BAYSVILLE, Ontario, Canada -- The sign simply reads 'Tranquility' with an arrow pointing toward a right turn.
It's located on Old Highway 117, the long, winding road around the Lake of Bays that leads to Bigwin Island Golf Club. Don't bother following that sign to find what you seek. Tranquility is everywhere in Muskoka, the cottage country destination two hours north of Toronto.
Muskoka is home to 1,600 lakes -- big and small -- and, most important to golfers, some of the best courses in Canada. With more than 20 golf courses, Muskoka states a strong case as the best golf destination in Canada. No other region boasts as many ScoreGolf top 100 golf courses open to the public as Muskoka.
Muskoka Bay Club (at No. 9) leads the way, followed by Rocky Crest Golf Club (No. 27), Bigwin Island (No. 28, open to public play in spring and fall), Taboo Golf Club (No. 41) and the Highlands Course at Deehurst Resort (No. 58). The Ridge at Manitou Golf Club (No. 64) isn't far away.
Endless water activities -- boating, fishing, canoeing, swimming, skiing and more -- make Muskoka an ideal summer retreat. National Geographic Traveler named Muskoka one of the 'Best of the World' places for 2012.
'Muskoka, it is one of the best golf destinations in the world,' said Mark DeActis, the co-general manager and director of golf at Windermere Golf & Country Club, the oldest course in Muskoka. 'I've been to the Canadian Rockies. Nothing compares to what we have to offer. The (marketing) statement is true, 'Once discovered, never forgotten.' '
Brian McElwain, a Windermere member who lives on Lake Rosseau, describes Muskoka as 'heaven on earth.' As a local realtor, McElwain, the former president of the Muskoka Lakes Association, might seem to be just tossing out another sales pitch. After a week touring Muskoka earlier this fall, I must admit I'm buying it.
Where to play golf in Muskoka
Players must first be warned about Muskoka golf. It's not for the swing challenged.
The Canadian Shield adds several element of trouble -- rock outcroppings and soaring elevation changes -- to all those bunkers, trees, lakes, ponds and marshes.
The older golf courses in Muskoka tend to avoid all that granite. No rocks come into play on the classic parkland setting at Windermere, which dates to 1920. Meanwhile, the Highlands and Lakeside courses at Deerhurst Resort -- both built or redesigned in the early 1990s by Canadian Thomas McBroom -- use the formations only a handful of times to frame holes, like the wonderful par-4 11th hole on the Highlands Course.
The newer and bolder designs at Muskoka Bay Club, The Rock Golf Club and Taboo -- all opened in the past decade -- incorporate the rocks into lines of play. These unforgiving hurdles must be negotiated with risk-reward shots over or around them. It's target golf at its most scenic, but also at its most difficult.
The Rock is a perfect example how challenging it is to balance playability with such demanding landscapes. Original architect Nick Faldo returned just three years after its 2004 debut to blast rock and reroute holes. Even with all this extra effort and its serene setting, The Rock still gets a 'too tough' label by many locals. 'Bring 12 used balls,' one told me. Like any course, if you play the proper tees and get to know the layout intimately, playing The Rock can be an enjoyable round.
Taboo, designed in 2002 by Ron Garl, and Muskoka Bay, a pure playground designed by Doug Carrick in 2007, tend to get higher marks for how the rock makes cameo appearances but doesn't steal the show from the lush green fairways and greens cut through the forest.
The latest addition is Oak Bay Golf & Country Club along the shores of the Severn Sound of the Georgian Bay. Shawn Watters transformed the nine-hole Sunnylea Golf Course into a strong 18-hole test with great par 3s.
The best golf 'experience' might come at Bigwin Island, located on a 700-acre island in the middle of the Lake of Bays. From the five-minute boat ride across the water to a round on the eye-popping Carrick course carved from a shuttered Stanley Thompson design, Bigwin Island delivers a dramatic day, climaxing with the view off the 18th tee, one of the premier perches in all of North American golf.
For those who can't pay the big greens fees associated with Muskoka's best golf courses, there are plenty of fine tracks at a lower cost, notably the 6,252-yard North Granite Ridge Golf Club, the 6,024-yard Muskoka Highlands, the 27-hole Lake St. George Golf Club, the 6,566-yard Huntsville Downs Golf & Country Club and the nine-hole Diamond In The Ruff.
Where to stay depends upon where you'll play. Deerhurst Resort, dating to 1896 in Huntsville, has been re-energized over the past two years, serving as the host of the G8 Summit in 2010. Skyline Hotels & Resorts purchased the property in 2011 and immediately upgraded rooms and suites of the Summitt Lodges. Skyline was recently approved to build a five-story, 173-unit development on Peninsula Lake with a swimming pool, barbecue area, gazebos and other amenities to replace the older lakeside lodge, home to the resort's iconic music shows where Shania Twain was discovered in the 1990s.
Deerhurst caters to all ages and whims. Children will love the water toys at the beach and the adventurous excursions like treetop trekking, mountain biking, horseback riding, paintball, or driving a Hummer, a race car or an off-road rock buggy. The Shizen Spa provides stress relief indoors from all that outdoor overexertion. The menus of the fine-dining Eclipse in the main building and Steamers in the Highlands Course clubhouse will delight even the most jaded palates.
Gravenhurst, a quaint town sandwiched between Lake Muskoka and Gull Lake south of Huntsville, boasts a unique mix of accommodations. Golfers have their choice of staying in one of Muskoka Bay Club's luxury villas, the very nice Residence Inn Marriott on the Gravenhurst Muskoka Wharf or at Taboo, a waterfront resort with fine dining and a spa.
Tiny Minett offers two distinct options right down the road from The Rock. Clevelands House caters to families best with cute little cabins just steps from the shores of Lake Rosseau, but golfers will sleep well there, too. The Rosseau Muskoka Resort & Spa, the first JW Marriott resort in Ontario, packs more wow factor with its modern luxurious feel, but Clevelands House wins hands down for value.