I’ve heard the following phrase used more and more often lately to describe Muskoka: “The Hamptons of the North.”
Generally speaking, I consider the comparison as a compliment (although, for those of us who call this region home, we think the Hamptons could just as accurately be called the “Muskoka of New York”). But I started thinking about this the other day, and decided it might be interesting to delve into it a little more closely – to see if it was really an accurate comparison, and if so, just how closely the two regions compare.
“The Hamptons” (referred to in the plural because of its two largest centres, Southampton and East Hampton, along with – like Muskoka – dozens of smaller hamlets and villages) refers to the region that takes up the two forks at the eastern tip of Long Island, New York State, perched between Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean.
Both Muskoka and the Hamptons are within a couple of hours’ drive of a big city (Malibu’s proximity to Los Angeles puts it in this category too), making them natural destinations for a weekend getaway or a summer-long vacation. Both are famous for their unspoiled natural beauty, proximity to water, and attractions that range from fishing, boating and hiking to golfing, sightseeing, shopping and fine dining.
The two regions share a similar long history as vacation resort areas, going back at least as far as Victorian times, when wealthy families would basically move their whole households, servants and all, by train to their country properties to escape the heat and foul air of the city for the summer. The idea of these areas as the “backyard playgrounds” of their respective cities has persisted, and cottagers at all income levels have summered here ever since.
Both are well known as playgrounds for the rich and famous (as well as the less rich and famous). The Hamptons were the setting, thinly disguised as West Egg and East Egg, in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald; and in movies like Grey Gardens, about Jackie Kennedy’s eccentric cousins Little Edie and Big Edie Bouvier. Muskoka has also appeared frequently on film, though generally it tends to star not as itself, but as other (usually American) resort areas –including, surprisingly enough, the Hamptons!
In both cases, celebrities seeking a place where they can enjoy some privacy and peace, either own properties in the area or are frequent visitors. The Hamptons had the Kennedys and their kin, and more recently, Martha Stewart; Muskoka has long been a summer home for many famous names, who can sometimes be spotted dining in town or at the local LCBO. (As with other centres who are accustomed to celebrity residents, it’s customary here to treat them like any other Muskokan.)
Here’s another thing they have in common: both tend to have seasonal economies, where business booms in the summer months and local highways and other arteries hum with traffic, especially on weekends. In winter, local residents either shut down for the season, or make a comparatively modest living from the local population till the tourists come back in spring. But that’s changing. Enterprising Muskokans are discovering there is a growing demand for winter resort vacationing too, from skiing and snowshoeing to weekend spa retreats. And this is true in the Hamptons as well.
For all these reasons, there are many similarities between the two regions. But there’s one big area where I feel they are completely different – a disparity that, in my view, favours us Muskokans. And that’s when it comes to the price of real estate.
Architectural Digest recently ran an article that named Muskoka as “Canada’s Best Kept Secret,” and highlighted five gorgeous, sprawling “cottages,” all located on the Big Three, selling for between $12 and $23 million. And as of this writing, high-end properties are still selling as well as ever, even with the potential prospect of a softening economy ahead. Multi-million-dollar properties do dominate the most fashionable Muskoka lakes, especially Muskoka, Rosseau and Joseph, just as they do the most fashionable areas of the Hamptons. But that opens up another significant difference between us and them.
Residential real estate prices in the Hamptons are among the highest in the U.S., and that includes Bel Air, Manhattan, Las Vegas and Florida. After looking at some roughly comparable properties, the Hamptons real estate cost relatively about six times as much as Muskoka. In other words, what you can buy for about $15 million in Muskoka will set you back about $90 million down there.
Furthermore, Muskoka is not exclusively a playground for the rich, and never really has been. There are still plenty of mid-priced and even modest cottage properties available here, especially on the smaller lakes and rivers, of which this beautiful region has no shortage. (When the occasional non-stratospherically priced property appears in the Hamptons, it’s usually snapped up quickly.)
But above all, there is one important aspect that I think both the Hamptons and Muskoka share. And that is that properties in these regions will always hold their value, with only minor fluctuations, and in just about any economy. And here’s why.
It’s human nature to want to escape from the city, even if just temporarily, and enjoy the benefits of fresh air, beautiful scenery, and a different pace of life. And with some of the world’s most beautiful vacation real estate just a couple of hours’ drive away from two of North America’s largest cities, I don’t see that demand ever significantly easing – whether you dream of a gorgeous multi-million-dollar villa on a ridge high above a big lake (or an ocean view), a fishing cabin in the woods, or something in between.