Aside from the big cities: Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, people often don’t think to go to Canada. That is a shame because there is a massive, heavily forested, and beautiful countryside just waiting to be explored, and there’s no better place to start than Muskoka.
Located about two hours north of Toronto, Muskoka is huge. It is a regional municipality consisting of several towns that stretches a huge distance from the Georgian Bay in the west, to the northern tip of Lake Couchiching, to the western border of Algonquin Provincial Park in the east.
The area can be described as nothing other than lush. Miles upon miles of heavily wooded roads surround a shimmering and vast lake. When the sun rises over the water the water takes on a translucent glow that is both awe-inspiring and intoxicating. If you are used to big cities, the sheer freshness of the air can make you drunk. It is one of those places that allow total decompression of the mind.
That being said there is one hazard of travelling here that needs to be mentioned. The vastness of the area makes traveling difficult, and without a car for transport you will find yourself land-locked. So if you are not the type that likes hour-long drives while you are on your vacation, I would steer clear of this place. If you don’t mind driving, you are in for one of the most thoroughly relaxing trips of your life.
Where to Stay
If you want your home base in Muskoka to be of utmost luxury, you can’t do better than the JW Marriot Rosseau Muskoka. Located in the heart of Ontario’s cottage country, the Rosseau offers a full resort high up in the hills overlooking the lake.
It’s one of the most beautiful hotels you will ever see. The rooms are spacious with huge beds that you will have you sinking into fresh air-induced blissful comas. The lobby comes with a full bar that livens up at night as well as a fantastic brunch breakfast that offers greasy delights and healthier fare.
There are pools indoor and outdoor, and lounging in the hot tub under the cool Canadian skies can feel like an out-of-body relaxation. For outdoorsy people, there is access to kayaks and canoes down on the lake, and lounging on the water all day everyday is perfectly acceptable to the Muskoka lifestyle.
What to do
You don’t go to Muskoka for the same reason you would, say, Berlin. If you’re vacations are only to party your face off in wild European nightclubs and spend your days shopping, art gallery browsing, and eating, Muskoka isn’t for you. In Muskoka, you either relax, or engage in some of the outdoor activities that are offered throughout the region.
Luckily, Muskoka Outfitters is only about a 30-minute drive from the hotel. There a wiry, redheaded, and bearded outdoors enthusiast will greet you. His name is Nick Wiltshire and his passion for outdoors sports is infectious. From there you can pick your poison. If you are into kayaking or paddle boarding, you can rent top-notch equipment and get going right in the river adjoining the store. Don’t worry; if you tip into the water by overcompensating on the boat, Wiltshire will gladly you jump in to guide you back onto your raft.
Muskoka is ideal for mountain biking as well, and the numerous trails that weave in-between the woods allow for miles of uninterrupted biking. Be in shape, because some of these hills are tough.
Going along with the farm-to-table movement (more on that later), Muskoka also has a burgeoning craft beer movement. There are two breweries. If you are into the science and chemistry behind brewing, The Muskoka Brewery in Gravenhurst is worth a trip. The brewery has a small (albeit, underwhelming) tasting section in the front of the factory where you can go to town on the in-season beers. Detour is the brewery’s standard IPA and is an easy-to-drink 4.3 percent alcohol with a delightful aroma and light body. For the heavier drinkers, go with the Mad Tom IPA, a much heavier IPA at 6.4 percent alcohol that would go well with camping trips and parties around a fire. For the social alcoholic the Twice as Mad IPA has 8.4 percent alcohol, and with every swill you’ll feel more booze floating in your skull.
Established in 2008, the Lake of Bays Brewing Co. has a far more impressive tasting room, with a cabin-themed bar and unlimited space inside and out. The beer isn’t as delicious as that of the Muskoka Brewery, but it’s a nice place to hang out and catch a breeze and a buzz.
There is also a winery in Muskoka, but don’t expect Napa-esque quality vino. The Muskoka Lakes Winery is located in two small, cottage-like buildings that stand over two adjacent cranberry bogs. That’s right, this winery uses cranberries instead of grapes as its fruit base. The land is stunning; a well-shaded hill looks upon two massive valleys bathed in sunshine. Come for the view, and (maybe) stay for the wine. Wine enthusiasts will undoubtedly be turned off by the ultra-sweet flavors, but people who enjoy fruit juice but like getting drunk will be delighted. The sweet and tangy wine hardly resembles the deep-flavored wines that Americans are accustomed to. If you like sweet, this stuff goes down easy. If you like wine, you will be turned off.
WARNING: Try spreading these viewing tours out over the course of your trip. If you do them all in one day, you will find yourself rip-roaringly drunk.
What to Eat
Culinary enthusiasts will be flabbergasted at how surprisingly excellent fine dining in Muskoka is. This is partly because of the remote nature of the location. Muskoka has had to cultivate a remarkably efficient farm-to-table movement. James Murphy, who currently serves as Executive Director of tourism group Explorers’ Edge, once worked as General Manager of SAVOUR Muskoka, a culinary initiative that works to bridge the gap between supplier and restaurant chef and is still involved with Muskoka’s culinary scene. “We have excellent ingredients here in Muskoka,” he says, “Because we our pretty far from most cities the best way to insure that the quality of our food remains high is to buy it locally.”
One restaurant serving farm-to-table at a high level is the Riverwalk Restaurant in Baybridge. The eatery sits atop a quaint cottage overlooking a breathtaking view of one of the small waterfalls in the area. It’s very obvious from the classy interior that you are in for a quality dining experience. Executive Chef David Friesen, a tall, iconoclastic-looking guy with a noticeable full head of greying hair and a solitary earring stands at the forefront of the SAVOUR movement of incorporating local ingredients into his menu. “Everything I serve comes from the Muskoka region,” he says.
If you are lucky, Friesen will prepare a tasting menu for you. First comes the salad ripe with the sweetest and most tender tomatoes ever put atop an arugula salad. Never has it been more obvious that tomatoes are indeed a fruit.
Next were the prime rib sandwiches and sweet potato fries. Everything was dripping in flavor, and the feta cheese atop the fries was particularly perfect. Riverwalk is also known for homemade ice creams, and the pesto ice cream is marvelous. Some get turned off by these experimental ice creams but rest assured, the pesto ice cream is sweet, creamy, and delicious and the basil serves as more of an under flavor to bring surprising new tastes out of the dessert. Riverwalk is one of those outstanding restaurants where the cuisine and the location combine to leave you with a strong and positive memory that you will soon not forget. The never-ending glasses of local rosé didn’t hurt either.
Another excellent farm-to-table restaurant doesn’t even require you to leave your hotel. Teca is a farm-to-table family-style Italian restaurant. And it totally works. It has the casualness of your standard Italian spot and the fresh ingredients of farm-to-table combining to create a decadent meal. The chicken parm is the best you will ever have.
You can also take a dinner cruise on the Segwun. It all depends on how long you want to be out on the water, because it does feel long after a while. But the fresh air coming off the lake can be positively transformative.
BONUS: Stop at every bakery you see for coffee and butter tarts. The coffee here for some reason is excellent and butter tarts are like mini pecan pies turned inside out. Extremely rich. Totally addictive.
Muskoka is certainly worth a trip for the relaxation, the outdoors activities, and the food. But what really makes it exceptional is the people. People like Murphy, Friesen, and Leah Leslie of the Rosseau Muskoka know that they have something special going on. They are fully committed to the ideal of Muskoka, and they are absolutely delighted when visitors recognize in their home what they recognize in it. It is special. It is unique. And yes, it’s even luxurious.