[This article first appeared in Vacay.ca]
MOUNT STEWART, PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND — Olympic moments happen across this country on a daily basis. The participants may not be going for gold medals like the competitors at the London 2012 Summer Games, but they are striving to achieve ultimate success. Although they do it in obscurity, the spirit with which these entrepreneurs pursue their goals is similar to the dedication elite athletes have for their disciplines.
I recently came across a couple of examples of Canadians in the travel and hospitality industry who are giving it their all as they chase their dreams. Pat and Meghann Deighan were married on December 30, 2011, about two weeks after they purchased the Trailside Inn and Café, a venue 30 minutes outside of Charlottetown that has been a reliable spot in Prince Edward Island for good music and good times. The Trailside was in need of rescue and the newlyweds have poured themselves into making it the coolest music venue in Canada east of Casa del Popolo in Montreal and the Dakota Tavern in Toronto.
Like the Dakota, the Trailside features clever decor, an intimate atmosphere that charms musicians, and a short menu that delivers big for diners. The Trailside Café only has four main dishes, one of which is a daily special from chef Chris Coupland and another is an order of the best fishcakes you’re likely to ever taste. They are loaded with salmon and haddock, and go for just $15. You’ll devour them on one of the café’s tables that Meghann Deighan has decorated in inventive ways. On one surface, she has lacquered decades-old receipts from the property’s previous incarnation as a community co-op store, on others are black-and-white images and old movie posters.
“We’re looking for low-cost solutions for improving the place and the property has an amazing history, so we figure why not use what we can that’s right here,” says Meghann Deighan while pointing out some of the old dusty bottles that are kept in the back of the store.
The Trailside is the kind of place where the headline performer can stand at a bar drinking a beer while taking in his own warm-up act. Such was the case last Wednesday night, when Matt Mays headlined on back-to-back nights while his friend Adam Baldwin opened up. Seeing a musician of the calibre of Mays — a Juno nominee whose latest album “Coyote” is due out on September 4 — in a setting that holds no more than 50 people is a rare treat.
It’s also good marketing for the Trailside, which is hopeful of attracting more people from Charlottetown and elsewhere in the Maritimes to its little spot on the side of the road in Mount Stewart, home to about 310 people. If reviews from customers during Mays’ show are an indication, the Deighans will do all right. Several attendees praised the café’s atmosphere and its menu.
“The Trailside always had a good music scene but it needed a little more upkeep and we wanted to focus on improving the food. I think we have. I think Chris has hit it out of the park,” Pat Deighan says of his chef.
Turning an out-of-the-way haunt into a destination for travellers is no easy feat, but it’s been accomplished with properties and attractions that have less to offer than the Trailside. While the Deighans strive to make the most of their investment, they also contend with the many obstacles and aggravations of operating your own business.
“It’s been a crazy year for us. I’d never waitressed before this and on opening day Pat was bartending and looking up recipes for how to make Caesars,” Meghann Deighan says, shaking her head in amazement at what they’d managed. “You have to do so much yourself and then you just hope people come and they like it.”
Parking is on the lawn in the back. Upstairs features four rooms that rent for $89 a night and are used as crash pads for the visiting musicians. The crowd is young, energetic and PEI friendly. At night, the patio lights strung around the venue are about the only visible signs of activity in Mount Stewart and the music pouring out from the windows the only sounds you’re likely to hear. One visit and you’ll probably decide there isn’t much not to like about the Trailside.
Over the Northumberland Strait and across to the southeastern edge of Nova Scotia is another couple who would be kindred spirits to the Deighans. In 1994, Linda Kennedy and her husband, Tom, purchased a massive swath of undeveloped land that once belonged to a fishing company and then went about building their dream of an upscale hospitality business near one of Canada’s finest national parks. They cleared the land themselves and Tom Kennedy, a carpenter, made much of the furniture in Point of View Suites, just outside the gates to Fortress Louisbourg in Cape Breton.
The hotel features one immaculate space where guests will enjoy spending a couple of nights while exploring Louisbourg. The property’s beach house is on an inlet with nothing between you and the Atlantic Ocean but tall grass and a short cliff. The scenery is breathtaking, and so is the interior of the beach house’s main suite, which Tom Kennedy made from pine. As the closest ocean-view property to the gates of historic Fortress Louisbourg, Point of View Suites should be packed throughout summer — especially since rooms start at just $125 a night. American visitors have declined since the recession, however, and like so many others in the travel industry around the world, the Kennedys are searching to fill the void. They’ve done it with an entertaining dinner offering called the Beggar’s Banquet, a nightly $39.95 feast that sees guests dress in period costume while Linda Kennedy turns herself into a gruesome 18th-century bar owner/wench who loosens the mood by flirting with men and dancing to traditional francophone folk songs with anyone who will join her. It’s campy fun that gets many dancing and laughing.
“People always say to look at what you’ve accomplished, but we haven’t even begun to do what we want with this property,” says Linda Kennedy, who grew up in Louisbourg and was a member of one of the families whose land was expropriated for the building of the national park in the 1960s (depending on which recordkeeper you cite, there were up to 81 families moved off the land). “As hard as it is sometimes to run this business, I am living my dream. Tom and I have put everything we’ve got into this property.”
And she wasn’t just talking about financially. In the same way the Trailside Café has begun to take on the personality of the Deighans, Point of View Suites is imbued with the Kennedys’ sense of pride and their friendliness. It’s also got plenty of fine points that make it a winning destination to put on your list. The Deighans and Kennedys show that victories in life can come in all forms, and every so often, it’s good for the media to shine the spotlight on the places and the pursuits that don’t usually get Olympic-style attention.