Sometimes, the Muskoka mystique becomes tangible: Jagged slanted rocks, sparse tall trees bending in the wind, and a pungent forest scent all come together at once. That's why generations have come here, and why the Group of Seven painted its pleasures more than any other; in fact, the Group almost called themselves "The Algonquin School."
When the Group of Seven had their first exhibition in 1920, the lodge that would become Deerhurst Resort had been in operation for almost a quarter century. Opened in 1896 by Englishman Charles W. Waterhouse on a four-acre site on Peninsula Lake, it sported 18 bedrooms and a smoking lounge. Under the stewardship of two more generations of the Waterhouse family, it would continue to grow until it boasted 780 acres by the 1990s. While much altered, that original lodge building - where Shania Twain got her start in the 1980s - still stands.
Because of the slow expansion, decision to add private condominium residences to the mix (starting in the 1970s), various ownership changes over the past two decades, and the piecemeal selloff of small parcels of land to private developers, Deerhurst possesses an organic, haphazard charm that a built-at-once resort could never provide. Which is why, when ownership changed yet again to Gil Blutrich's Toronto-based Skyline Hotels & Resorts a few months ago, there was reason for trepidation.
Deerhurst works, in my opinion, because it doesn't feel too planned or obsessively manicured. While there are two top-notch golf courses and a pavilion large enough to hold an indoor swimming pool, two restaurants and the G8 Summit, there are also forested areas and rough-looking buildings in need of paint. It's where you drag a Muskoka chair to the water's edge rather than being told where to sit. And my guess is people like it that way.
A few weeks ago, I met with Skyline sales and marketing director Harley Nakelsky. Whether walking through the pavilion or driving to the various sites (such as the private airstrip or the sugar shack where they make their own maple syrup), that Deerhurst is unique because of these qualities kept coming up in conversation; when Mr. Nakelsky spoke of a future indoor waterpark or the recently opened outdoor paintball area, he stressed that these (ad)ventures were meant to add variety to the roster rather than being quick money-making schemes. When talking of possible expansion, it was on out-of-the-way lots near the Highlands golf course rather than at the more valuable water's edge.
Perhaps most interesting is Skyline's plan to transform the five, pre-existing "Sport Villa" buildings - just steps away from the main pavilion - into private, fully furnished condominiums. Not only are these where the G8 leaders hung their hats last summer, the 120 units (each approximately 550 square feet) already have fireplaces and private decks.
Starting at $149,900, it's an inexpensive way to own a private piece of Muskoka history. "No one believes that it's whole ownership," said Mr. Nakelsky of the newly christened Summit Lodges. "I still get people who register at our website and say the same thing: 'This is time-share, right?'"
Although some of the suites were renovated for the G8 leaders last summer, even those will be redone by The Design Agency to reflect a more traditional Muskoka vibe. Barnboard headboards and bedside driftwood lamps in bedrooms and woodsy graphic wallpaper, casual furniture and chunky log tables in living rooms will encourage a more relaxed pace. In the currently empty, cavernous three-storey atrium in each building (where I'm told 1970s and 80s hot tub parties used to take place) there will be an amenities space with a large dining area and prep kitchen; on the other side of a floor-to-ceiling, double-sided fireplace a lounge area will be set up.
If that weren't enough, purchasers will be automatically enrolled into Skyline's "Skylife" rewards program, which offers discounts at other Skyline properties, including Horseshoe and downtown Toronto's Cosmopolitan and Pantages hotels.
Since I've never been much of a camper or cottager, this no-fuss escapism appeals to me: I'm at a resort but I can paddle someplace Group of Sevenish if the mood strikes, and if I need more civilization than Deerhurst's restos, bars and spa can offer, I'm only a few minutes from Huntsville. "You're not buying a cabin in the woods," agrees Mr. Nakelsky. "You're right in the centre of everything, but it kind of feels like you're in a cabin." A cabin with cable TV, natch, and when I'm in the city the unit makes money via the rental program. It's ready-made Muskoka for busy urbanites, without the angry bears.
Despite the increase in tourism and development, Muskoka, to me anyway, seems perpetually trapped somewhere between 1920 and 1950. Here, the Canadian Shield acts as chastity belt to thwart overzealous developers, which is why it continues to win accolades: National Geographic recently ranked it at the top of its "10 Best Summer Trips of 2011" list.
As a result, it will continue to offer the kind of quiet solitude that painters and poets use to feed their muses for generations to come.