Canada Unplugged

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 10, 2001

Far as I can tell, the last people who knew how to take a civilized vacation were the Edwardian ruling classes. They'd plan to leave the city, sure, then pack up all the comforts they could carry and take them somewhere almost civilized. There were professional explorers paid to rough it, so why should they? For those who already liked their day-to-day, a change of scene was called for, not a change of life.

It's an unlikely view, I know, in our age of prime-time "Survivors" and big-buck adventure travel. ("Blackflies and burned bacon included in package price.") But I got to prove its enduring value during a stay at the Dalvay by the Sea hotel, a rare remainder of old-fashioned grace on the north shore of Canada's Prince Edward Island.

Judging by the lusciously appointed summer home he built in 1895 -- now the hotel -- Cincinnati oil tycoon Alexander McDonald was a man fully of his times, and to my tastes. The spot he chose, just shy of the lobster boats of Covehead Bay, had all the un-mod cons you could want: a beach as ravishing as any South Sea strand, backed up by a gently cultivated land as mellow as Olde England.

The place he built was worthy of the site: an elegant Queen Anne-style "lodge," with hints of rural simplicity but all the comforts of a new mansion: servants' quarters (and the servants to go in them); windmill-powered pumps and electricity; gracious rooms to dine and sit and dance in; a stretch of perfect lawn to lounge or play croquet on, bordering a spacious pond; and a tidy wilderness of sea and beach a friendly walk beyond. And by some little miracle, all this has survived nearly unchanged for modern (paying) guests.

Gatsby didn't have it any better.

After a painless, vintage check-in all in paper ledgers -- not a computer in sight -- a fresh-faced bellhop shows you up the gracious dog-legged central staircase and to your room. With luck, or long pre-planning, you'll get one of the original guest rooms in the front of the lodge, all dark-pine bead-board walls and rattan furniture to match.

You change into white flannels, or some other gracious leisure wear -- leave jeans to other guests, I say -- and head to the front lawn, maybe with a book along as decoration. Adirondack chairs are gathered in little clusters to attract pairs, or families, or a lounging garden party's worth of guests. The quiet's broken only by the sounds of players on the nearby bowling lawn, the "pong" of a distant tennis serve or the rustle of roaming houseboys offering to fetch cocktails from the bar.

"We've tried to keep up-to-date and current," explains owner David Thompson, who runs the hotel with his wife, Michelle, and longtime partner Wayne Berry. "But only to a certain extent." Since Thompson first took over Dalvay from his hotelier grandparents in 1976, comfort levels have been slowly working their way toward high-end standards, to serve a clientele that ranges from "very comfortable to very wealthy." (A room for two runs from about U.S. $140 to $220, including an elegant breakfast and dinner, thus making Dalvay one of the most expensive hotels on Prince Edward Island, and a huge bargain for its many guests used to more high-profile spots.)

The occasional drive-in visitor, however, still heads right back off after hearing that none of the 26 rooms comes with phone, radio or TV set. "We've never had them; I hope we never do," says Thompson. When one guest popped by reception to book an early wake-up call, he was handed a vintage windup clock. And that, in turn, was set to the ancient hand-wound hotel clock that sits above the main desk. Keeping up-to-date, it turns out, means guaranteeing that the modern hotel guest can enjoy the quiet graces of a time gone by.

A season just four months long doesn't allow the Thompsons to invest in a roof-to-cellar restoration -- soundproofing is one unmet desideratum, for the sake of honeymooning guests -- but they're slowly bringing the hotel back to some semblance of period style. If the desirable rooms around front successfully evoke the early days of Dalvay's grandeur, it's not because they've never lost it. It's almost always because they've been lovingly restored. Throughout the hotel, even in the modest rooms in back -- many of them former servants' quarters -- the current owners have tried to get fixtures that would have suited old McDonald. They've even managed to round up some objects from his original decor, long scattered across the island.

The grand hall and the ballroom off it, now furnished mostly for quiet lounging, are filled with many of the gewgaws you see in the earliest pictures of these rooms. (The McDonald photo album survives at Dalvay.) The dining room at the side of the house is an airy round conservatory, built of massive wooden beams and ancient stone. It makes the kind of gracious bridge between inside and outside that sea-siding Edwardians always favored -- but was built only two years ago. Under the guidance of Michelle Thompson's father, a prominent heritage architect in Vancouver, the new room's beams and wooden moldings were custom-made to vintage specs and the hardwood floors were matched to the hotel's oldest rooms. Dalvay is a "heritage building" that's held on a long-term lease from the Canadian government's parks division, and renovations must blend in with the spirit of the site.

But for all the upgrades and investments, this isn't corporate hospitality masquerading as old homeyness. The charming modesty of Dalvay is real. The less grand, less expensive rooms are decorated in an eclectic style that has more to do with garage sale finds than well-thumbed auction catalogues -- or, thank God, with some "antique-look" manufactured past. The hotel seems to have accumulated bits and bobs of dark old wood, of every kind of vintage, the way some quaint old summer place might pile up the heirlooms of its distant maiden aunts. All of the rooms have en-suite baths, as modern visitors demand, but some still date to days before the current management, when brand-new patterned vinyl was the rule for any renovation.

The kitchen is about the only part of the hotel that's left the past entirely behind. It is considered one of the island's best, serving almost equal numbers of hotel guests and outside diners, tourists and locals. (My father-in-law, born on Prince Edward Island 88 years ago, has been coming to Dalvay much of his life. He remembers dancing in the ballroom in the 1930s with the daughter of the rumrunner who then owned the place, and he still counts it as a favorite spot for a fine evening out.)

As middle-class tastes have moved from steak and spuds to more complex creations, Dalvay has followed them, or even led the way. "We had a lot of locals who didn't like the change in menu," explains David Thompson. Islanders are famous for their cautious ways -- but even they've been coming back over the last decade or so.

Executive chef Keith Wilson, a dashing, bandana'd 33-year-old Australian who's been at Dalvay since his middle twenties, prepares a changing menu of upmarket food. Elements of Asian fusion reflect his roots, but there are also local notes that come from his adopted home. One night during my stay, the menu featured a roasted breast of duck served with Chinese greens and a pungent shiitake mushroom glaze. But there was also a vertical construction of locally fished lobster meat.

Dessert choices included a classically antipodean baked-meringue-and-fruit Pavlova, as well as a toffee-sauced sticky date pudding that could have come from the recipe book of one of Dalvay's original cooks. It didn't, in fact -- it derives from an Australian craze for Victorian food a few years back -- but as one of the new Dalvay's perennially favorite dishes, it somehow symbolizes what the place is all about. It takes the pleasures of times past, wherever it can find them, and makes them serve the modern world.

Bang in the spirit of Alexander McDonald, who built a Queen Anne house so as to shelter himself, in good comfort, from the oil-powered work that paid for it.

Blake Gopnik is the art critic of The Washington Post.


Dalvay by the Sea (East End, Prince Edward Island National Park, Grand Tracadie, Prince Edward Island, Canada, 902-672-2048, is about 25 minutes northeast of Charlottetown, the provincial capital of Prince Edward Island. There are no direct flights from Washington, but Air Canada has daily nonstop service from Toronto. From D.C., expect to pay about $450 round trip to Toronto, then another $270 to the island. There are also daily direct flights from Montreal during the summer, or you can fly to Halifax and drive three hours ($25 for the return trip across the bridge), catch a ferry ($33) or take a connecting flight to Charlottetown. The hotel's season runs June 3 to Oct. 8.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company