In 1860, two Canadians named James Bain (age 18) and John Campbell (20) made the quite peculiar decision to holiday in the northern wilderness. From Toronto they took the train to the end of the line, caught a steamer up to a town called Orillia, then started rowing. When they finally hit their destination, a giant freshwater lake named after an Ojibwa chief, the only signs of humanity were two wigwams on the beach. Bain and Campbell enjoyed sojourning in the wild and returned the following year, stopping at a tavern along the way. Shocked to find city folk in her establishment, the proprietor asked, “Yez’ll be preachers, then?”
Today the trip to the lake district north of Toronto requires only a breezy 90 minutes or so by car. Along the way, you pull off near Orillia for the legendary burger at Webers (serving 7,000 a day in peak season) or maybe pick up a butter tart or pie at Marty’s World Famous Café. Pretty soon the city, with its August emulsions of humidity and pollution, is behind you; ahead lies twig furniture and winceyette linens, board games and dockside booze.
Were it all so simple. The annual summer expedition that Canadians call “cottaging” is, in fact, a complex social ritual. Every few years, a fresh wave of urbanites head north for a restorative of wilderness reclusion and pioneer roughing it, only to be made fun of by their predecessors as despoilers and effete poseurs. (Even Campbell’s own father wasn’t spared. When he built a small lake cabin, Campbell the younger and his buddies wrote, “Then uprose a cosey mansion / Planned for liberal expansion / With dining, drawing, bedrooms / And offices full store.”) The current offender of choice is Hollywood, which, thanks in part to the Toronto International Film Festival, has discovered Muskoka as a low-key alternative to the Hamptons. “We have a name for such people,” one doyenne of the old-money Muskoka set informed me tartly when I mentioned the movie stars. Savoring each word, she said: “Rich. White. Trash.”
The region called Muskoka is about the size of Delaware, within which lie the remnants of glacial meltwaters, the three glorious lakes Rosseau, Joseph and Muskoka. Plunk an American down in Muskoka, and, upon taking in the piney coastlines and Precambrian outcrops, he might think he was on Lake Champlain. Adirondack chairs, however, are “Muskoka chairs” (often painted bubble-gum or hot pink), and along the coastlines, magnificent Victorian edifices stand directly on the water, built on stone-filled wooden cribs.
These are the iconic Muskoka boathouses, and they speak to how quickly Muskoka transformed itself from a hardscrabble pioneer territory to a nature getaway for the very rich. By 1870, a decade after Bain and Campbell appeared, a bona fide hotel had opened on Lake Rosseau; by 1875, the railway extended to the town where Bain and Campbell had been mistaken for preachers; and by 1900, the brag boats of Toronto’s superwealthy — 70-foot private steamers — had started to require waterside mansions of their own.
Muskoka’s great steamboat era lasted about 30 years, during which time a local style of architectural pomp was born. Atop a rocky hill sat the main “cottage” (here, even a McMansion qualifies as a cottage), a two- or three-story frame house with bow windows, a giant covered veranda and a vanity name like Llanllar or Beaumaris. At the waterside sat its smaller twin, the boathouse, with a gabled projection in front and, atop a second story added for staff, an elaborately cupola-ed roof.
The advent of gas-powered motorboats and the onset of the Depression ended the days of the steamer, and very few boathouses were built for 50 years. In the 1980s, though, Muskoka once again became fashionable with the rich, and the multistory boathouse became their status symbol — not so much for the boat docked inside as for the newly à la mode habit of forsaking the main house and living in the old servants’ quarters, directly on the gently lapping shores of the lake.
It’s easy to be cynical about the quest for the rural naïve, but I am here to tell you, there is nothing quite like a twilight cocktail on a Muskoka dock.
I had been put up by a gracious Canadian family, the old-money family one dreams about having. The bare-chested septuagenarian patriarch only recently gave up windsurfing at night with a flashlight in his headband (“a foolish act of the past”); the brutally funny matriarch whipped up meals that were no less elaborate for being on the fly; their son-in-law was a scratch golfer who, with his own hands, did roof repair and gutter work during his annual stay. They were all acutely aware, however, that a way of summer living was fading. Alluding to a well-to-do Toronto couple that had visited the year before, the matriarch lamented, “They didn’t know how to cottage.”
“To cottage” is a common idiom among Old Muskoka. For many years it meant the exceedingly charming combination of no electricity, no running water, strenuous mornings watersporting and fishing, languorous afternoons on the veranda, then a formal, candlelit dinner at dusk. Even as modern amenities have been added on, “cottaging” still means summer after summer of extended family reunions, without much worldly distraction of any kind.
The cherished pretense of Old Muskoka is that it, like all rural getaways, is a haven from the social distinctions of the city. Nowhere is this pretense stretched more amusingly thin than on the waters of the lake. On my first day in a motorboat with the patriarch, we passed a Jet Ski. “We call them ‘lake lice,’ ” he said with heartfelt malice, then added, “No one knows the rules of the road anymore. A woman flying the American flag passed me on the wrong side the other day, and she flipped me the bird.”
We were riding a beautiful machine, a center-drive displacement launch built locally, by the Minett-Shields Company, in the ’30s. Muskoka was once considered by many to be the custom-boat-building capital of North America, with craftsmen making launches out of imported mahogany. The boats are works of art, with their luminous coats of varnish and finely wrought brass and chrome fittings. The industry dwindled with the advent of the fiberglass hull, but the lakes are still populated by exquisite antiques. A local hotelier, an American, explained to me, “The pecking order up here is Minett-Shields, then Ditchburn, then Greavette,” and added: “I was down in Dorset once. A guy took a look at my boat” — a mass-produced American number — “and threw a cigarette butt at it. Said, ‘Chris-Craft. Piece of crap.’ ”
The landscape of Muskoka is often described as elemental, made up of rock and trees and water. True enough, but since Bain and Campbell, its human landscape has always been made up of irony, social distinction and loss. “I took you this way to show you Muskoka’s biggest eyesore,” the patriarch told me after picking me up at the marina. He was in shorts, a T-shirt and Crocs, and proud of it. “Now it’s all fishnets and pumps,” he said, shaking his head. The eyesore in question was a development called Red Leaves Resort, whose signs, which read “Civilized Wilderness,” I had seen on the mainland.
Red Leaves is nearing completion, a 1,400-acre, year-round waterfront resort, complete with its own “village square,” cafes and shops, and a Nick Faldo-designed golf course. To round out its leisure empire, Red Leaves purchased one of the last of the family-owned resorts, an establishment called Clevelands House Resort, which is everything Red Leaves is not: old, tatty, seasonal, rustic and cozy. “Once a week our guests come to a meeting,” Bob Cornell, Clevelands’s owner for nearly four decades, told me, “and a Red Leaves representative explains what they’re going to do with Clevelands. Some people have been coming here 40, 45 years, coming before I bought. They’re very upset about the sale.” The owners have vowed not to alter its <object.title class="Movie" idsrc="nyt_ttl" value="13874">“Dirty Dancing”</object.title> appeal.
Cornell started here as a bellhop at the age of 14, wearing a pillbox hat with a strap under the chin. Waitresses had to wear nylons, even in the heat of midsummer. “They’d put on iodine and baby oil to get a great tan, then take an eyebrow pencil and put a line down back of their legs to make it look like nylons,” he said. “The owners never twigged to the fact.” When he heard with whom I’d been staying, he smiled. “Well, you saw Old Muskoka. No luxury. Once Hollywood came up here, prices went sky-high.”
Like the rest of the known universe, Muskoka cannot fully work out the particulars of its love affair with celebrity. On the one hand, the slow ascension — from original pioneers like a Van Halen brother and Steven Spielberg — is flattering. On the other hand, it is attended by a phenomenon no one I spoke to is comfortable with: price inflation for real estate, and the rising tax assessments that come with it. These endanger the Canadian tradition of passing the family cottage down from generation to generation.
“Clevelands is a place to reunion,” Cornell said. “We have a family that has grown from one couple to a group of 57. Muskoka is known for togetherness.” After a pause, he said, “Sunday is turnover day. Around noon hour, old guests have checked out and new guests haven’t checked in yet. That’s when Tom Hanks will come in and grab a snack.”
Once Canadians went to Muskoka to escape Toronto. Now they go to Georgian Bay to escape Muskoka. “Muskoka is Toronto transplanted,” I was told at a small buffet luncheon on Georgian Bay. “Those aren’t cottages,” added an elderly man, when he heard that the subject was Muskoka. “They’re second houses. Georgian Bay is where real people hang out.” Now it was a pile-on. Ignoring the egg salad, guests made a beeline for the reporter. “We’d like to keep the actors down there.” “You spend
$3 million, $5 million, and the cottages are cheek by jowl.” “They’ll come up here, destroy the ambience, then prices go crazy and tax assessments go up.”
Georgian Bay lies about 45 minutes west of Muskoka. It is, as its boosters assured me, what the lakes of Muskoka were not: “a real body of water.” A giant gunnysack thrown over the shoulder of Lake Huron, Georgian Bay is 120 miles long and 50 miles wide. It’s sometimes referred to as the sixth Great Lake, and its waters are the clearest of the lake region. (“That’s six feet of water,” my dinner host told me on my first night on Georgian Bay, the beam of his flashlight cutting effortlessly through murk-free water, down to the bottom.) When the French explorer Samuel de Champlain saw it in 1615, he named it La Mer Douce — the Sweet Sea — and wrote about how it contained “a countless number of islands” and abounded “in fish of all varieties and of extraordinary size.”
But the pride its cottagers feel for Georgian Bay has nothing to do with its sweetness. The bay is framed on the north and east by the rock of the Canadian Shield, and to the south and west by the limestone cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment. It is angled just right, so that major storms can batter it mercilessly. As a result of the powerful winds sweeping in from the western plains, the pine trees on Georgian Bay bend permanently to the east. The day before I arrived, my hostess returned to her island from the mainland just in time to see two bear cubs — “the size of Labradors” — exit her house and follow their mother into the water. Mother Bear had apparently swiped off the kitchen window, eaten two nectarines and pushed her way out through a screen door on the far side. Compared with us, I was repeatedly told, Muskokans only play at roughing it.
Unlike Muskoka, with its main cottage up top and its boathouse on the lake, the typical arrangement in Georgian Bay is a main cottage containing one bedroom (for the person keeping an eye on the fire) surrounded by little outbuildings for sleeping called “bunkies.” (Because Scandinavians from Midwestern America came to Georgian Bay in its early days, one bunkie is sometimes a sauna.) The houses are simple structures, covered in stained cedar shingles and paint. They’re mostly spread out over the biggest of the “30,000 Islands,” the largest freshwater archipelago in the world, which lies off of the bay’s east coast. At the turn of the century, the islands were heavily logged — Parry Sound was one of the world’s busiest lumber ports by the 1880s, and the “log booms,” the massive rafts towing the cut wood, covered 25 acres square. Their baldness only heightens the general aura of ruggedness: sparse islands, vast, storm-tossed waters and rocky shallows, I was told in tones of regional pride, that would rip your hull off if not negotiated deftly.
Ruggedness has kept Georgian Bay the brawny alternative to Muskoka. By 1905, Muskoka was the playpen of plutocrats; in Georgian Bay, you could still go to an official, plunk down five dollars and point to an island. Just as I was accommodating my ear to the word “cottage” as a verb, I heard a funny phrase: “hard-core
Essentials Muskoka and Georgian Bay, Canada PLANNING: Fly to Toronto and rent a car; it will take about two hours to reach Muskoka, about 90 minutes for Georgian Bay. To rent a cottage or condo in either area, go to cottagesincanada.com.
MUSKOKA: There are several good hotels in the area. Clevelands House Resort on Lake Rosseau is the most self-consciously family-oriented — camp-style “counselors,” tons of activities for the kids (705-765-3171; clevelandshouse.com; from about $442 per person for two nights) . Delta Sherwood Inn on Lake Joseph is one of the great old lodges, with the best upscale dining room in Muskoka (705-765-3131; deltahotels.com; doubles from $219) . Windermere House Resort Hotel is a grand inn on Lake Rosseau, totally rebuilt following a 1996 fire, with a great pub overlooking the water (888-946-3376 ;
windermerehouse.com; doubles from $216) . Port Cunnington Lodge is a terrific family-run resort, one of the few, in an off-the-beaten-track setting on Lake of Bays (705-635-2505 ; pclodge.com; doubles from $182) . Don’t miss pit stops en route at Webers, the legendary Canadian burger joint near Orillia (Highway 11; 705-325-3696; burgers from $3.25) and Marty’s World Famous Café in Bracebridge, a small dairy/bakery with fantastic butter tarts and ice cream (5 Manitoba Street ). In Muskoka, try the Water’s Edge at the Lake Joseph Golf Club for good food and soaking up the scene (Port Carling; 705-765-2040;
entrees $22 to $42). GEORGIAN BAY: Deerhorn Lodge is a beautifully restored lodge on a four-acre island in the heart of Georgian Bay with the full range of summer activities (705-746-5793; deerhornlodge.com; doubles from $2,455 per week) . The private Ojibway Club rents cottages and opens its restaurant to nonmembers (ojibwayclub.com; cottages from $1,849 per week ). One of the best places to eat in the area is Henry’s Fish Restaurant on Frying Pan Island, serving battered and pan-fried local catch on picnic-style waterfront tables (705-746-9040; entrees $16 to $22). Don’t miss a cruise on the Island Queen, a 550-passenger boat that explores the “30,000 Islands” (705-746-2311; islandqueencruise.com).