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. A flood of vacationers hit up the top Prince Edward County wineries and luxuriate at “the Drake” Prince Edward County, as well as lounge on the golden sands of Sandbanks Provincial Park.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”