By Emily Stonehouse
When you walk into Heather Lodge, it feels like you’re stepping onto the set of a holiday Hallmark movie. Every room is adorned with white twinkling lights, and a Christmas tree is propped in each corner; sparkling decorations catching the light off Twelve Mile Lake that shines through the windows. There is a crackling fire lit, and bottles of fine wines displayed along the deep wooden bar.
The lodge has been owned and operated by Maria and James Jennings for a decade as of Dec. 1 of this year. “We started with the concept of creating a culinary experience, and we are still practicing that same concept, ten years later,” said Maria.
This is why it’s no surprise that the lodge was recently named one of the top 100 restaurants in Canada by OpenTable. The awards are decided by reviews made on the app, and it was noted that some trending terms from this year’s judges were items such as “family style”, “good vibes”, and “family-friendly”.
In total, 41 restaurants from Ontario were recognized, followed by 20 from British Columbia, 19 from Alberta, 16 in Quebec, three in Nova Scotia, and one from Newfoundland and Labrador.
“We originally thought this was just celebrating Ontario restaurants,” said Maria, “but when we found out it was all across Canada, we were really surprised.”
Maria and James believe they have found their niche when it comes to the culinary experience that Heather Lodge offers. It’s a facility designed for adults only, with fine, local foods, wines, cocktails, and the add-on of accommodations and experiences. They opt to only take select seatings at certain times; guaranteeing each visitor feels supported and seen, and offering that intimate experience to anyone who sets foot in the lodge.
Maria is no stranger to understanding the wants and needs of the community. Prior to stepping into her role at Heather Lodge, she worked as the tourism coordinator for Haliburton County, the manager at the Haliburton County Chamber of Commerce, and was a board member for Ontario Highlands Tourism Organization, to name a few.
She spent years following the trends and finding ways to put Haliburton County on the map, so when the opportunity arose to explore the tourism world in a new way, she and her husband, James, jumped on it.
“At the time that we bought the lodge, there was absolutely no business, and no staff,” she recalled, as she reflected on the early days of navigating resort ownership with young children in tow. “But now, we are consistently getting 250 bookings a year, and we’ve really established our restaurant side and our accommodation side.”
Like many businesses, Heather Lodge had to pivot during the COVID-19 years. “It was a bumpy ride but we did the best we could,” said James, “but domestic travel was a huge spinoff for us.” Referencing the fact that the lodge offers private entrances, take-out dining, and opportunities for little to no interaction during a visit, James and Maria noted that they managed to the best of their abilities during the lockdowns and the uncertainty. They shared that they still have guests who are COVID cautious who choose to stay with them, based on the flexibility they have around contact.
Ten years later, through the ups and the downs, Maria and James live onsite at Heather Lodge with their two teenage daughters. “We’ve all grown up here,” Maria said, “and maybe it’s unusual for a couple to work together, because operationally, you’re always tapped in.”
But as the couple sat by the fire and reflected on their decade in business together; the awards, the recognition, the accomplishments, they exude pride for all they’ve done – not just for their family, but for the community as a whole. For putting Haliburton County on the map, in more ways than one.
“This is not just a job,” smiled Maria, “this is a lifestyle. And we just keep pushing to be better.”