Decline of family-run resorts in Ontario’s cottage country has changed the character of Muskoka

Rendering of a proposed home in Gravenhurst on Muskoka Lake

Bruce Forsyth

Generations of families have always enjoyed getting away from the crowded cities and having a leisurely vacation in a relaxed, peaceful and serene environment, perhaps on a lake, with the sound of rustling leaves from tall, mature trees.

Residents of eastern New York State have the Catskills, but for generations of Ontarians, the lure of the Muskoka and Haliburton Districts have been irresistible, with trains, steamships and then automobiles bringing families to the area summer after summer. However like the Catskills, Muskoka and Haliburton has seen a decline, but in a different way.

The Muskoka and Haliburton Districts were once the premier resort area in Ontario, dating back as far as the late 1860s, when resorts like Cleveland’s House on Lake Rosseau opened in 1869. Although Cleveland’s House is still operating 150 years later, it’s no longer an independently-owned, family run resort.

While not all of the old family run resorts have been replaced with newer, corporate-owned resorts, or by condominium developments, many of them have done exactly that. Rustic family cottages are being replaced with mansion-like summer estates and year-round residences, in areas that were once seasonally occupied only.

The crowds certainly haven’t died off as they did in the Catskills, with 2.1 million annual visitors coming to Ontario’s “cottage country” every year, but the character of the area certainly has changed.

Local residents complain with each closure, it’s one less family-run resort with a history and the charm that comes with old Muskoka.

Developers on the other hand, have a different view. Developer Rick Koffman pretty much summed up preserving heritage versus making money when he was quoted as saying, “Bangor Lodge has been there for 75 years. They bought their cottages knowing that. If they were delusional, thinking it would be a rickety old resort for the rest of time, then that’s their wishful thinking. It’s just not the market reality.”

Many argue that the current clientele for Muskoka resorts are those who are abandoning the rustic charms of the older resorts and bare-bones cottage enclaves for modern, high-end resorts and cottage communities, some of them sold to buyers as time-shares like Touchstone Resort, most with urban-style facilities and amenities. The old-style resorts just can’t compete anymore.

Of course this is having a negative effect on those who want an inexpensive vacation in the region. The loss of the smaller, independent hotels and cottage communities is that rates in the $300 to $400 a night range are becoming unaffordable to families who used to pay $600 to $1000 per week, including meals and family activities.

As first published in the Canadian Military History website.

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