Canada has more than two million lakes, but the most desirable swimming spots tend to be within a short drive or ferry ride of a major city and have a magical mix of warm waters, sandy beaches and good amenities (i.e. awesome ice cream parlours). Many of these gems are rimmed by private cottages and stately lakeside homes – the kind that cost more than $1-million and are typically owned by business moguls, elite athletes and movie stars. But there are still public docks, parks and boat launches on many of Canada’s most prime lakes. Here, some of the best from coast to coast.
Sylvan Lake, Alta.
Sylvan Lake, just outside of Red Deer, Alta., and an hour and a half drive from both Edmonton and Calgary, is the province’s premiere swimming spot. There are other lakes nearby, but they tend to have murkier and more silty water and are prone to algae blooms that can cause itchy skin.
Sylvan, on the other hand, is “spring fed, clean and clear,” according to local Keri Pratt, who runs the Wood Shed, an axe-throwing business. She fell in the love with the area during day trips as a child, so decided to move there full time as an adult.
Because of the pristine waters, Sylvan Lake has Alberta’s highest average price for lakefront property, at $1-million, according to Royal LePage’s 2017 Canadian Recreational Housing Report. But there is a large public beach that arcs the south shore, a short walk from the Big Moo Ice Cream Parlour, a local favourite.
According to Pratt, the prime time to go is in June and September, when it tends to be less busy, but is still warm enough to swim. Canada Day is another good time. “The lake is very still,” she says, “so the fireworks reflect perfectly in the water.”
Salt Spring Island, B.C.
Salt Spring Island, in the Strait of Georgia between British Columbia’s Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island, is home to many famous entertainers, artists and athletes – Raffi, Robert Bateman and Olympic gold medallist Simon Whitfield among them.
The north end of the island is the most developed, with multimillion dollar homes sprawling along the coast. The south is less built up and mountainous, with a quiet public lake that has a family-friendly swimming dock.
“Cusheon Lake is one of the nicer lakes on the island,” says Charles Kahn, a local historian who has written a number of books about Salt Spring Island. “A lot of kids like swimming there because it’s warmer than the coast. It’s also a nice place to canoe, with lots of interesting corners to paddle into.”
Kahn’s favourite lake, though, is actually on another island in the region. “If you really want a hidden gem, I would go to Newton Lake on Quadra Island,” he says. “You have to access it by a trail. You can’t drive in. But it’s a deep, emerald green and incredibly quiet.”
Just north of Toronto, Muskoka is the summer destination of Hollywood elites such as Cindy Crawford and Kurt Russell, which is why the four most sought after lakes – Lake Joseph, Lake Rosseau, Lake Muskoka and Lake of Bays – have property values averaging $2.2-million, according to muskoka-realestate.ca.
There are lots of beautiful, public beaches, boat launches and picnic areas dotted throughout the area. The hard part, however, is finding the best ones.
In the quaint town of Port Carling, Ont., at the northern tip of Lake Muskoka, where Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Justin Bieber have all summered, Hanna Park has a public dock and swim area. On Lake Rosseau (where you may spot Martin Short), from May to August, the JW Marriot Hotel offers free monthly yoga classes by the water.
For families, Dwight Beach, in the town of Dwight on the northern edge of Lake of Bays (Shania Twain visits here), offers a public, sandy expanse with a lunch area and dock. “It’s a bit off the beaten path,” says Erika Grainger, a local baker who reputedly makes Muskoka’s best butter tarts at her bakeshop, Erika’s. “But it’s very shallow along the shore, which makes it easy to get into. It’s especially great for young kids just learning to swim.”
The Laurentians are just an hour north of Montreal, but despite having tree-covered mountains replete with glistening lakes, the area can feel off-limits to people who don’t own a cottage. Much of the shoreline is privately owned, and even when a lake has public access, such as picturesque Lac Manitou, which has a beach at the north end and a public dock on the south, the access tends to be either small (a two-person dock) or reserved for local residents who don’t have their own waterfront.
Lac Tremblant is one of the area’s most popular destinations – Michael Douglas and Mario Lemieux have cottages in the area – with public beaches, though they tend to be quite busy. Lac des Sables is quieter, and is one of the area’s most storied places. Jackie Kennedy visited in the 1960s and Mordecai Richler set one of his novels there, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, which later became an Oscar-nominated movie starring Richard Dreyfuss and Randy Quaid. In addition to its multimillion dollar homes, it has three public beaches including Major Beach, which is good for volleyball and barbecues, and Tessier Beach, which is a short walk to the restaurant and boutiques of nearby Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts (La Cremière Au Parc Lagny has amazing ice cream).
Most city-dwelling Canadians have to drive at least an hour to get to cottage country, but Haligonians are extremely lucky. Within the city limits of Halifax and neighbouring Dartmouth, there are more than a dozen fresh-water swimming spots. It’s especially a plus given that many locals are wary of even dipping a toe in the historically unclean harbour.
Greg Taylor runs a blog called HalifaxTrails.ca, where he has charted his favourite lakes in the area. According to him, there is a spot to splash around for every taste. Some places, such as Chocolate Lake, are more urban and lined with lakefront homes, but are good for families because they have lifeguard supervision. Others, such as Long Lake, are just 15 minutes out of town but feel “remote, almost like you are lost in the wilderness,” he says.
For people who love paddling, “Lake Banook is a beloved, for sure,” Taylor says. It is the home to a number of canoe, kayak and rowing clubs, such as the 115-year-old Banook Canoe Club. “It’s a great place to watch Olympic kayakers train,” he says. The best public access is Birch Cove Park, which is sandy, tree-shaded, but close to a bus stop for easy commuting from downtown.