Don’t rush to the beach
Ontario’s Prince Edward County is more than just the famous sandbanks. It offers up a harvest of pleasures, from its burgeoning wineries to the charms of small-town Picton
By PHIL NORTON, Special to The GazetteNovember 10, 2008
Even on a road map of Ontario, Prince Edward County looks alluring. With a northern border of blue provided by the Bay of Quinte, the ragged peninsula juts into the inland sea of Lake Ontario.
Nature created the county as a presqu’ile, almost an island, but technically it only became Quinte’s Isle when a canal was cut through the narrow spit of land linking the peninsula to the mainland at Trenton.
Best known for its Sandbanks Provincial Park, Prince Edward County is a sort of miniature Prince Edward Island with astounding similarities to the Canadian Maritime home of Anne of Green Gables.
“Cradled in the waves of the Great Lakes” could be its motto.
Commercial fishing boats dock in cove harbours, and tractors ply green fields overlooking blue seascapes and rocky bluffs.
Country roads crisscross the interior offering automobile shunpikers and bicyclists endless discoveries of authentic rural scenery and characters mixed with fine art galleries and home-baked delights. Local taste treats have become a big tourist draw here, from U-pick berries and organic veggie stands to gourmet pub fare and wineries.
Be sure to pick up the map Harvestin’ the County, with directions about where to buy beef and lamb direct from the farm, fresh lavender, even emu sausages (www.harvestin.ca).
All through the county, you’re never far from a blue road sign marked “Taste Trail.” The signs lead along County Road 8 to the Waupoos Estates Winery (www.waupooswinery.com). Inside the elegant building, owner Ed Neuser is behind the counter pouring a glass of gamay noir for a visitor. Felix, his white Jack Russell terrier, saunters through the gift shop.
Neuser and his wife, Rita Kaimins, are credited with planting the first vineyard in Prince Edward County. Fifteen years later, the county has been officially recognized as a Designated Viticultural Area.
“Yes, I started this mad wine disease,” Neuser admits, stroking his white beard. He explains that the soil and slope and microclimate beside the bay are ideal for grape growing.
Waupoos has historically been apple country. Carefully tended orchards still line the road, with Jamaican migrant workers pruning and mowing.
Drive past Tooth Acres Lane and the North Marysburgh Town Hall, then turn up the steep Bongards Crossroad for the home of County Cider (www.countycider.com). On a sunny weekend day, the patio tables overlooking Prince Edward Bay are abuzz with guests tasting the dry sparkling hard cider procured inside the old stone barn.
Owner and grower Grant Howes loves to talk apple varieties and grafting. His hilltop farm is the largest orchard of European cider apples in Canada.
The largest vineyard is the 25-hectare Grange Winery. But it’s located near Wellington, clear across the county, so if you’ve been taste testing wine and cider in Waupoos, wait a while before heading out on the winding roads.
During the summer, Picton is festival central, with Main St.’s high-end fashion stores, gourmet hotdogs, sidewalk sales of boogie boards and bikinis, fine art galleries, chai lattés and gelato, and hotrods like the metalflake lime ’57 Chevy cruising in traffic.
The downtown core’s centrepiece is the Regent Theatre. Its colourful marquee lights announce top-notch stage performances and first-run movies in an old-fashioned, small town setting. The newest attraction on the block is the huge 5,500 square-foot bookstore and café. It mixes new and used books on the same shelves and offers comfy chairs for reading and cats that roam around looking for attention.
For anyone who is an English royalty buff, it won’t take long to notice that many of the place names in the county honour 18th-century monarch King George III. Ameliasburgh, Sophiasburgh and Marysburgh townships were named for his daughters. And like every Ontario town along the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River corridor, there is a King St. and a Queen St., even a King’s Highway.
United Empire Loyalist history abounds here. The first settlers were mostly from New York and New England. They left the American colonies or were chased into Canada, then an English colony, around the time of the Revolution. The proper brick homes and neat, tree-lined streets are a tribute to this English heritage.
(Speaking of proper and polite behaviour, one important note to Montreal drivers: Pedestrians here have the right of way, particularly when they have pushed the button that lights up the Main St. crosswalk lights and step into traffic.)
For agriculture, Prince Edward County is endowed with a mix of some of the richest soils in Ontario, and some of the most sterile.
But for tourism, nature has provided the county with more than 800 kilometres of shoreline and a huge deposit of sand that became Sandbanks Provincial Park. Sandbanks is famous for its mountains of sand – true hills that you can climb and look out over the bay known as West Lake. Other beaches that face Lake Ontario are wide and white and washed by fresh water waves.
The scene is colourful, with blue sky blending into aqua water dotted with red and yellow kayaks, white breakers and, on the shore, a rainbow of beach umbrellas. Up away from the water in the shady dunes are large family groups with hibachis and speaking Punjabi, Hindi or Mandarin. Out in the sun by the water, some old guys from Montreal toss horseshoes, and beside them the young guys dive to send volleyballs over a net. The wives and children cheer in French.
“We used to go to Virginia Beach,” says one of them, but Sandbanks has become their preferred summer destination.
Park Superintendent Don Bucholtz says there’s been a general increase in the number of French-speaking visitors. Even though the dollar exchange has made travel to the United States less expensive and more attractive, the cost of gas is high and Sandbanks is closer to Montreal.
Just outside the park, a local farmer sells firewood to campers. He says the French love life, love to have fun, and when they’re on vacation they love to spend money, which has been good for his business.
And guess who’s in charge of promoting Prince Edward County? A Montrealer! Beaconsfield native Dan Taylor came here with his wife, Kerry, to live their dream of becoming wine growers. Now, he is the economic development officer working to draw business and tourism to the county, promoting its wines, shores and haute cuisine to the world, and the virtual world (www.thecounty.ca).
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