Canada’s great outdoors
Date Posted: 29/12/2011
Neil Murray sampled three of Ontario’s lakeside resorts, getting closer to nature and enjoying a host of outdoor pursuits only a few hours from Toronto.
Canadians just love the great outdoors. And if I didn’t realise quite how much beforehand, I was certainly aware of it after making a group visit to three of Ontario’s outstanding resorts, all within easy driving distance of Toronto.
Our first stop was the family-owned, year-round, 240-acre Elmhirst’s Resort, 90 miles east of Toronto. Located on the north shore of Rice Lake, the resort began life as a fishing camp for American families but now has 30 waterfront, country-style cottages (ranging from two-bedroom to five-bedroom) - all with a wood-burning fireplace and a private, outdoor deck and dock (ideal for a barbecue) - the Wild Blue Yonder pub, and the Hearthside Dining Room.
The following morning, we rode on horseback in single file through the resort’s woods to a spot high on the hills overlooking the lake for a cowboy breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, beans, French toast and orange juice. It was terrific - why does food always taste so much better outdoors?
Suitably refreshed, we headed back to the shores of the lake for our fishing excursion. Now, I’m no great fan of the idea of fishing, but I began to see the appeal as I waited patiently for a bite, with only the sound of the water lapping against the side of the boat, to break the supreme silence in the middle of the lake. Flying in a seaplane was another new experience for me, as well as for most of our group. Leaving from the lakeside, pilot Peter Loucks took me and one other group member up in his three-seater 1947 PA12 Supercruiser over Rice Lake and beyond, and we marvelled at the glorious, magic colours of autumn spread out below us.
As well as riding, fishing and sightseeing flights, Elmhirst’s Resort offers canoeing, horse-drawn wagon rides, cruises, snowmobile safaris, archery and orienteering. And a well-stocked wine cellar that features only Canadian wines should keep even the most enthusiastic of wine buffs happy.
A three-hour drive from Toronto or Ottawa, the resort - which sits at the end of a bone-shaking gravel road and overlooks the beautiful, placid Little Joe Lake - is open from late May until mid-October.
Its 50 rooms are spread throughout a group of comfortable log cabins that range from one to three beds - as well as individual rooms in a large, lodge-style building - and overlook the lake. The resort is a peaceful, wonderful get-away-from-it- all idyll, as there are no televisions or phones in the rooms (there is one callbox in the grounds), virtually no mobile phone reception, no public internet access and, because of an old local ruling, no booze on sale (you can bring your own).
However, you can swim or canoe in the lakes, hike or walk through the woods to your heart’s content, go bird-watching (more than 250 species have been recorded in the park), play tennis, relax in the sauna, or just unwind at the waterside marvelling at the magnificent views across the lake. On a boat trip on the lake, we heard the fascinating tale of the mysterious death of Tom Thompson, one of Canada’s renowned landscape artists and a member of the Group of Seven (currently on show at London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery until 8th January), who died in Algonquin Park in 1917 under suspicious circumstances.
The following day, a short drive away at the Algonquin Outfitters on Lake Opeongo (the largest in the park), we had an exhilarating 35mph water taxi excursion across the lake, during which we dropped off some campers on an isolated island. They, along with other outdoor enthusiasts spending time on the various camping sites dotted around the islands, would be picked up by the taxi a week later. Then we clambered in to our canoes and set out on the lake and along the neighbouring Costello Creek, where, when we paused for break, the silence again was simply overwhelming. Back on land, a lakeside picnic lunch was followed by a visit to the Algonquin Logging Museum. We then headed west across country to the Massasauga Provincial Park, accessible only by water.
The park is a protected sanctuary for the Massasauga rattlesnake and although we had the opportunity to stroke one held by our guide, despite his reassurances, I wasn’t courageous enough to hold it. This was followed by a visit to the preserved buildings of Calhoun Lodge, which were constructed in the late 1930s for the family of an Ohio lawyer, Joseph Calhoun, to escape to during the summer.
Our third resort - the luxurious JW Marriott Resort & Spa, located two hours north of Toronto - also overlooks a magnificent lake, Lake Rosseau, and has an indoor-outdoor pool, a superb spa and a Nick Faldo-designed golf course nearby. It also offers hiking, jet-skiing, kayaking and trails for jogging and mountain-biking and, if you have a clear sky at night, it’s a perfect location to view the glittering stars of the cosmos.
About 45 minutes away, Gravenhurst is home to the Grace & Speed Muskoka Boat & Heritage Centre, as well as the 124-year-old Segwun steamship, on which we sailed along Gravenhurst Bay, into Lake Muskoka and past Lighthouse Island, the most-photographed spot on the lake. For our last stop, en route back to Toronto, we called in at Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons, where our visit to what is a faithful reconstruction of one of the first European settlements in Ontario by Jesuits keen to convert the First Nations to Christianity, made a fascinating end to a wonderfully-varied and thoroughly-enjoyable trip.
A taste of a Canadian capital
We flew into Toronto, a city of unique neighbourhoods, active arts, terrific theatre, and the CN Tower. Shopping is massive in Toronto, and even if you visit in the winter, you can head to the PATH, an underground shopping concourse with about 1,200 retail shops, cafes and restaurants. The 1,815-foot-high CN Tower has a new attraction, EdgeWalk - said to be ‘the world’s highest full-circle, hands-free walk’ - which takes place on a ledge 1,168-feet above the city and Lake Ontario. Culture buffs are well catered for with the Frank Gehry-redesigned Art Gallery of Ontario and the new Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, while the city’s theatre and restaurant nightlife easily rivals Broadway and London’s West End.
Top three sights
1. Canadian Canoe Museum: Reportedly the only canoe museum in north America, it provides a fascinating insight into how important canoes - and kayaks - have been throughout Canada’s history. www.canoemuseum.ca
2. Algonquin Logging Museum: The exhibits on an intriguing trail through the woods make you realise just how arduous the conditions were for the loggers in the 19th century. www.algonquinpark.on.ca
3. Grace & Speed Muskoka Boat & Heritage Centre: Follow the history of the steamships, wooden boats and luxury hotels that helped define Muskoka, and then sail on the Segwun, north America’s oldest-operating steamship. http://segwun.com
Eat: Farm-to-table is very big in Ontario, with the province’s farms producing an incredible variety of fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products. Leamington is known as the Tomato Capital of Canada, Bala is famous for its cranberry harvest, and the Niagara Fruit Belt is well known for its peaches, strawberries, cherries and grapes. At Elmhirt’s Resort, make sure you try the Angus beef.
Drink: Ontario has four wine regions that produce internationally-acclaimed, award-winning wines; the Niagara peninsula, the north shores of Lake Erie, the greater Toronto area and Prince Edward County, which has a Taste Trail just east of the city. http://tastetrail.ca
Try: Canoeing (or kayaking) on one of the thousands of lakes in Ontario or discover the therapeutic delights of fishing on Rice Lake. If you have more time, try camping out on one of the many islands on Lake Opeongo.
Go: Summer (between mid-June to mid-October) and winter (January to March). Some resorts are year-round, others seasonal.
Travel time: 7 hrs, 35 mins
Time difference: GMT -5hrs
Currency: Canadian dollar, currently £1 = CD$1.60
Red Tape: UK visitors must have a valid passport (recommended minimum six month’s validity). Visas are not generally required by British citizens.
020-7616 9999 (Mark Crimmion)
020-7644 6129 (Catherine Schultheis)