As the mercury rises, the city comes alive with the sounds and sights of summer. Along with those tantalizing flashes of flesh is the anticipation of the slow, relaxing days of summer vacation.
In this era of pricey hotels and transcontinental flights, another kind of vacation beckons – destinations in our own backyard. The lesbian and gay bed and breakfast (B&B) industry has held relatively steady in Ontario in recent years, in spite of flashy, intensely marketed holiday packages to perpetually sunny climates. These small businesses, much like the restaurant industry’s “slow food” movement, entice guests with their relaxing pace and down-to-earth sensibility.
Here’s a small sampling of the province’s gay-owned and operated B&Bs and the personalities behind them.
A lesbian oasis
Wildewood Guest House (Wildewood.net) lies down the road from Algonquin Park in Maynooth and can accommodate four guests at a time. Ironically, it’s become somewhat of a lesbian hotspot since Joey Shulman and Barry Siegrist opened it 13 years ago.
“I remember having women as friends as far back as when I first came out in Toronto,” says Shulman with an easy laugh. “It was a fun mix and I couldn’t imagine not knowing women.”
Though men visit, too, the pair has embraced their primary clientele, celebrating anniversaries and milestones with the women they welcome into their home. Shulman shows warmth and compassion for his female friends and their concerns.
“We’re sensitive to cancer losses,” he says, reminiscing on friends who’ve died. The couple supports breast cancer fundraisers by offering up weekend packages as prizes.
Wildewood first opened its doors on Pride Day in 1992, Shulman and Siegrist’s 11th anniversary, after the two moved from Banff and originally, Toronto. For 12 years after, they hosted Pride celebrations – as profiled in Michael Riordon’s book Out Our Way: Gay And Lesbian Life In The Country – complete with 60-foot flag, fireworks and parade. A pair of local lesbians has since taken over the celebrations.
One August, Wildewood hosted 30 guests in 31 days. The stress almost broke the two apart. “We backed off intentionally from that,” says Shulman.
But now they’re hoping things will pick up again; business has slowed over the past couple years. “One of the things that affected our business was 9/11, along with SARS and mad cow [disease],” Shulman explains. Rising gas prices don’t help either.
Life at Wildewood is as active as snowshoeing, hiking or dog sledding or as relaxing as fishing, birdwatching or stargazing – it’s up to the guests. Winter’s the big season there, unlike many other B&Bs, and outdoor sports are an attraction. Something must be magnetic, because more than 20 former guests have since bought land in the area or moved there. It’s a trend and history that Shulman is proud of.
“I’m so thrilled about that,” he says. “We’re helping to create a whole part of gay history locally.”
The boys of Victoria View B&B Retreat (Victoriaview.ca) practically fell into the business after Jeremy Fleming treated partner Scott Miller to a night in Cobourg, just east of Toronto.
“We weren’t planning on making this kind of a move,” Fleming says. “We thought one day we’d like to open a mini spa retreat practice where Scott could practice massage.” That day came sooner than they thought. The couple returned to the Cobourg B&B a few months later, just as the owners were contemplating selling.
“She told us the number and our lives changed,” says Fleming. Two weeks later, they were buying the three-bedroom building. “We didn’t do the market research and that’s probably a good thing, because we probably wouldn’t have done it if we had.”
In 2003 they said goodbye to their home in Riverdale and Miller’s 10-year-old massage practice and moved to rural Ontario. In the two years since they’ve built an award-winning business that’s been profiled in national newspapers and on television. Even columnist and urbanite turned country girl Leah McLaren has written about Victoria View.
What makes it unique? The onsite services, says Fleming. “The fact that we’ve tried to get away from the doily image and using the – and I hate to use the word – ’boutique’ hotel kind of a decorating sense.”
Like many B&B owners, this seven-year couple aims to make Victoria View a destination in itself, rather a place to sleep. “Our intention was always to offer spas to our guests and that part of it has really exploded,” Fleming explains. “Eighty percent of clients are from Toronto looking to get away and do treatments.”
Fleming says he never thought of himself as a creative person, but he came up with their doggie spa package one day while walking through downtown Cobourg. In conjunction with the local pet shop, dogs get their own special treatment while their owners enjoy Thai massage, a facial or a body polish.
Massage was the one part of the B&B business Miller already knew; the rest the pair picked up through trial and error. “It takes a lot of energy and creativity,” says Fleming. “Somebody who can figure out when people want their privacy and when they want to be talked to.”
Wine country east
Henderson House (Bbcanada.com/4952.html) is a large Century home in Consecon, hidden behind a hedge and towering trees. Though the town may be unfamiliar, many wine connoisseurs will recognize the region, Prince Edward County, or simply, “the County.” It’s the province’s newest hottest wine district and it’s attracted the likes of chef Jamie Kennedy and boasts a significant out lesbian and gay population.
“There are a number of gay owned B&Bs in the so galled ‘Gay Triangle,'” says Heather Marr, one of the owners of the two-room Henderson House. She and partner Chantale Grondin have been together for 19 years and opened the B&B together in 2002. The Triangle boasts a vibrant art scene; lesbian and gay businesses have popped up in nearby towns like Picton and Warkworth. It’s also home to Sandbanks Provincial Park, a Mediterranean-style beach and a favourite with local queers and straights alike.
“I just think it’s a fantastic area for people to come visit – it’s so close to Toronto. [And] there’s always something happening,” says Marr, noting the wine tasting, canoeing and farm visits as popular pursuits.
Whereas Fleming and Miller fell into the business, Marr and Grondin had it all planned out. After a 20-year stint in the military, Marr went back to school to study hospitality. She spent three years honing her skills at a remote resort before moving into this business. Now she focusses on the comfort of her guests.
“I try to be creative,” Marr says of the breakfasts she whips up for her clientele. “I can do vegetarian and heavy breakfasts, light breakfasts and continental breakfasts,” but never plain old bacon and eggs – unless a guest asks for them.
The women don’t spend a lot on advertising – they rely on the generic Bbcanada.com for their web page – but instead utilize local publications and any opportunity for word-of-mouth. One such opportunity brings almost 300 queers and allies right to their doorstep: the Toronto People With AIDS Foundation’s Friends For Life bike rally.
“The bike rally is just a wonderful thing,” Marr says. “Last year was our first year with them.” The riders and crew didn’t spend the night, but the mass of spandex- clad cyclists did eat lunch and sprawled beneath the trees on the home’s spacious front yard.
“Part of our goal in running the B&B is to provide accommodation for our community.”
Kink in the city
“We have a dungeon instead of a breakfast plate,” says Rod Hoff, one half of the duo behind the Bent Inn (Bentinn.com) in downtown Toronto. He and partner Dennis Boissonneault run this atypical guesthouse catering to the leather and SM-inclined.
“We’re creating a niche market,” says Boissonneault. “A lot of the time it’s men who aren’t coming to Toronto but to Bent Inn.” Word of their guesthouse is starting to spread now that they’ve launched a new website and are doing on-line advertising.
“It’s really a place to play and stay,” Hoff says. “That’s what we’re after.”
The idea for the guesthouse arose when Boissoneault left a long-term relationship and bought the house. When they met two years ago in Provincetown, both men had been single for six years, following 20-year relationships. Their two parallel lives collided and they got together after a “whirlwind vacation romance.” Neither had seen anything similar anywhere, except for a hotel in Amsterdam.
“Other B&Bs in the United States promote leather and might have a couple slings in the bushes by the pool, but it’s still Laura Ashley sheets and comforters on the beds,” Boissoneault.
So what do leathermen prefer? “What ’til you see,” Hoff says. Judging by the tour, they like four post beds with vinyl sheets, restraints and slings.
“The vision was: why not create an environment where leather guys can come and it’s just like their home, or with even more toys and equipment than they do have,” says Boissoneault.
Guests don’t have to feel caged up in this spacious home (unless they want to, of course; there’s a human-sized cage in one of the rooms) with its backyard, patios and common areas. Plus it’s got enough toys to give Northbound Leather a run for its money. The basement is outfitted as a dungeon. Restraints, floggers, and other necessities hang amongst the military netting, lit by subdued lighting. The use of the toys comes with a room rental, as do other sexual necessities, thus removing the kinky traveller’s packing dilemma.
“It eliminated that concern of getting on planes and going through security and customs,” says Boissonneault with a chuckle. “Everything is here for them; all they have to bring is their leather.”
The two stress an overarching theme: the house is a safe, welcoming environment for men to experience their fantasies. Boissonneault and Hoff live on the third floor and both are around if a guest should happen to need advice, be it about local bars or SM. In future months, they hope to host leather collarings/weddings and SM workshops.