A COUPLE HOURS OUTSIDE the bustle of Toronto, Ontario, lies a lush, green idyll dotted with small, mirrored cabins — an otherworldly forest refuge, modern and elemental at once. This is Arcana, a new travel experience designed by Vancouver-based architecture firm Leckie Studio and design firm Aruliden. It’s a hideaway in the truest sense: you won’t even find out exactly where the site is until you book a reservation.
“Maybe it’s a little uncomfortable to book a place and not know where it is,” says co-founder and co-CEO Felicia Snyder, but that may mean “you’re being even more intentional, saying, ‘Okay, I’m going to leap into this.’”
When Snyder and co-founder Alan Gertner successfully exited from their last business venture, they were looking for something new. And not just a business idea, but a deeper purpose. After reflecting on the way that being in nature can nourish us and shift our perspective — “you start to feel small, but not insignificant,” says Snyder — the idea for Arcana was born.
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How can we build a bridge, how can we become that connection between hinterland and heartland?
The company’s pilot site in Ontario is home to two 275-square-foot cabins, but future sites may house as many as fifty cabins. Each boasts a floor-to-ceiling picture window, creating an experience of porousness between indoor and outdoor, the natural and the human-made. Among the outdoorsy, a subtle bias exists against those who like nature but don’t want to really rough it. Arcana caters to those travelers in particular, who want to feel fully immersed in nature, but still be inside. Each cabin has a reflective cladding, mirroring the surrounding landscape and — if you’re looking from a distance — essentially disappearing into it. (The reflection is slightly distorted and coated in customer markers, however, to prevent birds from flying into the structures.)
The fact that Arcana’s cabins may appear to be but a trick of the eye is the most literal manifestation of the company’s intention to live lightly on the land, without interrupting the landscape. Arcana seeks to support rather than disrupt the local economy in the places where they set up; in addition to providing employment opportunities, they also fulfill this mission by working with local artisans, like a ceramicist who outfitted the Ontario cabins with mugs, for example. They’re also partnering with local experts in foraging, forest bathing, and native flora and fauna to develop audio guides that will enhance guests’ hikes. “Where we can, we’re trying to take something that’s notable, that’s local, and bring it into the space.” This spirit is also reflected in the company’s commitment to sustainability. “Our footprint is most diminished when we do everything we can to blend into the surroundings,” says Snyder.
That said, Arcana guests can enjoy the amenities of a well-appointed (and pandemic-friendly) hotel, from contactless check-in to air conditioning to good Wi-Fi. There is also a fire pit outside the cabin, a sound journey and sauna on-site, and nearly 10 miles of hiking trails nearby (half of which are private for guests), filled with mature-growth trees and dozens of native Ontario species.
Offering comfort amid nature was important to Arcana’s founders. In a culture obsessed with “unplugging” and “detoxing” — radical acts of reset that often require ascetic denunciations of our phones, social media, gluten — they seek to offer something gentler. A visit to the site provides “different mediums for reflection,” in Snyder’s words, and that’s another Arcana principle that could be taken literally. Since the cladding around each cabin is not perfectly reflective, the image it mirrors back is slightly uneven, distorting what you see when you look into it. It’s but one of the ways that a stay in this serene setting invites a shift of perception. In the plainest sense, the cabins, like a work of art, can make you see yourself differently.
Snyder says she wanted to create a concept for getting away that city people like her “can incorporate easily into the rest of their lives.” She is not a fan of the idea that the city is bad, someplace we need to get away from, so the Arcana team has been careful not to pit their retreat against urban life in any way. As Snyder says, it’s more like, “How can we build a bridge, how can we become that connection between hinterland and heartland?” On the topic of amenities, she continues: “We’re not in the business of being prescriptive. We have Wi-Fi. What I would love to do is be able to provide you with an experience that is so rich that you have Wi-Fi and you hardly use it.”
Nina Renata Aron Writer
Nina Renata Aron is a senior editor of Departures based in Oakland, California. She is the author of "Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls." Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, Elle, Eater, and Jezebel.
Mike Palmer Photographer
Mike Palmer is a photographer and director based in Toronto, Canada. A self-taught professional photographer for more than a decade, Palmer has shot for magazines like Sharp and Toronto Life, and countless commercial advertisements and digital marketing campaigns for brands such as Levi's, Canada Goose, Peroni, Honda, Manulife, RBC, and Samsung.