PORT CARLING, Ontario — Even before Canada became a confederation and thus a country in 1867, wealthy tourists from the United States were making Muskoka a preferred vacation destination.
For more than 150 years, the region, located a couple of hours north of Toronto and dubbed “the Hamptons of Canada,” “the Malibu of the North,” and selected by National Geographicas one of “the world’s must-see places to visit,” has attracted the rich and famous.
Where once the likes of Clark Gable, Carole Lombard and Ernest Hemingway cavorted, now modern-day entertainment and sports stars revel in the spectacular scenery created by the massive granite outcroppings of the Canadian Shield, punctuated by crystal-clear lakes and towering pines. As opposed to steamships and trains, they now arrive by float plane, helicopter or via a multi-lane superhighway.
Muskoka is dotted with luxurious resorts with great golf courses such as Bigwin Island, Muskoka Bay, Taboo, Rocky Crest, Grandview and more. But perhaps none more typifies the tony Muskoka experience than The Lake Joseph Club.
Twenty years ago, Canadian architect Thomas McBroom wove a layout up, over and through the challenging topography that earned its place as the best new Canadian course as chosen by Golf Digest. McBroom, who led the charge for golf course development in Muskoka when he collaborated with Bob Cupp on Deerhurst Highlands in 1990, now is recognized as a world leader in dealing with this type of unique terrain.
“Lake Joe,” as it is known colloquially, is on the shore, logically enough, of Lake Joseph, an expansive body of water surrounded by multi-million-dollar summer homes. Cottages, they are not.
The club's Water’s Edge Wine Bar and Grill is as renowned for its cuisine and wine cellar as it is for frequent visitors Wayne Gretzky (maybe with daughter Paulina and prospective son-in-law Dustin Johnson?), fellow Canadians Justin Bieber and Martin Short, part-time residents Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Cindy Crawford.
Head golf professional John O’Brien has been at Lake Joe for 15 years, reveling in “the natural beauty, the number of fine golf courses, the laid-back atmosphere and the friendly locals,” he said.
But when it comes to favorite places to play, albeit admittedly biased, he chooses The Lake Joseph Club, which opens for the season on Friday, May 11, and is open for select play.
“The course is carved through some of the most beautiful scenery anywhere,” he said. “You will use every club in your bag and sometimes you can’t focus because of that scenery and the wildlife we have here — deer, foxes, wild turkeys and even the occasional black bear.
“I always look forward to playing holes 11 through 13, the stretch I call the valley holes. No. 11 might be the best par-4 in Muskoka, requiring a well-placed drive followed by a long carry over a hazard. No. 12 looks simple but plays far more difficult than the yardage indicates. And 13 is a great risk-reward par-5. Lay-up or go for it in two? Better hit a great tee shot.”
In 1882, George Munro Grant wrote of Muskoka in Picturesque Canada, “If ever there was an Eden, we think we must find it here.”
Kinda puts the Hamptons and Malibu to shame.
John Gordon, who has covered golf for more than 30 years for Canadian newspapers, magazines and a TV network, has authored eight books on the game. He lives in Midland, Ontario.