There have been few places that have captured our hearts and imagination quite like Prince Edward County. Bobby and I took a little road trip to visit last week, and though we were excited after hearing so many great things about this place, we couldn’t have prepared ourselves for the summer magic that awaited us!
An easy, enjoyable 2-2.5 hour drive due east of Toronto, PEC is located in Southern Ontario surrounded by Lake Ontario to the south, with the Bay of Quinte to the north. If you choose to drive in from the north, it truly feels like you’re entering another world as you drive over the bridge and onto the island. Long settled by indigenous peoples, however the most significant change to the landscape came shortly after the American Revolution when the Crown granted land to some of the earliest United Empire Loyalists - British supporters - as compensation for land lost to the newly founded Thirteen Colonies. Thus, large, stately, and ornate Loyalist farmhouses dot the landscape of Prince Edward County, set on pristine rolling pastures with pastoral vistas.
Many of these homes have been restored back to life as B&Bs, artisan food producers, distillers, and, most notably, wineries (over 30 and counting!) Outside of its geographic beauty, one thing about PEC that makes it truly unique among Canadian cottage country regions - it is bursting with endless fun-in-the-sun day-trips galore. At only about 65 km at its widest point, literally anything you would want to do on the island is within a 20 minute drive if you’re accommodations are relatively central. Rather than vacationers bringing provisions from the city and staying at the cottage, this fosters a “get up, go out and explore” vacation culture, and only adds to the general excitement and support for County’s small businesses.
Located just east of Picton on a small strip of land between the Bay of Quinte and Lake on the Mountain, this may be one of PEC’s most enchanting properties. Featuring accommodations (either private 1-2 person lakeside cottages or B&B style), 2 restaurants (one traditional, one cheese & charcuterie boards only), and a craft brewery, we couldn’t recommend Lake on the Mountain enough. Stay at the adorable (and affordable) cottages and enjoy a daily dip in the crystal clear waters purified by underground limestone, or swing by The Miller House for cheese and wine, and watch the sun set over one of the best views in the County.
When you go back twice in 4 days, you know it’s good! Tucked in the corner of the Picton Harbour Inn, this casual and family friendly restaurant serves traditional, home-style breakfast and lunch. Go for the Big Bay Breakfast and add chocolate chips to your pancakes - you won’t be disappointed! For lunch, you can’t go wrong with the Monte Cristo - a ham and melted cheese sandwich using French toast for the bread, paired with a helping of signature house-made coleslaw.
A trip to PEC wouldn’t be complete without a stroll down one of the County’s bustling downtown strips, lined with the most adorable shops, complete with a retro movie theatre! Be sure to pop in to Coriander Girl, our best bbs and Parkdale neighbours, who have opened up a Main Street, Picton outpost of their infamous Queen West location. Complete with local blooms, pretty stationary, and select vintage pieces, bursting with their signature charm with an added dose of County living.
Aptly nicknamed the “doily of the County” by a local friend of ours, this tiny downtown strip is quite possibly the quaintest and most adorable village in all the land. Only about a block long, Bloomfield’s boutiques, B&Bs, and cafes are housed in historic Loyalist and Quaker properties, featuring elegant and graceful architectural details and well-tended gardens. Don’t miss the homemade ice cream from Slickers, the bright yellow ice cream shop on the corner where, I’m sure, there will be folks hanging outside with their cones. Our recommendations? “Campfire,” (tastes like burnt marshmallow), and “Apple Pie” were our faves!
Sip seasonal ciders and gaze out over the vineyard at the lake in the distance - can life get much sweeter? This family operated estate winery crafts hard cider with 12 different varieties of apples grown on the family farm and nearby orchards, available for a guided tasting in the original stone barn, built in 1832. Take advantage of the dramatic view and enjoy a light lunch on the lovely patio, nestled right into the vineyard.
Across the street from the County Cider Company there are a handful of pick your own berry farms, which offer blueberry, strawberry, and raspberry picking when in season. We were lucky enough to stumble upon Little Highbush Blueberry Patch for the first pick of the year, when the berries are as big as marbles and sweet as sugar. There’s little quite as satisfying as a pint of blueberries picked right off the bush, a tasty snack for the rest of the day’s adventures!
Quite possibly the most stately property in the County, this craft distillery is located in an ornate second empire home built in 1874 by a wealthy hops grower, perched on an 80 acre farm complete with the original hops drying barn. The cutest chickens roam the grounds freely, adding to its charm. Get your afternoon buzz going, and taste a number of truly finely crafted spirits - from their award winning gin (infused with juniper and lavender grown on the property), to pine infused vodka, barrel aged offerings including delicately spiced rum, Wild Oak and Crimson rye whiskies, and even two different types of shōchū (a spirit similar to sake). The gin is easy to drink and superbly well balanced, but tuck a bottle of the Crimson Rye away in your bar for the colder months...aged in PEC Pinot Noir barrels, it is sure to light a fire in your belly on our cozy Canadian winter nights, and remind you of your summer adventures to boot!
Perfect for a quick stop in between wineries, the lavender farm is certainly a sight to behold, their rolling fields blanketed in majestic shades of purple as you drive past. The gift shop is sweet as can be, with all sorts of lavender infused goodies from lotions to ice cream, soaps to culinary-grade blossoms. Stroll through the field and explore all the different types of lavender (who knew there were so many!), and you can even purchase a lavender plant or two to take home.
As if compelling you to appreciate the majesty and bounty of his land, you must drive down the path from the road, surrounded by endless rows on grapes on either side, to find the winery set deep within the vineyard. Receiving countless accolades from the international wine community, if there is one vineyard to visit in PEC, Norman Hardie is certainly at the top of the list. Having chosen select sites with a magical combination of clay and limestone soil, the mineral-rich terroir of Norman Hardie vineyards paired with a delicate, hand-crafted approach to winemaking has led to some of the finest wines in the New World. The addition of a wood fired pizza oven, cranking out the County’s best thin crust pizza (with recipes developed by top chefs from Toronto’s Terroni and Pizzeria Libretto) truly takes this casual and approachable vineyard experience to the next level. Enjoy a light lunch overlooking the dramatic grounds, a scene right out of Burgundy. Then head upstairs to the tasting room, where the unique split level architecture allows you to walk right out into the vineyard - apparently an important part of the thesis here. Don’t miss the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, quintessential cool weather varietals perfectly paired to the pizza and ambiance, but the bottle to take home is the County Pinot Noir, made exclusively with grapes from the very vineyard you’re standing in, and the only one not available in the LCBO.
Be transported to a tiny retro surf town as you drive from Picton due south to the Sandbanks Provincial Park. The ornate farmhouses and rolling pastures give way to pine tree-lined roads, which occasionally break for a little ice cream shop, surf shop, or sandwich joint adorned with brightly coloured hand-painted signs. Famous for its wide, picturesque sandy beaches - untypical of the Lake Ontario shoreline - and therefore a great spot for camping, swimming, and getting your tan on Floridian style.
Situated directly on the shores of Lake Ontario at almost exactly the centre of the island (width-wise) just east of the Sandbanks, Wellington is the most central hub of Prince Edward County. Akin to the traditional beach-y vacation towns of the east coast such as Cape Cod and the Jersey shore, tiny, colourful bungalows line narrow one-car-wide streets that lead down to the water from the main drag. Be sure to grab a third-wave-quality coffee at The General, our Toronto besties that took their much loved Roncesvalles coffee shop, Local Hero, out to the County. This is also the setting that the infamous Drake Hotel chose for their County outpost! Stay in their architecturally marvellous accommodations, or, as the Drake does so well, drop by anytime, any day, any hour for breakfast, lunch or dinner, drinks or snacks, and stare off into the distance across the lake through floor to ceiling windows which make up the entire back wall of the dining rooms.
As I am sure you can imagine, this list is by no means all inclusive. I could go on and on! Pre-packed vineyard picnics at The Grange, a very civilized sparking wine tasting at Hinterland, the adorable Mustang Drive-In movie theater, a county drive and photo-op at Sunydale Farms’ sunflower fields, or cheese tasting at Fifth Town Artisan Cheese Co., there is no shortage of fun things to do in PEC. Take a peek at Visit the County, PEC Chamber of Commerce, and PEC Wine Growers Association for more complete listings and information on local businesses and community happenings, and we wish you a lovely and relaxing holiday in Prince Edward County!