More than a few beautiful battles are being waged throughout the Canadian Shield, the slice of bedrock that covers half of the maple-leafed mainland. But for golfers, the front lines are found in the Muskoka region of Ontario, within a few hours of North America’s fourth-largest city. Not that you would ever know you’re that close to metropolis when swinging your way through this jagged topography where architects have dared to build — oftentimes through sheer force — a variety of golf courses that mix jaw-dropping drama with high-country hijinks.
“Canadian Shield golf deserves to be its own category … like desert golf, mountain golf, links golf — it’s so many great things while remaining its own thing.” That’s how Jordan Mulligan, Muskoka Tourism’s marketing manager, explains it. And having played through these fairways and greens framed by ubiquitous rocks, it’s tough to argue with him. Canadian Shield golf is something altogether different, something you remember — often for the unmatched beauty, occasionally for the golf-ball-eating terrain.
Muskoka is a land of many lakes (1,600 or so, to be somewhat exact) and a popular vacation destination for summertime adventurers who hike and bike and swim and kayak and do all the outdoorsy things that people do when escaping city life for the great wide-open spaces while the weather runs warmer. And as more and more affluent Canadians are choosing Muskoka for their second (or even third or fourth) homes, it’s quickly gaining an affluent reputation — becoming to Toronto what the Hamptons are to New York City.
But even with annual tourist visits totaling in the millions, this expansive stretch of Canada never seems overly crowded — there’s plenty of room for all of us, apparently. And plenty of room for golf. Lots of really interesting, really fun golf. All of which makes it more remarkable that many Americans who are reading this story right now had probably never heard of Muskoka … until reading this story or listening to the accompanying podcast.
In Episode 128 of the “Talking GolfGetaways” podcast, presented by GolfTripX.com, co-hosts Darin Bunch and Mitch Laurance welcome back Midwest-based golf writer Eric Hart, who now serves as associate editor for golf and travel on the Golf Trip Experts platform. Together, they recap a summertime road trip through the Canadian Shield and golf courses designed by some of the country’s most prolific architects such as Doug Carrick and Thomas McBroom but also a favorite track from the mind of American Ron Garl and even a surprising layout from six-time major championship winner and golf commentator Sir Nick Faldo.
The journey begins with a Bay (Muskoka Bay Resort) and ends on a lake (the Lake of Bays, home to the private Bigwin Island Golf Club, accessible only by boat and stay-and-play with the Port Cunnington Lodge). In between, Darin, Eric and his teenage son, Dylan, find fairways, food and family-style accommodations at such memorable resorts as Taboo Muskoka Resort in Gravenhurst, Rocky Crest Golf Resort in MacTier and Deerhurst Resort in Huntsville.
Along the way, the threesome goes in search of milkshakes (the Golf Shop at Taboo was so good they had to stop twice), enjoys frequent ice cream breaks (including the unforgettable Sticky Toffee Pudding creation at Belly in Huntsville), samples some of the best salmon in the world (the maple-sap-poached dish at The Antler restaurant at Deerhurst Highlands golf course) and spends some time on the water at Port Cunnington, where the summer-sleepaway ambiance is the stuff of which movies (and TV shows) are made.
Most importantly, there’s something in Muskoka for pretty much everyone. Families can hunker down for a week or more at one of the many resorts, each with its own unique combination of attractions and activities. Golfers can stick to one area or another — focusing on two or three golf courses — or they can string together day trip after day trip to explore a dozen courses, each carved from the Canadian Shield with an emphasis on risk-reward shotmaking.
Some, like the golf course at Taboo, offer surprising special touches such as the Gimme Food Truck with grab-n-go tacos and cheesy melts for the next nine holes (and a very cool drop-shot 19th hole you can attempt from just outside the truck to the green below). Other courses offer a different change of pace. At Deerhurst Highlands, the McBroom-Robert Cupp design emerges from the more mountainous landscape into a three-hole stretch of almost pure prairie-links holes before returning to the more familiar Shield surroundings. And at The Ridge at Manitou (arguably our favorite single golf course of the Muskoka trip), the patio dining area is perfect not only for lunch but also to watch golfers arriving by boat, with clubs in hand, for a day on what just might be McBroom’s most playable golf course in the country.
And virtually all of the courses offer expansive vistas. After all, when a region has 1,600 lakes, that’s a lot of lake views to work into accompanying golf designs. The closing hole at The Ridge at Manitou spills down to the 18th green at the edge of Manitouwabing Lake. The opening rollercoaster-drop tee shot at Deerhurst Highlands overlooks Fairy Lake. Out on Bigwin Island, the downhill par-4 No. 6 is among the best water views golfers will find when playing inland anywhere in North America.
So, as you can see, drawing up a list of nine reasons why Muskoka should be your next vacation destination wasn’t a difficult task. If anything, “narrowing” the list to nine reasons was the more daunting feat. But it was the fun kind of daunting — just like golfers face when battling the Canadian Shield. Let’s rock.