Some of Prince Edward County's roadside attractions (photo: Craig Moy)

On the Road in Prince Edward County

By Craig Moy

When we travel, we’re often drawn to the bright lights of big cities. We seek out the most dynamic and interesting attractions, restaurants, shops and cultural experiences—and we want all of it at our fingertips.

Consider, for example, a trip to Canada’s largest and most visited metropolis. A Toronto itinerary could include full days of museum visits, photography tours, big-league sports events, memorable meals and much more. It can also leave you feeling a bit exhausted!

The remedy for this big-city fatigue? A more leisurely sojourn in the pastoral paradise of nearby Prince Edward County. There’s restoration to be found here, whether you tack on a few days to your Toronto trip or forgo the city altogether. It’s why I’ve journeyed to the Lake Ontario headland, seeking the slower life amongst the area’s vineyards and along its meandering roads.

A little more than two hours east of Toronto—and not much farther from Ottawa and Montreal—Prince Edward County has become a bustling getaway destination. Its focal communities of Wellington, Bloomfield and Picton, once stereotypical sleepy towns, now welcome more than 600,000 visitors annually.

The County, as it’s affectionately known, has cultivated a harmonious blend of the rural and the urban, perhaps even more so than the increasingly built-up Niagara Region and posh Muskoka cottage country. It retains its roots and simplicity while simultaneously catering to those of us seeking modern indulgences.

Prince Edward County Ontario Farming Drake Devonshire Inn
The local harvest—at Vicki’s Veggies (left) and the Drake Devonshire Inn (photos: Johnny C.Y. Lam)

The Drake Devonshire Inn encapsulates these contrasts. Once an old-school guesthouse in shore-set Wellington, the boutique hotel was refashioned in 2015 by one of Canada’s trendiest hospitality firms. Its dining room is this urbanite’s first stop upon arriving in PEC.

Awaiting my locally caught walleye and grilled naan with ham, peaches and ricotta, I see that the place is a magnet for sharp-dressed guests attracted by the Drake’s hipster-friendly brand. They perch at the bar drinking $15 cocktails, exchange tender glances around the lakeside fire pit; they get their pictures taken at the hotel’s vintage photo booth.

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But this is no tourist trap. Locals have made the Drake a hugely popular brunch haunt, and I’m told that performers at its weekly open mic nights play to a reliably packed house even in winter. So it’s not exactly a surprise when I’m drawn back the next day—for a drink and conversation with a group of Wellington residents, including the town’s United Church minister, the publisher of the local newspaper and more than a few recent big-city transplants.

The County’s status as a sanctuary is a hot topic around the table: what certain tourist-focused businesses are doing (or not doing) to ingratiate themselves with the community; the number of homes that are becoming vacation-rental properties. There are concerns about unchecked growth, but my guess is it would take a lot to diminish the region’s considerable charms.

To quote Wellington-based Tina Konecny, a graphic designer who’s brought me to the gathering: “There’s something special about being in a place where people still say hello on the street, even if they don’t know you.”

Prince Edward County Wellington Ontario Dead Peoples Stuff
Antique hunting at Dead People’s Stuff in Wellington (photo: Craig Moy)

The allure of Prince Edward County is inseparable from the allure of the road trip. The area is accessed from the east and west via Highway 401. Turning off that artery onto PEC’s Wooler Road is the automotive equivalent of stepping into a spa. Your shoulders relax. Your foot eases off the gas pedal. Eventually you merge onto the Loyalist Parkway and catch glimpses of the lake. You could drive these roads forever; there are a good number of them to explore.

“One thing about our roads is that  they’re not straight,” says Rick Conroy, publisher of the Wellington Times. “In most other parts of the province, all the concession roads are basically on a grid. They couldn’t do that here because of the shape of the land.”

Old wooden barns are defining features of these winding lanes; my eyes are constantly drawn to the roadside hulks. Some are derelict and overrun by creeping ivy, but many others have been refashioned—often as visitor centres and tasting rooms for wineries.

Over the past decade the County has grown to rival Niagara in notoriety (if not in scale) as a wine-producing region. Upwards of forty vineyards now grow cool-climate grapes in limestone-dominant clay loam that encourages root growth and good drainage.

“It’s similar to a lot of the great appellations in France,” says Norman Hardie, a winemaker who set up shop in 2003 and has since garnered praise for his Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and Rieslings. “I’ve travelled the world and I’ve never seen soils as close to Burgundy as we have here.”

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Hardie’s vineyard and winery, set back from a dead-end sideroad just outside the hamlet of Hillier, is one of the County’s most recommendable operations. It’s a working winery in the best sense: The guest amenities, including a tasting bar and a summer patio for enjoying exceptional thin-crust pizzas, are polished and professionally run. But you’re also never far from the action—particularly if you visit during the September harvest, as I did, when Hardie and his team put in long hours picking and sorting the season’s bounty.

Hillier hosts the region’s primary cluster of vineyards. Adjacent to Hardie’s property are Casa-Dea Estates Winery (another early-2000s vintage) and Rosehall Run, home to the Picnic PEC food truck. Or point your GPS toward rambling, unkempt Closson Road, where you can encounter pinot pourers inside The Old Third’s exquisitely refurbished barn or savour an al fresco wine country lunch at The Grange.

A spur-of-the-moment stop at the Shed at Chetwyn Farms, a former chicken coop that’s now a boutique for lovely alpaca-wool products, also yields a lasting memory—of my three-year-old greeting the farm’s dozen or so alpacas while Jackson, the sociable barn cat, nuzzles and purrs at the boy’s feet.

Prince Edward County Ontario Chetwyn Farms Norman Hardie
Checking out Chetwyn Farms’ alpacas (left) and Norman Hardie’s wines (photos: Craig Moy)

And that’s the thing. Winemaking is far from the only game in the County. Hardie cites the existence of a flourishing arts-and-crafts scene plus enthusiastic food producers as two of the reasons he initially felt the area was primed for big-city visitors. Ontario farmers’ influence is clear on numerous organically inclined, slow food–focused restaurant menus.

At Wellington bistro East and Main, I take note of pickerel from local Dewey Fisheries and greens from Hagerman Farms (though ultimately I settle on venison from a bit farther away). While Bloomfield’s rustic Agrarian not only dishes out farm-sourced fare, it sells the ingredients directly at its market shop about 10 minutes down the road. And during summer’s high season, I defy you to find a menu that doesn’t feature PEC-grown heirloom tomatoes.

For my money, Prince Edward County’s best meal is served at The Hubb, a cozy farmhouse-chic restaurant at Angéline’s Inn in Bloomfield. My family is lucky enough to be seated just off of the main dining room at a private table, where we spend the next few hours finding increasingly elaborate ways to exclaim our delight over trout with corn and chorizo, short ribs with roasted carrots and plums, nectarine-topped duck breast and “burrata for two,” a cream-filled ball of mozzarella that’s actually big enough to satisfy four. (Pro tip: Always, always order the burrata for two.)

The restaurant is still full and buzzing as we depart. As with all of my dinners in the County, I leave feeling fortunate that I made reservations in advance.

But you don’t want to schedule too much: Unforgettable getaways invariably include spontaneous discoveries. Here, that means anything from finding a perfect antique knickknack at Dead People’s Stuff (or a modern one at Kokito) to watching Hagerman Farms’ resident hog gleefully scarf down a lunchtime chocolate croissant. Or maybe you’ll happen upon the whimsical Birdhouse City, an assemblage of more than 100 birdhouses built to look like historic landmarks and other recognizable structures.

If it’s starting to read like there’s a lot to pack into a County visit, it’s because there’s a lot to pack into a County visit. Of course you needn’t feel compelled to do it all—especially when Sandbanks Provincial Park beckons. The park may look fairly ordinary driving in, but once you leave your car and make your way over the shrub-strewn dunes, you’ll suddenly be standing on one of Canada’s most glorious beaches, all white sand and cool Lake Ontario surf. As the sun beats down and the waves lap at your ankles, you might decide that you never want to leave. 

Prince Edward County Ontario Lake on the Mountain Boardwalk
A quiet moment at the Lake on the Mountain (photo: Craig Moy)

WEST TO EAST
If you’ve come to PEC from T.O., it’s natural to focus on the County’s westerly attractions: Hillier’s wineries, Wellington, Sandbanks, etc. But some extra time on the road yields more wonders to the east.

A short drive outside of Picton lies the Lake on the Mountain, a natural curiosity with no visible water source. Snap a few pics on the boardwalk, then cross the street to the circa-1796 Miller House, which serves an astounding assortment of charcuterie platters on a patio overlooking the Bay of Quinte.

Farther southeast you’ll find Waupoos Winery. The County’s pioneering vineyard—it set down roots in 1993—caters to all guests with tours and tastings, plus a confectionery shop, small art gallery and even a petting zoo. Also nearby are the Black River Cheese Company and Vicki’s Veggies, which grows more than 100 varieties of heirloom tomatoes.

BOOK WITH AMA
Your AMA membership makes it easy (and more affordable) to visit the County

Hotels: AMA Travel offers our Best Price Guarantee on accommodations in Belleville, a waterside city just outside of Prince Edward County.

Car rentals: Enjoy savings on advance-reservation vehicle rentals from Hertz, Dollar and Thrifty. The latter two agencies also offer 10% savings on GPS units. Find even more car rental deals.

Fueling upEarn 2% in reward dollars on the purchase amount for a Reloadable Esso Gas Card, plus 2% every time you reload it. Buy it with your CAA Rewards MasterCard to earn even more reward dollars.

WE’VE GOT YOU COVERED
Fill the gaps in health-care coverage when travelling across Canadian provincial borders. Always carry your Alberta Health Care card, and consider purchasing travel medical insurance to mitigate out-of-pocket expenses that could be incurred if you’re involved in an unforeseen accident.