The Secret Life of Prince Edward County in the Off-Season

Sandbanks Provincial Park Martin Cathrae

Sandbanks Dunes in Winter (Photo: Martin Cathrae)

With its beaches, food and drink, arts scene, and quaint country vibe, Prince Edward County is a popular summer destination in Ontario, and one that eagerly welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors each season. But The County doesn’t go into hibernation come November. As Eat Drink Travel discovered on a recent winter getaway, the off-season may very well be the precise time to get an authentic sense of what this region has to offer.

Prince Edward County is around 200 kilometres from Toronto, depending on the route you take. My mother is my co-pilot on this trip, and when I suggest the scenic drive along Highway 2, she quickly concurs. Our GPS has other ideas, though, repeatedly rerouting us to the 401. It’s an irritation that disappears once we get our double-doubles from Tim Horton’s and throw the unit in the trunk. To get to the County from Toronto, point your car east and drive for two hours.

mailboxes

Though I live in Toronto, I’ve only been to Prince Edward County once before, and I’ve never explored the heart of it. My mother’s annual February visit (she lives in British Columbia, and refuses to leave during gardening season) doubles as my time to explore the province. We’re both intrigued by the promises of the County. It’s filled with artists, we’re told—and wineries.

You’ll be forgiven if, like us, you failed to realize that PEC is an island. It has more than 800 kilometres of shoreline, and while the term “island life” doesn’t usually provoke thoughts of Eastern Ontario, we quickly discover that as in Tasmania or Tahiti, daily life in the County is communal, flexible, and welcoming.

Sandbanks Provincial Park

Prince Edward County covers more than 700 square kilometres fanning out from three main villages: Wellington, Bloomfield, and Picton. All three towns are within an easy drive to Sandbanks Provincial Park, a drive you should make even in the winter, if only to see the snow-covered sand dunes, and, if you’re lucky, some wildlife.

Deer in Sandbanks Provincial Park

The main highway running through the County is called Loyalist Parkway, a nod to those settlers who remained loyal to the British Crown during and after the American Revolution, and evidence of this long history can be seen in the area farms and homes. Photographers and architecture enthusiasts should take the passenger seat—there’s a lot to ogle.

Prince Edward County

We have a reservation at Angeline’s Inn, centrally located in Bloomfield. Originally constructed during Bloomfield’s “Barley Days” (which refers to the area’s most prosperous era, and which lends its name to a local brewery), Angeline’s occupies a 19th century Victorian home, which has been expertly renovated and decorated with art and design pieces that borrow heavily from the local nature and culture. The place is a family business dating back to the 1980s, and is currently owned and operated by siblings Melanie (the businessperson) and Alex (the designer). Though we’ve arrived in the off-season, we’re greeted like long lost family and shown to our suite. (Later, just before sleep, my mother turns to me and says, “I think this is the nicest place I’ve ever stayed.” I concur.)

Angeline's in Prince Edward County

The next day, and for two more after that, my mother and I tour the County. We’re guests of the tourism board so it’s not surprising to be greeted warmly in local businesses, but we’re in town fewer than 24 hours before we’re exchanging hellos on the street.

Regent in Prince Edward County

In the big city, the construction of multiplexes and the advent of Netflix have replaced the simple pleasure of going to the movies. Not so in the County. The Regent Theatre is a historic building on Picton’s Main Street, renovated in 2011 to better host movies, music, and live theatre. Recent PEC transplant Sonya Szabo has sweetened the deal with the opening of The Vic Café, a quaint eatery right next door serving healthy meals and ethical coffee. Show up on Mondays and get a bowl and a movie ticket for $15.

The Vic Cafe in Prince Edward County

Torontonians will likely be familiar with The Drake Hotel, one of the city’s most fêted art hotels on West Queen West. There’s a sister establishment, The Drake Devonshire, in Wellington. Located in a restored 1897 Iron Foundry, this waterfront boutique hotel and restaurant has transplanted their metropolitan brand to rural Ontario with excellent results. We visit for breakfast but end up lingering for well over an hour.

Drake Devonshire Prince Edward County

One of the most alluring aspects of the region is the Arts Trail. Marked with placards, artist’s galleries and studios are open to the public (sometimes by appointment, so bring a cellphone). To view the work of several artists in one location, visit Arts on Main, a co-operative in Picton. Their new show “Spring Awakening” is on until May 9, 2016, and features work from painters, woodworkers, photographers, and multimedia artists.

Prince Edward County also has a Taste Trail—a route designed to take you to local restaurants, wineries, and farm stands—and we quickly discover that with only a few days we’ll never sample it all. This is a foodie destination, with local restaurants putting their menu where their mouth is when it comes to healthy, local, sustainable fare. The Agrarian, in Bloomfield, brings local meats, dairy, baked goods, and brews and sprits right to the table. These items are also available for sale in their Market, located on the lower level.

Over in Wellington, East & Main provides luxury comfort food, with the atmosphere to match. Dishes are complex and creative, prepared with fresh, local ingredients, and expertly plated. The wine list features many local options, and the staff are happy to offer pairing recommendations. During our visit, we were treated to a chef’s sampler, which did a superb job of showcasing their offerings and left us with a visceral impression of the region. Pro-tip: Do not leave without a jar of pickled vegetables from the shelves near the front.

East and Main

Even the most practiced palate sometimes yearns for a classic Canadian breakfast, and The Lighthouse Restaurant at the Picton Harbour Inn delivers. We visit on a rainy, cold day and settle in for bacon and eggs, and a side of good-natured chinwagging. It’s a habit we develop over our short stay, discovering that chatting with the locals is more effective than reading the papers. For a leisurely, no-pressure conversation, hit up Saylor House. Located down the lane behind the bed and breakfast of the same name, the café is a country kitchen meeting place serving classic breakfast and lunch dishes, and tea and scones.

tea

The region’s breweries can be traced to the County’s success with growing barley, while the temperate climate has leant itself to growing grapes. Four breweries (and counting) and more than 30 wineries call Prince Edward County home, and many of them double as sugarbushes for those into maple syrup. Beer lovers will also want to visit the County Canteen, Picton’s first brewpub.

On the way out of town we had a short visit with Duncan Moore, a transplant from Montreal who came first as a visitor, and later to stay. For him, it was love at first sight but he worried about being able to run his business location independently. In the end, he moved anyway and started County Coworking, a non-profit enterprise providing shared workspace, a fast internet connection, and pop-up events to bring together the community of digital nomads in the County. “Lots of people come just to visit,” he explained, adding, “and now it’s easier for them to stay.”

County Calendar

There’s so much to see and do in The County’s off-season! Take your pick.

March 2016: March of Wines

March 19 – 20, 2016: Maple in the County

April 1 – 24, 2016: Countylicious

April 13 – 17, 2016: Prince Edward County Authors Festival

April 30, 2016: County Pop Music Fest

May 14, 2016: Terroir

Comments

  1. Pearl Hucul says

    Article is informative, cheery, and inviting. It conveys the comfortable, chatty nature of county locations and people. Thank you for the kind words.
    Just a quick correction about location might be in order to avoid lack of credibility for all the wonderful things you say later in article. Prince Edward county is located in eastern or south eastern Ontario, not south western Ontario. South western Ontario is the location of Wellington County which is also lovely agricultural area with good tourism, but it is hundreds of kilometres west of the county.
    Thank you again for visiting and enjoying our county.

  2. Kay Vee says

    Prince Edward County is not an island. It is a peninsula jutting into Lake Ontario. It is joined to the rest of the province at Carrying Place. In the early 19th century the Murray Canal was dug, to facilitate water travel between Toronto and Hamilton and the Bay of Quinte, as ships circumnavigating Prince Edward County faced storms and treacherous waters.

    • Liz Greenaway says

      Didn’t the digging of a canal make it an island? It is now surrounded by water. In any case, the best place in Canada and we’re heartbroken it was necessary for us to Move away from there.

  3. K Hoppner says

    Hello, thanks for your PEC article. I frequent the Saylor house cafe and bed and breakfast. Your article does mention it’s local charm and warmness. I thought you should have mentioned it’s location, the heart of Bloomfield, and it’s place as a vacation hotspot..that hosts the one of the most unique indoor outdoor cafes in the County.
    Cheers

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