The Royal Hotel in Picton, a small community located along the banks of Lake Ontario in Prince Edward County, has a very storied history. For one, it dates back to 1879 and, in its prime, was one of the most important hotels between Toronto and Montreal. While the small Ontario town has changed plenty over the years, one thing remained constant throughout many of them: The Royal Hotel on Main Street was the community’s hub and heart, and the place to go.
Time eventually took its toll on The Royal, though. Falling apart, with a roof that leaked when it rained, the hotel eventually shut. It sat empty for nearly 14 years, until 2013, when it was purchased by the Sorbara family with plans for redevelopment. According to Greg Sorbara, the family’s patriarch, he wanted to start something the whole family could be involved in. “All of my kids are interested in heritage, [so] the notion of bringing an old hotel — [one that] had been such an important part of Picton — back to life was an exciting challenge,” he says.
Because The Royal sat idle for so long, redevelopment turned out to be a more involved undertaking than expected — more of a rebuild than a renovation. Yet it was the Sorbaras’ desire and determination to revive (not replace) the historic hotel that kept the project going. And nearly eight years after starting demolition back in 2014, the reimagined Royal finally opened its doors earlier this year.
Today, the 33-room hotel is a marvel — a thoughtful fusion of contemporary details and references to the hotel’s past and its place within Picton’s memory. According to Sol Korngold, Sorbara’s son-in-law and the general manager of the hotel, the goal was to restore this historic building while ensuring the design felt current and worldly, and that it would “have the essence of [Prince Edward County] at its core.” Because The Royal is a community hub and neighbourhood landmark, not just a boutique hotel, it was essential that its new design layered in elements of the property’s history and its county context.
To help, the family turned to Toronto-based architects Giannone Petricone Associates for both the hotel’s architecture and its interior design. For the exterior, the firm oversaw a painstaking restoration of the hotel’s red-brick facade. Inside, they created an atmosphere that is undeniably considered yet relaxed, contemporary yet classic. In guest rooms, classic porcelain bathtubs are paired with modern, fluted fireplaces. The Counter Bar — a vibrant space at all hours of the day and night — is fronted with timeless blue velvet stools and clad in a ribbon of contemporary white oak millwork.
“We created a lot of material themes that thread through all the spaces of the hotel, even up into the rooms,” says architect Pina Petricone, who, along with her team, even developed a series of Victorian-inspired textiles that were then transformed into different materials and fabrics. “Our design expresses this reoccupation and new invasion of the old Victorian hotel, so there was a lot of holding onto certain Victorian aspects and grand hotel elements, like the caged elevator and reception desk. We redesigned and essentially abstracted and reinstalled them, but there are still these leftover messages of the old occupation of the hotel,” she says. “There’s this beautiful juxtaposition between the Victorian and the modern,” adds Korngold.
“Because The Royal sat idle for so long, redevelopment turned out to be a more involved undertaking than expected — more of a rebuild than a renovation.”
Beyond its 33 guest rooms, The Royal comes fitted with the other elements that you’d expect of a weekend getaway: a swimming pool, a sauna, a spa, and plenty of good food. But for the team behind The Royal, their ambitions have no limit. “A lot of people say ‘escape’ when they think of The Royal — or vacation in general,” says Korngold. “One of the things we want to do when people come here is show them it’s not about escape, but rather about connection and transformation. If you could come here and learn something about yourself, have an experience that feels right for you, connect with people that you know or don’t in a new and challenging way, and take that with you — what a beautiful thing. That, as an objective, is a hard thing to achieve, but we’re going to work at it.”
There are few better ways to connect with the hotel than the seasonally driven and locally sourced culinary offerings. Conveniently, in addition to The Royal, the Sorbaras own Edwin County Farms, a quaint farm just a 15-minute drive away, where organic cattle graze and fresh produce and flowers grow. The farm also produces nearly 400 litres of maple syrup every season, so when Korngold says their dining room is “farm to table,” it’s no exaggeration. “The last thing we wanted was to be the go-to Mother’s Day spot — the fancy hotel that people go to once a year for a special outing. That’s just not who we are,” he says. “It’s got to be fun, accessible. We wanted to make sure the menu — led by executive chef Albert Ponzo — was varied, but The Royal was also a place you could see yourself eating at three times a week.”
And that speaks to the family’s overall goal: to create a destination that is inviting, accessible, and memorable. “We want people [from the] local and tourist communities to find the food fabulous. We want it to be a place where people feel comfortable dropping in — a welcoming place for all,” says Sorbara. “That’s why the front is all glass. We want people to see it from the outside and get an urge to come in and feel that they’ll belong — and I think they do.”
Photos courtesy of Graydon Herriott and Johnny C. Y. Lam