Muskoka has been the summer playground of the rich and famous for well over a century - with good reason.
Muskoka is a legendary land of magnificent lakes that lies about 100 miles north of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Glaciers scoured the billion-year-old Pre-Cambrian Shield, leaving behind 1600 lakes characterized by rugged outcroppings of sparkling pink and grey granite.
Once the land of the Ojibwa Indians, it was opened up for settlement in the 1860s when the government offered free land grants. Ambitious, often impoverished immigrants from Britain and Europe attempted to farm land that turned out to have little tillable soil atop the backbone of rock. Lumbering denuded the primeval forests and further eroded the soil. It soon became evident that the attraction of Muskoka was not as farmland, but the sheer beauty of its pristine, island-dotted lakes. The first tourists arrived even before proper roads or railways were built.
Hardscrabble farmers accommodated the burgeoning influx of tourists and wisely expanded their homes into inns. Visitors who were enchanted by the scenery built summer homes - called “cottages” - and often spent entire summers there, many on their own private islands. Constructed to house a family’s fleet of skiffs, runabouts, and launches, the picturesque boathouses are an integral part of the architectural uniqueness of these lakes.
By 1900, the area was a renowned vacation paradise that enticed people from North America and abroad, including royalty and celebrities. Legends like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong entertained at major hotels. L.M. Montgomery, beloved author of Anne of Green Gables and numerous other books, spent a couple of weeks in the village of Bala in 1922. So impressed and inspired was she that she set one of her very few adult novels, The Blue Castle, in Muskoka. There is now a museum dedicated to her in Bala.
Notable cottagers have included U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, Steven Spielberg, and Tom Hanks. Timothy Eaton, founder of a mercantile empire, owned Ravenscrag at Windermere, while his son, Sir John Craig Eaton, built a mansion at the north end of Lake Rosseau.
The area around Beaumaris on Lake Muskoka was popular with industrialists and bankers primarily from Pennsylvania, especially Pittsburgh, and soon became known as “Millionaires’ Row” - in the days when a million dollars was a fortune. Many of the cottages here and elsewhere are still owned by descendents, each generation growing up on the lakes and forming a visceral bond with the rugged landscape.
The three large, interconnected lakes - Muskoka, Rosseau, and Joseph - once boasted over 100 resorts and hotels. Most succumbed to fire, as did Windermere House in 1997 when it was being used as a Hollywood film set. Fortunately, it was rebuilt with commendable authenticity. Clevelands House, pictured in the photo at the top of the page, is one of the very few survivors from the 19th century.
Today there are but a handful of resorts, as private homes have taken precedence. The newest, The J.W. Marriott’s Rosseau, emulates the grandest resort of its day, The Royal Muskoka Hotel - touted as the finest in Canada when it was built in 1901.
A fleet of majestic steamships serviced these large lakes until the 1950s, when better roads allowed cars to easily reach these remote areas, reducing the journey from a day to only a few hours.
Previously, people would travel north from Toronto by train to a wharf in Gravenhurst, and then board one of the waiting steamers, along with their trunks, pianos, even cows. Wealthy Americans sometimes arrived in their own private Pullman coaches, with thirty servants in tow. The steamers would drop passengers off at resorts or cottages. You can once again cruise aboard the R.M.S. Segwun - the oldest operating steamship in North America, and one of Ontario’s biggest tourist attractions. Find out more.
It’s little wonder that National Geographic Travel editors selected Muskoka as the #1 summer destination of 2011.
See this beautiful time-lapse film of Muskoka.
For more information about the history of Muskoka, see this comprehensive documentary.
Visit the Muskoka Tourism site, and find out why they claim "Muskoka: once discovered, never forgotten".
Some of the action takes place in wartime Britain. One of the characters, Lady Beatrice Kirkland, lives on the Thames, just outside of Marlow, Buckinghamshire, from whence the author's father-in-law hails.
Lady Beatrice also owns a London townhouse, similar to these, where family and friends spend time.