How a NOTL couple is transforming their lives in a warm, tropical paradise
While vacationing in early March prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, our intrepid reporter Tim Taylor met up with Simon, Joanne and Tristan. See the bottom of this story for Joanne's update on how the pandemic has affected their venture.
COSTA RICA – When Simon Ibbotson and Joanne Lane decided to sell up everything in Niagara-on-the-Lake and buy a small hotel in Costa Rica, everyone around them said: “Are you out of your mind?”
Afterall, they had only made their first visit to Costa Rica just over one year ago. Their goal on that first trip was simply sun and fun.
“I’ve been a huge traveller my whole life — all over the world,” says Joanne Lane, a 54-year-old former pharmaceutical industry marketer, originally from Fonthill. “Costa Rica was the first place I’ve ever been that really felt like home.”
“I really like the cleanliness of the country. I liked the friendliness of the people. I felt quite safe here. A climate like summer back home. I just think it is beautiful.”
The couple enjoyed the experience so much, Lane returned in July, searching for a beachside condo to purchase.
“I wanted to look around to find a condo for Simon and me, that we could have as a vacation home and put it up on Airbnb. But I didn’t find any condos I liked.”
What she found was the exact opposite of a retirement investment home.
The small, roadside, four-bedroom inn and restaurant she found, quite by chance, had a checkered recent past, gradually slipping, in the previous decade, through a series of owners, into mild decay and a lacklustre following.
But for Lane, it was magical: “I walked through the main door, it was a beautiful sunny clear day, and I saw this spectacular view. I just fell in love.”
Toucan Lane Inn — the name is a combination of the ubiquitous, colourful local bird and Lane’s surname — is perched on a hillside overlooking Lake Arenal, a huge manmade lake in the shadow of Central America’s most active volcano, 90 kilometres northwest of San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital city.
“I called Simon and said: ‘How do you feel about buying a hotel, restaurant and bar in Costa Rica and moving?’ ” She didn’t tell him then that she had already put down a sizable deposit on the property.
“Joanne was saying to me: ’Quit your job and move to Costa Rica,’ ” Ibbotson says. “It really didn’t take much convincing. But I also really didn’t think it would happen. It was kind of surreal.”
Neither of them had hotel and restaurant experience.
“I’ve had to learn a lot about hospitality,” admits Lane. “When I started in the pharmaceutical business almost 30 years ago, it was all about entertainment. A couple of times a week we were hosting dinners and meetings for doctors. But I’ve never been in the service industry.”
Likewise, Ibbotson. Born in England, the 57-year-old ended up in Niagara-on-the-Lake in 1982. He calls himself a jack-of-all-trades. Over his 30-year career, he’s worked in computers, high-tech emission systems and most recently, building yachts in Port Weller.
“I’m a very social person. I love people around,” he says. “But I’ve always really loved working with my hands. I built my first house on Lakeshore Road when I was 23. I can do it all. We work well together. We complement each other.”
After a quick late-summer visit to see just how crazy they really were, they gulped a bit and took possession in October.
Ibbotson remembers thinking: “Oh, my gosh. What have we got ourselves into? It’s so run down. My head was spinning.”
They describe the last few months as a whirlwind. “It truly was like fixing an airplane while it is flying.”
They spent their first two months painting every wall, inside and out, a warm tropical red, almost terra cotta. They overcame dozens of plumbing, electrical and construction challenges. Then they began to build menus and payment and reservation systems and websites, and on and on.
And, believe it or not, amidst all the chaos, they got married. On New Year’s Eve, after 11 years of courting, six seriously, Ibbotson and Lane married, in front of a small group of friends and family, who had filled the hotel to capacity.
Tristan Ibbotson, Simon’s almost 30-year-old son, was his father’s groomsman.
Everyone who plays golf at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club and uses the 19th hole, knows the younger Ibbotson. He’s tall, lanky, exceptionally polite and a very professional server.
He’s spent much of this winter’s golf course downtime, helping his father and stepmother manage the hundreds of details of setting up and running a restaurant in an unknown environment, largely without the benefit of the language.
Tristan was born in NOTL, attended Colonel John Butler School and became a lifelong friend of The Lake Report editor-in-chief, Richard Harley, when they attended preschool together at Parliament Oak.
Tristan has worked in restaurants since the age of 14, first at Riverbend and for the last 10 years, the historic golf club, earning an arts degree at Brock along the way.
After high school, he learned the love of backpacking, travelling to Australia, Indonesia and New Zealand.
“I’m used to throwing a backpack on and hitching a ride in a bus or the back of a truck,” he says.
“This year, Dad and Joanne threw a wrench into that. They are counting on all the help they can get from anywhere and everywhere.”
It seems to be working.
Tristan is regularly interrupted by the new staff, quietly asking Tristan for direction. His Spanish just gets him by but it’s growing stronger each day. The family has a Spanish-English dictionary on a table by the inn’s infinity pool. “I muddle through.”
Tristan, with his 15 years of hospitality experience, is helping the new innkeepers build their confidence for when he returns to NOTL. He’s building menus, advising on recipes, creating service approaches, table settings, and finding and training staff.
And he can’t call it work or get paid for his efforts. He doesn’t have a work visa.
In fact, Tristan’s cycle of work is perfect for Toucan Lane. When the golf club winds up, Toucan Lane’s tourist season winds down.
But Tristan doesn’t see Toucan Lane as a long-term opportunity for him. “I should go back to school. I’d also like to take a look at real estate.”
In the meantime, the innkeepers will take all of him they can get.
They both admit the honeymoon is over.
“Right now, is the most difficult time for us. The first three months we were focused on all the renovations, things we knew how to do. Now it’s down to the nitty gritty of running the day-to-day business,” says Lane. But she’s still smiling.
They are dealing with the language barrier, government red tape, finding staff, finding suppliers who will deliver to upstart new restaurants and on and on. “Tristan says these problems are just the same at home. But they seem huge to us?”
Ibbotson and Lane miss their Canadian family and friends, but are determined to return this small hillside property to its former vitality.
Maybe Simon and Joanne are out of their minds. But Tristan is more positive: “It’ll take blood, sweat and tears. It just needs time and effort to return Toucan Lane to its heyday.”
Pandemic shuts Toucan Lane Inn until at least June
Special to The Lake Report
To say that these are challenging times is an understatement.
Simon and I knew that the first year would be difficult given that we had committed to renovating Toucan Lane but we felt that we would keep our heads above water with the business picking up more as the year went on. Today is such a different story.
We closed our doors here on March 17 and the country will be in complete lockdown until at least June 15. We have had to go through the process of letting our employees go, which is very difficult. Simon’s son Tristan Ibbotson, a longtime Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club employee, has stayed on with us because he knew that he had no job to come home to. And now Air Canada has told us there may not be any flights to Canada until December.
Costa Rica has declared a driving ban. We are under curfew from 7:30 p.m. to 5 a.m. and we are allowed to drive our car just four days a week. That presents the next issue – banking. Many days, the ATMs are out of service and we can only count on one day a week for one to work – Tuesdays.
Sometimes, the days feel long and lonely. Other times, we enjoy the beautiful weather, listen to music, sing, dance and have fun. Every day we eat incredible meals (thanks to Tristan) but, other than that, absolutely nothing is happening around here. No tourists, no locals, nothing …
In summation, we are facing a difficult time. But we will prevail. We will continue working on the property for the day when we can once again open our doors.