Mellow, mellow Muskoka

Two dozen waterfalls, thousands of kilometers of rocky shoreline - and 1,600 lakes - make the Muskoka area, two hours north of Toronto, a vacationer's dream.

September 28, 2006 12:57
Mellow, mellow Muskoka

Muskoka 298.88. (photo credit: )


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Going to the cottage" is a phenomenon with which many Canadians - and visitors to Canada - are familiar. For me, a former Torontonian, the District of Muskoka - with its picturesque lakes, dense forests and charming towns - is what I always think of in terms of "cottage country." While the Muskoka region is an allyear-round tourist destination, renting a cottage there has always been a summertime tradition for my family. From the time I was eight through my late teens my parents would hire a cottage for our family, in one of the many bays along sparkling Lake Muskoka. The District of Muskoka includes a number of small towns and bigger townships. This year's rental was located lakeside, down a dirt path off the main road between the towns of Gravenhurst and Bala. Gravenhurst is known as the cultural center of Muskoka. It has the district's only opera house and theater, and also boasts a number of historical attractions. The community of Bala, in addition to its beautiful scenery, is celebrated as the cranberry capital of Canada. As well as being renowned for its cottages, the Muskoka area is also popular with sleepover summer camps. A number of the Jewish camping systems including Young Judea, Ramah, and B'nai B'rith all have property in the area. In addition to cottage vacations, I also attended summer camp in Gravenhurst. And so, it was with great excitement that - after nearly a decade since my last visit to the region - my family packed two cars and drove up to Muskoka for five days of bliss. The cottage that my parents rented was a huge home at the top of a grassy knoll, with a private dock down to the lake. WATERSKIING AND canoeing on the lake during the day and building campfires at night are what it was all about during my summers in Muskoka at the cottage back when I was a kid. My younger sisters and I would also spend much of the day swimming, going for short hikes in the woods, and walking into town to check out country life. Summer has always been the height of cottage season. During the months of July and August, the population of the Muskoka area more than quadruples. The unofficial day marking the mass exodus of the urban population for the cottage is the Victoria Long Weekend in May through to Labor Day in early September. Other activities on offer in "cottage country" during the warm months include golfing, fishing, boating and taking a cruise. Our recent outing in September was the first time my family opted to enjoy autumn at the cottage. While for this Israeli immigrant the water was too cold for swimming, some members of my family declared swimming season still open and did laps in the lake. I stuck with the canoeing option - which turned out to be an activity perhaps better in September than in the height of summer as the lake was almost free of speedboats. The cottage is a great place for the whole family. From my three-year-old niece to my 70-year-old aunt everyone loved taking the canoe out. My niece also had fun searching for frogs and fish near the water's edge, while the rest of us curled up in a chair with a book and enjoyed the amazing view. The autumn weather was also perfect for walks and hikes. With the leaves changing to red and orange and yellow colors, the natural canvas of the area could rival nature paintings by any of the masters. For old times' sake my mother suggested we board the historic steamship, RMS Segwun, for a cruise around Lake Muskoka. The Segwun (which means "springtime" in Ojibwa) is the oldest operating steamship in North America having been originally built in 1887. Due to a sudden thunderstorm, those plans never materialized. However, visitors to the region should try to book a trip as seeing the islands and the colorful trees is always a pleasure. Another option is to board the Island Queen ship and tour the 30,000 islands of Georgian Bay. And while I've yet to visit Muskoka in winter or spring, the area is just as famous for its winter cross-country skiing, ice-skating and snowmobiling as it is for spring biking, canoeing and kayaking. Spring is also said to be the best time to see the waterfalls. Muskoka is the waterfall capital of Canada with over two dozen awe-inspiring cascades throughout the region. During all seasons, Muskoka is a great place to see Canada's wildlife in its natural habitat. The list includes: loons, moose, deer, turtles, beavers, foxes, wolves, black bears, rabbits, snakes and badgers, among others. LOCATED JUST two hours north of Toronto, the Muskoka area has been a vacation destination for more than 100 years. Muskoka covers 2,500 square miles. The district includes 1,600 lakes, more than two dozen waterfalls, granite cliffs, thousands of kilometers of rocky shoreline, and pine and maple forests. The most populous area is the Muskoka Lakes Township which contains the jewels of Muskoka: Lake Muskoka, Lake Rosseau and Lake Joseph. These three big lakes are carved into the Canadian Shield. The Muskoka Lakes Township alone boasts 80 lakes, 16 parks, 12 swimming beaches and 30 kilometers of hiking trails. According to Algonquin native language, Muskoka means "land of the red earth." Locals like to point out that shades of crimson can be found everywhere - from stunning sunrises and sunsets to the color intensity of autumn leaves to the abundance of local cranberries. Muskoka's appeal as a tourist destination first came about in the mid-1800s. With the introduction of the Free Grants and Homestead Act, thousands of immigrants from the British Isles and Western Europe accepted the Canadian government's offer of free 100 and 200-acre blocks. While no one told them that farming the land would be nearly impossible due to the presence of uncompromising rock, the settlers soon realized that providing lodging and food to sportsmen who came to the area to fish and hunt was far more profitable. Demand grew as the hunters brought their families, and this quickly led to the birth of the tourism and hotel industry. Entrepreneurs were also attracted to the area and invested in grander hotels. By the late 19th century, city residents who were not interested in fishing or hunting began filling lodges so to enjoy the tranquility of the region and its breathtaking scenery and pristine lakes. Most travelers back then would take the train to Gravenhurst, the gateway to Muskoka, and from there board steamships to resorts and summer homes. The region also attracted established families from the cities of Toronto and Hamilton, with the rich building sophisticated homes that their descendants still use. Today, Muskoka continues to be popular with the wealthy. COTTAGES COME in all shapes and sizes in Canada. While my brother-in-law's family has a no-amenities cabin with an outhouse toilet further north near the Algonquin Provincial Park, nearly all cottages in the Muskoka area come equipped with facilities. In fact, many cottages in the Township of Muskoka Lakes could better be described as mansions and not by the Random House dictionary definition of 'cottage': "a small, modest house at a lake, mountain resort, etc., owned or rented as a vacation home." When Goldie Hawn bought land in the Muskoka Lakes Township and built a summer home along Lake Rosseau just over 10 years ago, she was "The" Hollywood presence in the area. Today, Muskoka Lakes Township is to Toronto what the Hamptons are to New York. In addition to Hawn, familiar faces in the area include Kurt Russell, Tom Hanks, Martin Short, and Steven Spielberg, as well as hockey players, supermodels, musicians, politicians and other millionaires. There's a narrow channel on Lake Muskoka called Millionaires Row. The houses here were built by Canadian and American industry barons at the beginning of the 20th century. While the channel is still a tourist attraction, the mansions along Lake Joseph are far superior. The last decade has seen a new generation of millionaires acquire the traditional smaller cottages, tear them down and build in their places massive duplicates. Many of the new cottages in this area make the homes in Savyon or Herzliya Pituah look rundown. Locals have nicknamed the top part of Lake Joseph Billionaires Row. And while the 9,000-square-foot houses keep popping up, there are also still a good number of more modest cottages lived in by locals year-round or rented out to visitors in Muskoka Lakes Township as well as in other Muskoka districts. And though the millionaires' invasion could have ruined the area's charm and grace, because of the countless islands peppered throughout Muskoka's lakes the presence of the famous is not overly felt. That fits well with the mission statement of the Muskoka Lakes Township: "To continue to be a place where the world wants to live." ONE OF the greatest pleasures when traveling is sampling the local cuisine. Muskoka is famous for its local produce. When in season don't miss wild blueberries, peaches 'n' cream corn, and cranberries. Blueberry season is short yet the wild berries keep their fame year round. People wait for them to ripen, and then eat them by the box. Rival bakeries boast the 'best blueberry pie' throughout the Muskoka district. According to the local visitor's information pamphlets, "it's not summer in Muskoka without a good feed of butter tarts, blueberry pie and Chelsea buns." There's also fish and local game on the menu. And of course desserts often include maple syrup (tapped from the region's trees). With so many Jewish families owning and renting cottages in the Muskoka region, and with the Jewish camps based there, kosher foods are also easy to come by. The supermarkets are all stocked with kosher foodstuffs, and places like Irvine & Sons Fine Foods even pack kosher picnic hampers. And though Toronto is close by, a number of five-star chefs choose to work in Muskoka and its resorts instead. In terms of eating options, there's a wide range from the corner cafe to Michelin rated restaurants. As for my family, we made daily runs to the local supermarket, bought what we needed for that day's meals and cooked up a storm in the kitchen. The dining area in our rented cottage had floor-to-ceiling glass windows that afforded an incredible view of the lake. Our five days at the cottage raced by. As my family packed up their things on the last day at the cottage, we lamented the end of our holiday. For many Canadians - and definitely for my family - cottage vacations are important pastimes. It's not just about breathing clean air, nor is it simply the outdoor activities. There's something unique about staying at a cottage. It's not by chance the high back, fanned wooden chair with large armrests that one can usually find on a dock facing the water is called the "Muskoka chair". This region is all about relaxing, enjoying nature and listening to oneself. The Muskoka area sees over one million visitors each year from around the globe. It was great being one of them once again.

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