HARBOUR HOUSE HOTEL, Niagara-on-the-Lake

If you could choose the ideal moment to open a little luxury hotel, it wouldn’t be in the midst of an economic downturn. Chances are you wouldn’t opt for a time of international upheaval or terrorists attacks either. And certainly you wouldn’t piggyback onto an outbreak of SARS.

But that’s exactly the backdrop to the June 2003 opening of Harbour House Hotel in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Construction of Niagara’s first boutique hotel was well underway when these catastrophes plunged the tourism sector into a state of despair.

“It was a crazy time to open,” says Susan Murray, co-owner along with her husband Wayne, “but we were thrilled by the response from the very beginning.” “Three months later, 24% of our guests were referrals.”

Several things mitigated in the Murray’s favour. Sophisticated travellers are on the prowl for the smaller, more intimate properties with avant-garde design and an intimate level of service. The first new hotel in Niagara-on-the-Lake in more than a decade, Harbour House offers a unique complement to the existing mix of larger hotels and smaller B and Bs.

The venture represents the culmination of more than 25 years experience in the hospitality business for Sue Murray who sees the boutique hotel concept catching on in Niagara on the Lake as it has in Montreal.

A long-time resident of the area, Wayne Murray, an architect by profession, was particularly sympathetic to the community’s concerns that new buildings maintain the charm of the historic town. So he based his design concept on American shingle style of the late 19th century – a time when Niagara-on-the-Lake was one of the biggest ship building centres in North America. What he created was a three-storey, 20,000 square foot, cedar shake building that, far from overpowering the streetscape, resembles a blend-in-beautifully manor house. Located a block from the town’s yacht harbour, it’s a five-minute walk to the Festival, Court House and Royal George theatres.

Here town meets country in an intimate, clubby atmosphere that is elegant without being ostentatious. A fireside grouping of comfy furniture, bookshelves that invite a second glance and the corner desk that replaces the standard check-in counter add the touches that make the lobby feel more like a homey living room. In another corner, a lap top sits on an antique desk, providing complimentary internet access for guests. Furnishings have come from an eclectic bunch of sources, but they all exude quality and combine to create a space that is immediately welcoming.

Guest rooms – there are 31 of them, including two suites.– are luxuriously spacious. range in size from 325 to 400 square feet (i.e. they are large). Two two-room suites are equally spacious. Each is named for an important ship and individually decorated around tones of soft green and rich Dijon yellow with dark woods, leather furnishings, all done up in an arts and crafts or nautical theme. King-size, feather top beds are dressed in white, 300 thread-count Egyptian cotton linens and down duvets. Each room has a gas-burning fireplace and an entertainment centre with DVD and CD players. Guests are invited to borrow movies and music from the hotel’s disk library.

Want to bring Rover with you? Request one of the two dog friendly rooms that have easy outdoor access, a doggy bed, water bowl and canine treats.

With a maximum 65 guests and without an ambient restaurant clientele, general manager Timothy Taylor expects staff members to recognize guests by name.

A classic “European-style breakfast”, served in the conservatory includes fresh fruit (in season it comes from surrounding orchards), cereals and homemade granola, a variety of baked goods, meat and cheese along with gourmet teas and coffees.

In place of a full-service dining room for lunches and dinners, management relies on dozens of area restaurants, particularly The Charles Inn for elegant fine dining and Zees for something that’s fun and a little funky. But they’re also able to pull off a candlelight in-room dinner for two when the chef from The Charles Inn arrives to put the finishing touches on his gourmet fare. “It’s way over the top,” Taylor confesses, “but guests really love it.”

“We’re appealing to the sophisticated traveller,” he continues. “Our guests come mainly from the GTA and northern states. It’s pretty much a 50/50 split. Most are veteran Niagara-on-the-Lake visitors who return each year for the Shaw. A smattering comes from as far away as The Caribbean, Europe and Australia.”

Guests gather in the lobby in the afternoon for a tasting of local wines accompanied by cheese and crackers. Lively discussions on wineries to visit and the previous evening’s theatre offerings are the hot topics of conversation. Hard to resist are the freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and polished Granny Smith apples available throughout the day along with tea and coffee.