By Andrew Hind and Maria Da Silva
We sat on the patio leisurely sipping our wine, the glorious sun – so close you feel as though you can reach out and touch it – warming our faces and painting the ripples upon the water a dazzling silver. We watched as loons paddled in the distance, as smoke billowed from the stack of a century-old steamship to halo above, and as gleaming boats full of tanned passengers dressed in t-shirts and shorts gently pulled up alongside the docks. A couple strolled hand-in-hand along the boardwalk ringing the bay, while a lone gentleman sat on a bench on the end of a dock, savoring the tranquility of the setting.
We felt lazy and relaxed. How could you not? The breezes are balmy, the living is laidback, and everything revolves around the sparkling water. And yet there is an unmistakable energy here, a vibrancy that says Gravenhurst’s Muskoka Wharf is the place to be.
Gravenhurst’s fortunes have always been linked to its waterfront. The history of Gravenhurst and its wharf march in lock step, developments in one having always affected the other. As went the Muskoka Wharf, so went Gravenhurst.
In the very beginning, the wharves built by James McCabe along the shores of Muskoka Bay served as stepping-off points into the wilds of Muskoka. Businesses in the form of hotels, taverns, stores and shipping interests began to cater to this slow but steady trickle of homesteaders, and consequently Gravenhurst developed along the shores of Lake Muskoka. It should therefore come as little surprise that Gravenhurst was originally known as McCabe’s Landings.
The community grew steadily in the ensuing years, serving as the main port on the Muskoka Lakes and a terminus for the small, but growing number of steamships plying their trade upon the pristine waters. Docks sprung up along Muskoka Bay to service the ships, each one crowded with immigrants eager to take up land provided free of charge by a government eager to develop the region.
Activity along the wharf reached a fevered pitch once the railway reached Gravenhurst in August of 1875. On September 28, the first railway hissed and steamed its way into town. Two months later, a spur line down to the lakeshore was built.
It was at this time that Muskoka Wharf truly was born. The southeastern shoreline of Muskoka Bay was artificially extended with massive cribwork and fill to form a true wharf within the sheltered inlet. A railway waiting room was built and given the grandiose title Muskoka Wharf Station, and trains would pull right up along the docks to disgorge their freight and passengers almost directly onto the steamships.
The wharf was a boon to industry and settlement in the region. Hundreds, if not thousands, of settlers passed through every year for almost two decades, and were joined by an equal number of summer tourists. Just as important were the vast quantities of goods that were shipped from here: In 1878 alone, some 2,811 tons were loaded onto steamships from the wharf.
The extensive wharves with their rail access meant that lumber could easily be shipped to the wood-desperate markets of the American East Coast. As a result, Gravenhurst became the location of choice for logging companies to establish their sawmills. During the period 1875 to 1890, most of Muskoka’s felled timber ended up in Muskoka Bay to be processed for shipping. In one year alone, 30 million feet of lumber and 35 million shingles left Gravenhurst by train for points south. For good reason was the town known as “Sawdust City”.
Tourists arriving at Muskoka Wharf would have been greeted by a sight far removed from the attractive vistas and pleasant, park-like setting of today. More than a dozen ramshackle and noisy sawmills would have ringed the bay, each one spitting smoke into the air and debris into the water. The landscape was a barren wasteland or rocks and stumps, the forests for as far as the eye could see having been denuded of trees to feed the insatiable hunger of the saws. Muskoka Bay was clogged with logs, and vast piles of sawdust lined the shores like rotting mountains. Everywhere one looked there were run-down boathouses, docks, storage sheds, and discarded machinery or lumber.
Muskoka Wharf remained a hive of activity and industry until the dawn of the automobile in the 1930s, driving trains, steamships and the wharf to the edge of extinction. One by one, trains to Gravenhurst were cancelled and ships were retired from service. The last steamship on the Muskokas, the Sagamo, was retired from service in 1958. When the ship was permanently moored along the docks, the wharf grew eerily silent and seemingly without a future.
It was inevitable that Gravenhurst should feel the loss, and not just on a sentimental level. The wharf had brought prosperity, luring thousands of tourists even in the waning years of the steamship era. When the steamships were laid up, numerous businesses directed toward these tourists suffered economic downturn or closed outright. In time Gravenhurst recovered, but it was never the same.
Until now, that is. In the last decade, an 89-acre development featuring boutique shops, restaurants, playgrounds and sporting fields, and lakeside boardwalks has restored a luster to Muskoka Wharf not seen since the days when Gravenhurst was known as the Gateway to Muskoka.
“The idea behind the development was to transform Muskoka Wharf into essentially a full-service resort but without the prices,” explains Kevin Brown, a partner in the development. “And we do have it all – the Sagamo Spa, a family restaurant in Boston Pizza, the upscale Regatta Steak and Seafood Grille, a museum, retail, recreational activities. It’s about creating the whole experience.”
A hallmark of many of the best Muskoka restaurants is the ability to replicate the cottage experience within a fine-dining atmosphere. Regatta Steakhouse and Seafood Grille manages to effortlessly pull this off with a relaxed environment, upscale yet casual food with a regional flair, exceedingly warm staff, and most dazzlingly, a dining room and enormous patio overlooking the tranquil waters of Muskoka Bay.
“Some places up here like to say they have a million dollar view. Well, if that’s true, we have a two million dollar view. The sunsets from our patio are just spectacular,” raves Chef Darren Hehir.
The food matches the view, perhaps even exceeds it. Chef Darren has created a tempting menu that transmits passion, imagination, and freshness. The varied dishes include pan-seared Georgian Bay lake trout, a refreshing summer citrus salad, an unforgettably delicious baked chicken bruchetta ravioli, and his trademark steak sliders, made with 4 oz black angus sirloin steak and homemade red onion ring, that is absolutely alive with flavour.
The vibrancy so apparent at Regatta matches that of Muskoka Wharf as a whole. The development, still not complete, has transformed a moribund waterfront into perhaps the coolest spot in Muskoka. At one point in the past Gravenhurst was the heart of the region. Its pulse slowed for a while with the demise of the lumber industry and the decline of the steamships, but now the beat is most definitely back.
We couldn’t help but feel it as we soaked in the sun and sipped on our drinks.