Here at Cottage Life, we realize how hard the COVID-19 pandemic has hit local businesses. To do our part, we’ll be highlighting the stories of different businesses in cottage country. This week, we spoke with Cathy Smith who runs Westlawn Bed and Breakfast in Bracebridge, Ont.
What is Westlawn Bed and Breakfast?
It’s a traditional bed and breakfast, not an Airbnb. We live in our home and share it with guests. We’re open from May to October, and we have lots of bedrooms, but we can only rent out three. Our municipality’s laws for bed and breakfasts say you can only rent out three at a time. I got that information from them before we opened, a few years ago.
How did the business get started?
We bought the house in 1986. It was a fourplex. It’s the first brick house that was built in Bracebridge. It’s been here since 1880. I used to walk by it all the time on my lunch hour at work. One day, I called my husband and said, “That house I love in Bracebridge is for sale.” He said, “Why don’t you go look at it?” So, I did. And I bought it.
We just had it as a rental property until 1999, and then we got rid of our tenants and moved in with our three children and started renovating. We ripped it right out to the brick walls and the four-by-four posts and rebuilt it all. It has original floors, but other than that, nothing’s original. It’s a new house built within an old one.
We did leave the layout the same. We used the same floor plan. And we replicated all the trim and the crown moulding. We took down the original trim and crown moulding because it was so old and it had so many coats of paint. It was never meant to last this long.
So, anyway, we’d been talking about opening a bed and breakfast for many years, thinking maybe that’s what we’d do if we ever retired. So, when we did renovate, we made sure to put ensuites in all the bedrooms.
Our last kid went off to university, and then came back for a little bit. Once the kids were gone, we opened our bed and breakfast. We actually were only open for two seasons because of COVID. This was supposed to be our retirement project, but neither my husband nor I have retired yet.
What’s the inspiration behind the name?
The front door is original to the house. And on the outside of the door is a brass plaque just above the kick plate that says “Westlawn.” The property was always named Westlawn, I would assume. It’s also on the west side of McMurray Street.
If you look it up in any of the old town of Bracebridge history books, you’ll see old photos of the house. It was originally all part of one piece of property. The person who owned it—I think his name was Lount—called the whole property “The Grange.” But he severed off this bit of property for his daughter when she married Samuel Bridgeland. And they built their house here.
What kind of amenities are included with the stay?
We have free Wi-Fi inside and out, onsite parking, and a gourmet breakfast. All the rooms have ensuites. And—although I don’t advertise it—we have a pool and hot tub, too.
What’s the guest experience like at Westlawn Bed and Breakfast?
Usually people arrive any time between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. Each afternoon, we have a social hour. We say hour, but sometimes it’s longer, just depending on when people arrive or even if they’ve already been here for a couple of nights. A lot of people come here to see Muskoka and Bracebridge, so they have breakfast with us in the morning—it’s a full gourmet breakfast. And then they’re usually gone for the day doing things, whether they’re going on a boat cruise, hiking, or just sightseeing.
Then most of them come back between 4 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. because they have dinner reservations. Then they sit by the pool and maybe have a glass of wine. I bring out hors d’oeuvres, and they get to visit with the other guests. I just love that part because everybody talks about what they did that day. And they say, well, “We tried this restaurant,” and then someone else may try it. And you get to know them.
I think that anyone who’s in the bed and breakfast industry has to truly enjoy spending time with people. Most of our guests, like 99.9 per cent of our guests, are our age or older—usually middle aged and older—and well travelled. It’s great hearing about everyone’s experiences and where they’ve been. We’ve done a fair bit of travelling ourselves, so it’s fun to swap stories and get to know people.
How has the pandemic affected your business?
We didn’t open last year because of COVID, and we’ve decided not to open this year because of COVID. So, we’ve been closed for two seasons now, and we really miss our guests. We don’t do this for the money because you don’t make a great deal of money. We do it because we love doing it. We love meeting new people. My husband loves having a new audience every night. That’s why we do it. So, we really miss it. I can hardly wait until we can open. Fingers crossed it’s next season.
What does the future look like for Westlawn Bed and Breakfast?
We don’t have any changes in mind. I mean, our home is finished. We just want to keep welcoming people here. We love to show off Bracebridge, and we love to share Muskoka with other people that have never been here before. And I think we’re doing a great job.
If you look at our TripAdvisor, all of our reviews are five stars. Those are all real reviews. We’re doing it the way we like to be treated when we stay at a bed and breakfast.
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