Muskoka Lakes + Ontario Exploring
I see a lot of lakes and lake regions in my email, my DMs, my general scrolling. I buy magazines, books, and watch anything shoreline-related on the Travel Channel or HGTV. I actually spend a strange amount of time on Google Maps, randomly picking and exploring lakes and lake-heavy regions across the country. So it’s really no surprise that the Muskoka Lakes Region of Ontario has been on my radar for awhile. As I began to follow a few accounts centered in the region, I knew it was time to go. I found an Inn that spoke to me (well, whoever manages their Instagram speaks to me) in a more remote area near the region, and upon confirming availability, was sold. I convinced two of my favorite travel partners to join me, and plans were in motion.
Annette lived on the same floor of the dorms as me. Sarah was my roommate during study abroad. The three of us were abroad in London at the same time - so I’ve done international travel with them both before. They ended up roommates in DC for 6 years. Annnyway, back to Ontario. I would drive from Milwaukee. They would fly into Toronto. We’d meet somewhere near the Inn...
On Tuesday morning, I hit the road from Milwaukee. The plan was to get to Sault Ste. Marie by mid-evening and rise early to do the second-half of the drive along Lake Huron. From Milwaukee to Green Bay, I white-knuckled through rain, a recurring theme for me when taking on this stretch of highway, it seems. But I was rewarded with sunshine and clear skies from Green Bay onward, so I’m not complaining. Lake Michigan was perfect. The traffic was nonexistent. I arrived to the lock-side town while the sun was still hot and dined at Karl’s Cuisine Winery & Brewery rooftop overlooking the locks. Whitefish dip appetizer, a crisp sauv blanc, and maple-plank walleye with fresh veggie main. Veggies were locally grown (there is a garden out back) or sourced. Their site boasts, “We are a family owned and operated business who rely on many local farms and businesses to provide our customers with the best”. The fish was freshly caught. Vibes were great. Views were perfect. I watched two ships pass through the locks during that time and got a lesson in not only the process of going through the locks but the expansion coming soon and felt pretty excited for this sleepy little town. I took my sunburnt self to my motor lodge, begged the sun to go down, and was off to sleep.
Wednesday morning came early, and after a pitstop at the darling Superior Cafe for a maple syrup latte (when in Rome), I was bound for the Bridge to Canada. The bridge itself was gorgeous and the drive made my stomach feel flighty in all the right ways. Superior to the left, Huron to the right. Canada straight ahead. USA in my rearview. As I always feel when dealing with authority figures, the border agent had me nervous, but in a matter of seconds I was driving through Sault Ste. Marie, Canada-edition, and excited to hit the open road. The drive to the Muskoka region should have taken less than 5 hours, but I planned a bit more of a scenic route, which was well worth it. If you have time, you should definitely stop along the way and spend a day or more at Manitoulin Island, or any number of islands or bays in or along Lake Huron, but I didn’t build in enough time for that on this go-around.
Driving alone in relatively sparse corners of the world makes me feel small, an unusual feeling in comparison to my self centered daily existence. I love inviting my brain to do what it wants. To let my thoughts go in so many different directions, just the opposite of the usual attempt to calm my mind which jumps from topic to topic and takes on task after task. It's actually pretty entertaining to see where your mind lands when you don't have to be focused on anything in particular.
As I drove along a beautiful river that wound adjacent to the Huron shore, the sheer lack of humanity brought me back to a place of wonder at just how small we are in comparison to the vast expanses. City life has you feeling quite the opposite, but getting out into middles of nowhere humbles and refreshes. And while it looked a bit like Wisconsin, I still slipped into a general sense of the awe of it all and let my appreciation for the beauty be the only thing on my mind, without asking questions. Happy, thank you, more please.
Blissed out and HUNGRY, my first real stop was Parry Sound on Georgian Bay. I wanted to do more here. I wanted to hop on a boat and tour the Bay. But I had a mini work emergency, so I parked myself bayside and had some quality laptop time with a view. The marina is still largely quiet at this time, as I learned kids are still in school and peak season is July/August. So, yes, June is a great time to come if you want to avoid crowds in the region, but you must also beware that many shops, restaurants, activities are either closed or have lessened hours.
At this point, I realized that my travel buds had made their way to Toronto and caught their bus North which meant I needed to get moving. I wound my way around many lakes, landing in Rosseau to snag some groceries and check out the scene. I will admit that in the hustle of the last few months, I didn’t really plan much for this trip, so my thought was to first do a little touring as I drove to intercept the gals on the bus route. The small intersection of Rosseau was charming, but I found that a drive through with them would suffice versus investing time here.
We rendevouzed in Huntsville, the most “commercial” town in the area, and after snagging provisions, we started our final stretch to our Inn. The hour-long drive was scenic, ish, with roads lined with gorgeous lupine and scattered with some interesting hilly and lake scenes. While sunny everywhere else in creation I’d been that day, the skies opened up with rain just as we approached The Northridge Inn & Resort, and our check-in was hurried under the downpours.
Since the Inn was officially opening up the weekend we arrived and the ‘lodge” was closed in the evenings, we had been upgraded to chalet where we would have a full kitchen, two bathrooms, hot tub, deck, etc. We spent the evening tentatively exploring the property, getting acquainted with the chalet, sipping wine, and catching up.
Breakfast was provided each morning, and consisted of farm fresh eggs, toast, desserts, local butter, jam, yogurt parfaits, fresh fruit, coffee, etc. The Inn is decorated as retro beachhouse meets lodge, and it works SO WELL. The curation of each item was spot on, and we were entertained with every knicknack, framed work of art, figurine, and wild animal that seemed to dart in and out of the space. They’ve gone above and beyond to captivate you with the vibes and aesthetics here. The staff also contributes to the experience - friendly, quirky, fun.
While the sun was coming out after breakfast, we had heard that Friday was to be the warmer of the days, so we decided to make Thursday our exploration day so Friday could be spent lake or poolside at the resort. We made a rough outline of the Muskoka tour and hit the road. Just about an hour south is the town of Gravenhurst. This is home to a delightful wharf and some may deem it the “gateway” to Muskoka Lakes. From the wharf you can catch a steamship tour of the lakes, which we did NOT plan correctly to be a part of, but Steamships have been in Muskoka - delivering mail and getting folks to their homes and resorts across the lake since 1866. There is a beautiful boardwalk in this area which connects you to hotels, restaurants, ice cream shops, and shopping. We stopped in The Shipyards, a marketplace of micro-shops under one roof. Both lake-centric and non, the shops were fun and we made a few purchases.
Next up we headed to Port Carling, one of the supposedly busiest and wealthiest downtown areas. This is where, during peak season, you’d see high end shops doing pop-ups, events, etc. But seeing as we were literally one week “too soon” we missed these. And while it would have been great to see more shops open, etc., we were ok just taking in the sights, walking from shop to shop, and then quickly being on our way to our next stop. We should also note, it’s said that traffic is wild here during July and August, but we shared the road with relatively few folks this entire time, which allowed us to cover big distances quite quickly. No complaints here!
After Port Carling, we sought an on-water dining spot, and all that was open on that afternoon appeared to be in a Country Club type location. We went for it anyway, and the Water’s Edge Restaurant at St. Joseph Club on Lake Joseph was actually heaven. A sunny, classy multi-level deck that served elevated bar food and delicious craft cocktails? Sold. We were, again, one of the few diners to enjoy the location during that time, but we’ve heard it’s incredibly popular and packed any other July day, and we could only imagine how lively it must be. Obviously you can boat-in, so there are quite a few dock spots - all of which were empty while we dined. We had the pleasure of watching a seaplane land and take off mid-meal, we gazed (stared, full of jealousy) at the massive homes and DREAMY, elaborate wet boathouses. Crazy beautiful.
Our final stop on the tour was The Rosseau - JW Marriott Resort on Lake Rosseau. This was our rainy day backup spot, as their facilities boast beautiful views from the spa and various dining options, but since it was so lovely, we kept the visit short, stopping only to quickly walk the grounds and stand in awe of the grand lakescapes.
When we got back to our resort, the temps were perfect for a bundled sunset viewing session, so we packed a cooler and sat on the massive pier for hours. This pier is a permanent structure, large enough to seat entire wedding ceremonies - bridging the land to a little island with a few evergreens, additional docks, and a Canadian flag. Idyllic, really. We could envision the gorgeous weddings taking place here, and the resort is actually booked through 2019 with weddings every single summer weekend.
While we were wine and cheesing and dreaming, little did we know, the bugs we assumed were gnats and were attacking us aggressively on the pier were in fact the famed black flies we’d been warned of. A week later I’m still covered in welts from this night. Well worth it, but next time we’ll be armed with deet.
After a great sleep and another dreamy breakfast, we got our suits on, packed coolers, and headed down to the beach for the day. Just on the other side of the property from our chalet, the beach has a floating picnic table, kayaks, paddleboards, campsites, and other miscellaneous vignettes to choose from. While we had the beach to ourselves, we made our way to the far end, closest to the glamping tents, and enjoyed THE HECK out of the perfect day. 80, cloudless sky, limited bugs, caesars and molsen, and a smooth and firm lake bottom that made walking hundreds of feet out into the lake an easy task. After we found ourselves fully buzzed and slightly crispy, we headed back to the chalet to clean up.
Freshened up and back at the lobby, we had craft cocktails (complete with the stories of how they derived their names) made by reservations manager Lindsay, who was an absolute blast to get to know. She even ran outside to pick roses to garnish my rosewater cocktail. As we were finishing cocktail hour, we noticed one heck of a sunset brewing so we wandered down to the pier with our beverages for another look - I repeated this for the next hour as the sky lit up to one of the most magnificent I’ve ever seen.
Not to be outdone by the breakfast and cocktail spreads that the staff puts together, dinner followed suit and brought another memorable, distinctive experience. The space (no surprise here) was decorated perfectly, and despite being served the first official meal of the season, the experience and meal were truly lovely. Food is grown on-site or sourced locally, to the best of their ability, and it was DELISH. Wine was flowing, waitstaff was beyond friendly and willing to make time to get to know three wine-chatty American girls, and we left with full bellies and hearts. Back at the lodge, it was time to brave the bugs once more for our final task: s’mores. Our perfectly crisped maple marshmallows made for the best s’mores I’ve had in a long time. I had three. I never have three. My heart was happy.
Our final morning meant one more amazing breakfast in the lodge building before we zipped off to Toronto. We kept it light though, as we’d heard from so many folks that along Highway 11 is a must-stop spot: Weber’s. Burgers + poutine + shakes and a Roots mobile shop make a fun little outpost along the road. And those burgers cured any lingering pain from the copious amounts of wine the night before. Properly fueled up for the rest of the drive, we made it easily to Toronto. The drive into town was very unexpected - I felt so much like I was somewhere I’d been before. The Lake Ontario shoreline was wildly similar to the way Milwaukee lives along the Lake Michigan shore, and as if I wasn’t already feeling welcome, as we checked into our Airbnb, I bumped into a business coach that I’d never met in real life on the street corner. And that Airbnb ended up having a deck with views of the CN tower that made the perfect spot for catching our breath and watching the rain wrap up so we could be on our way for an evening of exploration.
Our first stop was Kensington Market, which felt somewhat ironic, as we had all lived in London together - “Same travel partners, different Kensington” as Annette put it. The market area itself was so vibrant, with seemingly countless amazing smells all merging to create something unique. It was so alive (it was also Pride weekend, so the clothing choices were even more unique and the energy pretty electric). We parked ourselves on a sunny patio for some cocktails and people watching, and I had another “I’m moving here” moment. Because it was a Saturday night, over Pride weekend no less, we could really only get a dinner reservation early, so we headed to Citizen for an incredible meal on their patio. After dinner, we headed to Mascot Brewery, not realizing that we were walking into a private Pride party. The first one up the steps after the event was technically now open to the public, I was welcomed with hugs and dancing to Donna Summer’s “Last Chance.” Sadly that was the last song of the event, and within an hour the rooftop space was back to a normal brewery. We sat here enjoying views of the skyline, people watching, chatting with my business coach and drinking rose for many hours. We walked to a speakeasy where we ended our time in Toronto (after finally finding a way inside) with fancy craft cocktails and a few more glances of the gorgeous CN Tower. We fell into bed exhausted and bummed at our early morning wake-up call. The gals were catching an early flight, and I was dropping them at the airport before trekking home.
The Sunday drive was rainy, long, and tiring, but I made it back to Milwaukee mid-afternoon, welcomed with sunny skies and low humidity. I walked to Lake Michigan to collect my “welcome home” from her, and I ended the weekend with a full heart and SO many bug bites.
Ontario’s lake game is strong, and I can’t wait for more time on Canadian waters.