In the heart of Muskoka sits Bracebridge, a picturesque town of waterfalls, lakes and rivers that attracts many summer visitors.
The town is the economic, political and technological centre of Muskoka, with a population of about 16,000 and an estimated seasonal population of over 7,000.
“The environment is second to none. It’s simply a beautiful place to be, with lakes and rivers and waterfalls,” said Bracebridge Mayor Graydon Smith.
“I think that’s really the attraction for people is that they can come and be close to nature and enjoy the water up close.”
Since 2001, the town’s population has increased by 13 per cent, and new shopping areas, business parks and residential neighbourhoods have sprung up to accommodate that growth.
“There’s always a steady influx of visitors because we have a beautiful downtown and a really welcoming town, but nothing can match the summer,” Smith said. “For our entire existence, we’ve built much of our economy around tourism.”
Tourism in Bracebridge dates back to the 1860s, when visitors from Toronto would travel there by train or boat.
Bracebridge was incorporated as a village in 1875 and as a town in 1889. In 1971, a regional government was established, bringing Bracebridge and its surrounding townships together as one municipality.
The name Bracebridge has been traced to a postmaster who took the name from the book Bracebridge Hall, written by the American author Washington Irving.
From the end of April until mid-May, Bracebridge was under a state of emergency due to historic flooding in the region, but the town has since begun to recover and is ready for summer.
“We’re anticipating a great summer and a fantastic couple months for July and August,” Smith said. “Even the rainy days in the summertime are some of the busiest days that you’ll see in the community.
Bracebridge is located in the heart of the District of Muskoka, next to Highway 11, in between Gravenhurst to the south and Baysville to the north.
If you’re coming by car from the south of town, take Highway 400 until it turns into Highway 11 at Barrie. If you’re travelling from north of Bracebridge, you can take the Trans-Canada Highway to Highway 11.
From Toronto, the drive is just over two hours, while it’s about an hour from Barrie and over four hours from Ottawa.
From now until Sept. 3, Porter will fly from the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport to Muskoka in 35 minutes, 20 minutes of which are in the air. Basic flights generally can cost around $45 to $140 one way.
Visitors can also take an Ontario Northland bus, which will take anywhere from just under three hours to almost five hours from Toronto.
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Where to stop along the way
If you can’t wait to get to Bracebridge to get your nature fix, stop at Springwater Provincial Park in Midhurst. There’s 12 kilometres of hiking trails and a park for family picnics.
Those visiting Bracebridge can also stop at McRae Point Provincial Park on the shores of Lake Simcoe near Orillia. There’s boat rentals nearby and people can swim in the water. McRae Point is only a 15-minute drive from Casino Rama.
For travellers looking for a thrilling experience, they can try their luck at the over 2,200 slot machines and over 85 games tables at Casino Rama in Rama, Ont. There’s also a variety of restaurants at the Casino Rama Resort, including a steakhouse, a Cantonese noodle bar and more casual fare.
If you’re too hungry to wait until Bracebridge, try a burger and fries at Webers, Ontario cottage country’s iconic restaurant, located just off Highway 11 in Orillia. Throw in a milkshake, too, if you have a sweet tooth.
Where to visit
Santa’s Village: Located across 60 acres, Santa’s Village is Muskoka’s theme park that has something for both kids and adults. From mini golf to go-karts, to zip-lining and rock-climbing, visitors can enjoy the park’s attractions. Nestled on a bend of the Muskoka River, Santa’s Village boasts a number of events for this year, including a dog show, a lumberjack show and a Hawaiian luau. A general admission ticket is $37.95 and a 2019 standard season pass is $89.95.
“Santa’s Village is an attraction that has been captivating people for over 60 years now,” Smith said. “When people find out I’m from Bracebridge, everyone always has a Santa’s Village story.”
Muskoka Brewery: Offering free daily tours, the Muskoka Brewery began in 1996 and produces premium craft beer. In the five tours that run hourly every day this season, visitors will learn about the brewing process, see the lab where it’s ensured that all beer standards are met and taste some samples in the taproom.
Waterfalls: There are three main waterfalls worth seeing in Bracebridge. The Bracebridge Falls is located downtown at the Silver Bridge and is a trademark of the community. The falls empty the water of the north branch of the Muskoka River down into Bracebridge Bay. Wilson’s Falls is just north of the downtown area, off of River Road, and has a walking trail where visitors can see a beautiful view of the falls. High Falls has five waterfalls located at its site and is situated on the Trans-Canada trail system.
“Waterfalls are something that everyone loves to view and enjoy,” Smith said. “As the flood went on, we certainly saw how impressive they can be. But year round, they’re a beautiful part of our community.”
Lady Muskoka: Those who enjoy relaxing on the water can take a Lady Muskoka boat cruise. There’s two options: the Millionaire’s Row or Sunset Dinner, both of which glide down the Muskoka River. The Millionaire’s Row cruise travels into Lake Muskoka, giving passengers a look at the wildlife, nearby cottages and famous “millionaire’s row,” where it’s been reported that some celebrities sometimes reside. On the sunset dinner cruise, passengers will have a meal prepared by the award-winning chef David Friesen.
Let the Cat Go: This art studio and gallery offers classes and workshops for those who are looking to get creative. Let the Cat Go offers something for all ages and art levels. Lessons are offered for acrylic and watercolour painting, drawing, pottery and more. There are also classes for kids and camp programs.
What to do
Canada Day (July 1): Enjoy live music, good food and family activities in downtown Bracebridge throughout the day. Then, head to Bracebridge Bay in the evening for fireworks and live entertainment.
Muskoka Arts and Crafts Summer Show (July 19 to 21): Now in its 57th year, the Muskoka Arts and Crafts Summer Show is Muskoka’s oldest and largest outdoor crafts show. Featuring 200 Canadian artists, the summer show draws about 20,000 people. This year, it will take place at the Annie Williams Memorial Park.
Dog Fest Muskoka (July 20 to 21): They say dogs are a man’s best friend, and this July, pup lovers can watch dog shows, stunts and live entertainment at Bracebridge’s Dog Fest at the JD Lang Activity Park.
Muskoka Pride Parade (July 28): The annual Muskoka Pride parade will take place at the end of July on Manitoba Street. After the parade, there will be a picnic at Bracebridge Memorial Park with free food, live music, vendors and kids activities.
Muskoka Comic-Con (Aug. 3): Located at the Bracebridge Memorial Arena this year, Muskoka Comic-Con will have exhibitions that cater to a wide variety of interests, including comic books, live wrestling, video games, manga, cosplay and more. A roster of comic book industry professionals and fandom-related celebrities will be in attendance.
Where to eat
Here are the top five user-ranked restaurants in Bracebridge, according to Trip Advisor Canada’s website:
- El Pueblito at 155 Manitoba St.
- Riverwalk at 3 Ecclestone Dr., Unit 2
- Wabora at 295 Wellington St., #17
- Old Station Restaurant at 88 Manitoba St.
- Fresh Kutz Market and Grill at 195 Wellington St.
Where to stay
Here are the top five user-ranked hotels in terms of value in Bracebridge, according Trip Advisor Canada’s website:
- Sleep Inn at 510 Muskoka Rd. 118 W.
- Wellington Inn at 265 Wellingston St.
- Inn at the Falls at 8 Mahaffy Crt.
- Touchstone Resort at 1869 Muskoka District Rd. 118 W.
- Travelodge Bracebridge at 320 Taylor Rd.
The final pitch: why you should visit Bracebridge
“I think any opportunity to be out on the lakes in the region is time well spent, specifically on Lake Muskoka,” Smith said. “There’s just a beautiful mix of old cottages and new cottages.”
According to Smith, tourism in Bracebridge is the busiest during the summer. “One of the big drivers of our local economy is the visitors that we receive in the summertime,” he added. “Everybody is looking for something to do and somewhere to go.”
While tourism may be busiest during the summer months, Smith said every season is a great one to be in Bracebridge.
In the wintertime, he said, people visit the town for sports like cross-country skiing, snowmobiling and ice-fishing.
Visiting in the fall can be attractive for people, too.
“Certainly Muskoka in the fall is stunning, with the amount of vegetation that we have here and people who want to see beautiful colours don’t have to come any further,” Smith said.
“Bracebridge has lots of great scenic drives that you can go on to see those colours.”
While it was a bit of a wet spring this year, Smith said, Bracebridge is starting to see more sunshine.
“We welcome visitors to our community and are thrilled to have them,” Smith said. “We hope to see you soon.”