Meet Canada’s Muskoka Region

It’s Golf On The Rocks In Southern Ontario

muskoka big win

Golfers have more than a few post-round rituals to celebrate victory, and most involve some sort of adult beverage — whisky, lagers, mixed cocktails, even a glass of wine if you’re in a classy sort of mood. And our neighbors to the north — including the Muskoka region in Ontario — have their share of spirits to commemorate a day on the fairways and greens. Try some Sortilege maple whisky if you ever get the chance — it’s like drinking pancakes.

But for this golf journey through the dramatic Canadian Shield, my 15-year-old playing partner is still a few years short of sampling a legal shot. So instead of the loser buying drinks in our group, the winner is treated to ice cream. And we’re not just talking a convenience-store Drumstick here or there. In the same way we search for the province’s best golf courses, we also seek out the nation’s best creamery delights.

muskoka bellyAnd that’s how we found Belly, as appropriately named an ice cream shop as you’ll ever find, in Huntsville, Ontario. I was forced to buy ice cream there twice while traveling back and forth through a region known for rocky terrain and lakeside retreats, but each time it soothed the soul of this loser without drowning my sorrows.

Belly is an artisan ice cream shop where everything — yes, everything — is made from scratch by chef Shelley Westgarth and her team of handcrafting specialists. And, most importantly, all golf roads (at least in this area) lead to this little confectionary company where the mouthwatering flavors sometimes even offer a nod to golf’s homeland. Sticky Toffee Pudding was one of the many scoops we sampled after our match on the nearby Deerhurst Highlands championship course designed by the late Robert Cupp and prolific Canadian architect Thomas McBroom at Deerhurst Resort.

Of course, the Sticky Toffee Pudding ice cream was just my dessert. Dinner had been at The Antler, one of the better clubhouse restaurants I’ve encountered. The night’s special was fresh-caught local salmon poached in Canadian maple sap, and it is now the bar against which I measure all salmon dishes anywhere in the world (and I’ve probably eaten a grizzly bear’s worth of salmon in my lifetime).

Beyond Deerhurst and Belly, another small food-and-beverage operation also caught our attention on the trip, this time at the Ron Garl-designed Taboo golf course across the road from the resort of the same name in Gravenhurst, often called the Gateway to Muskoka. The “Bistro” counter in Taboo’s perfectly-appointed Pro Shop features quick bites and soft-serve ice cream (including tasty milkshakes that served as our daily payoff on two different occasions). But even more impressive and unique is the Gimme Food Truck atop the hill, which serves tacos, corn dogs and quesadillas. And the outdoor seating around the truck overlooks a very cool drop-shot 19th hole where golfers can settle bets by firing at the flag on the island green below.

muskoka ridge manitou
The Ridge Manitou

And this is what drew us to Muskoka — food, fun and some of the more dramatic mountain golf you’ll find in North America carved through the famed Canadian Shield, a geological wonder that covers nearly half of the country in some form. And the water, of course. Water everywhere. Lakes upon lakes upon lakes (1,600 or so) playing home to summertime visitors escaping the cities to take a plunge into the great outdoors.

Our itinerary included multiple waterfront resorts — Deerhurst, Taboo and Rocky Crest in MacTier — each with its own family-friendly summer camp vibe of swimming, hiking, kayaking and all manner of big-time water toys for kids of all ages, from inflatables and trampolines to boats that will transport you and your clubs essentially to the first tee of such golf courses as The Ridge at Manitou, a McBroom gem that inexplicably seems to fly under the radar in this golf-rich region.

muskoka shield
The Shield at Muskoka Bay

But the region is rich in other ways, too. As more and more affluent Canadians are calling Muskoka home (or second home) each year, the area is quickly becoming known as Toronto’s version of The Hamptons. And that high-end lifestyle is on full display at the Bigwin Island Golf Club (shown at the beginning of this story) built on its own private island in the middle of Lake of Bays. The club itself is private, but golfers can snag a rare tee time by staying at Port Cunnington Lodge and taking a “water taxi” to the island. The golf course, designed by Doug Carrick (another prolific Canadian architect), might be one of the best combinations of dramatic water views and playable golf holes. The combination of width and wildlife make for a sublime round of golf, and that ambiance is amplified by the boat ride, especially if you make the trip back to the Lodge at sunset.

Even without the golf, Port Cunnington Lodge is worth the trip for families in search of a secluded summer-sleepaway environment that feels like it’s straight out of Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” — without all the snootiness, thankfully. Family-run and steeped in history (travelers have been visiting this spot for more than 120 years) with lots of shoreline and sandy beach, Port Cunnington offers a wide a range of accommodations from quaint cottages to full-size houses. And in keeping with our food-fueled theme, the breakfast buffet with fresh pastries is not to be missed (put a few of the cherry turnovers in your pocket for the day).

muskoka the rock
The Rock

When it comes to this wonderful world of golf carved from the Canadian Shield, it’s possible Muskoka’s biggest strength is in the variety of architectural styles. McBroom and Carrick are household names when it comes to Canadian fairways, but finding gems from Garl and even a little-known track — called The Rock — designed by six-time major champion Nick Faldo makes for an interesting study in how golf courses can negotiate this jagged landscape.

Our personal introduction to the Shield was rugged in its own right as we wasted no time hammering away at Muskoka Bay, perhaps the craziest of all the courses you’ll find in Ontario. On this dramatic site that few would dare build 18 holes of golf, Carrick rose to challenge of routing the course through rocks, ridges and wetlands to create a memorable beauty. And the clifftop clubhouse with infinity pool makes this spot all the more magical.

Muskoka Bay is certainly a destination resort that deserves a multiple-night stay (especially with new modern villas recently built for overnight accommodations). Likewise, the golf course deserves more than one round to understand Carrick’s grand plan — and to figure out how you can conquer the challenge. If we had it to do over again, I would probably close the trip with Muskoka Bay rather than making it the kickoff course — it’s one of the more interesting feats of golf engineering I’ve ever witnessed but can be a shock to your golf system if you’re not ready for the rocky mindset it requires.

Memories are what make golf travel fun, and there are plenty to be made in Muskoka. Whether you’re looking for a waterfront vacation with a few rounds sprinkled in or you’re road-tripping with a hardcore “play as many holes as possible on the long summer days” group, you’ll find myriad options (plus ice cream and milkshakes) just a couple hours north of Toronto. And you can safely say that this stretch of Ontario, Canada, gives a new golf meaning to “rock and roll.”

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