The British comedian Dom Joly describes Muskoka as ‘the coolest place’ on Earth. ‘Very Swallows and Amazons,’ he adds. Yet the area of 1,000-plus lakes, which lies just a few hours north of Toronto, is arguably one of Canada’s best-kept secrets. Home to a few Hollywood and music industry stars—Goldie Hawn, Tom Hanks and Shania Twain have property there—in the summer months, it morphs into a natural playground for city dwellers promoting wholesome outdoor living made up of boating, hiking and barbeques on the lakeside beaches.
Muskoka is Toronto’s answer to the Hamptons with two added bonuses; few people have heard of it this side of the pond and the quantity of noughts on the price tags of property errs on the side of reasonable. For the past 100 years, Ontario’s great and successful have flocked to the shores of the lakes, which Canadians call ‘cottage country’.
Much of the history of the area dates from when steel magnates from Pittsburg began to visit in the late 19th century. Escaping from the grimy industrial summers, wealthy Pittsburg families headed north to stay in B&Bs set up by Scots, Englishmen and Irishmen who had emigrated there, lured by the promise of generous land grants, in the 1800s. For these trail-blazing Pittsburg holidaymakers, the journey would have involved a train ride, a steam boat and then possibly an afternoon portaging over the rapids. They were not deterred by the effort, however, and word of the beauty of this wilderness then spread.
‘Between 1890 and 1920 it became a big destination, and a Mecca for the rich,’ explains Hunter Milborne, a Toronto-based property developer who has a ‘cottage’ in Muskoka and has been visiting the region for 20 years. Actually, the word cottage is really a misnomer; many cottages are, in fact, lakeside mansions, but, according to local lore, such is the egalitarianism of Canadians that every house in the area is a cottage, regardless of its size. ‘It’s a beautiful place. And, depending on which side of the city you live in, it can take between two and three hours to get there: a respectable weekend distance.’
While affordable in comparison to prices in the Hamptons, property in Muskoka is constantly appreciating in value. Although the average price is $1.1 million (happily, that’s Canadian, not US dollars), a new sales record for a Muskoka cottage was set this year at $9.8 million. Mr Milborne’s cottage, an eight-bedroom, 1000m2 post-and-beam house which formerly belonged to the president of the Bank of Canada, is worth $6 million. ‘Prices are clearly rising. But there has not been a boost in infrastructure. The price increases are a result of the increased demand. The baby-boom generation is now looking to buy recreational properties,’ Mr Milborne says.
‘Each lake has 50 or so islands and it’s quite common for people to buy one of them. Recently, a San Francisco family paid $1million for an island and they spent another $2.5 million on their cottage. They’ll come for six or seven weeks in July and August. That tends to be the norm.’
Ontario is, however, blessed with a true four-season climate: warm springs, hot summers, awesomely beautiful autumns, and bright but cold winters when snowfall is guaranteed. As a result, a local developer is hoping to be able to extend the Muskoka season into a year-round draw. Pure International (+44 (0)20 7331 4500, www.pureintl.com) are currently marketing studios and apartments in Muskoka’s first five-star resort, Red Leaves, on the shore of Lake Rosseau. A ‘master-planned waterfront community’ includes 1,400 acres of forest, trails and lakes as well as the apartment-hotel, The Rosseau, due for completion in 2008. As well as sailing, fishing and waterskiing in the summer months, residents of The Rosseau also benefit from the proximity of a Nick Faldo-designed championship golf course, The Rock. Later on in the year, the list of activity programmes on offer makes for exhausting reading—from mountain biking to horse riding, hiking and cross-country skiing. And at a more gentle pace there will be cookery classes, concerts, ice skating and horse-drawn sleigh rides.
Despite all this activity, residents are adamant that life in Muskoka is decidedly laid back. Flopping into a Muskoka chair—the local version of the low-slung, slatted-wood Adirondack chair—and losing oneself in the peace only to be interrupted by the haunting cry of a loon, is activity enough for many. And developments have been sympathetic; the terrain remains very similar to that which inspired Ontario’s seven frontier artists who, in the early 1900s travelled through the wilderness in a converted freight car. Marvelling at the sense of remoteness, they wrote in 1922 that Muskoka was a place where ‘nature was the measure of a man’s stature’.
Studios and one and two bedroom apartments are for sale off-plan at The Rosseau apartment-hotel, with prices starting from £125,000. For more information, visit www.pureintl.com
This article was published in Country Life, International Property, October 13, 2005