Ontario’s climate is one of the most changeable anywhere in the world. Temperatures can range from 30 degrees at the height of the summer to minus 30 in the depths of the winter. The effect on the landscape is dramatic; a carpet of snow in winter, lush greenery in summer and a kaleidoscope of gold, red and orange in fall. But it is not just the climate that is diverse.
The sights and opportunities of Ontario are an eclectic mix of cosmopolitan cities, quaint towns and great tourist settings to suit any taste.
It is difficult to visit Ontario without marveling at Niagara Falls, about two hour’s drive south of Toronto and one of the natural wonders of the world. The falls were dug out 10,000 years ago during the ice age, the same force that created the Great Lakes. The town of Niagara is very touristic with wax museums, arcades and souvenir shops aplenty. Some of these attractions are a great way to amuse the kids, but the must-see here is probably one of the best water parks in the world to entertain them.
Great Wolf Lodge, situated just outside Niagara, is an ideal haven for children who love messing about in the water. The themed hotel is extremely well appointed and has log cabin décor on a grand scale. We chose a Wolf Den, which had a snug for the kids with bunk beds and their own TV and game console. The water park is indoor and features five gargantuan water slides, a beach-style wave pool, a river pool, activity pool and older kids can enjoy the three-story water fort with all manner of contraptions and levels to enjoy.
The park is extremely well monitored by lifeguards, and the slides are very safe. Outside there is an excellent interactive mini-golf course, Jacuzzi and spa bath, and an outdoor pool with a bar serving light meals. In fact, there are several snack bars located around the resort serving everything from pizza to coffee with muffins. The main restaurant is located next to the reception: The Critter Grill serves excellent produce, buffet style, morning noon and night, and the service is excellent.
One of the key reasons to the success of Great Wolf Lodge is that you have to stay there to use it, meaning no rowdy groups of teenagers coming in just for the day. It is not the cheapest hotel in Niagara, but the water park is all included and the food is reasonably priced.
About two hour’s drive north of Toronto is cottage country, an area of vast lakes and outstanding natural beauty. For generations, Canadians have headed to this part of Ontario for the weekend or the holidays. Many locals have homes along the myriad of lakes, including my uncle and aunt, who left Toronto some years ago and now live permanently on Lake Muskoka.
The shore of the lake is nicknamed Millionaires Row, and there are some very impressive waterside residences. Social life in Muskoka revolves around house parties and the multitude of golf clubs; if you are looking for night clubs and high fashion, forget it. Muskoka is about as laid back as you can get — dress is very casual and time slips by at a sedate space. However, my two sons were never bored. They spent their days fishing, swimming and boating. Besides holding 20 percent of all the fresh water in the world, the area around the Great Lakes is a forest of unimaginable size and beauty, lakeside views are absolutely stunning, especially at sunset.
Further north by about half an hour, next to Huntsville, is Deerhurst Resort, chosen as the venue for the G8 Summit meeting of world leaders in 2010. The purpose-built resort, set in 780 acres, can cater for 1,000 guests in a variety of rooms ranging from the main hotel to your own cottage. We chose a junior suite, which was extremely well fitted out with a full kitchen and our own wooden decked balcony overlooking one of the two golf courses. The resort boats some amazing décor — especially the main hotel, which has a grand reception hall with bars and restaurants that are beautifully set with comfortable furnishings and excellent use of light.
The real attraction of Deerhurst Resort is the huge number of activities and most of them center around Peninsula Lake. The Splash Zone is an inflatable water park of bouncing trampolines, climbing walls and slides. The resort also has a range of kayaks and canoes to explore the lake, and for the more adventurous, there are sailing catamarans and electric boats. Water-skiing and tubing are also available.
If you enjoy golf then you will be very much at home at Deerhurst, the par 64 Deerhurst Lakeside is very well maintained. The front nine skirts Peninsula Lake, and the back nine challenges with more demanding holes. Deerhurst Resort also boasts one of the finest golf courses in Canada: Deerhurst Highlands is carved through rugged granite and set among the dense forests that inspired the Group of Seven painters in the 1920s. Designed by Robert Cupp and Thomas McBroom, the par 72, 7,011-yard masterpiece boasts elevated tee areas perched on natural rock walls.
Deerhurst also has excellent racket sports facilities; indoor and outdoor swimming pools; and an excellent spa providing health and beauty treatments and sauna and steam room facilities. There are many adventure trails to explore by foot, but the resort offers an interesting alternative: The Hummer is the ultimate four-wheel drive experience and one hour excursions make an ideal way to experience the wild countryside around the resort in comfort. The 6.5-liter engine is driven by eco-friendly bio-diesel, and the vehicle is capable of climbing sheer rock faces and descending through steep muddy trails.
After spending some time enjoying Muskoka, visiting the city of Toronto can be a little hectic, but it is well worth the effort. Toronto is a modern city with a multicultural population of about 2.7 million people. There is a thriving China Town, and all manner of restaurants and hotels to cater for just about any taste or budget. Try Prego, in the quiet sanctuary and shadows of the Church of the Redeemer; it is probably the best Italian restaurant in Toronto. The Windsor Arms Hotel is one of the finest in Toronto, located near to the Yorkdale shopping center. Also nearby is the Four Seasons Hotel, one of Toronto’s most elegant hotels, boasting some of the city’s most luxurious guest rooms.
The Toronto skyline is dominated by the CN Tower — until 2007 it was the tallest free standing structure in the world. Indeed, Toronto is full of skyscrapers; it has over 2,000 buildings over 90 meters in height. In contrast, The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) have stunning architectural design and very interesting exhibitions and artifacts, including the Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibit at the ROM. The Henry Moore collection at the AGO is probably the best in the world, and the Gardiner Museum has an extensive pottery and ceramic collection.
It goes without saying that we visited Ontario during the summer, and the region enjoys a fine climate, but this province of contrasts is well equipped to deal with the harshest winter. Great Wolf Lodge is just as busy in January and would be an ideal venue for a New Year’s break; Deerhurst Resort offers many activities in the winter: ice skating on the lake, snow-mobiling on the trails and skiing are all available. The city of Toronto is as vibrant in the winter, and the shopping malls are still busy as ever. Niagara Falls can become affected by ice, but it doesn’t freeze up. Nor does life and opportunity in the diverse province of Ontario.
Louay Habib is a freelance journalist and broadcaster based in the United Kingdom. With 30+ years of international yacht racing experience, he has visited more than 40 countries around the world.
Getting Afloat in Muskoka
Motor Boat Rental
Based in Gravenhurst, Ontario, Northern Lakes Marine has an extensive range of boats for hire and has been established for more than 10 years. They can deliver right to your door and supply all manner of boats, from small aluminum fishing boats with outboards to large sports boats and also personal watercraft. They operate a service throughout the Muskoka area. www.northernlakesmarine.com
Learn to sail
South Muskoka Sailing School has been established for 30 years and offers both sailing school and racing programs. The school offers instruction for 8 to 16 year olds. The minimum commitment is only one week, but pupils will require a minimum of two weeks to complete a level. The program offers instruction in CYA sailing levels from White Sail to Silver Sail, with both on-water and off-water activities, and an emphasis on fun learning. The school has a newly completed clubhouse with excellent facilities, featuring Optimists, Vanguard Prams, Lasers and 420s. www.muskokasailing.com
Swift Canoes rents kayaks and canoes all year round, designed by Muskoka specialists John Winters and the legendary David Yost. Swift canoes are the perfect choice for a paddling expedition throughout the region. They have a large rental fleet, and vessels are available for hire for a single day or weeks on end. www.swiftcanoe.com
A trip through old Muskoka
If you want to take a trip back in time, the RMS Segwun is the oldest operating steam-driven vessel in North America. Built in 1887 to cruise the Muskoka Lakes, the 125-foot steamship is now available for day trips. Ports of call include Gravenhurst, Bracebridge, Beaumaris, Port Sandfield, Port Carling and Bala. The soft tone of the Segwun is often heard echoing across the lakes of Northern Ontario, and taking a trip on board is reminiscent of how travellers used to explore the region before roads were established here.www.segwun.com