Two hours north of Toronto, Ontario, is the "cottage country" known as Muskoka. It is said that the last person who was disappointed by the region was surely a farmer. Peeking through the area's thin layer of topsoil is the Canadian Shield, the main block of the earth's crust underlying North America. The Shield, more than three billion years old, has for decades put designers and developers alike between a rock and a hard place. But enterprising architects, notably Toronto-based Tom McBroom, believe rock can provide beauty, character and strategic nuance in golf design. No longer must bedrock be treated like a bad family secret, best covered up and forgotten. In capable hands, the Shield, selectively power-washed and used to create harmony between a course and its surroundings, can be a compelling design element. Case in point: the six venues on the newly formed Muskoka Golf Trail.
Where to Play
Rocky Crest Golf Club. At the north end of Lake Joseph you'll find Rocky Crest, designed by Tom McBroom in 2000 to incorporate the Canadian Shield like no other course in Muskoka. You might consider carrying a pickax as a 15th club on this 6,943-yard, par-71 track, so pervasive is the rock. Spread across 300 acres, this links in the wilderness framed by old-growth hemlock, pine and birch, roams across terrain dotted with wetlands. Each hole occupies its own wooded compartment, yet greens and tees on this walker-friendly layout are never too far apart. McBroom hauled in more than half a million metric tons of sand to provide a growing medium where none had existed. The clubhouse, sited behind the 18th green and a huge rock ledge, is a fanciful version of a wilderness lodge. 705-375-4688; www.clublink.ca.
Taboo Golf Course. Set on Lake Muskoka in Gravenhurst, Taboo, debuted last summer, is paved through rock. Played from an incorrect set of tees, this stunning Ron Garl layout can be as troublesome as its name. Garl, a scratch golfer with a flair for showmanship, built a brawny track stretching to 7,174 yards (par 71). Carved from a thick forest of conifers and birch, Taboo skirts streams and ponds and offers a postcard view of the lake, but mostly it showcases the Shield. Garl had little choice: No amount of dynamite could have rearranged the rock. To his credit, there isn't a forced or indifferent hole on the course. Masters champion Mike Weir, an Ontario native, represents the resort. 705-646-5800; www.tabooresort.com.
Deerhurst Highlands. Tucked away on the shores of Peninsula Lake outside Huntsville, Highlands is the course that put Muskoka on the golf map. Sculpted from a forested granite ridge, the course, laid out in 1990 by McBroom and Bob Cupp, was the first in the area to embrace hills, cliffs, creeks and wetlands. A wilderness tour de force with giddy 100-foot drops from tee to fairway, the Highlands is one of the most exacting courses in Ontario from the tips at 7,011 yards. Not only is the terrain rugged, but 14 of the topsy-turvy greens have at least two levels. The finish, with water in play on the final five holes, is nerve-racking. 705-789-7878; www.deerhurstresort.com.
Grandview Golf Club (Mark O'Meara Course). Grandview, located in Huntsville, is where Mark O'Meara chose to launch his design career. Working on a spectacular site marked by steep hills, tall trees and plenty of rock, O'Meara fashioned a rugged but refined American-style design with wide fairways, big bunkers and slick greens. The 7,065-yard course presents itself as a roller-coaster ride through a boreal forest, around rock outcrops that resemble whale backs and past large wetlands. Holes are dramatic, demanding and well strategized. The layout is fair -- good shots find their reward -- but requires a second round to learn its nuances. 705-788-9978; www.clublink.ca.
Lake Joseph Club. A 1997 McBroom creation in Port Carling, "Lake Joe" is a visually intimidating track worth getting to know. Better players would be wise to bag the driver in favor of the club they hit straightest on this narrow, hilly layout that spells doom for wayward shots. Nearly every hole is hemmed in by "Muskoka rough" -- loose rock, brambles, steep slopes and granite outcrops. The 6,985-yard course pitches and tosses through dense woods and skirts numerous wetlands, with a premium throughout on shot placement. 705-765-2020; www.clublink.ca.
The Rock. Slated to open this summer, this Nick Faldo layout at Minett Landing on Lake Rosseau is a compact (6,730 yards, par 71) course marked by narrow corridors and more than 75 flashed-face bunkers. Granite outcrops -- ample portions of the Shield -- come into play at more than half the holes. Small, undulating greens and the chipping areas that embrace them compensate for the relative lack of space. 705-765-7625.
Where to Stay
Muskoka Golf Trail packages are offered by Ultimate Golf Vacations. The trail promotes two- and five-night programs at four resorts. Per-person rates, based on double occupancy, include daily golf with cart. High-season prices listed below are reduced after August 23. (All rates quoted are in U.S. dollars. At press time, $1 U.S.=$1.35 Canadian.) Details: 800-465-3034; www.ultimategolf.ca.
Delta Rocky Crest Resort. Reopened in 1999 after a major facelift, this all-suite property has 65 units. Two-night packages from $460, five nights from $1,012.
Taboo Resort. New or renovated lodge rooms, suites, condos and 18 cottage chalets are available. Two-night packages from $431, five nights from $893.
Deerhurst Resort. Deerhurst, an 800-acre resort complex, has a wide array of accommodations. Two-night packages from $371, five nights from $842.
Delta Grandview Resort. Set on 850 acres overlooking Fairy Lake, Grandview dates to 1911. Two-night packages from $335, five nights from $754.
Roaring '20s Time Warp
An exclusive high-society getaway in the 1920s, Bigwin Island sank into ruin more than 30 years ago but has.been revived by new owners. They've hired Canadian designer Doug Carrick to superimpose a new course on the site of an overgrown Stanley Thompson layout. Carrick utilized some of the original corridors, but Bigwin Island Golf Club, unveiled in 2001, is entirely his own creation.
The course, built on rolling, wooded land with minimal rock in sight, offers plenty of challenge from the back tees at 7,166 yards, but is never overbearing from the forward markers. Large, flashed-face bunkers filled with reddish-pink sand offer resistance to scoring, but Bigwin is mostly about majestic views. Mount the back tee at the par-4 6th for one of the grandest scenes in Canadian golf: a panorama of beautiful Lake of Bays and its forested islands. The club is accessible via a five-minute ferry ride. Green fee: $118 Monday-Thursday, $133 Friday-Sunday. 800-840-4036; www.bigwinisland.com.