Toronto Getaway: Muskoka

The Segwun, photo courtesy of Visit Muskoka

The Segwun, photo courtesy of Muskoka Tourism

In Ontario’s Muskoka Lakes, people use “cottage” as a verb, meaning not just where they stay but also what they do. Or don’t do, for “cottaging” here—among deep blue lakes, piney forests, and comely towns two hours north of Toronto—can be as lazy as you like.

This is the true land-o-lakes. Ice Age glaciers gouged out hundreds of wrinkly specimens, their countless coves, inlets, and islets surely driving mapmakers mad. The three largest —Muskoka, Rosseau, and Joseph —anchor a vacationland dating to Victorian days, when trains from Toronto took summer sojourners to Muskoka’s southern tip at Gravenhurst, where they boarded steamships to waterside hotels and cottages.

I arrived last fall at Muskoka, an old lumber town and now the area gateway, and began with a tour of the Muskoka Boat & Heritage Centre. The museum showcases the steamships that carried people, mail, and materials; elsewhere, antique speedboats, launches, skiffs, and canoes bob in its boathouse.

Does anything in traveldom beat leaning on a ship’s railing on a bright day, tooling over glassy waters? That was me on the 1887 Segwun, North America’s oldest running steamboat and last of the local fleet, cruising Lake Muskoka.

American William Pratt built the first hotel, Rosseau House, in 1870. More hotels rose — like Windermere, Pinelands, and Clevelands House — while well-heeled families built grand houses with scenic names like Rainwater and Westwind. Less-wealthy visitors later swelled lodging to a range of homes, hotels, motels, and resorts.

Norman Bethune House, by Arnold Berke

Norman Bethune House, by Arnold Berke

Sightseers collect in Port Carling, on the river linking Muskoka and Rosseau. From there I sailed upper Lake Muskoka on the Idyllwood, a restored 1920s private yacht, close by the bigger cottages and boathouses. In the 1880s, near Beaumaris, wealthy Pittsburghers like the Mellons started the American colony, later called Millionaires’ Row.

Nature lovers can hike, bike, boat, swim, and fish away the days amid impressive landscapes. Post-exertion, I cocooned at Turtle Jack’s grill in Port Carling, enjoying hearty fare and beers like “Legendary Muskoka Oddity,” made by Muskoka Brewery with oddments like heather tips and orange peels. Then I checked out shops like Muskoka Classics Cottage Emporium — selling all you need to cottage — and at Red Canoe Gallery bought an etching by Ontario artist Greg Shafley of, aptly, two canoes at rest.

Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh and Winery, near Bala, was showing off its crop of the tart fruit, so I happily sampled. Tours and demos taught me a lot. “Cranberries do not grow in water,” Wendy Hogarth told me. “They’re flooded only to harvest,” she explained. Her shop was packed with berry-based goodies, including cranberry wine — amusing, but better when spiked with blueberries.

Windermere House, photo courtesy of the hotel

Windermere House, photo courtesy of the hotel

Vintage cottages, boathouses, and boats give Muskoka a distinctly historical air. But there are other manifestations of its heritage — Gravenhurst, for instance, a comfy-old-shoe of a town with an attractive center, leafy neighborhoods, and landmarks like an opera house located in the old 1901 town hall. The nearby birthplace of Norman Bethune is an exquisitely restored 1880 house and a museum of the humanitarian surgeon, revered in China for his wartime service.

My hotels evoked old Muskoka. The JW Marriott Rosseau Muskoka, Canada’s first of that brand, is spacious yet cozily rustic, offering year-round activities galore — even kayaking and dogsledding — plus plenty of room for creative loafing. Despite the comforts, I never felt far from north-woodsiness, especially when waking to a silvery blue sky floating over a pageant of fall colors.

Windermere House, also on Lake Rosseau, debuted in the 1870s and grew into a classic summer place of white clapboards, striped awnings, picturesque roofline, and long porches. After a 1996 fire claimed the hotel, the owners built a replica on its footprint, discretely splicing in modern needs. Long-time patrons sense little change.

Muskoka chairs, by Arnold Berke

Muskoka chairs, by Arnold Berke

On the front porch, I eased into a Muskoka chair, the Adirondack’s Canadian cousin. Usually painted brightly, the chair is a beloved regional symbol. Nesting in that endearingly clunky but utterly restful contrivance, facing the placid lake, all felt well with the world.