By TIM JOHNSON
Located just 200km north of Toronto, the Muskoka region has long been the favourite chill weekend getaway spot for hot, tired city dwellers. They arrive by the carload to experience its lakes, rivers and beaches. Until recent years, that commute was the only kind of Muskoka road trip there way—this beautiful area was considered “cottage country” and a visit here was dependent on having a place on the lake—or a friend who has one.
That was then. These days, there’s a new kind of Muskoka road trip emerging. With the addition of a number of great luxury properties—including a lovely JW Marriott set on the shores of Lake Rosseau—a new kind of Muskoka holiday is becoming possible. More and more “cottage-less” folks can now explore the area, checking out its quirky shops, interesting museums and great restaurants, then bed down for the night in style at a five-star resort. To celebrate this new kind of traveller, we offer our Muskoka road trip guide, loaded with tips on where to go, what to see and where to stay.
MUSKOKA ROAD TRIP: Roadside Attractions
1. Gravenhurst, the region’s gateway city, has enough attractions to fill a day. After snapping of few photos of the giant Muskoka chair (the same style of chair that’s called an Adirondack chair south of the border), head to the wharf. A former shipyard, this area was—in an era before four-lane highways—the place of arrival for rail passengers from points south, who transferred to steamships that carried them directly to their lakeside resorts. A couple of steamships—the Segwun and the Wenonah II—still depart from here, although their services now are limited to steamship cruises, either pleasure cruises or lunch or dinner cruises. A recent revitalization has brought a number of great restaurants and a lovely boardwalk to the town adjacent to the docks, as well as a worthwhile museum, the Muskoka Boat and Heritage Centre, that showcases Muskoka’s past, from its industrial to the advent of the railways to the birth of tourism here.
2. Continue up Highway 169 past Hardy Lake Provincial Park to Bala. This cute town contains a number of fun amusements. Park for free, then take a walk—everything is in close proximity. The Fromme-Douglas Gallery displays the work of Peter Fromme-Douglas, including lovely scenes from the great outdoors (waterfalls, marshes, big lakes) as well as his series of “romantic women”, which has landed his work in some of SoHo’s top galleries.
Pass by the endearingly outdated Balacade (a video arcade), the Kee to Bala (a rustic concert hall that hosts performances all summer long), pass by the rushing rapids that form Bala Falls, then stop to shop for antiques and knickknacks at Jasmine’s Art and Antiques (1035 Bala Falls Rd.; 705-762-2363), in the former Bala Presbyterian Church. And while it’s tucked away on a back street, a stop at Bala’s Museum is also worthwhile. Mostly showcasing pieces related to Lucy Maude Montgomery and Anne of Green Gables, this charming (and slightly quirky) place commemorates the summer of 1922, when Montgomery came to town, staying at an inn across the road (the inn burned down in 1941) and taking her meals in the building that now houses the museum. Montgomery’s time here led to her book The Blue Castle, the only one of her novels set entirely outside of P.E.I.
3. Back on Highway 169, turn north toward Port Carling, stopping en route at Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh, where you can take a free tour of the marsh itself and learn about the unique process of growing and harvesting cranberries, afterward spending some time (and money) in the gift shop, where all things cranberry (from wines to candles) are available for purchase.
4. In Port Carling, the “Hub of the Lakes”—where Lake Rosseau and Lake Muskoka meet and are connected by a lock—browse the boutiques downtown (which sell swimwear, paintings with romantically idealized wilderness scenes and plenty of cottage decor gewgaws), then pop into the Muskoka Lakes Museum, where you can see a pioneer cabin and traditional canoes and learn about life in Muskoka in the early days of settlement and the golden age of the resorts.
MUSKOKA ROAD TRIP: Dining
In Bala, make sure to stop by Don’s Bakery, a busy summertime institution since 1947. One of the few scratch bakeries left in Muskoka, this place is famous for its Don Scone (pronounced scawn), a triangular-shaped item that’s handmade every morning and actually more like a bun than a traditional scone—it’s great for sandwiches or hamburgers (the bakery goes through hundreds every day). You can also pick up light lunches and a wide variety of other baked goods, including excellent butter tarts.
In Port Carling, Turtle Jack’s serves up great ribs and cold beer. While it has a bit of a franchise feel, you can’t beat the location, with a huge patio right on the water. A little farther north, off Highway 7 near Minett, Duke’s Refresher, part of the classic Clevelands House resort, has a great cheeseburger and an excellent view from the shores of Lake Rosseau.
MUSKOKA ROAD TRIP: Sleeping
Sitting high on a promontory overlooking one of Muskoka’s most stunning lakes, the JW Marriott The Rosseau resort offers five-star accommodations in an idyllic setting. You’ll find a full-service resort, complete with a spa, three pools (one indoor, two outdoor), a small beach, a range of aquatic equipment (both motorized and non-), and a busy schedule of available activities. Just north of Port Carling, on the road to Minett, this is a perfect base from which to explore the area—although, once you arrive, you may in fact be tempted to just park yourself and enjoy the sun and the water.
MUSKOKA ROAD TRIP: Transportation
From Toronto, drive straight north on Highway 400 to Gravenhurst. Exit and follow the signs to Highway 169—once you see the world’s largest Muskoka chair, you’ll know you’ve arrived in cottage country.
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