Saturday 16 December 2017

Dream driving on your way to the great outdoors

A cottage at Lake Rosseau
A cottage at Lake Rosseau
Liadan Hynes boating in Canada
Map of Canada


Liadan Hynes

Taking to the open road in a car must be one of the all-time fantasy holidays. We had already spent several days in Toronto when the proper, road-trip part of our holiday, heading north to Ontario, Muskoka, began.

Our voyage was an abridged version of the Ontario Taster, a fly/drive itinerary (flying to Canada, then driving to various locations around the east coast). The full trip is normally seven days, eight nights, and takes in Toronto, Kingston, Ottawa, and Huntsville. As we were short on time, we decided to whittle it down to two stops from the list, Toronto, for the city break element, and Huntsville, Ontario, for the pastoral side of things.

Huntsville is in the heart of what is known as Cottage Country, in the Muskoka region, about two hours north of Toronto. It's a popular holiday district for Torontonians, who keep country "cottages" – what on the west coast would be termed cabins – there, for weekend breaks. If you're after classic, wooded Canadian countryside, this is the place. The landscape as we drove north was reminiscent of the most picturesque parts of Wicklow. As you might imagine, the term cottage covers everything from the most basic accommodation to the most palatial. Shania Twain and Jim Carrey have cottages in Muskoka, while Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell often holiday there, as does their actress daughter Kate Hudson.

We were warned by locals not to travel on Friday anytime after noon, or return on Sunday anytime after lunch, so as to avoid "cottage country traffic". The area is popular most of the year, offering skiing in the winter, and water-based activities in the summer, so there isn't really an off-peak time.

I had worried slightly that the driving in a foreign country aspect of our trip might end in tears, or anger. Such concerns faded as soon as we arrived to pick up our car. Normally, I have zero interest in cars. I drive a hand-me-down Micra and will do until it refuses to budge. But there's something tank-like and impressive about Northern American cars, and our Dodge Charger was a veritable behemoth, so huge that one felt completely safe in the sometimes daunting conditions of driving on the 'wrong side of the road', in a foreign country. One tip for driving on Canadian motorways: there could be four or five lanes so if you are driving in the outside, or second from outside lane, you could suddenly find your lane has become an exit lane, and before you know it you've driven off the motorway.

Exit lanes are not separate turns, they are exiting lanes of traffic that suddenly drive off the motorway. Once we got the hang of this, we found it best to drive in the middle lane. If your exit comes up unexpectedly, you're close enough to get off, but you won't find yourself exiting the motorway when you don't want to. This sounds a little involved but it's worth taking on board.

This isn't the most high-end culinary trip you'll ever go on, but any road trip you make in Canada should include a stop at doughnut diner Tim Hortons. It's the sort of food offering you would really only find in North America, and even then only certain locals are partaking – the Canadian cousin looked positively revolted when we told her we'd tried the bright blue doughnuts. For the particularly lazy, there are drive-through branches, but we didn't stoop so low. While the coffee is what you'd expect, not great, the doughnuts are sinfully delicious, and the perfect thing for a long car journey.

Our residence for the weekend was to be the Deerhurst resort in Muskoka, a large, weather board-clad structure surrounded by forest, sitting on the edge of Peninsula Lake. A distinctly family orientated resort, we stayed in a junior suite, adjacent to the main hotel – spread over various split levels – which felt like a particularly luxurious ski resort. Our room had a separate living-room and well-equipped kitchen, if you wanted to go the self-service route. Larger suites and condos are available for bigger groups.

The location is reminiscent of somewhere between the resort in Dirty Dancing, and that Dan Aykroyd and John Candy movie, The Great Outdoors.

We decided to lunch in the lobby lounge, which had various collections of couches cosily ensconced around a huge open fire, with a hunting lodge decor. The restaurants at Deerhurst follow an eat local movement, so all produce is grown nearby. I had the poutine, a traditional Canadian dish of chips covered in gravy and cheese curds, the husband had a delicious bacon and cheddar burger.

Deerhurst produces its own honey, herbs and maple syrup, so obviously we had to sample the desserts: Deerhurst maple and Bala cranberry cheesecake for me, warm cranberry, white chocolate and maple sticky pudding for him (cranberries are something of a local specialty, so worth trying at some stage).

After food, we decided to tour the grounds, and wandered down to the lakefront. The beach was peppered with white sunloungers – parents seemed to be enjoying this perfect spot, dozing with a book while children and teenagers were occupied with watersports.

At the height of summer, there is an inflatable waterpark on the lake. Canoes, kayaks and paddle-boards are also available all summer. Lakeside and boat-trip fishing is also popular. We spent a pleasant few hours paddling around the lake – there's great property 'porn' to be had by snooping on people's lakeside properties.

The next day we decided to go off resort, and explore the small local town of Huntsville. Downtown Hunstville is a cute stretch of about five blocks of main street, with residential areas directly off this. We happened to visit on the day of the Huntsville Half Marathon Band on the Run, just in time to see runners returning from the five- and 10k-runs, and half-marathons. From 2pm on, music was performed live in the town centre, and there was a lovely festive atmosphere. The town is near Algonquin Provincial Park so there are plenty of stunning hike trails on hand.

The restaurant Three Guys and a Stove, just outside the main town environs, had come highly recommended. Fish features strongly on the menu, and since the area is renowned for its fishing, I'd recommend that.

We'll gloss over the part where the navigator, yours truly, pointed us in the wrong direction for a worrying amount of time on the way back to Toronto; the main thing was that, in the end, we did not miss our flight home. Bar that minor episode, our first road trip was a resounding success.

Flights to Toronto with Air Transat from Dublin & Shannon (Apr-Oct) start at €468pp rtn inc taxes.

Hire a car from just €182 per week and drive from Toronto to The Deerhurst Resort, Hunstville, Muskoka from €61pp pn.

The Ontario Taster fly drive, from €545, has been specially put together to give you a taste of the beautiful province of Ontario, exploring Toronto, Kingston, Ottawa and the beautiful Huntsville

Based on departures from Dublin. Book at or call 018 666700

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