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Spread across the Canadian Shield, two hours north of Toronto, is Muskoka cottage country. It’s a place rich with summer clichés: a loon-call land of saturated sunsets, gentle lake breezes, and beautiful bronzed people in a Roots world of mahogany launches, Porsche SUVs and palatial summer homes. It’s a Near North wilderness where a rough day in the woods might involve spilling Chablis on your tasselled loafers.

But there’s another Muskoka that doesn’t include wake-boarding or dockside cocktails: one of twisting backroads and rock cuts, general stores and rolling farmland, the Muskoka that we rush through on our way to the dock (and the Chablis). This landscape is rich with the kind of undulating ribbons of asphalt that quicken the pulse of a motorcyclist and display nature’s grandeur as well as any lakefront, maybe better.

I went looking for a route that stitched together some of the best of them, a checklist of dryland Muskoka highlights, a Grand Tour of the heart of the region. These final days of summer – and even the early days of fall, as the leaves start to burn bright and the traffic dies down – is the perfect time for the adventure.

A Honda NC700 was my vehicle of choice: quiet, light and nimble, frugal on gas. A motorcycle brings sensory experience back to travel – temperature gradients, road side smells, wind. And nothing makes you savour life more than knowing you could be one texting Hummer driver away from oblivion.

My loop started at the true gateway to Muskoka: Webers, a classic highway stop just north of Orillia. Opened in July, 1963, its hamburgers (and its Friday night line-ups) are legendary. I grabbed an early morning espresso at the new Starbucks next door, a forest on one side of me, four lanes of long weekend traffic streaming by on the other. Adventures are enhanced by contrast, and I knew that riding this stretch of straight, boring highway would be like hitting my head against a wall: It would feel great when I stopped. I tucked in behind a jacked-up monster pickup which created a good draft, and was able to see (and avoid) oncoming turtles and errant chunks of firewood between its massive tires.

After 51 kilometres of superhighway anaesthesia, I turned west onto High Falls Road and entered a world of rock cuts, precipitous dips and decreasing radius curves. There should be a sign that says: “Motorcyclists, engage brain NOW.” This seven-kilometre section of Italian Alps-style riding was a taste of what was to come for the better part of three hours: roads that hugged the landscape, skirted bays and river bends and ignored any notion of the straight line. This was more like it.

I soon joined Muskoka Road 4, described on the map as a “Historic Settlers Route,” and used by the axe-wielding pioneers who opened up this land to agriculture, eager for the incentives of the Free Grants and Homestead Act of 1868. They sought a land of milk and honey but encountered instead the rock-ribbed southern flank of the Precambrian Shield, with its thin topsoil, granite outcrops and clouds of mosquitoes. Some found pockets of decent land, but many others gave up, defeated by the hard-scrabble life. Even today, the era of forest clearing isn’t so far removed and I soon passed Muskoka Timber Mills, its acres of massive log piles sprayed down by sprinklers.

Heading northwest on Highway 141, a sinuous ribbon of road joining Parry Sound and Huntsville, the first teasing glimpses of sparkling lakes appear. The sense that you are in one of the world’s celebrated lake lands takes hold, and the dramatic sweep of the landscape opens up: at first across rolling farmland like Kentucky horse country, and then gradually the tall trees edge closer to the roadside, the rock outcrops gain elevation, the hills steepen.

At Skeleton Bay, the waters of Lake Rosseau lap at the edge of the road and I down-shifted quickly for a sharp, blind curve overhung by a massive granite cliff. Nearby Windermere, with its famous old resort, is a worthwhile side trip in a neighbourhood that is something of an NHL star magnet. It wouldn’t be odd to find Eric Lindros buying fishing lures in the Bent River General Store, or Steve Yzerman teeing off bright and early.

At the apex of the loop is the village of Rosseau, famous for Rosseau Lake College, built on the grounds of the Eaton family’s pillared summer mansion, and the more useful Rosseau General Store, where you can find everything from plumbing parts and wooden toys to s’mores supplies and free-trade coffee.

This is the top end of Peninsula Road, a narrow strip between lakes Rosseau and Joseph, a road I’d been waiting for all morning. South of the village, it dives suddenly into a swirling tangle of corners, switchbacks and steep gradients sometimes called the Morgan Bay Corkscrew, a favourite of sport bike riders. I rode it in both directions. Twice.

Glimmering water vistas flashing by on each side, I arrived at Port Sandfield in one piece. This is the, see-and-be-seen spot, the Hollywood & Vine, if you will, of Muskoka, a busy intersection of lakes, boats and cars. Before crossing the narrow swing bridge, a Montreal smoked meat sandwich from Silver Stream Farms is a must if you’re ready for a delicious deli lunch.

Highway 118 East took me to Port Carling, “The Hub of The Lakes.” This picturesque town is the municipal seat of Muskoka Lakes Township and offers a glimpse of both Muskoka history and the high end of the retail spectrum. Real estate offices and design showrooms dominate, and business is brisk. “Hamptons North,” they sometimes call it, while discussing whether or not Peak Posh has yet been reached (it hasn’t). A Porsche Conga-line slowed me down, and that texting Hummer driver was lurking in the shadows, I was sure of it.

Heading south, weaving uphill through a massive rock cut canyon, gives a chance to contemplate the age of this landscape, once scoured by glaciers. Nearby is Millionaires Row, a place settled by wealthy American cottagers more than a century ago. Many of their descendants are still here, keeping the summertime traditions, and the local service industries, alive.

I next passed through Bracebridge with its famous falls, bustling main street and eponymous railway bridge, a vestige of its frontier past. Following the line of traffic heading back to the dreaded Highway 11, I cut off just south of town onto #17, part of the “Frank Miller Memorial Route.” A battered sign reading “Winding Road For 7 km” lifted my spirits, and I spent the next stretch all alone, twisting through a shadowed, tree-lined tunnel that rose and fell with the ancient topography.

Gravenhurst, Muskoka’s southern town and the end of my loop, soon emerged from the forest, its summertime charms on display: the Segwun steam ship, Sawdust City craft brewery, Tea Beards café and barbershop and the Bethune Memorial House, a magnet for the thousands of Chinese visitors who arrive every year to see the birthplace of a national Hero of the Revolution (and the reason for the bilingual Mandarin/English signs around town).

My trip-meter read 175 km and I’d had an exhilarating ride through a slice of Muskoka that doesn’t get much coverage in the coffee table books. I’d avoided boring straight roads and the texting Hummer driver: a fine day in a great summer.

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