Hwy-11, the main route from Toronto and Barrie to Algonquin Provincial Park, zips past Orillia, the one-time home of Stephen Leacock, before slicing through the Muskoka Lakes, a region of more than 1500 lakes and hundreds of cottage retreats – for this is cottage country. The Muskoka Lakes were named after an Ojibwa chief, Mesqua-Ukee, who settled here with his people after aiding the British during the War of 1812. Thereafter, the area was opened to tourism in 1860, when two hikers made the two-day trek from Toronto to a small Ojibwa settlement at what is now the town of Gravenhurst. By the 1890s, the lakes had become the haunt of wealthy families from southern Ontario and although things are more democratic today, this is still primarily the preserve of the well heeled. The main access towns to the Muskoka Lakes – Gravenhurst, Bracebridge and Huntsville – are strung out along Hwy-11. None has much to offer the passing visitor, with the notable exception of the Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary near Huntsville, and you’re much better off either heading for one of the area’s deluxe hotel resorts or befriending a cottage-owning Canadian, who can show you the local ropes.
Straddling the Muskoka River, BRACEBRIDGE, a quick 20km north of Gravenhurst, boasts of its location on the 45th Parallel, halfway between the North Pole and the equator, which isn’t perhaps very much to get excited about, but it does for starters. The town’s most distinctive feature is the waterfall at the foot of the main street and it was this ready source of energy that attracted the town’s first settlers in the 1860s. Otherwise, the prettiest part of Bracebridge is the short main drag, Manitoba Street, which is flanked by a pleasant ensemble of Victorian red-bricks. Bracebridge is also within comfortable striking distance of both Algonquin Provincial Park, about 100km away, and the Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary.
Sandwiched between two lakes, the gridiron streets of downtown GRAVENHURST, some 170km north of Toronto, are surprisingly leafy, but the busiest part of town is down by the harbour, where cottagers whizz in and out to collect supplies. In its early days, the town prospered from logging and for a while it was even called “Sawdust City”, until the local council had second thoughts.
Gravenhurst’s prime historical attraction is the recently upgraded Bethune Memorial House National Historic Site, the birthplace of the remarkable Norman Bethune (1890–1939), a doctor who introduced Western medicine to the Chinese in the 1930s and invented mobile blood-transfusion units. The house has been restored to its appearance in 1890 and has displays on Bethune’s considerable accomplishments – he was even praised by Chairman Mao – all detailed in English, French and Chinese.