THE JEWEL OF SOUTHERN ONTARIO:
My destination on Lake Ontario lies on its surface like a glittering pendant on a chain. Often confused with a similar sounding Canadian province, locals can reach this delightful faux-island with ease-but I came from far away and fell in love again.
Prince Edward County (PEC) is a rural treasure that floats in fresh water and is linked to mainland Ontario by a short isthmus at its northwestern corner. Self-contained and tranquil, it is a delightful place to relax awhile. Good hotels, cottages, and B&Bs await the tired explorer. Although recommended for weekend getaways, as a first-timer and someone from BC, I opted for a week. I tried two hotels: one, a restored colonial-style mansion overlooking Picton Bay; the other in the County's heart, based on an 1860 farm with its own brewery.
PEC has something for everyone - families, foodies and wine aficionados, culture seekers, photographers and boaters, golfers and cyclists, history buffs and antique hounds. To experience the County most visitors require a car. The winding country roads lead you through rolling farmland to small towns and beaches, artists' studios, wineries, and museums. I had to stop every five minutes to shoot photos.
The County has traces of hunter-gatherers living here 12,000 years ago. Samuel Champlain and fur traders passed this way in the 1600s and 1700s. However, PEC is best known for United Empire Loyalist settlers arriving after the American Revolution - road and place names still reflect their proud history. Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, also lived here in Picton, and the County's museums and archives welcome researchers and everyone who appreciates Canadian heritage.
I counted three provincial parks and fourteen conservation areas in the County but could not visit them all. My favourite park was Sandbanks - the largest fresh water dune system in the world that stretches across East and West Lakes separating them from Lake Ontario. On a mid-June morning, the park's three beaches provided me with a refreshing, solitary walk. The campgrounds were deserted, but they are overrun with visitors in summer.
During the last decade, PEC has attracted top chefs and winemakers, and is transforming into a hot-spot for foodies. With farm-fresh, local ingredients and a maturing wine industry, restaurants are now vying for accolades and discerning diners. The County recommends that visitors follow two routes to sample some of the best: the Taste Trail and the Wine Trail. I wanted to complete both but it was impossible. I managed a few stops on each and my favourite winery was Huff Estates in the County's centre. It has a French winemaker, a beautiful tasting room and a restaurant perched on a knoll overlooking the vineyard.
The most unusual was By Chadsey's Cairns, named after an eccentric settler who built cairns to guide him home from the afterlife while riding on a white horse. A charming old cemetery is on the property too, but Chadsey's grave is not to be found here.
As for food, Clara's at Claramount Inn enchanted my taste buds with creative cuisine and local wines, and the busy pub at The Waring House delighted me with their own beers brewed next door and succulent meals. I also sampled several cafés and bistros around the County that served excellent lunches at reasonable prices - The Miller House Café-Brasserie at Lake on the Mountain serves exceptional local charcuterie and cheeses with a view over Adolphus Reach. Everyone should visit Black River, a cooperative where, for a century, the local dairy farmers have preserved traditional hand-crafted cheese-making.
In late spring, the migrating birds were gone but I did manage to watch a pair of loons courting at the picturesque end of Lakeshore Lodge Road in Sandbanks. I drew a blank at Prince Edward Point National Wildlife Area but I enjoyed the drive and detours on old wagon roads.
The small towns of Wellington and Bloomfield are home to small boutiques, antique shops, and art galleries that abound here. I found artists' studios in the residential areas, and the artists proudly showed me their work. Everyone had time to talk and recommended other studios to visit. In the main town of Picton there is more to see - the cinema-theatre that dates back decades and displays old playbills, Picton Bay and the local marina, and the beautiful houses behind Main Street.
The attractive jewel called Prince Edward County in Lake Ontario is a pastoral, historical, and relaxing vacation spot that tourists often ignore and should not.
IF YOU GO:
Prince Edward County is two hours by car from Toronto if you fly in and minutes from Belleville and Trenton. The routes from mainland Ontario include a drive across an isthmus (Hwy 33) from the west, two bridges on Hwy 62 and 49 from the north, and the Glenora ferry across Adolphus Reach from the east.
A must-try are the self-drive trails: Art (19 galleries and studios), Taste (14 eateries), and/or Wine (16 wineries).
Climate is moderated by Lake Ontario, but it does snow in the winter.
Links to start you off:
" Official Prince Edward County site: prince-edward-county.com/
" Museums and archives: prince-edward-county.com/arts-culture-heritage/history-resources-museums/
" PEC's heritage: historyliveshere.ca/
" The art, taste and wine trails, walks, and beaches:
" PEC Wine Growers' Association: www.princeedwardcountywine.ca/
" Huff Estates: www.huffestates.com/
" By Chadsey's Cairn: www.bychadseyscairns.com/index2.html
" Claramount Inn and Spa: www.claramountinn.com/
" The Waring House: waringhouse.com/
" The Miller House: lakeonthemountain.com/dining/the-miller-house/
" Black River Cheese: www.blackrivercheese.com/
PHOTOS : All images: © Photos by Pharos 2014
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