bed” in this part of the Canadian hospitality industry is strong. I also feel safe in proclaiming that these community-centred homes away from home embrace the historic values, traditions, and principles of hospitality itself, but also provide a sense of belonging and a beddy bye-friendly culture that is hard to create in the more commercial establishments.

In the Introduction to her book The Canadian Bed & Breakfast Guide, Marybeth Moyer proclaims the Bed and Breakfast “the quintessential cottage business. The cottage is the business. It is the least commercial form of accommodation service available … [with] an ambiance of warmth, friendliness and welcome beyond what is possible for more commercially oriented establishments.”

I certainly agree although the boutique hotel (see Hôtel-boutique, Québec chic) — a slightly more upmarket hotel phenomenon — has many of the same qualities. But it is the B&B that is the truly local, grassroots establishment; many of them are in residential areas sheltered from, but within easy access of, the commercial core of their communities. Having said that however, you may expect to also find a B&B to your liking in the downtown urban core; in the words of Canadian playwright Joanna Glass, “an island of tranquillity in a sea of storms.”

I have been told that, in terms of the travelling public, one is either a confirmed B&B aficionado or not. That may or may not be true, but as a recent convert I suspect that there may be issues of perception at play here and that the B&B might actually be a better bed of choice for many travellers if they had a clearer understanding of what this extensive network of artful establishments in Canada have to offer. It is not just “a bed in someone’s home.”

As I have already said, increasingly we value our privacy. Evidence of this can be seen in the increased hunkering down and cocooning we see happening in North American society, especially on the part of the baby boomers. At the same time, however, this generation of travellers with disposal time and income are also looking more and more for meaningful travel experiences that redress a general existentialist-like social disconnect that has occurred in the last few decades. Although they want intimate, up-close-and-personal travel experiences that tell it as it is, they also want to be left alone.

Well have I got news for them! The contemporary B&B can offer you both; intimacy without sacrificing privacy. And here’s what else it can offer you:

(a) Owners who are local historians, unofficial tour guides, at-no-cost and no nonsense information sources of where to eat, what to see, how to get there, and how to save money doing so;

(b) New relationships (Guests often find themselves corresponding regularly with a number of B&B owners who have hosted them and continue to provide useful travel information.);

(c) Non-stressful stays (Have you ever had to wait in line to check in or out of your room? Had to rush a meal in a busy restaurant? Felt “processed” by a large facility?);

(d) Variety and diversity (Although there is nothing wrong with the corporate efficiency and predictability of a well-run but larger hotel, you may actually find a significant qualitative effect in the ease of communication, unique “small is beautiful” environment, and the personalized service that is the hallmark of the B&B. Each B&B also has its own particular tone or “mood music.”;

(e) Safety and security (I have never had an in-your-face experience in a B&B nor have I had to think twice about double-locking the door. As more and more women travel for business reasons, they are increasingly choosing B&Bs, no underground parking lot, no confining elevator to contend with.);

(f) Value (Generally speaking B&Bs are in the more moderate price range especially when you consider their value added features which add up quickly in larger establishments. For example , parking is usually nearby and free, and breakfast of course is included. Many B&Bs offer special services and amenities, such as an afternoon tea, an evening beverage accompanied by some local or regional delicacy, genuine and nutritious home-cooked breakfasts — to some extent all B&B owners are chefs;

(g) A heritage experience (More and more Canadian B&Bs are either heritage homes themselves or are located in or near historic districts. And you will find many of them are archival treasures in themselves, decorated thematically to tell the story of the house. Artistically, Canadian B&Bs are known for their emphasis on the senses including the aesthetic sense. This aspect of the B&B is also a significant all-inclusive value;

(h) Personalized service (This of course is the essence of the B&B but I would add that the kind of personalized service offered in Canadian B&Bs that I have visited is a very respectful and non-invasive service. You feel taken care of but not “too close for comfort.”)

The B&B in the information age

“The Internet and its corollary technologies have democratized travel and created global relationships. They have also revolutionized how travellers decide for themselves where and how they travel … and why! Access to primary, first-hand, and personalized sources is what Talkin’ Travel and Destination Canada are all about. As consumer advocates for the travelling public, we introduce travellers to real people, real issues, and real value in their chosen destination.”

B&B owners understand this implicitly. And without a doubt, the above statement applies to the B&B industry. It too is all about reality-based travelling and effective communication skills.

Getting connected to Canadian B&Bs

Doug and Annabelle White are the owners of BBCanada.com , a Canadian owned and operated database-oriented Web company that is a prime portal for anyone who wants to find, explore, assess, and stay in a Canadian B&B anywhere in this country.

I meet Doug at his office in Hamilton, Ontario and we engage in a lively two-hour discussion about the current state of affairs of the B&B industry and the nature of the B&B not only as as a significant part of the hospitality industry but also as a social institution in itself.

We discover a kindred spirit in each other who simply enjoys a good dialogue about life, liberty, and the Canadian B&B as a cultural phenomenon that expresses in many ways what Canadians refer to as this nation’s “vertical mosaic” approach to social organization.

Doug is a retired educator, an artist who uses technology in the service of his art, and one of the best ambassadors for the B&B industry I have met. He created BBCanada.com after travelling 25,000 kilometres across Canada talking to B&B owners. The website is not your average HTML medium; it is a fully interactive service that brings together B&Bs across Canada and their guests. Like most of the B&B owners I have met, Doug has a passion for his “post-retirement project” and an intuitive sense of what the travelling public wants and deserves.

We discuss initially the two main reasons he suggests people stay in B&Bs:

(a) to meet a real local person and make real connections with the destination. We discuss the unique character and attributes of B&B owners — many are in fact oral historians or specialists in some field related to their locations and provide whole layers of experience that the average traveller could not access in other ways. As Doug says, “If you want to meet a real Canadian, stay at a B&B.” Because the B&B is a grassroots accommodation, it becomes part of the experiential travel.

(b) to meet other travellers from all over in a comfortable environment conducive to the sharing of perspectives and experiences. In Doug’s words, “You will be in close but congenial contact with people you would never have met otherwise.” As I have discovered myself, international friendships and ongoing acquaintances can develop from shared B&B experiences. The world can be made smaller and more friendly; and the cordial dialogue that can occur between guests can also become exponential human communication.

Doug and I discuss how the B&B is a cultural phenomenon, demonstrating the fundamental components of culture as a sociologist would define them. Language can be unique to B&B owners. Like other professions, when B&B owners get together there is a lot of talk that revolves around common issues. Doug says you will hear B&B owners talk at great length about beds, mattresses, and laundry. Culture implies cultural objects; the bed as I have suggested being one of them, the guest book being another. Rites and rituals are inherent to culture. The genuine meeting, greeting, and saying good-bye that is very real and very natural in B&Bs, and of course, the breakfast, which is a key moment in the life of a B&B, and very much a reflection of the owner. In my experience, it is one of the most artful rituals in the B&B experience. As Shakespeare put it, “All the world is a stage” and there are many theatrical elements to a Canadian B&B. The sets and setting are impressive, the rhythms and themes clear and purposeful, and the experience can be stimulating, thought-provoking, and even enlightening.

Culture also involves group behavioural patterns, all of which can be defined from a cultural-anthropological perspective. For example, meeting and greeting behaviourisms with all the signals, language (verbal and nonverbal) that they imply, have very precise “welcoming” purposes. This is essential to the larger social behaviour pattern and belief system we refer to as hospitality. In my experience B&B owners are especially adept at “reading” their guests, listening and watching for signals that they, the hosts, respond to in a manner appropriate to each individual guest. They know, through practice and often through subconsciously learned behaviour, when a guest needs a little more attention or when he or she needs “space.” More than any other area of the hospitality industry, the B&B owner needs to learn and apply fundamental caregiving techniques. And as members of a subculture of the even larger travel and tourism subculture, successful B&B owners become specialists in the art of hosting.

On the “belief system” component of the culture of the B&B, Doug and I throw some ideas around but I seem to be the one that leans towards the idea that B&B owners (and their guests also) support specific values or principles. From my experience, they have a strong belief in the local community and the role of the “host” as integral to human interaction. I’m not a host myself; I prefer to be the guest — part of the string section as opposed to the orchestra leader. My discussion with Doug makes me think carefully about how difficult it must be to open your house to strangers, and to want to. And often, B&B owners embark on their “mission” for reasons other than financial. What they do achieve, however — whether they realize it or not — is to perpetuate the Main Street marketplace that is increasingly threatened by the corporate-culture dominance of the hospitality industry. And BBCanada.com, like the industry itself, emphasizes a collaborative rather than a competitive marketplace. And this is where the Internet has allowed B&B owners to be a real presence in a huge market. Over 90 per cent of Doug’s B&B subscribers are connected to the Internet.

Doug agrees with me that B&B owners have highly developed social skills and he tells me that he usually finds that a B&B operator is erudite or especially skilled in some special area of interest whether it be the obvious ones of home decorating, cooking, or gardening, or something even more idiosyncratic such as collecting rare coins or genealogy. I once visited a B&B where the owner kept a private museum dedicated to the local history and wildlife of the region. In the middle of his collection (next to the stuffed grizzly bear) was a vintage McLaughlin touring car.

The nature of the Canadian B&B

Because the Bed and Breakfast is an historical and contextual phenomenon, it is not surprising to see national characteristics and values reflected in them. Canada is very much a regional society shaped by our formidable geographic forces and historical events and timelines. On both the eastern and western coasts you will find B&Bs that reflect the British tradition of the B&B. Québec of course has its own network of gîtes that reflect the French regime in Canada. Ontario’s very eclectic B&Bs in part owe their diversity to the larger population base that is increasingly multicultural. In the Prairie provinces you will find B&Bs that include many elements reminiscent of the Eastern European immigrants who helped settle the Canadian West. Alberta’s B&Bs often emphasize the pragmatism of that province and such specialties as farm- or ranch-stay experiences. In British Columbia, many B&Bs are very scenery-oriented in this province known for its magnificent landscapes. But we mustn’t forget the urban scene. B&Bs can be found in major Canadian cities, and as any Canadian will tell you, each of those cities has its own character. Its B&Bs follow suit. The specialty B&B market (gay-friendly B&Bs, veggan B&Bs, and other special interest B&Bs) mirror what many see as a traveller-friendly, eclectic, and liberal Canadian society.

In brief, the B&B industry in Canada mirrors Canada’s historical, social, and cultural evolution. Each B&B is a piece of the puzzle of the Canadian identity.

Why choose a B&B in Canada?

As Doug White will tell you, B&Bs are not for everyone, but travel is about experiencing new things, enhancing your perspective on all things, and making connections. You do more than book a room. Part of the fun and experience is researching and locating the B&Bs that will serve your needs. Doug also says, “If you’ve never stayed in a B&B, you should try it at least once. And a Canadian B&B is a good place to start.”

Two of the best I have experienced

To every bed and breakfast there is a story — many stories in fact. One could write a whole other article on the B&B as narrative. Each of the B&Bs profiled below has all the elements for a good story. And B&B proprietors are storytellers whose passion for their establishments is quite evident. What makes their B&B stories especially interesting is the role that fortuitous circumstances — I suppose one could also call it fate or serendipity — have played in their lives.

Harbour’s Edge: Yarmouth, Nova Scotia

The province of Nova Scotia is renowned for its community-based resources and its genuine goodwill. This goodwill is often translated into gestures. The elegance of Esther and Gil’s Harbour’s Edge B&B is obvious from the moment you come upon it on a quiet leafy street that backs onto Yarmouth Harbour. When they made the momentous decision to rebuild the 19th-century home that is now their B&B and their home, I believe that they had an intuitive sense that what they were doing was honouring a way of life. Theirs was a gesture of goodwill that showed respect for heritage homes and the need to preserve them, and it is a gesture of goodwill that is inherent in the day to day life of Harbour’s Edge. As any owner will tell you, creating and operating a B&B is a an enormous undertaking but also a labour of love.

Esther is a hostess whose quiet, methodical commitment to the art of the B&B is embodied in each of the delicately decorated rooms of Harbour’s Edge. Gil is an RCMP officer and also a capable and very descriptive writer. His story of the rise from the ashes of this beautiful Victorian home testifies to the fact that that even though a B&B is a commercial venture, there are many deeper issues involved.

For more information on Yarmouth, Nova Scotia click here.

Domaine Les Boisés Lee Farm: Stanstead, Québec (Eastern Townships)

Michelle Richard was born in Trois-Rivières Québec but at the age of 17 went to Toronto where she worked as a bilingual secretary in what she calls “one of those big black buildings.” Feeling the need of a challenge, she happened one day on an ad for the Canadian Armed Forces. To make a long story short, Michelle went on to pursue a 27-year career in the medical corps serving in Canada, Germany, and Israel. She was one of the first women to serve in a field environment on an equal basis with male soldiers, as well as in numerous other capacities. When she retired from the military Michelle knew that she “had to validate in civi street what I learned in the military.” She was also determined that her three children experience “l’école de la vie” (the school of life) and that they be brought up in Canada’s two official languages. With her husband Rémi she bought and opened a B&B in Stanstead Québec called Domaine Les Boisés Lee Farm, an historic property that once belonged to Lady Henrietta Banting, the widow of one of Canada’s most famous scientists, Sir Frederick Banting.

Banting was one of the co-discoverers of insulin and a Nobel Prize-winner for Physiology and Medicine. (As I inform Michelle, my great-grandmother was a Banting and therefore a cousin of Sir Frederick. More serendipity!) Henrietta Banting was famous in her own right as the book Lady Banting: A Life of Service attests. Born in Stanstead (Rock Island) the idyllic Eastern Townships on the border of Vermont, she also became a nationally known doctor and like her husband spent most of her professional life in the service of others. Eventually, after her husband’s tragic death in an airplane crash in Newfoundland towards the end of the Second World War, Lady Banting returned to Stanstead where she bought and renovated her childhood home. Today her portrait, which depicts her in a rather wistful, elegant pose has a place of honour in Domaine Les Boisés Lee Farm.

Michelle and Rémi have restored this 1810 estate in impeccable detail. When Michelle and Rémi bought the property in the summer of 2003, they knew intuitively that this was the right move, although as most B&B owners know, it was a courageous one as well. One of their first projects was to update the house, adding private bathrooms. They also cleaned up the boisés (wood grove) at the front of the property. This lovely stand of hardwood trees allows the house a partial seclusion that suggests the tranquillity and privacy within. Michelle and Rémi also added a spa, renovated the heated inground pool, and added a special touch of a small café serving speciality desserts.

On the last morning of my visit to the area Michelle takes me to a hill outside town where I take the panoramic shot at the top of the webpage devoted to their B&B. Standing looking at the magnificent view we are both entranced. And then Michelle says quietly — mainly to herself I think — “Cette terre a vraiment une âme. De ça j’en suis sûre.” (“This land has a soul. I’m sure of that.)

For more information on Québec’s Eastern Townships, you may wish to read “Wandering at Will in Québec’s Eastern Townships”.

End Notes

The Canadian B&B Guide also has a wealth of information for the Bed and Breakfast industry in Canada. The site also leads to other good links.

You may also wish to access BnBstar.ca which is the Canada page of a U.S. B&B web-based guide.

Another resource worth checking into is Beds and Breakfasts.ca .

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