About this series: With COVID-19 restrictions expected to ease over the next few months, Wheels wants to inspire you to get ready to explore — but only when it is safe to do so. This series of daytrips and weekend drives highlights great experiences you can have in the province once conditions allow and show you why Ontario is “Ours to Discover” this summer and beyond.
Driving north along Highway 400 from Toronto, I’m thinking about work, and emails, and my endless to-do list. But just a few hours later, I’m in cottage country — and the stress of work and life and traffic seems distant in this iconic Canadian landscape. Skyscrapers and multi-lane highways are replaced with rugged rocks, windswept pines and a labyrinth of lakes and rivers. This may be called cottage country, but you don’t need one to enjoy the benefits of this region.
Gravenhurst is the gateway to Muskoka, and while most people pass through (or by) on the way to the cottage, it’s well worth a stop. After all, tourists have been coming here for more than 150 years. Before the age of the automobile, they’d take the train to Muskoka Wharf, where they were transported by steamship or wooden boats to summer homes and holiday resorts — an experience that can be partially replicated today with Muskoka Steamships. If you’ve only got a day, here’s how to make the most of your time in Gravenhurst:
In the morning: Make your way to Hwy 400 and drive north toward Barrie. Keep driving until the roadway merges into Highway 11 (just north of Barrie). You’ll continue driving until you see the turnoff for Gravenhurst (the best option is to take the Muskoka District Road). It’s straightforward, and technically should take about an hour and 45 minutes, but traffic can be a wild card, so it doesn’t hurt to leave some extra drive time.
Once in town, head to Muskoka Wharf on Lake Muskoka. After parking, follow the lakeside boardwalk to the Muskoka Discovery Centre, a heritage museum where you can see a replica steamship, boatbuilders’ workshop and watershed display. A rotating exhibit of vintage wooden boats in the centre’s boathouse (on loan from locals) is worth the price of admission. Some, built in the early 1900s, have quite a history, including shuttling famous passengers like Billy Bishop, Canada’s flying ace in the First World War, around the area’s waterways. A great spot to spend a rainy day, the centre also houses a gallery space with stories and artifacts from the region, sustainability and ecological displays, and the KidZone “STEAM” Family Engagement Gallery with hands-on activities.
Around noon: Walk five minutes along the boardwalk to The Wheelhouse Café, located at The Shipyards Muskoka Marketplace, for a coffee and snack. Or, if time permits, stop by the Dock of the Bay Steak and Seafood Grille (also along the boardwalk). It claims to have the best patio in Muskoka and it’s easy to see why: Three-quarters of the building is stilted and suspended over the lake, for unparalleled views. While there, try the pickerel tacos (a uniquely local take on fish tacos). If you happen to be in town on a Wednesday, walk across the street to the lively farmer’s market, where you can pick up anything from baking and preserves to creations from local artisans.
In the afternoon: After lunch, head to Muskoka Steamships (at the far end of the boardwalk) for a two-hour afternoon cruise on one of two steamships. The RMS Segwun is North America’s oldest operating hand-fired steamship, while the Wenonah II is a replica steamship built in the style of a 1907 Muskoka vessel. You’ll sail past the small cottage islands and grand estates that Muskoka is famous for, and learn about the area’s lesser-known history, such as its German prisoner of war camp – known as Camp 20 or Camp Calydor – that operated during the Second World War.
There’s also a great selection of craft beer available on board from local brewers including Muskoka Brewery, Sawdust City Brewing Co. and Lake of Bays Brewing Co. It’s recommended you book your excursion at least a couple of days in advance because tickets sell out fast (capacity is currently limited and only the Wenonah II is sailing at the moment).
After disembarking, pop into The Shipyards Muskoka Marketplace, which features 4,000 square feet of shopping and is the ultimate destination for all things Muskoka. Check out The Upper Deck (located upstairs), a pop-up marketplace with more than 30 local vendors selling everything from jewelry to art to sweet confections. For a unique souvenir, pick up a print of iconic regional scenery transferred onto stone tiles by JDN Photography.
In the evening: Drive two kilometers from the waterfront to Gravenhurst’s historic downtown and head to The Oar for refined tavern fare on its patio. Or stop a few doors down and check if the food truck is open at Sawdust City Brewing Co., a name that honours Muskoka’s logging history. Sit on the patio while enjoying a burger, tacos or poutine (its Skinny Dippin’ gravy is made with beer) alongside one of its limited batch or experimental brews. Keep in mind there are only a few restaurants in town, and they currently have reduced hours. Most patios are walk-in only. For another dinner option, you can also stop by local institution Webers, an old-school joint for burgers and shakes that’s been around since 1963 on the way back to Toronto. About a 20-minute drive from Gravenhurst on Hwy 11, Webers offers plenty of outdoor seating on bright-yellow picnic tables (once cash-only, it now accepts debit).
After dinner, drive back to Toronto. If you’d like to partake in the local craft beer scene and don’t have a designated driver, book a room at the Residence Inn by Marriott (conveniently located at Muskoka Wharf, directly beside the Muskoka Discovery Centre), which offers free parking, Wi-Fi and breakfast. Go for one of the lakeview suites, which comes with a Muskoka chair on the balcony you can recline in as you watch the sunset over Lake Muskoka. The stress of your endless to-do list will evaporate into thin air.
COVID-19 need to know
Travel restrictions and advice continue to change as summer progresses and more people are vaccinated but expect to wear masks indoors and in public areas where physical distancing isn’t possible. Detailed information on local measures in Gravenhurst are available at simcoemuskokahealth.org and discovermuskoka.ca/covid-19.
For the drive
Learn more about the area on your drive up by listening to an audiobook. “Up to the Cottage: Memories of Muskoka” offers first-hand accounts of cottage life from bygone eras, while “Pioneer Life” gives you a sense of what life was like when this cottage destination was a desolate wilderness of forests, swamp and never-ending rock. Or you can listen to The Cottage Life Podcast, which explores everything related to cottage country.
TIMELINE: Drive guide
- 8:30 a.m. Leave Toronto
Drive north on Hwy 400
Merge onto Highway 11
- 10:30 a.m. Arrive at Muskoka Wharf
- 10:45 a.m. Muskoka Discovery Centre
- 11:45 a.m. Lunch at Muskoka Wharf
- 1:30 p.m. Check-in at Muskoka Steamships
- 2 p.m. Cruise Lake Muskoka
- 4:15 p.m. Shop at The Shipyards
- 5 p.m. Sawdust City patio
- 6 p.m. The Oar
- 8 p.m. Head back to Toronto
- 8:20 p.m. Stop by Webers
NOTE: Times are suggestions only