Muskoka...the name evokes a certain je ne sais quoi.
I was told Muskoka means “Land of 10,000 Massive Fairway Rocks.” Whether or not that claim is accurate, Muskoka is certainly a unique name. In fact, of the 5,838,786 names currently registered in the U.S. Social Security Administration office, Muskoka doesn’t appear once. No Kardashian or desperate-for-attention celebrity has yet named their child Muskoka. Surprising, eh?
One local described the Muskoka region as “Ontario’s Hamptons” and “Canada’s Minnesota.” I could identify more with the Minnesotan “10,000 Lakes” part than the Hamptons “big money” reference, but 150 years ago, before the web of paved roads existed, people came here by train then dispersed by boat to their favorite resorts. They had to work to get to their vacations! Today (via Toronto's Pearson International Airport) it is EASY to get here. These days, Muskoka is where people build their third, fourth and/or fifth houses then never live in them (or so I was told)—where the richest of rich occasionally swing by -- or fly in by helicopter if you’re Steph Curry -- and the rest of us swing for the fences with once-in-a-lifetime-vacations. With one of the most iconic parks in Canada in Algonquin Park, Muskoka is such an acclaimed vacation destination that National Geographic in 2011 listed it as “THE Best Trip of Summer!” and The Huffington Post (in 2015) designated it “Canada’s Most Beautiful Place in the Fall!” (Really? Over Banff?)
We found plenty of beauty, fun and affluence in the area, but we also found some pretty stellar hospitality and (better yet for golfers) some very solid, rocky golf!
By the numbers, the former mountain (now Canadian Shield) region known as Muskoka has 80-plus resorts, several Harvey’s, fifteen public 18-hole courses, six public 9-hole courses and eight private courses. The 32 golf courses in all feature a number produced by architectural legends like Stanley Thompson, Doug Carrick and Tom McBroom, with others from big golf names like Mark O’Meara and Nick Faldo. Ignoring the private clubs that 90 percent of vacationers can’t access, and focusing on the rest, here are the standouts in Muskoka Golf.
Gravenhurst is essentially the gateway to Muskoka (less than 100 miles from Toronto International Airport) and the “Newest and Highest Ranked Golf Course” in the region, according to the local experts at ScoreGolf, is Muskoka Bay. Is it worthy of its “Top 16 in Canada” ranking? (It is at least as worthy as The National Golf Club’s No. 3 ranking!) Let’s just say that no other course on our trip prompted a more animated discussion on the general merits of playability, and no other clubhouse had a better view (or infinity pool) than Muskoka Bay! Fellow golf writer and milkshake rating expert Darin Bunch, with his 100-year-old hickory sticks; my son Dylan, with the fearless flop and only decent golf swing in our group; and soft-spoken Canadian journalist Brian Kendall (has a cabin up here) took on the many nooks and crannies of Muskoka Bay and walked (or limped) away in awe of Doug Carrick’s masterful manipulation of what most places would consider unplayable turf. The uphill approach to the No. 9 green is adequately indescribable (I can very sufficiently not describe it well). If there was one course on our trip that I could never play every day but wish I could play again tomorrow it was Muskoka Bay.
The “Most Unique Golf Experience” in the region would have to be the stay-and-play combo of Port Cunnington Lodge and Bigwin Island, a public resort on the water with a ferry ride “key” from your room to the otherwise locked (private) golf course, where the deer outnumber rabbits and are as approachable as approachable cats.
Port Cunnington Lodge is a three-hour drive from Toronto, snuggled comfortably onto the shoreline of the Lake of Bays. Established in 1890, the 22-acre resort has been family run since the beginning, with the Lodge, family chalets, traditional cottages and multiplexes surrounding 1,800 feet of beach and multiple game rooms/courts. I can vouch for the incredible service provided by the most accommodating of hosts and for the killer Boathouse Suites, perched (literally) above the water with porches providing views of Bigwin Island by day and blankets of bright stars at night. The buffet breakfasts at The Lodge are massive and special, but the real treat awaits the golfer out at “The Island.” With no less than eight signature holes, including the stunning downhill par-4 sixth hole, this place is as playable as Muskoka golf gets.
The “Most Remote and Underrated Round” perhaps in all of Ontario would have to be The Ridge at Manitou (personal opinion, but I’m right). There are no big name hotels anywhere near, but it is worth the drive from literally everywhere within 3 hours (or more if I’m driving). It’s worth noting there are cabins, cottages and even a few smaller hotels 20 minutes away in Parry Sound that you can build packages with, but whatever it takes, get here. Pitch a tent if you have to!
We watched people cut through the morning fog in pontoon boats, pulling up to the dock off the clubhouse and strolling to the first tee with their clubs as if they did it every day (as I would). This was a round loaded with fun holes, my personal favorite public round of the trip (even though I played terribly). THIS is a course that I WOULD play every day, and the Maple Rice Krispie Bars they serve here? WOW. Darin hit them so hard there might still not be any left! Rumor has it this course almost closed this year. That would be a tragedy of epic proportions. Some hotel/resort developer is really missing out. With this lake and this course, you could build a “destination” resort here unlike any other in Ontario. A little money and marketing would put this front and center on everyone’s “Best of Muskoka” trip! (Thanks to the two guys who took us on a boat ride so we could experience the “Like a Boss” arrival!)
The “Best Family Golf Resort,” in terms of amenities would have to be Deerhurst Resort, including its arcade, water park, climbing wall, zip line, play area, Amba Spa and incredible restaurants with crazy great dining views. We played the Deerhurst Highlands course (they also have a Lakeside Course) with Director of Sales, Luke Nixon-Janssen, and found ourselves impressed with the diversity of the holes that Bob Cupp and Thomas McBroom arranged here.
Situated on the shores of Peninsula Lake and Sunset Bay, Deerhurst Resort has literally everything an entire family could want AND a prime Huntsville location that provides the resort guest with access to one of the unique dairy facilities in North America, Belly Ice Cream Company, with a massive and daily rotating menu of flavours (yes, “flavour”) like Sticky Toffee Pudding, Obscene Chocolate Brownie, Scotch Whiskey with Smoked Almonds & Salted Caramel and Wild Blueberry Lavender. Do yourself a favor while at Deerhurst Resort and have breakfast out on the veranda. Those views and that food -- man, what a way to start a day! And if you want an epic meal to end the day, Darin suggests the Salmon Poached in Local Maple Sap at The Antler Steakhouse. His words, “I was looking for that “wow” meal on this trip and that was it!”
Operationally, the “Most Efficiently Run Golf Club” has to be Taboo, a fun-omenal course adjacent a great resort adjacent a beautiful lake (Lake Muskoka’s South Bay, with its 430-plus islands). The course has a not-to-be-missed food truck at the turn (The Gimmie Truck with lobster tacos), two challenge holes and great milk shakes. They also win my award for “best hotel rooms” of the trip -- fireplaces, great showers, plush beds and ON the lake…awesome!
A great family resort on its own, Taboo Golf Resort is also close to Muskoka’s theme park, Santa’s Village, which is a great play day for all ages. But, back to golf. Gary Boyce, the Director of Golf at Taboo, clearly has the pulse of today’s golfers and people were clearly having fun on every hole (the entire clubhouse staff was having fun, too). That says a lot about this place, a place where Gary says “everyone’s game works here.” My game tends to be triples and birdies (with nothing in between), and yes, I feel like even that worked there. Taboo was very open about wanting us to come back and stay longer, something we all hope we can do (so I can take 100 more pictures of the par-3 third hole). This place grows on you quickly!
The “Most Befuddling, Yet Still Beautiful, Round” might be Sir Nick Faldo’s The Rock. How Sir Nick ended up here of all places to develop this slice of land between Bruce Lake and Lake Rosseau was never really explained to me, so I’ll just say he did a good job with what he had to do his work. Disconnected, for all intents and purposes, yet geographically connected to the JW Marriott—The Rosseau (The Rock’s stay-and-play combo is actually with a resort called Clevelands House). If you’re looking for wildlife and wild holes, this place sure has it. It gets a bad rap from raters and writers for its quirks, but play it in a scramble format and it’s rather fun. There are many holes where the “what the?” tee box factor turns into “wow factor” approaches, and who doesn’t love that (especially on the par-4 fourth)? I was told by a local journalist that one round would be enough here, but with gems like No. 2 and No. 10 (love that crazy long mountain-lined bunker), I’d welcome another shot.
The place with the most conveniently clustered great golf, that has to be Rocky Crest Resort -- another amenity-rich ClubLink lake resort with direct connections to both Rocky Crest Golf Club and Lake Joseph Golf Club. The course we wanted to play most on our visit but didn’t get to (due to an outing) was Lake Joseph. Instead, we made the short trip over from Rocky Crest Resort to Seguin Valley to see their incredible topography, stunning all-carry-all-lake signature par-3 seventh and to pick up donuts at one of Ontario’s 17,012 Tim Horton’s on our way home.
Rocky Crest Resort nails the casual “summer camp” vibe, with a swimming pool and an inflatable water park on Hamer Bay and expansive cabin-like lodging on said bay. Their property has the “coolest” Coke machine I’ve ever seen in my life, the Beginnings Spa and Rocky Crest Golf Club just across the street. Another course we wish we could have played at least thrice, we still had a great time taking on Rocky Crest’s Canadian Shield features and forests. Rocky Crest had every imaginable element in play and a four-hole stretch on the back (from 12 through 15) with three holes that I don’t think could have been designed better. (Kudos, Thomas McBroom.) Rocky Crest continues to climb the rankings (as it should) and specifically should be targeted as a destination by golf groups looking to explore the best of Muskoka Golf from one lodging base. (Only 35 miles to The Ridge at Manitou!)
I asked Muskoka Tourism’s Marketing Manager, Jordan Mulligan, what separates Muskoka designed golf courses from the rest of the world and he gave the following answer: “Muskoka is beautiful -- one of the most beautiful places on earth -- but in terms of golf what makes it great is how the architects worked the rocks and granite outcroppings INTO their designs instead of trying to work around them. They wanted to show off the beauty instead of destroying or hiding it as many other places do.” (Nailed it!)
We went into our rounds expecting to have great shots punished. Not only did that not happen often (partially due to the lack of great shots) but we found the odd bounces to be fun, and so many of the quirky approaches to be extremely fair when you accounted for the sizes of the greens and surrounding open areas. You were far more punished for hitting bad shots (as you should be) and the views from so many of these tee boxes were superbly rewarding!
“Canadian Shield golf is its own category to me,” Jordan Mulligan said. “Desert golf, mountain golf, links-style and Canadian Shield -- they’re all categorically unique. We don’t want it to be like anything else. It’s what makes the golf here so special.”
I would contend that a guy with the last name Mulligan should be allowed to take one each round but he never did, and the guy was a warrior, out there with me in the lightning still swinging when we misunderstood the horn warning system at Bigwin Island. (We both survived.)
From that great island golf visit to all of the others combined, Muskoka provided us with a week of memorable experiences on and off their best courses. Thousands of lakes, thousands of islands and over 166,000 yards of golf -- that’s what Discovering Muskoka is all about.
Curious how the best Muskoka golf experiences stacked up to the other 500+ courses I’ve experienced around the world? Three of them rank in my Top 100 Overall Rounds: The Ridge at Manitou (No. 33), Bigwin Island (No. 48) and Muskoka Bay (No. 99). And Taboo is in my top 150. Play these four courses and find someone to get you onto Devil’s Pulpit and Devil’s Paintbrush for the perfect Ontario Golf Trip.
ScoreGolf is generally considered the authority on golf in Canada, and their NEW 2018 Rankings were just released. This is where the Muskoka courses we played came out on that list: Muskoka Bay (No. 16), Bigwin Island (No. 20), Rocky Crest (No. 32), The Ridge at Manitou (No. 57, criminally ridiculous!), Taboo (No. 82, also batship crazy), Seguin Valley (No. 100). Unrated: Deerhurst Highland and The Rock. (Note: Deerhurst Highlands was ranked #38 on ScoreGolf’s Top 59 Public List in 2017.)