Investing in Muskoka: a vibrant tourism sector

June 10, 2019

Muskoka undeniably owes a debt of gratitude to the glaciers. A couple of million years ago, they transformed the land into a natural paradise, carving out hundreds of lakes and depositing huge rock formations. The scene was set for astute investors to launch a thriving tourism industry; and A.P. Cockburn’s founding of the Muskoka Lakes Navigation Company in 1866 was a significant development. Travel by steamship through lakes linked by locks and canals, coupled with railway expansion, promoted the establishment of the first Muskoka resorts. These illustrious hotels appealed to affluent Canadian and American urbanites, eventually shifting the area’s economic focus from logging and farming to tourism. Investment in this sector continues to advance, as modern-day resorts provide classic hospitality in breathtaking surroundings, and innovative attractions look to the future while venerating the past.

Hospitality and Heritage

Muskoka’s many inns and lodges recognize the wisdom of designing renovations that merge the conveniences of today with the elegance of yesteryear.
Deerhurst Resort – In 1896, Deerhurst Inn was built on four waterfront acres, accessible only by steamship. Over the decades, it expanded from a modest summer retreat to a year-round destination with golf courses, condominium suites, and a sports and conference complex. Host of the 2010 G8 Summit, Deerhurst Resort has earned a reputation for sophisticated luxury with upscale cottage-style décor. This year ushered in a new round of enhancements. The waterfront area has doubled, with a giant swim dock, beach volleyball court, and floating water hammocks. Two themed ‘escape’ game cabins offer experiential, mystery-solving play (ideal for families or corporate team-building groups), while youngsters can play in a treetop log clubhouse. The refreshed lobby echoes the ambience of the magnificent old resorts, and the rooms and suites honour Muskoka’s heritage with local accent pieces. An outdoor bar at the Maple Pub overlooks the lake, and the Antler Steakhouse features locally sourced and foraged ingredients. And a brand-new condominium hotel with 162 units, ranging from bachelor suites to three-bedroom condos, is opening in the fall of 2018. “We give our guests great food, intriguing activities, and a lot of waterfront space where they can relax and unwind,” said general manager Jesse Hamilton. “We have absolute confidence that Deerhurst will always be an important asset to our community.”

Clevelands House – Built in 1869, Clevelands House gained a robust profile as a stately family-friendly resort, inspiring enduring memories for generations of visitors. ‘Cleves’, as it is affectionately called, has an old-world charm that draws people back time and again; and new renovations are rejuvenating its grandeur while adhering to current standards. Greg Knight, now VP of Development, became interested in the historic project because of his experience and passion for restoration work. “The branding of Cleves is based on family reminiscences and stories,” he observed. “It will retain its iconic character but benefit from these improvements.” The interior’s original wood floors and ceilings have been pared down and refinished, electrical systems and insulation updated, and décor and furnishings upgraded. Period-appropriate renewal of the hotel’s exterior will coincide with the property development, with better retail presence at the marina area and increased boat slip capacity. “There is a lot of opportunity for tourism operators to move beyond the ten-week-a-year mindset,” Greg said, “and Muskoka is luring investors, because this is simply an amazing place to live and work.”

Lone Pine Inn – Guests of the Lone Pine Inn in Gravenhurst can have the best of all worlds, with just a short walk to scenic Gull Lake, Sawdust City Brewing Co., and the picturesque main street; or a quick drive to two world-class golf courses and the Wharf area, with its steamship cruises, boat museum, and shops. The Inn is open for business in all seasons, hosting visitors seeking summertime leisure, autumn scenery, or winter sports. Owners Rob and Karla Engman purchased the property in 2015, introducing it to the public a year later after completing extensive renovations. The cottages and patio suites present a thoughtful tribute to the area’s rustic style, bolstered by the comfort of modern amenities. In July 2017, the Inn was recognized with a Built Heritage Award, awarded by Gravenhurst’s Heritage Committee to those who renovate, restore, or build properties that reflect superb quality and respect for the spirit of the town’s culture.

Timeless Attractions

The eternal beauty of Muskoka’s trees, rocks, and water is complemented by commercial tourism attractions that fuse progressive ideas with past traditions.

Santa’s Village –For over 60 years, Santa has delighted children at his summer Ho-Ho-Home halfway between the Equator and the North Pole. Situated at a bend of the Muskoka River, Santa’s Village has rides and games for the little ones, while the older set can enjoy Sportsland, tree-trekking, and zip-lines. The jolly old elf himself is there to hear Christmas wishes, and his reindeer welcome hand-fed treats. But even Santa likes to keep up with the times, and there are some exciting changes underway, in the capable hands of its new owners, Brad and Sara Dunkley. The Dunkleys have installed a spinning penguin rollercoaster, upgraded the washrooms, and added an ice-cream Polar Parlour. And this is just the beginning. Jamie Hopkins, the Village’s general manager, explained that a theme park planner is creating a blueprint for the future. Two more rides will be announced next season; and substantial investment will take the park to the next level, projecting its growth beyond the transient tourism trade to encompass holiday celebrations and corporate functions. Brad Dunkley’s skills and training as a financial investor identified Muskoka’s readiness for dynamic growth, and he believes in controlled development. “It’s a case of the right people at the right time,” said Jamie. “They have an incredible personal passion for this – and we will have a very different Santa’s Village within the next five years.”

SS Bigwin – Often referred to as the ‘Ambassador of the Lake’, the SS Bigwin began ferrying summer tourists to the luxurious Bigwin Inn back in the heyday of the famous resorts of the early twentieth century. Over time, this jewel of the lakes lost its lustre, lying partially submerged and neglected at Bigwin Island. In 2002, a group of dedicated volunteers, incorporated as the Lake of Bays Marine Museum and Navigation Society, breathed new life into the majestic old vessel. Completely restored with painstaking attention to historical details, the SS Bigwin now offers private and public cruises, partnering with local businesses for special events such as beer-tasting cruises with the Lake of Bays Brewing Company, cruise-and-dine outings at the Port Cunnington Lodge, and sunset cruises featuring cocktail hour through the Portevino Wine Bar. “We are a non-profit organization,” said Matt Gaasenbeek, Chairman of the Society, “so community fundraisers, private donations, and grants from various levels of government help to keep us afloat.” Beyond the valuable cultural impact of the SS Bigwin and Marine Museum at the Dorset dock, the venture contributes to the vitality of eco-tourism. The renovations replaced the original steam power with an electrical propulsion system, and the project was recently honoured with a Green Tourism award. The SS Bigwin is a wonderful example of Muskoka’s commitment to its heritage, giving our present-day visitors a living reminder of the glory of times gone by.

For well over a century, Muskoka has acted as a magnet, pulling people to its core and embracing them with warm hospitality. The strength of the tourism sector is a pillar of support to the overall economy, building viable markets and showcasing the region’s rewarding investment opportunities.

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