Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula is the province’s hub for wine production, and it welcomes 1.8 million tourists per year. But those really in the know head eastward by car, an hour or so down Highway 401, which runs from Toronto to Prince Edward County. Dubbed ‘The County’ by those who live here, this man-made island in Lake Ontario is one of Canada’s most exciting wine regions. On the same parallel as the Burgundy region in France, it has limestone-rich soils, a diverse growing environment and moderate temperatures ideal for grape-growing. As a consequence, chardonnay, cabernet franc and riesling grapes all thrive here, and the 40-plus vineyards in the area produce a glorious array of bottles, from skin-fermentation wines and rich-bodied reds to Canada’s very own famed ice wine.
Wine-drinking aside, the idyllic island also boasts white-sand beaches, luxurious hotels and a clutch of award-winning restaurants. Unlike the nearby Niagara region, which has long been a staple tourist destination, there are no tour buses or crowds in sight. It’s a vacation destination loved by winemakers and chefs. Artists have flocked here over the past few years, many buying up quaint old farmhouses and barns and turning them into architecturally stunning Airbnbs or studio spaces.
Whether you’d like to tour its galleries, stop by family-run restaurants serving locally sourced food, or just hit the beach, Prince Edward County is a sublime destination for a weekend getaway.
Prince Edward County is home to a vast number of vineyards. Hinterland produces some of the most impressive sparkling wine options in the area, including a traditional bubbly as well as rosé blends. Keint-he creates some rather impressive European-style pinot noirs, while Closson Chase – easily recognisable thanks to its bright purple barn – makes award-winning chardonnays. Most vineyards offer far more than wine tasting sips. Grange of Prince Edward County handily packs up visitor baskets full of picnic provisions (local cheeses, fresh baguettes and even a blanket) for leisurely lunches among the grapevines. Or stop in at Huff Estates, this winery has offerings that the whole family can enjoy, from brick-oven pizza to a sprawling sculpture garden.
While wine is one of the main draws of Prince Edward County, the cidermakers that dot the island are equally worthy of a visit. What they produce is a far cry from industrially mass-produced sweet ciders, in fact, they’re far more akin to the orange wines so beloved by wine aficionados. More than 30 distinct types of cider apples are grown in this region, giving the region a diverse range of ciders. The Old Third – located in a chic modernized barn – makes a sophisticatedly light champagne-type cider. Settlers Cider Co makes a full range of ciders, from crisp sparkling varieties made with golden russet apples to its richer-tasting reserve cider, which is a wild-fermented recipe that tastes of elderflower.
If cycling is your hobby of choice, or you’re looking for a non-motorized way to explore the vineyards, bicycles are a great choice for getting around the island. There are a few guided tours available (such as Sip & Cycle) or take a self-directed route that follows the Millennium Trail: a former railway trail turned hiking, biking and walking route that stretches 30 miles (49 kilometers), from Carrying Place to Picton. You can take on the whole trail, or just pick up the path at any of the well-signed entry routes.
One of the great charms of the County is its lack of big-name hotels and chain stores. That means there are no 300-room hotels or cheesy chain-owned steakhouses: instead you will find a host of locally run B&Bs, Airbnbs and small-yet-stylish boutique hotels. The B&Bs on offer are diverse, from quaint rooms where locals play host at restored-and-renovated churches to carriage houses set in the grounds of local vineyards and on the island’s lavender farm. And if you opt to stay in a shared space, be sure to mix and mingle with Prince Edward County’s residents as they’ll most definitely have the best tips on where to go and what to eat.
There are a few motels that dot the island, and just like its chic B&Bs, the motels offer boutique accommodation and are locally run. The June Motel is expertly curated with restored ’60s-era interiors and rooms painted in swathes of pastels and adorned with palm trees and neon signs. Its amenities cater to bachelorettes and wine lovers alike: there’s a lobby wine bar, a text-message concierge and even yoga classes, complete with post-flow mimosas. Down the road, the Drake Motor Inn evokes images of nostalgic road trips: 12 outdoor-entry rooms (all pet friendly) circle a communal fire pit and patio. The staff are happy to lend you a Polaroid camera for your daily adventures, or a board game for night-time entertainment.
Most residents flock to Sandbanks Provincial Park, as do savvy travellers. Home to the most extensive bay-mouth dune system in the whole of North America, it’s easy to while away a day enjoying the captivating shoreline, climbing the towering sand dunes, or hiking through the web of trails on offer. In the summer months, however, the park’s beaches tend to fill up fast, so for a more serene summer weekend, hit North Beach Provincial Park instead. The quieter lakefront park has a 0.6 mile (1 kilometer) stretch of flat sandy beach. A twilight visit is especially recommended; when the sun dips into the lake, the shore lights up into a wash of color.
The County is still very much a working farm region, and that is reflected in the restaurants. Sand and Pearl showcases Canadian seafood, from fish and chips – made with pickerel fresh from the Bay of Quinte – to succulent snow crab caught off Fogo Island. Bloomfield Public House works with nearby farmers to highlight the area’s growing capabilities. In winter, you’ll find delicious smoked local lamb and rich homemade pasta, while summertime showcases juicy tomatoes and platters of homemade charcuterie.
The County’s rich farming history means that delicious, bountiful produce is available around every corner. The Wellington farmer’s market takes over a parking lot on Main Street every Saturday. Here you can shop locally and find woven linens and sunflower bouquets, as well as baba ghanoush and hummus made by Syrian refugees. While during the week, you can stop by some of the island’s roadside produce stands and shops for a full view of what’s growing in the County. There are plenty of options, including Vicki’s Veggies, Laundry Farms, Hagerman Farms, Cherryvale Organic Farm, and Highline. While over in Picton, Fifth Town Artisan Cheese uses milk sourced from local farmers.
Or, you could just follow the Taste Trail: signs along the roadsides (or online maps) will direct you to cideries, breweries, wineries, artisan shops, fresh produce stands, as well as a number of farm-to-table venues. Wherever it leads you, keep an eye out on the side of the road for big coolers, they usually contain fresh farm eggs – slip a few dollars in the jar and take what you need. If you’re in the area in June, then don’t miss the annual Great Canadian Cheese Festival. In September, food and wine festival TASTE, held at the Crystal Palace, is also a must-visit.
For many decades, Prince Edward County has been home to painters, potters, artists and poets. The County certainly has no shortage of artistic flair. The Arts Trail explores the County’s art galleries and studios. Arts Trail signs dot the towns and main thoroughfares pointing you to the next destination – from Milé Murtanovski’s paintings made with wine at Small Pond Arts or The Red Barns, where you can take part in a hands-on workshop.
If you’re into live performance art, then be sure to catch a show at a winery or barn put on by The Festival Players theater company, or attend The Regent Theatre, which schedules plays throughout the year.
As you tour the County, keep an eye out for the vibrant barn quilts adorning the sides of homes. These painted eight-foot (2.4-meter) squares are replicas of traditional Loyalist fabric quilts and are now put up on homes to pay poignant homage to the province’s disappearing rural landscape.
As an artists’ enclave, it’s no surprise that festivals, music and merriment can be found throughout the County. The PEC Jazz Festival takes over the area in the summer. Live jazz performances can also be found on Sundays at Huff Estates, while there are regular Spanish guitar recitals at Traynor Vineyards. Also check out the Red White & Blues Festival, featuring music played in the vineyard during September or Prince Edward County Chamber Music Festival, a classical music event in September. The Hayloft, a dancehall in a historic barn, also draws more prominently named artists from the nearby cities of Montreal and Toronto.
Come fall, the spirit of wassailing takes over the County. This age-old tradition sees the toasting of the harvest, with vintners and winemakers cheering a good growing year by singing seasonal tunes, pouring mulled wines and serving sweet treats to friends, family and guests. Most vineyards will turn their tasting rooms into celebratory spaces, with live music, bonfires, and Canadian delicacies like tourtière meat-pies and butter tarts.
Prince Edward County is well-known for its boutique shopping, vintage shops and antique stores. Head to Dead People’s Stuff for some vintage finds, City Revival for recycled designer clothing, or Hillier House, which is an old general-store-turned-antique-shop.
Spring is when the lavender starts coming to life, turning the County’s rolling fields into shimmering seas of violet. Photographers flock to capture the blooming rows of lavender. And once you’re done hiking along the rows of purple plants, stop in the gift shops for handmade lavender soaps or dried herbs, which make the perfect souvenirs.