Skip to content

Fern Resort is all about 'creating memories' (5 photos)

'What we try to do is get people together. COVID has actually reinforced the importance of what we do here,' says fourth-generation owner of popular resort

It all began with a log cabin built on fern-covered rocks along the Lake Couchiching shoreline.

The lakeside property became known as the Fern Cottage and eventually grew into one of Ontario’s most popular holiday resorts – thanks to the ingenuity and hospitality of two families.

Fern Cottage was owned by the McBain family in the late 1800s, the first family to invite summer visitors to a guest house they had built on the property. In 1918, the business was purchased by the great-grandparents of current Fern Resort president, Mark Downing.

“I represent the fourth generation,” explained Downing, who is clearly proud of his family’s history at the resort.

Many of the facilities at the present-day resort are named for family members, such as Bertyl's Lobby Bar, named for Downing’s grandfather, Bert Rumble. And in the Heritage Dining Room, guests can get a glimpse of the family photo album. Photos of each generation grace one wall, while another serves as a dedication to the stewards of the resort – the women of the family – from his grandmother up to and including his three daughters.

One of the resort’s many traditions is the popular Mothers’ Day Brunch that takes place in the Heritage Dining Room. It offers local visitors the chance to experience the friendly family atmosphere that the resort is known for.

The resort is focused on family vacations, which is fitting, considering the strong family heritage connected to the business.

“Our sweet spot is young families,” said Downing. “What we offer families is a safe, comfortable atmosphere that allows a 9-year-old to experience what we did as kids – just get up and run. The kids appreciate it so much; they love having the freedom.”

“What we do here is all about creating memories, and our sense of community really makes this happen in the best way. It’s people making connections and that includes our staff. The more we can make connections between our guests and the staff, the better it is. Our guests absolutely love to get to know their server, the person that’s teaching them water skiing, putting the worm on a hook, or giving them the bicycle," Downing explained.

During the busy summer season, the resort employs about 220 staff members, 70 of whom are full-time. Of those, 25 to 30 are young people and university students who live onsite.

“We are very committed to giving kids their first work experience and the responsibility and learning that goes along with it,” said Downing. “When you’re in the service industry, you build skills that will help take you anywhere, no matter what business you’re in. You’re always going to have to connect with people.”

Many local high school students started their work experience at Fern Resort. Melissa McKee of Orillia was one of those who has fond memories from working at the resort as a teenager.

“It was my first summer job. I was a camp counsellor at the Play Village – we’d have kids of all ages. It was such a welcoming family environment – the best job ever – it was a blast.”

At the time, McKee lived on the lake in Orillia and would drive a small boat across the lake to get to work. “Hopping in the tin tippy was a great way to start the day!”

Now her eldest son, who is almost 15, will be starting a job at Fern Resort this summer.

“This will be his first job,” said McKee. “He’s super excited. Now we’re looking for a tin tippy for him so we can keep the tradition going.”

Downing stressed the importance of making sure staff have a good experience.

“We encourage them to become part of the community here – it’s that time of your life that is so special,” said Downing. “Have you seen Dirty Dancing?” he asked, suggesting that the resort experience mimics the story told in the classic film about how Frances “Baby” learns from and performs with the resort’s dance instructor while on summer vacation with her family.

“Many of our staff members, along with our families, come back year after year,” added Downing. “Some of our young staff members decide to make hospitality and working at Fern their career. A lot of our managers were young kids when they started here.”

The kitchen staff is no exception. The resort’s head chef, along with other kitchen staff, have been working at the resort for over 30 years.

“We have a strong, solid base in the kitchen,” said Downing,“ which is a necessity since we serve three meals a day to 300 to 320 people at a time. For dinner, we need to serve a full-course meal with 11 different entrees in one hour. That gives our kitchen staff an amazing skill set. They can do magic back in there.”

Meal times also contribute to the community building that takes place at the resort.

“Even though everyone is off on their own enjoying activities all day long, they come together for meals, often with extended family members and grandparents,” said Downing. “In fact, we often have families enjoying a ‘a stay at Fern' that was a Christmas gift from Grandma.

Downing is committed to continuing the Fern Resort traditions his community – of guests and staff – has come to love. After a tough two years coping with pandemic restrictions, Downing is encouraged.

“COVID has actually reinforced the importance of what we do here,” said Downing. “What we try to do is get people together and COVID has done the opposite. But it has shown us how much we value family connections and friendships. We’re looking forward to getting back to helping people make those connections.”

Local residents will have an opportunity to experience the resort’s hospitality at the upcoming Mothers’ Day Brunch.

“Being a destination for a special dining experience is something we also offer to the local area,” explained Downing. "When we do these kinds of events, we love to put our best foot forward. It’s an opportunity for our kitchen staff to show off. To be able to get back and up and running is exciting and the Mothers’ Day Brunch is a way to celebrate this.”

The popular brunch takes place on Sunday May 8 at the resort’s Heritage Dining Room. Five seatings are available from 9:15 a.m. to 1 p.m. To reserve, or for further information, visit the Fern Resort website.