Never heard of the Muskoka? Neither had I until I came across the little-known fact that North America’s oldest steamship – and one of only three active Royal Mail Ships – still plies the largest of the region’s 1,600-odd lakes. Built in Glasgow in 1887, the RMS Segwun steams from a historic wharf at Gravenhurst, two hours’ drive north of Toronto and the gateway to Muskoka for over 150 years.
I opted to start my visit with a trip in the Segwun’s wood-panelled saloon, but before boarding the historic vessel, I strolled the boardwalk – past restaurants, shops and lakeside gazebos – to the Muskoka Discovery Centre, where volunteer Mary Storey regaled me with the region’s history, so inextricably bound up with water and boats, from birch-bark canoes to skiffs and motorboats. The Centre’s covered docks hold examples of the gleaming varnished launches that took the first urban well-to-do to their cottages and boathouses around the lakes in the 1880s.
As we glided out into Lake Muskoka, I soon realised that “cottage country” was an understatement. Huge wooden lodges punctuated the shorelines of the three major lakes, Muskoka, Rousseau and Joseph, while the boathouses provided a flash of colour against the dark green mantle of forest that covers the mainland and the more-than 300 islettes.
Pristine air, the citrus scent of pine and the tranquillity that so often surrounds inland water have proved such a draw that islands now sell for millions of dollars, and the privacy they afford has prompted such celebrities as Tom Hanks, Goldie Hawn and Steven Spielberg to buy cottages here.
But despite the wealth needed to buy a Muskoka cottage, taxes and high maintenance costs mean that owners are increasingly opting to rent them out. Luxury rental agent Jayne McCaw now has 300 on her books, the likes of which she showed me as we skimmed across the water later that day. She pointed to one idyllic house on a two-acre island, complete with boathouse, separate sauna and “bunkie” accommodating 13, as well as sublime views over the lake. This bolthole could be mine for just C$15,000–25,000 (£8,800-£14,700) a week, depending on the time of year, and if I’d a little cash left over, chefs and musicians could be provided, too.
And there’s plenty more to entice wealthy renters to the area than water pursuits: the pretty hamlets and small towns around the shoreline have much to offer, too. Sitting under an umbrella on the dock of Jack & Stella’s café and artisan products shop at Bala, I gazed out at an unbroken fringe of trees along the lake’s edge. Next door was a large wooden hall – once Dunn’s Pavilion, now The KEE – “where all of Muskoka dances”, as its 1930s slogan claimed, and where Louis Armstrong, Glenn Miller and Count Basie once played to a sea of tails and ball gowns.
The towns of Bracebridge and Huntsville both have high streets lined with classic early 20th-century brick buildings now buzzing with independent shops, cafés and galleries, and Huntsville even has 37 huge murals depicting landscape paintings by Canada’s renowned Group of Seven artists, all of which took inspiration from Muskoka and the park named after the Algonquin nation to the north east.
This landscape is, of course, the other big draw – and to see it properly requires a return to the water. I opted for canoe, and was soon forging up the Oxtongue River, one of the routes which inspired the artists, alongside Colin Bruce of local business Algonquin Outfitters. Rippling between rising banks of beech, maple and hemlock, we disturbed some ubiquitous loons and an American redstart, which promptly showed us its orange and white breast, before a stronger current heralded the approach of the multi-levelled Ragged Falls. Together, we disembarked to walk the portage route around them, our voices all but drowned by the torrent of water – one which has been known to raise the river by six feet in just 48 hours.
This was a stark reminder that life has not always been easy in these parts. Long before the celebrity lakehouses and Adirondack chairs on restaurant terraces, pioneer traders lived austere lives in Muskoka villages, wrangling canoes up hills, candle-dipping and wool carding – a slice of which existence is beautifully rendered at Muskoka Heritage Place in Huntsville.
A visit to the pioneer village is also a chance to see the lodgings of the day – temperance boarding house Spence Inn – (mercifully) long since replaced by comfortable, historic hotels, amongst them Windermere House, overlooking Lake Rosseau, and The Sherwood Inn on Lake Joseph, dating from days when mahogany launches carried cottagers in black tie and gowns to dinner dances. Their successors – the Marriott at Minett, the Muskoka Bay Resort at Gravenhurst, and the Deerhurst at Huntsville – now provide the spas and golf courses demanded by today’s visitors, but whether you’re Hollywood A-list or humble holidaymaker, it is still the love of water amongst the trees that is the enduring draw of Muskoka.