For five decades, Maury and Annabelle East have been making visitors feel welcome to their little corner of Ontario. Located near the picturesque Killarney Provincial Park and the rugged waters of northern Georgian Bay, their property, the Killarney Mountain Lodge, boasts an outdoor wilderness adventure program that takes full advantage of the red granite shores of the bay and the white quartzite La Cloche Mountains. But getting to this point wasn’t easy: it’s been an all-consuming lifestyle since they opened in 1962. Yet neither Maury nor Annabelle would change a moment of it.
The two remain as passionate as ever about their casual, comfortable resort, and the region they helped put on the map. The resort industry is in their blood, particularly so for Maury, who guided two previous properties to success before turning his attention to Killarney Mountain Lodge. He began his career at Limberlost Lodge, located northeast of Huntsville, Ontario, where he spent a decade learning the ropes of hotel operations. East then went on to purchase Muskoka Sands (now Taboo Resort, near Gravenhurst, Ontario), which he rebuilt from scratch after the devastation of a fire, and revived the property’s flagging fortunes.
It was while operating Muskoka Sands that Killarney first came to the Easts’ attention. “My business partner came to me one day and asked if I wanted to buy a resort in Killarney. My first response was, ‘Where the heck is Killarney?’ I had never even heard of the place,” East recalls with a chuckle. “I agreed to fly up to check it out. We were enchanted by what we saw. The resort was less than a decade old and I immediately saw its potential and more importantly that of the spectacular location.”
When it came time to open the lodge and ramp up business, East had a hard time raising the public’s awareness of Killarney. Few people had ever heard of the community, largely owing to its isolation. Maury and Annabelle employed this obscurity as a marketing tool, using “Where the Hell is Killarney?” as a slogan that appeared on buttons and advertising at trade shows for a number of years.
“The creation of Killarney Provincial Park in 1964 did more to promote Killarney as a holiday destination than anything we could have done,” East acknowledges. “It quickly became the most popular park in Ontario’s Provincial system, and its popularity put us on the map. People began to use the lodge as a staging post for exploring the wilderness. We worked hand-in-glove with the park to promote the region.”
Tying into the appeal of Killarney Provincial Park and the sensibilities of those making the long drive to the northern shores of Georgian Bay, the Easts developed an outdoor excursion program that highlighted the lodge’s scenery and unique geography. In the years since, the Easts have made some changes to the resort, adding amenities and upgrading interior design, but the greater changes are seen in the guests.
“Today, most of our clientele is Canadian, with a sprinkling of U.K. and European guests. Back in the 1960s through ’80s more than 60 percent were Americans,” East says. “But the biggest change over the past 50 years is in the public’s travel habits. People used to book for a week or two, but today a weeklong reservation is unusual. Also, they used to pre-book, often as early in the winter, whereas now most are last minute. This affects a lot of operations—everything from costs of housekeeping to ordering supplies to rate structure.”
And yet, regardless of where they hail from or how early they book, the guests form a constant. Many return year after year, passing the tradition from one generation to the next, just as was common in summer resorts across Ontario in earlier eras. All share a passion for the outdoors and in many cases they are as attached to the people of Killarney as they are to the place itself. The result is an unusually close, even familial relationship between owners and staff, guests, and residents of Killarney.
Though the ruggedly handsome wilderness is an obvious appeal, most longtime guests will say the secret to Killarney Mountain Lodge’s success lies in the warmth and flawless hospitality provided by the ever-present, ever-smiling owners.
“You have to love what you do to run a resort as long as we have,” East says. “We still love it. It’s hard to believe 50 years has passed.”