The stunningly beautiful lake district of Muskoka in Canada floors Sohaila Kapur

Canada is not a country of just tall glass and chrome buildings, swanky highways and a dynamic night life. It also has a beautiful countryside, replete with farms and water bodies. A visit to the stunningly beautiful lake district of Muskoka, with its rustic charm and abundant supply of fresh water, proved therapeutic. It was the perfect time for a long drive, being neither hot nor cold. We drove through the jewel-green-and-brown countryside, with its corn plantations and dairy farms dotted with plump, grazing cows and goats.

Muskoka is two hours north of Toronto, with nearly 1,600 lakes, picturesque villages and towns, farming communities, lakeside vacation hotels and resorts, besides golf courses, country clubs and marinas.

This region is referred to as ‘cottage country’ and sees over 2.1 million visitors annually. It has over 50,000 permanent residents and roughly 1,00,000 seasonal property owners who spend their summers here every year. Most of these properties can be found along the shores of Muskoka’s three major lakes: Muskoka, Rosseau and Joseph.

In recent years, various Hollywood and sports stars have built retreats in Muskoka, including Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Cindy Crawford, Goldie Hawn (who is, apparently, often seen shopping at Gravenhurst!) and Kurt Russell.

Many summer camps are located in the region, to take advantage of the lakes that offer opportunities for canoeing, sailing, windsurfing, kayaking, water skiing, etc.

The municipality derives its name from a First Nations (original settlers in Canada) chief of the 1850s. Lake Muskoka was then the hunting grounds of a band led by chief Yellowhead or Mesqua Ukie. He was re-located by the government, who built a home for himself in nearby Orillia, where he lived until his death at 95.

The pioneering settlers here were Lt. Henry Briscoe, the first European to cross the middle of Muskoka in 1826, and explorer David Thomson, who drew the first maps of the area after possibly camping there in 1837. Subsequently, immigrants arrived there in great numbers. The Irish, escaping the famine of the 1840s and the Germans, fleeing the social unrest in the aftermath of their revolution. The Canadian government encouraged them by issuing logging licences in 1866. The area, which was thickly wooded and had rocky outcroppings, required an incentive to settle there.

Game changers

The move proved productive. The early settlers helped develop the lumber industry, clearing huge tracts of the area. They built log roads so that more people could travel over the swamp and mud to reach the early settlements. The bumpy and uncomfortable journey ended with the introduction of the railroad and the arrival of the steamships that navigated the Muskoka lakes.

The steamships brought in tourists who loved the fresh air, natural beauty and fishing. Many farmers switched trades by opening inns and hotels that brought them prosperity. Regular tourists began building cottages close to the hotels. Motorboats and cars, which replaced horse drawn carriages, rowing and steam boats, helped develop the area into the cottage country that it is today. Soon, owning a summer cottage became possible not only for the adventurous or the wealthy, but for many in the middle class. The steamship companies retired their boats one by one until the last sailing in the late 1950s.

Most of the townships in this area, whether it is Sunderland, Beaverton, Brechin, Gravenhurst, Bracebridge or Little Britain have British names, as Canada was then a British colony. The economy of this region is predominantly driven by agriculture and is supportive of the local industry, which includes tourism. Youth-oriented activities, including kayaking, canoeing, hiking and camping are plentiful. Modern amenities and banks are available in the entire region. Brechin, in fact, has the famous Casino Rama on its premises. Another attractive feature is a unique statue store, known as Brechin Artifacts that has a fairy tale-like appearance, with angels standing guard. Bracebridge, in the heart of Muskoka, is the seat of the district municipality. The town was built around a waterfall on the Muskoka River and is the only place in Canada where five waterfalls meet at a lake.

The Trent-Severn Waterway is a great way to see Central Ontario by boat. It is a canal route traversing cottage country and the breathtaking forest parks of Canada. It has 386 km of historic locks (some of them lift locks, which literally ‘lift’ boats from a lower canal to a higher one and vice-versa) and is said to be one of the finest interconnected systems of navigation in the world. It is open to navigation from May until October, while its shore lands and bridges are open year-round. There are many places to dock your boat for a few days, pitch a tent, go biking, fishing, swimming and sight seeing.

For sports lovers, there is the Roger Centre, a huge stadium with the moveable roof, which is home to the Toronto Blue Jays Basketball team, the Air Canada Centre, Toronto Maple Leafs of the National (Ice) Hockey League or the NHL, the Toronto Raptors of the National Basketball Association or NBA and the Toronto Rock of the National Lacrosse League or the NLL and the Hockey Hall of Fame, the world’s only Hockey museum.

QUICK GUIDE

Must Do

Visit townships Gravenhurst, Bavebridge, the Trent-Severn Waterway

Visit High Falls, Wilson and Bracebridge Falls

Go kayaking, canoeing, hiking, camping, biking, fishing and swimming

Take a sightseeing cruise on the RMS Segwun, the last surviving original steamship, docked at Muskoka Wharf, Gravenhurst

Visit Casino Rama at Brechin

Must Eat

Local produce from dairy farms and fresh corn dishes

Grilled or baked fish fresh from the lakes and rivers

Taste Ontario wine

Must Buy

Maple syrup and jams

Statues from Brechin Artifacts