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Vineyards, eateries and artisan food producers - hidden gems in Ontario's Prince Edward County

As I was walking around one of our neighbourhood's farmer's market, I was struck by the bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables we grow in our province. And while the Niagara region is perhaps the best known area for fresh farm products, I like to visit Prince Edward County at this time of year, to try some of the excellent food on offer, much of it made from fresh County produce.

The County is of course well-known for Sandbanks Provincial Park, a place many of us will have visited for it's splendid beaches or perhaps a spot of camping. (Incidentally, when it comes to quiet beach walks I prefer North Beach). But it is beyond the sand dunes of West Lake that the real County lies – a region of rolling hills, stately homes, beautiful farms and tumble-down barns, romantic vineyards and road-side produce stalls lining miles of quiet country roads. And I wouldn't be an adventurer if I didn't go off the beaten track!

I love to visit Bloomfield, a small village halfway between Wellington and Picton. Plenty of boutiques await curious shoppers, including an antique store by the memorable name “Dead People's Stuff”. Hidden behind the United Church is a little secret oasis: the garden of the Saylor House Cafe, where a Saturday lunch or high tea is often accompanied by live music. Try the delicious scones, then pop over to Slickers Ice Cream across the road, a County institution and try their apple pie or campfire ice cream. A few doors east of Slickers you will find Bloomfield Public House and Market where you can pick up local foods and drinks for your picnic basket. They do great coffee as well. If art is your scene, near the junction of Highway 62 and County Road 1 you will find Oeno Galleries at Huff Estates and LalaLand Glass Studio.

Another of my favourite spots is on the other end of the County, in the strung-out hamlet of Waupoos. To get there, drive through Picton and take Highway 33 towards the Glenora Ferry. Just before you reach the ferry dock, go uphill on County Road 7 to Lake on the Mountain. If you are hungry by now, stop off at the Miller House, a French cafe and brasserie serving great charcuterie boards on a patio with some of the most spectacular views this part of the world has to offer.

If you are not hungry yet, continue to Waupoos. From Lake on the Mountain drive for about 11 kms until you reach Bongards Crossroad. Follow it south towards Waupoos for about 3 kms until, on top of a hill overlooking Lake Ontario, you will find the County Cider Company, surrounded by apple orchards and vines. Fresh baked pizza straight out of their wood-fired oven pairs deliciously well with their ciders. And on certain days they have live music, which only adds to the ambiance.

Nearby is the Waupoos Estate Winery where you can enjoy a glass of wine on the lawn overlooking Lake Ontario. And while you are in this neck of the woods, go east along County Road 8 to visit Fifth Town Artisan Cheese Company. It is out of the way but you won't regret going here and taste and buy some of their spectacular cheeses made with local milk.

If you are into local produce, you could do worse than checking out a site dedicated to the bounty of the County, the tastetrail.

Backtrack along County Road 8 back westbound through Waupoos, past the former Waupoos Pub. This now is a restaurant, after Stella's Eatery moved here from Picton. It is one of the best in the County and a great place for dinner, so while you are here, pop in to make a reservation.

Where the road swings north continue a little down the road and before it goes uphill, keep an eye out for a little shed where a local resident sells garage-sale type finds for charity. We have picked up some unique finds here.

Soon the road turns west again. Where it swings north again you will see a left-hand turn onto County Road 13. Follow it through pretty forest and farmland for about 8 kilometres to the junction with County Road 10. Here you will find the quirky Mariners Park Museum which makes for an hour or two of browsing. It explores the many ways the inhabitants of Prince Edward County have interacted with its surrounding waters, from fishing and ship building to ice harvesting and rum running, and recreational pursuits such as boat racing too.

From here a nice drive leads you through Milford (check if the Milford, at the junction of Country Roads 10 and 17 is open - the business comes and goes), to Cherry Valley. Here I like to stop in at the Store in Cherry Valley to pick up some quick groceries. But my favourite stop in Cherry Valley is The Bald Photographer, not because he lacks what I have (a shocking head of hair) but because I lack what he has - amazing photography skills. Graham Davies loves to photograph in the County and you'll be glad you stopped by.

You are now on your way to Picton, where Books and Company with its great selection of books, is a good place to while away an hour on a rainy day. Next door to it is Ms. Lily's Café, my favourite spot to stop for great coffee and a treat. Across the road is 2gallery, featuring Canadian fine art from a wide-ranging roster of talented contemporary artists.

Perhaps by now it is time for dinner and in Picton a local favourite is Hartley's Tavern.

Or consider going back to Waupoos to eat a stellar dinner at Stella's Eatery, one of the best in the County.

And, fairly new to the County and a hit with the hipster-crowd, is Wellington's Drake Devonshire. I love the setting - a patio overlooking the wide expanse of Lake Ontario - but must say I have had unsatisfactory service both times I visited. Perhaps it was a fluke, so if you are looking for an "all-season retreat with food and beverage menus that proudly represent the bounty of nearby farmers and vintners", give them a shot.

Speaking of vintners, there are plenty of vineyards close to Wellington. And while the quality of the wines is perhaps not quite world-class yet, there are certainly some nice wineries to visit. The Grange of Prince Edward Vineyards is in a lovely setting but one of my favourites is Karlo Estates, where you can enjoy a wine tasting in an old Loyalist barn. Try their 2016 Chardonnay or VanAlstine Red, both prize-winning wines. (I would suggest you stay away from Karlo during special events as it gets overrun; also, their food is of poor quality and outrageously priced).

Up in this neck of the woods there are some other hidden gems also. Closson Road makes for a pretty drive or bicycle ride (you can rent a bike here) and along it, amidst a string of wineries, you will find Prince Edward County Lavender Farm. You can wander through the lavender fields and flower beds here and perhaps score a nice gift in their gift store.

Speaking of gifts, as you leave the County you may wish to bring some sort of produce home with you. The Local, between Bloomfield and Sandbanks, is perhaps the most convenient place to stop. It showcases the work of over 140 Prince Edward County artists & artisans and local food producers.

And I can't think of a better souvenir than Kinsip's maple syrup, which is aged in old whisky barrels. On dark winter mornings here at home in Toronto I have it on pancakes and I am instantly transported back to the County, remembering great food, County drives and lazy late-summer afternoons spent on the beach!

A final word about being a guest in the County. During the pandemic the region was overrun by folks afraid to travel abroad. This resulted in long line-ups, frayed tempers and generally an untenable situation with misbehaving tourists annoying the local residents. When you do go, be sensitive to local sentiments, respect the people that are there to help you have a good time and be kind and courteous. In return, you will find the County a wonderful place to enjoy a gentler, slower pace of life.


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