The stellar and stately Merrill House leads a growing list of burgeoning boutique hotels in Ontario’s favourite weekend playground
By Doug Wallace
“My soul is being poured out here. Ten years of collecting art and all sorts of things.”
Jordan Martin de Rosales sweeps his hand across the wooden foyer and up the ornate blue and gold stairwell of the refurbished Merrill House boutique hotel in Picton, Prince Edward County. As owner and creative director, he had a hand in every swatch and sculpture, fringe and frame.
Built in 1878, the rejuvenated heritage hideaway is now a kaleidoscope of colour, filled with a mix of antiques and contemporary furnishings and art, a glorious jumble of modern installations and Chinese artefacts, Persian rugs and pink velvet, paintings and pottery, lithographs and carvings. There’s a 70-million-year-old dinosaur fossil and a stuffed peacock for added intrigue. The result is a bold environment, almost dizzying, stretching throughout the 14 themed guest rooms and drawing rooms. It all comes from Jordan’s own art collection, creating a look he describes as eclectic traditionalism. “I think beautiful things can live together, wherever they’re from and from whatever time period,” he says. “I’m always moving them around, adjusting everything by a few degrees.”
Permanent little exhibits dress up the upper floors. Along one hallway, “Life in Colour” presents a natural history display of birds, butterflies, insects and the above-mentioned dinosaur fossil. In another, “1878” depicts the history of the prominent Merrill family and the news back in the day. “Indigenous Peoples on the Bay of Quinte” includes contemporary art and artefacts, presented in collaboration with Mohawk feathersmith Rebecca Maracle.
Every picture tells a story
To say that Merrill House is infused with personality would be an understatement. This personality is big, as is the booming voice. “My method is about drawing on little bits of things to blend together. I don’t want it to feel like a museum, though; I want it to feel like a home,” Jordan says. Every piece has a pedigree, the interior design wholly linked to the man himself.
Originally from nearby Hastings County, Jordan worked in marketing and hospitality in London, Dubai and Africa before bringing his enthusiasm for art and interior design, history and wine to Picton in 2018. His husband is the artist Evert Rosales Gomez de Martin, whose illustrations grace some of the hotel’s marketing materials, including a Merrill family history comic book.
The total restoration was finished in 2019, complete with air conditioning and a state-of-the-art wine cellar. Rural outposts of the business include a lavender garden and kitchen gardens, plus a 100-year-old apple orchard, which has encouraged a traditional sparkling cider side project. The hotel produces its own bathroom amenities directly from the kitchen gardens, as well as candles and preserves. Oh, the jam! We eat almost a whole pot at breakfast, which is prepared by Chef Lili Sullivan, wife of Head Chef Michael Sullivan, who ran the Merrill’s previous kitchen in its former life.
In the small but mighty restaurant on the lower floor, which now opens up to a new covered patio, Chef Sullivan serves elevated French food with a Burgundian flare. We opt for the sublime six-course tasting menu that harnesses the tastes of the County and enjoy wines curated by Astrid Young, who also directs an array of wine classes and popular monthly tastings.
Jordan’s newest side venture is planting his own vineyard of pinot noir at his home, Hydrangea House in nearby Cressy, with the help of South Bay’s Exultet Estates. It’s all part of the bigger picture, of course. “I love wine and art, so all my passions are coming together. It’s an all-encompassing experience for me – and hopefully for our guests, too.”
Always looking forward to next time
Prince Edward County has a way of working its way under your skin, so repeat visits are easy to schedule. Each time I visit – the wineries, the tidy patios, the roadside markets and quaint little shops – I always leave wanting more. And by the looks of my social feeds, many Ontarians feel the same way, particularly the carloads of LGBTQ folk. And now that jumping on the highways for a weekend away has become second nature, thanks in part this year to the provincial government’s staycation benefit program, the County roads will see quite a few cars this summer. This popularity has no doubt guided the path of numerous hospitality entrepreneurs, all trying to ensure there are enough beds to go around.
Picton’s brand-new Royal Hotel dates back to a similar time period as the Merrill, its 33 rooms catering to the fairly well-heeled young-at-hearts, with rooms revealing rich, natural colours and mixed textures. A library, swimming pool, private terrace and destination farm-to-table restaurant round out the offerings.
The ’70s retro refit at the sunny June Motel just north of Picton is a hit with the hipsters, its style similar to the quirky Drake Motor Inn, just down the road from the arty Drake Devonshire in Wellington. The Lakeside Motel, also in Wellington, has glamping down pat, a lodge noted for its pool deck and bar. The freshly renovated Walter Motel in Bloomfield, part of Angeline’s Inn, does no-frills compact comfort in spades. And the cabin-oriented Wander the Resort on Loyalist Parkway presents upscale Canadiana with a dash of Nordic laid-back luxury. It is booked months in advance. (Hey, Christmas is coming!)
Following the season’s big travel trends of private and personalized luxury, the new, modern Mirazule boutique inn near the town of Milford has only four rooms, replete with luxurious fabrics, floor-to-ceiling windows and decadent bathrooms. Besides the generous comfort factor and the gracious hosts, Miguel De Lemos and Ian Nelmes, the draw here is the gorgeous Art Deco everywhere you look – paintings, sculptures, an enormous walnut dining room set, an extremely cool bar. It’s almost like you’ve walked onto a movie set. A large terrace off the main floor leads to an infinity pool, and the whole place sports a spectacular vista of South Bay. This is truly a weekend waiting to happen to you.
Or maybe the middle of the week is when you pitch up? Why not? You’re working from home anyway – you might as well do it with a view.
DOUG WALLACE is the editor and publisher of travel resource and podcast TravelRight.Today.