To say that the owners have paid special attention to the details when they reimagined the historic Merrill House in Picton, Ontario, is a considerable understatement. Both Jordan Martin de Rosales and husband Evert Rosales de Martin have literally poured their heart and soul into this property – and it shows. From the historic artifacts and documents that populate each of the 14 individually-designed rooms, to the charming children’s books which they wrote and illustrated that were inspired by one of the Merrill’s daughters, Jordan and Evert have not only thoroughly researched the history of this Victorian property and its family, they have embraced it. But don’t be fooled by the traditional, ‘gingerbread house’ appearance of this impressive mansion: there’s a fair amount of unexpectedly funky design that will surprise and delight you within it. Which is to be expected when you have two very creative minds in one household.
Luxury, Yes But This Time it’s Personal
Jordan Martin certainly knows luxury, having worked in the Middle East and the UK with upscale hospitality brands like Jumeirah Group (of seven-star Burj Al Arab fame) and the Grange Hotel Group with more than 150 properties worldwide. But it was on a return visit to Canada in 2018 (Jordan is a native of Belleville, Ontario) when he saw that the historic Merrill Inn in Picton, Ontario was up for sale. Being familiar with Prince Edward County, Jordan jumped at the opportunity to create his own luxury boutique hotel right here in Canada, in one of the fastest-evolving wine and tourism regions in the country. So he immediately purchased the property and began its transformation from country B&B into something very different.
A Pandemic Silver Lining
Unfortunately, Jordan’s reimagining of Merrill House hit a roadblock due to the pandemic, which effectively shut down the tourism and hospitality industry entirely. So Jordan took advantage of this time not just to complete his designs for the rooms, but to dive into researching the history of the place as well. Merrill House was well known in the area, having housed Judge Edwards Merrill and his family, who were both well-to-do and well-connected (Sir John A. MacDonald was one of their acquaintances). Yet they only lived in the house for a year before ‘downsizing’ to a ‘Mini Merrill House’ that they built on the water nearby (the reasons for the move are still somewhat murky but there are rumours of an ‘inappropriate interest’ from the neighbour in one of the daughters.)
All this research inspired Jordan to assemble a mini-collection of local 19th-century documents and artifacts from the late 1800s to give historical context to the era of the house and its owners. He also sourced some interesting natural history specimens, in an homage to the kind of collecting that was all the rage in Victorian times. More than just decoration, these items have become integral to the design of the guest rooms and many are on display as part of an audio tour that guests can use to tour the house.
Designed to Impress
Driving down Picton’s ‘Millionaire’s Row’, Merrill House is impossible to miss: it’s the very picture of elegant Victorian architecture with its warm brick and soaring gothic revival gables trimmed in fanciful gingerbread. But if you are expecting to find Merrill House’s interior filled with period-appropriate antiques and country charm, you’re in for an unexpected surprise.
Jordan and Evert have managed to strike the perfect balance between keeping the bones of the house and many of its most impressive features intact (like the original wood floors with their intricate patterning), while at the same time modernizing the visitor experience with luxurious amenities and eye-catching design that has landed the hotel in even more design magazines than travel ones.
Wallpaper in the house ranges from the traditional William Morris’ Strawberry thief design at reception, to the opulent deep blue and metallic gold paper in the main foyer, to the oversized wall-to-wall murals in some of the rooms.
The drawing room next to the main foyer is part art gallery, part museum and part library and there are respectful nods to the history of the house with portraits over the mantle both old and new of Merrill himself. But these share the space with Edmontosaurus fossils and oversized, contemporary artwork in an unexpected juxtaposition that works well.
Browse the bookshelves and you’ll just as likely to find coffee table books about Tom Ford’s fashion career as you are classic-edition board games like Clue or Sorry. (And if ever there was a place to announce “Colonel Mustard in the Library with a candlestick!”, Merrill house is that place.)
Furniture at Merrill House is an eclectic mixture of both antiques and design-forward pieces, all of which reflect an unexpected colour palette that make the formal, traditional space fun and vibrant. Nowhere is this more playful than in the cocktail parlour, with its candy-coloured, fringed furniture from Spanish design firm Houtique.
There is also spectacular statement lighting, and another huge piece of abstract artwork in the perfect Instagram-worthy photo location.
Designed to Delight
Can whimsy and luxury co-exist in an historic Victorian property like Merrill House? Absolutely. If the cocktail parlour isn’t a great example of how fanciful can still be fancy, there are many other small design details here that prove that a little whimsy goes a long way to making a luxury property feel unique and boutique.
Scattered around the main floor rooms you’ll find a series of children’s books written by Jordan and illustrated by Evert, that are based on Anne, one of the Merrill’s children.
Inside the rooms, instead of a boring leaflet recounting the history of the property, there is an illustrated ‘comic book’ that brings the history of the house and the Merrill family to life.
“The Merrills’ also appear on the hotel’s website, where Evert’s take on this couple reminds me a little of the New Yorker’s cartoons for their style and wit.
Even the guest rooms’ ‘do not disturb’ lanyards show off this sense of playfulness.
Designed for Dreaming
Whimsy aside, Merrill House is designed to pamper its guests. Each bedroom is individually designed and decorated, with super-comfortable beds, luxurious linens and bath products, and silky kimonos and plush robes instead of the traditional white spa style. And turn-down service offers not just the chocolate on the pillow, but a pillow-scenting option to help carry you off to dreamland surrounded by your favourite aroma.
Designed for Wining and Dining
Perhaps inspired by the wineries that abound in The County, Jordan decided to locate Merrill House’s dining room in the cellar, providing guests with a dine-in-a-wine-cellar vibe. Intimate and cozy in the winter, the space opens up in the warmer months into an attached conservatory that is filled with light and height and allows for twice the number of tables, making this a dining destination for more than just hotel guests. With Chef Michael Sullivan running the kitchen here as he has since 2004, there is good reason to put this on your dining radar. (Just ask King Charles and Camilla, who enjoyed dished prepared by Sullivan on their visit back in 2017.)
Speaking of wine cellars, Merrill House’s is no slouch, either. Since it opened, its cellar has been consistently recognized by the Wine Spectator for its extensive selection of local and old-world vintages, so whether you want the perfect pairing for your foie gras or your arctic char en papillotte, rest assured the staff here can make the right recommendation.
Merrill House: An Indulgent Getaway
Whether its the lavender-scented pillows in its guest rooms, the decadent molten lava cake topping off dinner in the cellar, or the curated, eclectic design in every space, Merrill House is a feast for all the senses and the kind of place that feels like an escape from the ordinary. Or maybe it’s just a good example of what Oxford describes as the definition of luxury: “a state of great comfort and extravagant living”. Either way, both are pretty much how I would describe a stay at Merrill House. So kudos to you, Jordan Martin: you’ve given luxury a new, old, home in Picton.
MORE THINGS TO DO IN PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY ON YOUR GETAWAY
If you can only visit one tasting room in The County, make it Karlo Estates. This boudoir/speakeasy-styled barn is one of the most unusual and sexy tasting rooms that we’ve seen. Plus the estate is on a quest to produce the Holy Grail of wines: a 6-varietal blend of old world reds that they call Sextus, a perfect ‘unicorn’ of wine that has rarely been made successfully since the late 1800s. If the winery succeeds in their mission, you’ll definitely want to have snagged a bottle of that for your cellar.
The Royal: This design-forward, completely reimagined hotel in downtown Picton hosts complimentary wine tastings every Wednesday with their Winemakers’ Hour at 5pm, with different winemakers from the region invited to showcase their vintages.
When we visited, John Battista Calvieri from Hubbs Creek was the winemaker featured. Calvieri is an admitted wine ‘purist’ and this family-run craft winery only produces small-batch wines made exclusively with their own estate grapes. That approach certainly paid off in a lovely slightly-oaked Chardonnay and a couple of excellent Pinot Noirs.
TIP: If you are looking for other wineries and/or places to sip and soak up the County vibe, read more here.
Main street in Picton, like many of the small towns in Prince Edward County, has re-invented local retail in response to the influx of visitors that have started coming here. Which means you’ll find all kinds of interesting shops, from antiques and decor stores to designer resale.
The nearby town of Bloomfield has a few unusual shops of their own as well, and if you want garden advice from the pros, check out Carson Arthur’s Garden and Market store and nursery. (You might recognize the name from CityLine and other HGTV shows where Arthur is the gardening and outdoor design expert.)
LOCAL ART & ARTISANS
Prince Edward County has been a mecca for artists for decades, and there are art studios all around the area. Check out the Arts Trail for year-round galleries and maps for where to find studios. There’s also a Studio Tour in the fall, so you might want to check on the dates to catch this event if you are planning a visit at this time of year.
LAKE ON THE MOUNTAIN
This natural curiosity has to be seen to be believed: it’s a lake that sits 60 meters above Lake Ontario, with no apparent outflow. Apparently thick silt on the bottom has literally ‘plugged’ all the holes so that this lake remains ‘floating’ in its limestone basin with amazing views towards the Bay of Quinte (especially during summers from The Inn where you can enjoy a glass of wine or food with that view). More information on the Lake and a map can be found here on the Ontario Provincial Park site.
Special thanks to Jordan Martin at Merrill House who hosted Henk and I for our overnight stay.
Jane Canapini is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and the North American Travel Journalists Association. She established GrownupTravels.com in 2014 to share information and tips based on personal experience so her readers could get the most out of their travels.