Only a two-and-a-half hour drive from Toronto straight up the 400 there’s a Rorschach of lakes around which the towns and hamlets of Ontario’s cottage country cluster. Widely accepted as Canada’s singular summertime experience, Muskoka — the idyllic setting in which that iconic outdoor lounger was imagined — is like a beating heart drawing would-be cottagers north on congested highways each weekend between May Day and Thanksgiving. During the other six months of the year, though, it’s just you, the wildlife, and the locals.
Muskoka Lakes is a township roughly encompassing the communities in and around Lakes Muskoka, Joseph, and Rosseau. Located at the southern tip of the Canadian Shield (photo opportunists with a sense of humor should seek out the plaque in a Bala parking lot), the region is craggy and alpine, and though a winter visit surely qualifies as off-season, this is the best time to tap into the slow rhythm of life locals refer to a ‘Muskoka Time.’
You don’t need much to enjoy Muskoka in the winter. After the first several snowfalls, the drifts accumulate in thick slabs on everything stationary, and icicles hang from the corners of cliffs and eaves. This weather is liberating; it demands you spend time in a book, at the stove, or at the card table.
Any cottage accessory you can imagine — long underwear, antique-style lanterns, faux coonskin caps, board games, and more — is available at the Muskoka Store in Gravenhurst. The store is 35,000 square feet of needful items, so stop in and have a visit with owner Christina Shane over a cup of hot apple cider.
Places to stay
There is no shortage of accommodation in Muskoka Lakes, and your choice will largely depend on preference. Run out of the oldest house in Bala, the Bala Bed and Breakfast is central, affordable, and homey. If you are there over a Friday, hosts Dominik and Wendy may join you (and the rest of the town) for a pint from the Muskoka Lakes Brewing Company at Bala Falls Pub and Pizza. If not, they will surely host you in their living room, or in clement weather, on the drinking dock (not to be confused with the swimming dock). Chase away any hangover over breakfast at the firefighter-themed Hook and Ladder, just a stone’s throw down the road, where you can peruse international badges and other memorabilia.
Private cottages are available to rent and easily found online (start with the local Chamber of Commerce), but if you want the experience without the work, consider the JW Marriott The Rosseau Muskoka. Each room and suite is decorated in classic cottage style, and includes a stone fireplace and kitchen to complete the backcountry feel. On-site facilities, however, are anything but rustic: the Rosseau offers fine dining at Teca, a cozy library, an indoor-outdoor pool, and a full spa with views overlooking the countryside.
Things to do
Forget the Olympics — in Muskoka Lakes, you can watch (and participate in) winter sports, live. Over the weekend of February 7-9, Port Carling is hosting its 47th annual Winterfest, with competitions in arm-wrestling, log sawing, snowshoe relay race, and more. If you’re a traditionalist, the 2014 Ontario Winter Games will feature competitions in 23 sports, to be held in Muskoka from February 27–March 2.
Those who prefer recreation over competition can find snow-shoeing, cross-country skiing, dog-sledding, ice-fishing, and snowmobiling. If you’re interested in this last, you can’t get a much better or more enthusiastic instructor and guide than Dan from Muskoka Sports and Recreation, which operates independently and in partnership with the Rosseau. If he recommends a night tour, take him up on it.
Local painter Christine Marshall began her career decades ago, and has since found a dedicated audience for her ‘romantic realist’-style work. Producing very limited runs of landscape and wildlife paintings in her Bala studio, Marshall also welcomes individuals and groups for tours and discussion.
Established in 1952 and still growing heirloom cranberries, Johnstone’s Cranberry Marsh is open year-round, and the relatively recent addition of the on-site Muskoka Lakes Winery is added incentive to show up. Check out the “Bog to Bottle” tour which culminates in a wine tasting, and make sure you spring for the cheese plate — the nibbles are all locally-made.
Although the lakes are under snow and the riverboats docked for the season, the Muskoka Boat and Heritage Centre remains open year-round, welcoming armchair sailors and enthusiasts alike. Even incidental visitors will be seduced by the vintage equipment, uniforms, and varnished vessels, topped with neatly-lettered placards that belie an abiding love for the boats: “Please, don’t caress,” they chide.
LGBT Muskoka Lakes
Too small to sustain dedicated LGBT spaces, the communities of the Muskoka Lakes nonetheless make their hospitality clear. Gay-straight alliances exist in local schools, many businesses recognize LGBT travellers (for example, the JW Marriott The Rosseau Muskoka is actively welcoming same-sex couples for their Matrimony in Muskoka event in March 2014), and across the region, LGBT events are organized by Muskoka Pride.
Since 2009, Muskoka Pride has held an annual summer Pride Parade but their activities do not stop in the off-season. Check their site for events, including games nights, social, and the upcoming Out & About Muskoka skating day in Arrowhead Park.
The Muskoka Lakes Chamber of Commerce is actively involved in inclusivity training for its members, and will have a booth at World Pride 2014 in Toronto.