If you’re coming up Yonge Street / Highway 11 from the south, Gravenhurst is the first real town north of Orillia.
And Gravenhurst is one of the first towns to truly straddle the northern-southern divide.Being in cottage country, Gravenhurst is home to all sorts of little things you’d not find in a northern town – a tea shop, two independent cafés, an upscale pub, a resort restaurant. There is a small arts community – the downtown is littered with murals – and there is even the Gravenhurst Opera House, built in 1901. The Muskoka Gallery By the Bay displays art near Gravenhurst’s cute waterfront. The town hosts an annual Music on the Barge festival at Gull Lake Park, with many musicians playing in a picturesque setting.
But you can tell that there’s a bit of north in this town too. It’s evident in the nature statues and the goofy motels and that one of its best-rated restaurants is a truck-stop. It’s in the tacky miniputts and the ageing tourist traps and the way a community that essentially hugs a single main road tries to brand itself into two distinct districts (Downtown vs. Uptown).
And it is in the local restaurant rivalries that split long-time residents – the stone hearth knotty-pine rustic welcome of the China House versus the more run-down but all-day dim sum of the Rickshaw, and the Greek-Canadian combo at the Uptown Diner pitted against the Greek-Canadian-Italian of Rombo’s Family Restaurant.
Gravenhurst was named after a village in England which is mentioned in Washington Irving’s book Bracebridge Hall. Between 1940 and 1943 it was known as “Little Norway” due to its proximity to the Norwegian Air Force’s temporary training base in Canada. Today Gravenhurst is a retirement and cottage community.
With a permanent population of 10 000, Gravenhurst is the smallest of the towns that make up the cottage country triangle (Bracebridge and Huntsville being larger) but it is still big enough and touristy enough to have the main food and lodging franchises, as well as other tourist amenities. Muskoka steamships operate three different ships that give tours of the many picturesque lakes in the area, with dinner and music cruises available.
But what struck me most about Gravenhurst was the pace.
Cars sauntering down the road, none hitting more than maybe 30 kilometres an hour.
Moms chatting along the main street, enjoying a sundrenched May weekday before their kids get released from school in six weeks.
A young family resting in the shadow of the statue of Dr. Norman Bethune, likely oblivious to the fact that he’s the only westerner to have a statue in China (and probably the only communist to have a statue on Yonge Street) taking in the fresh air whilst retrieving the shoes that their toddler had kicked off.
Local kids out for lunch, meandering in their flip flops having jumped at the chance to wear summer clothing in the decidedly spring weather, full of the listlessness of near-freedom in the face of limited opportunity brings after a tiring, cold winter.
Everyone enjoying the space that becomes so competed-for once the cottagers come in, yet likely all-too-aware that none of this would be possible without the annual invasion of busy and bustling out-of-towners that trample this vibe for twelve weeks each and every year.