This Canadian Destination Is Called the 'Hamptons of the North' — With Charming Towns, Lavish Cottages, and Beautiful Lakes

Located just north of Toronto, the lake-filled region of Muskoka is a glamorous year-round retreat.

Home to more than 1,500 sparkling lakes fringed with palatial cottages, private golf clubs, and charming resorts, Muskoka has long been a summer playground for Toronto’s elite. A 2.5-hour drive (or 30-minute flight) from the city will bring you to this luxurious slice of cottage country. And once you’re “up north,” it’s easy to while away the days boating, hiking, biking, and lounging lakeside in a Muskoka chair (Ontario’s version of the Adirondack chair) while appreciating both simple sunsets and flashy speedboats.

Occupying its own island in Lake of Bays; Bigwin Inn has been a fashionable summer resort since opening in 1920.

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Spanning six towns and townships, Muskoka’s landscape is dotted with rock formations and waterways that were carved into the Canadian Shield in prehistoric times by retreating glaciers. The region became a weekend getaway for the wealthy when railroads were built in the late 1800s.

Two Muskoka chairs on a wooden dock facing a lake during the summer.

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By the early 1900s, American President Woodrow Wilson had a summer home here, and in the 1930s, the Bigwin Inn was a favorite haunt for luminaries like Clark Gable and Ernest Hemingway. Today, Muskoka’s real estate remains highly coveted, with frequent visitors such as Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Cindy Crawford, Kate Hudson, Goldie Hawn, and Kurt Russell.

Speeding boat on Lake Joseph in Muskoka, Ontario. Cottages nestled between green trees

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Like the Hamptons, the most popular time to visit Muskoka is from June to September, when the average daily temperature is above 66 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s also worth visiting in October to see the fall colors, or in the winter to cross-country ski, snowshoe, snowmobile, and ice climb. No matter what time of year you visit, though, here’s how to plan the perfect trip to Muskoka. 

Embrace cottage life.

A beautiful golf course in the Muskoka region of Ontario, Canada in the fall.

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Even if you don’t own a summer home in Muskoka, you’ll find several vacation rentals with a quintessential Canadian cottage experience. Jayne's Cottages, for example, offers a range of ultra-luxe properties, most of which are located on the shores of Muskoka’s three main bodies of water (Lake Joseph, Lake Muskoka, and Lake Rosseau). With properties ranging from private island estates to lavish cottages near the north end of Lake Joseph (now known as “Billionaires Row”), there are plenty of options, but it’s still recommended to book a few months in advance of the summer season. If you’re planning a last-minute trip, JW Marriott The Rosseau Muskoka Resort & Spa is a great alternative to renting a cottage, as it provides access to two private beaches and water sports. Plus, it neighbors The Rock, an 18-hole golf course designed by Nick Faldo.

Get outside.

Campground and autumn trees at Algonquin Provincial Park in Muskoka, Onterio

Courtesy of Destination Ontario

Muskoka is best known for its pristine lakes and rivers, but even if you don’t have your own boat, there are countless ways to get out on the water. Local operator Liv Outside hosts a range of tours — from stand-up paddleboarding to kayak fishing in specially outfitted Jackson angler kayaks. Just north of the Muskoka is Algonquin Provincial Park, where you can camp, hike, and canoe. Algonquin Park Adventure Tours offers multiday guided canoeing trips, as well as wildlife photography tours (beavers, moose, loons, and black bears can all be found in the park). Within Muskoka lies Arrowhead Provincial Park, home to forested trails that lead to waterfalls and sandy beaches, as well as the Torrance Barrens Dark-Sky Preserve, one of the best places to stargaze in Ontario.

Some on the ice skating trail in Arrowhead Provincial Park in Muskoka, Ontario

Courtesy of Visit Muskoka

In recent years, Muskoka has also become famous for its ice-skating trails. In January and February, skaters flock to Ice-skating Trail in Arrowhead Provincial Park, which winds through a magical snow-covered evergreen forest for nearly a mile. Another option is the Cranberry Ice Trail in Bala, which has the added bonus of being located on a winery, allowing visitors to warm up with mulled wine or enjoy a tasting after their skate. Other cold-weather adventures include ice climbing, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and fat biking (Liv Outside provides equipment rentals and tours). 

Visit the quaint towns and villages.

The bow of the historic steamship the RMS Segwun as seen from the dock in Gravenhurst Muskoka Wharf

Timothy A. Campbell/Courtesy of Destination Ontario

At the heart of the region, the Township of Muskoka Lakes offers a quintessential Canadian summer vacation experience, with charming waterfront communities, farmers markets, and plenty of dining options. In the recently revitalized village of Port Carling, you’ll find curated shops like Frankies Surf Club (a boutique and juice bar), small-batch coffee roasters like Oliver's Coffee, and brunch spots like York & Mason. Nearby, the town of Bala (also known as ​​the Cranberry Capital of Ontario), attracts visitors with its cranberry marshes and massive Bala Cranberry Festival every fall, when you can put on some waders and take the “cranberry plunge” by stepping into the bog.

A 20-minute drive southeast will bring you to Gravenhurst, another town oozing old Canadian charm. Wander along Muskoka Road, where you can take a self-guided walking tour through the historic downtown area before heading to the Gravenhurst Muskoka Wharf. From here, board the legendary RMS Segwun — North America’s oldest-operating steamship — for a scenic cruise. The journey offers a perfect vantage point for appreciating Muskoka’s unique mixture of elements: glamorous waterfront mansions, pristine nature, and the luxury of getting away from it all.

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