THUNDER BAY -- Holly Watson spent most of her 20s traveling around the world, staying in unique and affordable hostels wherever she went. Immersing herself in the experience of meeting interesting people from all over the world, she dreamed, like many other travellers, of becoming a hostel owner herself one day.
Back in her hometown, she made that dream a reality. “I wanted to be back, I wanted to be rooted, I wanted to have a dog,” she says. After a year, she found the perfect location on 226 Ambrose street. She and co-owner Paul Pepe made a business plan, renovated and the Haven Hostel opened its doors in March 2018.
True to her vision, Watson created a space that is both affordable and special. There are three private en suites, one of them wheelchair-friendly. The frugal traveller can stay in pod-style dormitories for as little as $35 a night, or bunk-style dormitories for $39. There is a large airy communal kitchen and lounge where people can cook and exchange food and stories, nooks for games and reading, and pets are welcome. “This place comes together from the things I thought were really important when I stayed in hostels,” she says.
Soon after opening, motorcyclists found out that the hostel offers a secure garage for two-wheeled vehicles. “Who doesn’t want their motorcycle safe? We’re the only ones allowed to open it; there’s no key code access, it’s secure under lock and key.”
The Haven Hostel has hosted many motorcyclists, hitchhikers, cyclists and drivers making cross-country trips or doing the circle tour around Lake Superior. “We had a group of British guys here in the middle of the winter; they don’t snowboard or ski, but they just wanted to see Canada, driving across the nation,” she says. So far, they have seen visitors from over 40 countries.
Watson offers discounts for guests staying in Thunder Bay to be with family members for medical reasons. St. Joseph’s is within walking distance, and the affordable rates make it possible for people to stay for a few weeks.
Locals can enjoy a staycation at the hostel, because downtown PA and the waterfront is all within walking distance. Some people from outside of the city also book a night after a concert, dinner or event in town, so that they don’t have to drive back home in the middle of the night. The whole building can host 30 people, making it a good option for sports teams and church groups, as well as a unique venue for a wedding.
In the future, Watson wants to convert the adjacent 1200 square foot garage into a cafe and event space, partnering with local breweries and restaurants to provide booze and food.
This summer, she plans to have a pop-up art studio, where artists can use the space for free and help her graffiti the concrete walls. It won’t be a fancy event space like the Chantrelle, she says, but more of a “hippy shoe stringer-vibe.”
An avid outdoor person, Watson has countless suggestions for visitors. Thanks to Get Out Gear Rental, owned and operated by Paul and Bambi Pepe (located in an adjacent building), there are rental bikes and stand-up paddle boards, adventure packages for ice climbing, skiing, sailing, and rock climbing.
“We have some of the most accessible rock climbing in Canada; it’s incredible,” she says. She also recommends “anything on the water” - she gives instructions on paddle boarding at Boulevard lake, but Hazelwood and Lake Superior are also popular. If those activities sound too adventurous for you, you can’t go wrong with hiking - she suggests going to Centennial Park, Cascades and Trowbridge Falls and “just getting lost.” Thunder Bay is a great destination, she says, because “it’s so easy - it’s all right here.”