The Canadian lake region of Muskoka has long been a summer retreat for wealthy Canadians drawn to the area’s pristine lakes and breathtaking vistas. Captains of Canadian industry from the Labatts to the Bronfmans – two of the country’s great brewing dynasties – have for decades coalesced around the popular Lakeland district located about a two-hour drive north of Toronto.
The region has also been a magnet for celebrities and wealthy Americans, who have increasingly travelled north to settle in Muskoka’s sprawling estates and lakefront cottages. Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell are long-time summer residents, while Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg have built waterfront retreats.
“The appeal of the area is pretty obvious when you spend a little time here,” says Richard Scully, an estate agent specialising in lakefront property for Harvey Kalles Real Estate. “There’s a very relaxed atmosphere and scenic beauty that goes unnoticed until you get here.”
Muskoka spans more than 2,500 square miles in the Canadian province of Ontario, about 145 miles north of Toronto. More than 1,000 lakes are scattered through its six municipalities, creating one of the most attractive waterfront locations in North America. With Georgian Bay to the west and Lake Couchiching in the south, much of the area is dotted with rustic lakeside villages and towns.
Though the region typically draws second-home buyers from within Canada, Muskoka is increasingly attracting European and Asian customers who are charmed by the area’s relaxed environment and lack of extravagance, says Blayne Hutchins of Century 21 Cottage Country Realty.
“Buyers from outside Canada are usually surprised by the less-stressful, easy-going atmosphere here,” says Hutchins. “They also recognise that while prices are rising, they are still relatively competitive with other waterfront areas in the US and Europe.”
The increase in interest from foreign buyers is helping to lift home sales in the region. There were a record 316 home sales in Muskoka and its surrounding areas in May, up 9 per cent from the same period in 2013, according to the Lakelands Association of Realtors. It is the highest total of monthly sales since more than 300 homes were sold in a single month in 2003.
While the median price for residential property in Muskoka reached a record C$245,000 ($228,000) in May – up 9 per cent from the same 2013 period – larger homes along the lake have been known to carry prices tags of well above C$8m, estimates Mike Stahls, president of the Lakelands Association of Realtors.
Harvey Kalles, for example, is marketing a five-bedroom log cabin on Lake Muskoka for C$8.5m. The home sits on 4.1 acres and measures more than 4,600 sq ft with a three-car garage and a two-storey boathouse with a self-contained two-bedroom guest cottage. The property sits at the Montcalm Point shoreline with panoramic lake views. It has interlocking brick and cut stone pathways and an English-style country garden.
Sales of lakefront homes – or cottages, as they are referred to in Muskoka – have reached record levels. Cottage sales numbered 36 units in the first quarter of 2014, up 16 per cent from a year earlier, Lakelands Association of Realtors data show. This marked the second best first quarter level since 2007. The median price for cottage sales was C$494,000, the second highest level on record. Sale prices in the region’s residential sector jumped 22 per cent in the first quarter compared with that of 2013.
The total dollar value of all residential sales in Muskoka in May 2014 was a record C$83.8m, an increase of 25 per cent on a year-over-year basis.
“The real surprise in May was the total dollar volume,” says Mike Stahls. “It set a record with residential sales topping the C$80m mark. Previously it had never even surpassed $70m.”
Much of Muskoka’s prime real estate straddles the shores of Lake Muskoka, Lake Rosseau, and Lake Joseph, areas dotted with 19th-century lakefront homes.
A five-bedroom home on Fairy Lake in Huntsville is being listed by Century 21 Cottage Country for $3.5m. The two-storey property was built in 2009 and measures 6,500 sq ft. It has 350 feet of shoreline, a three-car garage and a sand volleyball court. There is also planning permission to build an additional guest or boathouse on its landscaped grounds.
The rental market for property around the lakes is also robust. Homes on the smaller lakes such as Penn Lake and Lake Vernon can be rented for about C$1,500 per week, says Hutchins, of Century 21. Properties on larger lakes such as Lake Muskoka and Lake Rosseau rent for between C$5,000 to C$10,000 per week depending on amenities.
“I have even heard of some guys getting C$250,000 for the summer for their places,” Hutchins says. “But that would obviously be on the high end.”
● The closest international airport to Muskoka is Toronto Pearson, 121 miles to the south
● There are no restrictions on non-residents owning property or land in Ontario
● The average summertime temperature is about 19C
● The Muskoka area has 60,000 permanent residents, with another 100,000 seasonal property owners in the summer months
● Local bylaws heavily restrict construction on lakeside properties
What you can buy for …
$3m A four-bedroom log home with a boat house on Fairy Island
$5m A five-bedroom home with a double-slip boathouse on Lake Rosseau
$7m-$8m A 7,000 sq ft home, on Lake Muskoka with five bedrooms and a guest suite
Photograph: Karen Spencer/Alamy