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By Andrew Hind and Maria Da Silva

We sat on the deck leisurely sipping our wine, a glorious summer sun warming our faces and painting the ripples upon the water a dazzling silver.

We felt lazy and relaxed. How could you not? The breezes are surprisingly balmy, the living is laid back, and everything revolves around the sparkling water. There is an unmistakable energy here, a vibrancy that says Gravenhurst’s Muskoka Wharf is the place to be.

Gravenhurst’s fortunes have always been linked to its waterfront.

From the 1860s the wharves built along the shores of Muskoka Bay served first as a stepping-off point for settlers entering the wilds of Muskoka, and later as a link to luxury resorts clinging precariously to the shorelines. Gravenhurst, for good reason, was called the Gateway to Muskoka.

At one time, the vista was one of ramshackle and noisy sawmills dotting a barren landscape of rocks and stumps. The Bay was clogged with logs, and vast piles of sawdust lined the shores.

By the mid-20th century, however, things had changed. The mills were gone and the last steamships were rotting along the docks. Muskoka Wharf grew eerily silent, obsolete and seemingly without a future.

Until now, that is. In the last decade, an 89-acre development featuring tourist attractions, boutique shops, a number of restaurants (including a Boston Pizza literally atop the water), and lakeside boardwalks has brought a new lustre to Muskoka Wharf.

The lead attractions of the newly revitalized Muskoka Wharf are undoubtedly the steamships that carry on a 150-year-old tradition of transporting passengers across the Muskoka lakes. Book a cruise and slip back in time aboard one of three nostalgic vessels.

Most beloved is R.M.S. Segwun, the oldest operating steamship in North America, celebrating her 125th anniversary last year.

Her sister ship, the Wenonah II, was built in the 1990s but retains all of the historic charm of a turn-of-the-century steamship. The experience aboard either ship is timeless and unforgettable. Leaning over the rails, the rock-and-pine shoreline of Lake Muskoka slides past at a leisurely five knots. Smaller motorboats whiz past, while you admire the stately summer estates of the rich and famous. 

There are a variety of excursion options to choose from, ranging from a brief one-hour jaunt to the four-hour Millionaire’s Row Cruise that highlights a stretch of the lake famous for grand homes dating back to the 1800s. Many passengers enjoy the High Tea Cruise, a two-hour afternoon excursion during which they experience a traditional high tea – finger sandwiches, fresh scones, tasty desserts and your choice of loose leaf tea – in the Segwun’s Royal Muskoka Salon. The most spectacular option is the sunset dinner cruise. Enjoy multi-course fine dining aboard the Segwun, backdropped by the expanse of Lake Muskoka. After dinner you can venture on deck to watch spellbound as a blazing sun sinks below the horizon, its fading rays shimmering across the water.  

For a more intimate experience, book the 24-passenger Wanda III, built in 1915 as the private yacht of Margaret Eaton, the widow of Eaton’s Department Store founder Sir Timothy Eaton. The ship’s engines were from a Royal Canadian Navy minesweeper and were incredibly powerful, capable of a then-unheard-of 24 miles per hour. Lady Eaton liked to get to her cottage-estate on the north shore of Lake Rosseau as fast as possible!

After cruising, explore the history of steamships and luxury hotels that came to define this region at the Muskoka Boat and Heritage Centre.  This world-class museum includes a number of interactive exhibits, including North America’s largest collection of in-water antique wooden boats.

Overlooking the entire wharf and just 70 feet from the shore is the newly built Residence Inn by Marriott, a warm and comfortable hotel boasting 106 suites, an indoor pool and whirlpool, exercise room, and free breakfast buffet. From here, all the attractions are just a few minutes’ walk away.

At the end of a day of exploring, retire to your private balcony, pull up a Muskoka chair and gaze out onto the placid waters as one of the steamships slowly glides into view, floating on the lake like a serene apparition from a bygone era.   

Muskoka Wharf, centred upon the majesty and charm of the steamships that call it home, has transformed a moribund waterfront into perhaps the coolest spot in Muskoka.

What to do while you’re there

Gravenhurst enjoys the distinction of being the first town in Muskoka, both historically and geographically, as one drives north along the Highway 11 corridor. There’s a lot to see and do in this lakeside community of 10,000.

Dr. Henry Norman Bethune, who was born and raised here, was a physician, inventor, educator, activist and artist. He is best remembered for the last two years of his life, which were spent in war-torn China serving as a surgeon and teacher for peasants oppressed by the Japanese invaders. His remarkable life and legacy is remembered at the Bethune Memorial House National Historic Site of Canada (235 John St. N. 705-687-4261).

The Gravenhurst Opera House underwent a multi-million dollar renovation in the mid-1990s restoring the beauty of its Victorian architecture while bringing the facility into the 21st century. Today it hosts live performances all year long. The auditorium is shaped like the hull of a boat, giving it near-matchless acoustics.(295 Muskoka Road S. 705-687-5550)
Show listings at gravenhurstoperahouse.com

Don’t miss the opportunity to stroll along Muskoka Road, which with its historic buildings and unique shops has been voted the prettiest street in Ontario.

Summer Events

Farmers Market

Purchase fresh, locally grown produce and browse through the handiwork of area craftsmen at the 22-year-old Gravenhurst Farmers Market. The largest in the area, with more than 80 vendors. Every Wednesday 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Muskoka Wharf events field opposite Boston Pizza. gravenhurstfarmersmarket.com

July 25 - 27 In-water Boat Show and Ribfest

A great family event blending classic boats and great food. Dozens of prized boats bob along the docks, ringed by more than 100 booths selling aquatic and cottage-themed products, while the scents of fantastic food and sounds of live music carry upon the summer breeze. A truly festive atmosphere. Location: Muskoka Wharf. For more information go to muskokashows.com

July 5 Antique and Classic Boat Show

One of the largest and best-loved events in the Muskoka events calendar, this year’s show will feature a collection of more than 150 race boats from classic boats of the 1930s, to sea fleas, to hydrofoils. Location: Muskoka Wharf. For more information go to acbs.ca

August 15-17 Dockside Festival of the Arts

A popular event bringing together more than 100 artisans displaying their talents in a wide variety of art forms and techniques. Location: Muskoka Wharf. gravenhurstchamber.com/special-events/dockside-festival-of-the-arts/