Food lover’s guide to Muskoka
It’s dusk on the shores of Lake Rosseau and Chef Mark Marchment has just returned from a cook-out on the lawn at Windermere House, a classic Muskoka resort, 2.5 hours north of Toronto. He’s grilling fresh-caught lake trout over an open fire for the evening’s dinner and wants to add locally-grown shiitake mushrooms and s’mores to the menu. While chef’s whites might seem an usual sight against the iconic green backdrop of pine forest, the latest location of the Oliver & Bonacini restaurant brand, is as much about preserving cottage country traditions as it is about blazing culinary trails.
“We want to respect the past but add some modern flair,” says Marchment, of the new operation which includes four dining options, including Muskoka’s oldest pub, founded in 1870. I’m here to see if I can recreate the quintessential northern Canadian summer of my childhood — gnarled trees, Canadian Shield and endless days — minus the lumpy mattresses, musty Mad magazines and voracious horseflies. Sitting on the resort’s Victorian-style veranda and sipping a Summer Collins, a defty-mixed cocktail of gin, lemon juice and pink peppercorns topped with soda, I have to admit that Windermere House is a perfect beginning.
But you’ve got to get on the water to truly experience Canada’s north. While a classic Muskoka choice is to take the Segwun steamship tour and gawk at digs owned by celebs like Goldie Hawn and Tom Hanks, I’m looking to do some fishing. We head across the water to the J.W. Marriott The Rosseau Resort and Spa, a lakefront resort modeled on the Royal Muskoka Hotel, a 1901 landmark known for its high society clientele. You’re likely to see Lamborghinis in the driveway and plenty of million-dollar views, but the resort is committed to providing authentic Muskoka experiences along with the glitz. Today, the buzz is more about fish than celebrities.
“Sports-fishing is one of the best-kept secrets of the Muskokas,” says Dan Arcand, General Manager. He hails from Lake Nipissing so that gives him plenty of angler street-cred. I throw my first cast in Boathouse Bay and while I don’t catch one of the 4 foot long pikes Arcand reports, bobbing on the waves is fine with me. Sports fishing has meant sitting in a leaky 14-foot aluminum boat. Here it has been elevated to an art. I lounge on a white leather setee while a powerful engine gets me back to the resort in time for my spa treatment. Spa Roseau draws its inspiration from Muskoka’s rock, wind and water and I lose myself in a botanical infused facial that’s as relaxing as a calm day on the water.
Next stop is Touchstone on Lake Muskoka. Built on the former site of Aston Beach Resort and Tamwood Lodge, Touchstone does the Grand Resort revival well. Soaring buildings hug the rocky granite landscape and haute décor includes skylights and sleek furnishings. Instead of doing a cannonball off the dock, I float on my back in the infinity pool (Muskoka’s first) and look up at the night sky through the top of a 100-year-old long needled pine.
I realize Muskoka captures the essence of northern cottage country perfectly. One thing is certain. I don’t miss the muddy lake bottom or seaweed grabbing at my toes one bit.
A version of this story originally appeared in enRoute onAir, an Air Canada publication.
If you’re headed to Ontario’s cottage country and want to avoid the traffic, Cameron Air Services offers float plane service on their fleet of Cessna planes to Muskoka, Georgian Bay and Temagami. It’s not cheap but the scenic views are unforgettable.
By Car: A great base to begin exploring is Port Carling, located in the heart of the Muskokas along Highway 118 northwest of Gravenhurst. Known as the “Hamptons of the North”, Port Carling offers small town atmosphere with the cachet of the moneyed crowd. It’s not by accident that both the Lake Rosseau Circle Tour and the Lake Muskoka Circle Tour include Port Carling on their carefully chosen scenic drives. Pick up a Muskoka Driving Tour map at the Visitors Centre (1 800-267-9700; www.discovermuskoka.ca), Highway 11 north of Severn Bridge.
Resources: Ontario Tourism Official Tourism Site