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The Ultimate Travel Guide to Muskoka in Ontario, Canada — Best Things To Do, See & Enjoy!

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Michael Y. Park
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Michael Y. Park

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Michael Y. Park is a journalist living in New York City. He’s traveled through Afghanistan disguised as a Hazara Shi’ite, slept with polar bears on the Canadian tundra, picnicked with the king and que...
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Outside of Canada, Muskoka has remained one of those unicorns of international travel — a (relatively) untouched, natural recreational wonderland only a couple hours’ drive from a major airport. Plus, everyone there is still pleasant, even with tourists.

It’s become the understated haunt of A-list celebrities — Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks have homes here, among others. We just missed the arrival of the Beckhams and Mark Wahlberg this summer. On a Muskoka trip a few years ago, we cheered on Cindy Crawford’s kids in the local log-rolling contest and helped Harry Hamlin get his boat onto the back of his truck.

But unlike the Hamptons or the South of France, Muskoka hasn’t been soured by social media one-upmanship, conspicuous consumption, VIP velvet ropes, and infinitely long lines to get into the “in spots.”

The big draw of the Muskoka region? Its crystalline lakes are surrounded on most sides by gentle slopes of dense pines. Many lakes are in the area, but the big 3 are Lake Muskoka, Lake Rosseau, and Lake Joseph. Lake Muskoka is the largest, but Lake Joseph is known for its exclusivity and expensive homes. Even Spielberg couldn’t get a place on Lake Joseph — he’s reportedly slumming it on Lake Muskoka. Generally speaking, all the lakes in Muskoka are clean, clear, and beautiful, and you’ll have a fine time on any of them.

For the purposes of this article, I’m focusing mostly on the major lakes. The Georgian Bay, the jaw-droppingly gorgeous northeastern part of Lake Huron that’s often lumped together with Muskoka, is the 120-mile-long inlet west of the lakes and worth a separate guide. The epicenter of Georgian Bay tourism, Parry Sound, is about an hour northwest by car from Gravenhurst or Bracebridge.

Want to learn how to vacation like the Beckhams?

Getting To and Around Muskoka

On my family’s most recent summer trip to Muskoka, we flew into Toronto Pearson via Air Canada from LaGuardia Airport (LGA) in New York City. To get from Toronto to the Muskoka region, we then rented a car at the airport using American AAdvantage miles. It took us a little over 3 hours and 30 minutes to get to Muskoka, mostly thanks to a stop for burgers and milkshakes at Weber’s, long an institution for Muskoka-bound summer travelers coming up from Toronto. (It’s become extremely popular, so be prepared for long lines, though the teens who run the place in the summers are admirably efficient about taking orders and slinging meals.)

Let’s review the best options for arriving at Muskoka by air, car, bus, and water.

Toronto Pearson International Airport

The Muskoka District is about 2 hours from Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ) by car, depending on traffic in the city and how quickly you like taking a lot of winding roads around the lakes.

You will probably need access to a car (or a boat) to get around in Muskoka. Toronto Pearson has a familiar slate of car rental agencies (Avis/Budget, Dollar/Thrifty, Enterprise, Hertz, and National/Alamo) in both Terminal 1 and Terminal 3.

Hot Tip:

Want to maximize your points-and-miles travel to Canada? Read our detailed guide!

Muskoka Airport

If you have access to a private jet, you could also fly directly to Muskoka Airport (YQA) in Gravenhurst. Porter Airlines used to run passenger flights to and from Billy Bishop Toronto Airport (YTZ) during the summer but discontinued this service in January 2023. So, for now, the airport’s only regular airline service appears to be a cargo carrier. If you are flying in on a private plane from abroad, be sure to check Muskoka Airport’s customs hours and requirements, as it changes seasonally.

Bus

You could also take a bus from Toronto: Ontario Northland Bus takes passengers from Union Station Bus Terminal to Gravenhurst and sometimes even smaller towns like MacTier on certain days of the week from early June to the end of August. You can get to Union Station straight from Toronto Pearson on the UP Express train for CA$12.35.

Boating and Water Taxis

If you’re staying at a lakefront home in Muskoka, you’ll likely travel by boat at least some of the time — some places are only accessible from the water. Most houses with lake frontage will have docks or boathouses, so check with the owner about boat availability, usage, and safety. You’ll probably want a boat with a motor with decent horsepower, as these aren’t tiny lakes.

You can also look into boat rentals in the bigger towns, such as Muskoka Boat Rentals in Gravenhurst. Or you try calling water taxis to get around, such as Muskoka Lakes Water Shuttle Services, depending on the season, what lake you’re on, and availability. Be aware of local regulations, licensing requirements, and safety protocols regarding boating. Ignoring these could land you in jail — or hospital.

Muskoka Activities

Muskoka’s a low-key, self-paced kind of place. You’re missing the point if you arrive at your cottage raring to spend the night and greet the dawn in the region’s hottest nightclubs. You’ll likely spend more time swimming in the lakes and trying out different places for ice cream than trying to soak in the glamour of celebrity haunts. The celebrities are probably doing the same mellow lake-y things you are, anyway.

Boating and Watersports

Muskoka bala canoe bridge
This canoe is taken.

The first thing you’ll want to do is find out your nearest water access. Many cottages will have a dock or boathouse — see what kind of watercraft you use, whether a motorboat, water skis, kayak, or pool noodles.

If you’d like to rent water vehicles or toys, you can rent them from vendors like Muskoka Boat Rentals in Gravenhurst, Muskoka Powersports and Recreation Ltd. in MacTier, Northern Lakes Marine in Gravenhurst, or SWS Boatworks in Port Carling. Most will deliver to your cottage.

Muskoka Steamships & Discovery Centre

Muskoka gravenhurst steamboat
May come with pirates.

History lovers, boat fans, and kids are the target audience for the Muskoka Steamships & Discovery Centre in Gravenhurst, which encompasses both a historical museum and 1- to 4-hour steamship tours on the major lakes, including on the RMS Segwun, the oldest operating steamship on the continent.

The tours include variations like a high tea cruise and a kids’ pirates cruise. We took the pirate cruise ($60 for adults, $35 for children): Local boaters in pirate costumes “chased” the steamship, homeowners exchanged cannonades with us, and the kids went on an onboard treasure hunt and had to use foam swords to repel a buccaneer boarder, who escaped by jumping off the boat into the depths of the lakes.

Beaches

Muskoka is not renowned for its sand beaches. Still, Muskoka Beach Park is a relatively large, sandy beach just outside Gravenhurst, and Muskoka Falls Beach is one of the most picturesque Canadian beaches with views of two of the waterfalls Bracebridge is known for.

Nightlife

If you still need night action, check out The Kee to Bala, a live-music venue that’s been a local institution since the 1960s. It was a dance hall before that and started life as an ice cream parlor in 1929.

But no matter how action-packed you expect your Muskoka vacation to be, it’s a good idea to pack a thick book to read on your cottage’s dock.

Muskoka Lake Joseph boathouse
You’ll spend 80% of your time doing this.
Bottom Line:

You’ll spend most of your time in, on, or by the lake, not in crowd-filled hotspots.

Where To Stay in Muskoka

JW Marriott The Rosseau Muskoka Resort & Spa

JW Marriott The Rosseau
Overlooking Lake Rousseau is Canada’s first JW Marriott Resort & Spa. Image Credit: Marriott

In 2008, Marriott took over the faltering historic Red Leaves Muskoka, on a granite bluff overlooking Lake Rosseau, riling up locals and longtime cottagers but introducing a larger-scale, relatively luxury lodging option than Muskoka had known before.

The 221-room JW Marriott The Rosseau Muskoka Resort & Spa can be booked from around 41,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night. It’s about 20 minutes by car northwest of Port Carling and is the first JW Marriott Resort & Spa in Canada.

Windermere House

Windermere House Muskoka Ontario
The historic Windermere House is under new ownership. Image Credit: Windermere House

A Victorian Muskoka institution, Windermere House has 56 rooms and is also on Lake Rosseau overlooking Paton Bay, about 15 minutes northeast of Port Carling. In April 2023, it was bought by an Ontario-based company, so expect to see changes in the property, which visitors felt was dated despite its historic charm.

Cottage Rentals

If you’re dead set on lake frontage but don’t know someone with a home on a lake, your best bet may be to rent a waterfront cottage on Airbnb or VRBO.

Hot Tip:

Make friends with someone who owns a lakeside cottage in Muskoka.

Where To Eat in Muskoka

Cooking at Home

If you’ve got a cottage, you’ll probably cook for your family more than go out to eat. There’s no shortage of grocery shops, and Muskoka has a convenient combination of big supermarkets like Sobey’s Gravenhurst and quaint mom-and-pops like Rosseau General Store.

One of our group went out into the woods and filled up a whole basket with tasty mushrooms every day (chicken of the woods, morels, chanterelles, lobsters, oysters, and more), but if you do this, be sure you can tell the difference between edible and poisonous mushrooms since both are common in Muskoka — including the deadly amanita. Also, be aware that you could encounter a local endangered rattlesnake species, though it rarely threatens humans and usually won’t attack you if left alone.

If you plan on catching your own fish to fry up, make sure you have your license and proper equipment. You can buy fishing supplies from a bigger store like Indian River Trading Co. in Port Carling and Liv Outside in Bracebridge or any number of smaller outfitters in the area, like Purk’s Place in Bala or Ullzwater Bait in Utterson.

Water’s Edge Wine Bar and Grill

Muskoka Port Carling Waters Edge restaurant
Water’s Edge, as the name suggests, is easiest to get to by boat.

But there’s nothing wrong with casting off the apron and letting someone else do the cooking. Water’s Edge Wine Bar and Grill is part of The Lake Joseph Club, a 421-acre golf course in Port Carling. The restaurant is most easily accessible by boat and offers the usual country club fare — burgers, pasta, chicken tenders, frozen cocktails, and beers. Expect to pay country club prices, too — we paid CA$360 ($270) for burgers, fries, and a couple of drinks for 7 at lunch (about $39 per person).

Jack & Stella

Muskoka Bala Dockside Restaurant
Shop, eat, repeat.

In Bala, Jack & Stella Dockside Restaurant (see a theme here?) is the backyard of a combination cafe and furnishings shop. It sells sandwiches, pizzas, espresso drinks, smoothies, and baked goods on the same dock you can tie up on.

Chef Henrie Bistro & Cafe

Chef Henrie MacTier Muskoka Wienerschnitzel
Noch einmal, bitte!

In MacTier, Chef Henrie Bistro & Cafe is a newish Austrian-themed restaurant with fresh ingredients, generous portions, spätzle, and lots of variations on schnitzel you can pair with Austrian and German pilsners and lagers (or Canadian, French, or Italian wines).

It’s not on the water! Instead, it’s right off High Street in what looks like it could’ve been a gas station, a modest facade for the white tablecloths, and wine service inside. It’s pronounced “Henry” like in English, not “Henri” like in French, just so you know.

Sweet Treats

And as long as you’re in Canada, you might as well try the butter tart, arguably the unofficial national pastry. The bigger debate may be whether it’s better with or without raisins. In Bala, you can get Don’s Bakery‘s version, which is still made from the same recipe it used in 1947.

Muskoka downtown bala
Don’s Bakery in Bala has butter tarts.

Ice cream is everywhere in Muskoka, and part of the fun is trying out as many as possible until you decide on a favorite. A popular destination is Ice Dreams Soda Shop in Bala, which looks like Willy Wonka and Norman Rockwell collaborated on a trap for sugar-addicted kids.

Ice Dreams Soda Shop Bala Muskoka
The shop doubles as a Coca-Cola museum. Image Credit: Ice Dreams Soda Shop
Bottom Line:

Buy most of your groceries to cook at your cottage, but save some meals for nights out in Muskoka’s restaurants. Try out all the ice cream places you can.

Final Thoughts

The rich and famous have been “discovering” Muskoka since the early 20th century when many of the cottages were only accessible by steamship. Still, people who live in and visit Muskoka every summer need no reminder of what a special place this region of Ontario is.

You don’t need an A-list budget for an A-list lake vacation in Muskoka — just an open mind about having an old-fashioned, unplugged, slow-paced holiday. It also helps if you know how to swim and don’t have an overwhelming fear of the water.


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Frequently Asked Questions

What's the closest major airport to Muskoka?

Toronto Pearson International Airport (YZZ) is about 2 hours’ drive from the Muskoka District.

Is there a major points-and-miles hotel in Muskoka?

The JW Marriott The Rosseau Muskoka Resort is on Lake Rosseau and takes Marriott Bonvoy points. There’s also a Residence Inn, another Marriott property, near the wharf in Gravenhurst.

Do you need a boat in Muskoka?

No, most places are accessible by car. However, access to a boat is recommended.

Which celebrities have homes in Muskoka?

Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Cindy Crawford, Rande Gerber, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Harry Hamlin, Lisa Rinna, Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, Goldie Hawn, Kate Hudson, Justin Bieber, Hailey Bieber (formerly Baldwin), Simu Liu, Jim Carrey, David Beckham, and Victoria Beckham have all bought or built properties in Muskoka or spent a considerable amount of time on vacation there.

Are there noise laws in Muskoka?

The Township of Muskoka Lakes restricts noises that could disturb neighbors from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Are butter tarts better with or without raisins?

Butter tarts are better with raisins.

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About Michael Y. Park

Michael Y. Park is a journalist living in New York City. He’s traveled through Afghanistan disguised as a Hazara Shi’ite, slept with polar bears on the Canadian tundra, picnicked with the king and queen of Malaysia, tramped around organic farms in Cuba, ridden the world’s longest train through the Sahara, and choked down gasoline clams in North Korea.

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