Enjoying Toronto's 'Cottage Country' by Bike and Boat

Microadventurer Alastair Humphreys and a pal get to know Canada’s largest city and the unspoilt countryside just beyond its limits.

Within an hour’s bus, train, or car ride of where you are sitting right now, there are places where you have never been. There are sites, even close to the world’s biggest cities, where you won’t see another person, where you can get lost in the woods, where you can be all alone, and where you can see new things. In other words, you can be an explorer, discovering things for the first time, even in our busy, Google-mapped, 21st century world of unsurprises.

I’ve spent my adult life exploring the world’s wild places. I’ve walked across crowded, colorful India as well as through Oman’s silent Empty Quarter desert. I rowed the Atlantic and rode round the world on my bike. But in recent years I have changed the focus of my journeys. Now I get my adventuring kicks closer to home, trying to show people that a microadventure—a short, simple escape—is still an adventure, and can be a lot of fun.

How adventurous, how wild, how surprising the world is depends largely on the way that you choose to explore it. Adventure depends more upon your attitude than your latitude, or whether you have flown to the opposite side of the planet. Living adventurously is little more than a choice.

Watch Now See adventurer Alastair Humphreys embark on a microadventure in and around Toronto, Canada.

First Impressions

These were my thoughts as I emerged from the perfectly clean and pleasant international airport in Toronto and jumped into a cab ready for a Friday night out in North America’s fourth largest city. I wanted to find something a little different.

When I arrive in a city I am always eager to dump my bags (here in Toronto’s Drake Hotel) and head out to explore these new city streets, whether by running, cycling, or just walking around.

This was Toronto on a Friday night at the end of September: The air was warmer than I had expected. The dusk sky glowed as office workers spilled out onto the streets, heading for bars and restaurants with their friends. A young hipster stood motionless beneath a lamppost, waiting nervously in the pool of light for a first date as the crowds parted and flowed around him. There was a fizzing energy in the air, bubbles of chatter, as friends meet and make plans. It was lively, but not crowded; cheerful but not too noisy or boisterous.

I was over from England to spend four days roaming round Toronto and Muskoka, a pastoral region just north of the city, with my filmmaking friend Tem. Tem and I walked down Toronto’s Queen Street, discombobulated by the place lag I always feel when I’m deposited suddenly on a different continent than the one I woke up on this morning.

Canada’s Trend Capitol

Toronto is cool; there’s no doubt about that. It’s one of the trendiest places I have been to in ages. That was my first impression of the city as we walked toward downtown. I saw a huge man, a grizzled beard obscuring half his chest, tripping down the street with a bouffant white poodle. A young woman was hauled along by her colossal Great Dane. Fashionable folk with ironic beards on single-speed bikes zip past us, negotiating the rush hour traffic, weaving past taxis, and dodging the red and white trams that ding their quaint bells as they whirr and rattle by. The zapping fizz of the tram’s overhead cables sounding foreign and charming to me.

Murals brighten many of Toronto's streets. 

Photograph by Alastair Humphreys

Even more than London, Toronto feels diverse. I’m not surprised to later learn (from Google) that it’s often regarded as the most diverse city in the world. The streets were full of young people of all fashion tribes. The restaurants were perhaps more varied than any city I have ever visited, with food choices from across the world. You could have your smashed avocado and sourdough, identical in Shoreditch, Sydney, or San Francisco. Or you could enjoy a Chilean empanada, a Jamaican roti, or an Indian samosa (essentially the same snack, an example of convergent evolution from three corners of the world) in tiny eateries that made you feel as though you were actually in those countries. There was famous food from closer to home, too, with poutine being one of my guilty cravings every time I visit Canada. For the uninitiated, poutine is an unpromising looking, but delicious, plate of fries drowned in cheese curds and gravy. I was disappointed to note that we were going to miss the World Poutine Eating Championships by just one day.

It was dark as we walked through Chinatown, the neon lights gleaming on the shining streets still wet from a downpour earlier in the day. The neighbourhood could stand in for any city in East Asia, with Chinese supermarkets, Vietnamese Pho cafes, and bright mobile phone stores bustling with Friday night customers chatting away in a babble of languages.

We turned left and entered Kensington Market, a slower grid of multicultural streets and a National Historic Site. There were murals painted on the walls and hippie bars building up for a busy weekend. There was an old car reclaimed as a garden, and a canoe filled with plants, too. It was that sort of vibe. The taco store was busy, and pubs were playing live music to a clientele enjoying their end-of-week beers with half an eye on the baseball game on TV. It was the Toronto Blue Jays versus the Boston Red Sox, an important matchup that flickered on TVs in every establishment we passed, whether charming old pub, shiny city slicker bars, or Filipino takeout joint.

Toronto on Two Wheels

I like cities built on grids. They feel far from my Old World tangle of Europe’s ancient cities. They enable you to soon feel like an old hand, confidently knowing your way around. We hopped on to the city’s bike rental system, a mode of transportation that is becoming a pleasant feature of increasing numbers of cities. The bikes were the same as London’s, but at least there was no problem in Toronto with finding a rental facility, or encountering racks being all full or all empty. It just worked, simply and effectively. This was Canada, after all.

Muskoka's forests turn shades of red, gold and yellow in autumn.

Photograph by Alastair Humphreys

We raced down King Street, dodging trams, cruising through green lights block after block. Gleaming towers soared overhead, creating a man-made canyon of glass that reminded me, despite its air of orderly calm, that this was one of the continent’s very biggest cities, and Canada’s economic hub.

Tem and I headed high up to a rooftop bar to take in the view. Rivers of red and white lights streamed along the city’s main arteries. Skyscrapers blazed with lights in the downtown financial district. It was a powerful, very North American skyline, and a fine place to sip a cold beer.

Towering above everything, and making the skyline uniquely Toronto’s own, was the iconic CN Tower. As intrinsically linked to the city as the towers of Pisa or Paris, the CN Tower, half a kilometre high and incredibly audacious for its time (it was completed in 1976), is an impressively bold sight. It’s no surprise that it attracts two million visitors every year. Few things truly merit the moniker ‘iconic,’ but the CN tower is wholeheartedly connected with Canada.

So too, in their own very different ways, are what awaited us when we left this city.

Onward to Muskoka

North of Toronto lies an area known informally as “Cottage Country.” Tem and I drove away from Toronto to explore this place, where neither of us had ever been. I challenge people to get out of their routine and their city and find somewhere where Wi-Fi and convenience stores are replaced by starry skies and whatever food you’ve packed in your rucksack. In a world where we can be bored crossing continents, it amazes me how people find it so difficult to leave civilization behind for even a weekend, and spontaneously go and do something different. So whenever I visit a city these days, I try to make the effort to escape its gravitational pull, even just for a short while.

Muskoka's quiet lakes draw vacationers and adventurers from Toronto.

Photograph by Alastair Humphreys

And so we drove north, in the sort of house-sized rental car that amazes Europeans but appeared perfectly at home on Canada’s broad highways. As we drove, crunching Macintosh apples we’d picked up from a farm stand, we chatted excitedly about what we might discover, and about how easy it had been to leave the city streets behind.

Cottage Country is the name given to areas outside Toronto where summer homes and vacation homes dot the many lakeshores. It’s by no means wilderness, but nor is it the city, and that’s part of its appeal. We encountered a flat, gentle landscape of farms, wooden barns scattered across fields, small villages, and forest. When I first visited Canada, I Googled “how many trees are there in Canada?” That even Google did not know the answer confirmed what my eyes told me: there was an astonishing number of trees in Canada. Coming from Britain, where we deforested our entire country centuries ago, Canada’s reassuring vistas of mile after mile of trees, not towns, never ceased to impress and reassure me.

Rustic Relaxation

Tem stoically endured my musical selections for a couple of hours, and then we arrived. We climbed down from our enormous car and breathed in the damp, cool, fresh air of autumn. The fact that I’d escaped a huge city to get here made my first swim in a peaceful lake in Muskoka all the more appealing. I felt the pent-up energy that cities and traffic jams create seep away as I held my breath and dived down as deep as I could. I surfaced gasping and grinning. Tem hopped into a canoe and set off to paddle round the headland, reporting back about envy-inducing summer homes with boathouses, jetties, and proud Canadian flags. An air of unostentatious affluence pervaded many of the lakeside properties we saw in Muskoka. Vagabond writers like me will never live in places like this, but one of the joys of travel is being able to dip into so many different worlds. I was going to enjoy spending a few days here, luxuriating in the same views, the same tranquility and the same lakes as everyone else in Cottage Country.


One afternoon I enjoyed a solitary run in the woods, all alone with my thoughts except for a pair of curious deer who watched me from the side of the track as I ran by. Autumn runs, through mist and the beautiful forest colors, are one of my favorite ways to build an appetite for a barbecue outside our cabin.

Quaint cottages dot the many lakes in Muskoka, Ontario, Canada.

Photograph by Alastair Humphreys

If you think the cars are big in North America, you should see the steaks! Tem and I grinned and groaned and did our British best to polish off a pair of simply enormous T-bones. We toasted the meal and the quiet evening with a couple of local craft ales. It’s a peaceful area, and the Muskoka Brewery appreciates this. On its Detour beer bottle is written, “Life’s a lot more interesting when you take the less paddled fork in the river,” while its Mad Tom brew is “inspired by late night stories around the fire.” I couldn’t agree more!

Muskoka may be known for its millionaire mansion "cottages" and Hollywood visitors, but the villages were extremely sleepy. One village, Dorset, has a lookout tower as its chief attraction (the view was fine, though dimmed by fog on our visit), and the apparently famous Robinson's General Store, once voted "Canada's Best Country Store.” We enjoyed the Roadkill Burger topped with “roadkill spice and chipotle sauce,” and hearty “moosecakes”—fluffy and delicious breakfast pancakes drowned in decadent maple syrup—at the nearby Moose Cafe.

I would love one day to have a family gathering in a rambling, lakeshore cottage up in Muskoka, with three generations of grandparents, aunts, and uncles and kids all finding enjoyment and good company in the simple pleasures of a lake, a barbecue, and the time and peace to enjoy each other’s company. The extraordinary autumn colours in the woods, the quiet splash of a fish in a lake, the canoes and boats and swimming, and the slow and relaxed pace of the villages all make Muskoka’s Cottage Country a classic, easy getaway from Toronto.
 

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