Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of Prince Edward County (not to be confused with Prince Edward Island, the smallest of Canada’s 10 provinces). As an up-and-coming tourism destination two hours’ drive east of Toronto, it’s still mostly visited by people from the neighbouring areas of southern Ontario and Quebec.

Prince Edward County covers a deeply indented peninsula directly south of Belleville, on the shores of Lake Ontario. It consists of agricultural land and conservation areas surrounded by beaches, but has become popular mostly due to its wineries and food scene.

A pretty farm building (near Picton)

A pretty farm building near Picton

(Note: the letters to the right of place names refer to locations on the map below this post.)

Getting there

Unfortunately, getting there and around requires a car. I heard about Prince Edward County several years ago, but it wasn’t until last week that I was finally able to check it out, thanks to my friend Colette and her car.

Once you have a vehicle, getting there is easy. It could make a pleasant stop between the urban centres of Montreal and Toronto. Simply exit highway 401 on either highway 62 (Belleville)), Road 33 or Road 49. All three take you to Picton, the main town in the area, with a population of barely 4000 people. Two other tiny towns, Bloomfield and Wellington, cluster nearby in what is primarily a rural area, crisscrossed by two-lane roads and lanes, and home to working farms.

Picton's Main street

Picton’s Main street

You can actually get as far as Belleville by train with Via Rail, and rent a car there if your prefer. By bus from Toronto or Montreal, the closest stop is Kingston.

Prince Edward County spans a wide area, and you should give yourself at least two full days to enjoy it properly. (If you want to do a lot of swimming, hiking, or winery hopping, plan for longer!)

Accommodation

We stayed in Picton, in a B&B that we found through AirBnB. Most B&Bs in the area are located in Picton or Bloomfield. Many families also choose to stay in the numerous campgrounds, trailer parks and cottages that dot the county.

Our B&B (Picton)

Our B&B in Picton

The people

As you’d expect from rural areas and small communities, the people we encountered here were unfailingly friendly. We were also surprised by the amount of French speakers we heard. Sure, Quebec is only three hours away, but this is still Ontario after all. Many were indeed Quebecois visitors, but a lot of the staff in stores and wineries also spoke French, often at a fluent or native level.

The residents also seemed very trusting, as revealed by this little vegetable stand we found in front of a house by the side of the road, with price tags, and an old margarine jug to leave the money, but nobody in sight!

Tomatoes for sale by the side of the road

Tomatoes for sale by the side of the road

What to see and do

Activities in Prince Edward County can be neatly divided into two categories: outdoorsy and gustatory.

Within the first category, Sandbanks Provincial Park  is probably the best known. Located at the tip of one of the long fingers of land that extend into Lake Ontario, it features a sandy beach backed by sand dunes, tall grasses, and trees. The sand is pale and unusually fine, but unfortunately strewn with cigarette butts and a few other debris. (Why people think it’s OK to throw their garbage on beautiful sandy beaches is beyond me.) The water is clear and warmish, and the fact that you can’t see land on the horizon can easily fool you into thinking that you’re by the seaside! The water is calm for swimming here.

Sandbanks beach

Sandbanks beach

Another beach we drove to was North Beach Provincial Park, but the sand wasn’t nearly as nice, and a red flag warned of dangerous undertows. The frothy waves made it a pretty dramatic spot for watching sunset however.

Sunset at North Beach

Sunset at North Beach

If you like to hike and birdwatch, several conservation areas are scattered around. We made a brief stop at Macaulay Mountain Conservation Area, just outside Picton. The namesake mountain was more like a small hill, and the wooded trails were not especially scenic, so we didn’t stay long. The area between the parking lot and the water reservoir would make a nice picnic area though. Bring bug repellent if you’re going to hike in these woods or cover your legs.

Relaxing spot at Macauley Mountain CA

Relaxing spot at Macauley Mountain Conservation Area

Near the entrance to the park is Birdhouse City, a collection of more than 80 birdhouses, many of which are reproductions of historic county buildings.

I’m not sure what I expected, but in general I found the landscape a bit dull: fields, farms, flat roads. My friend expressed surprise that although surrounded by water, we rarely got to see it from the road. Most of the access seemed to be behind private properties.

One exception was Lake on the Mountain Provincial Park, an escarpment looking down at Picton Bay and the Glenora Ferry on one side, and an elevated lake, 38 metres deep, on the other.

View of Picton Bay from Lake on the Mountain Provincial Park

View of Picton Bay from Lake on the Mountain Provincial Park

Top among the gustatory activities are of course winery visits. Prince Edward County currently has over 30 wineries, and new ones are opening all the time. You can also find the odd brewery or cider house. They offer tastings for $1 or less a sample, and often wave those fees if you make a purchase.

We visited five of them, including Sandbanks Estate Winery (one of the most popular, with a large sampling menu) and Waupoos Estates Winery, the oldest winery in the area, with a gorgeous lakefront location and many free samples. Get the handy Wine Tour Map from the Picton’s Tourist Office. I will cover the wineries in more detail in next week’s post.

Inside Waupoos Estate Winery

Inside Waupoos Estate Winery

If you’re a shopper, the towns offer many small shops selling clothes, jewelry and home decor. You can also find unusual souvenirs and handicrafts in some galleries such as that small barn across the road from Black River Cheese on County Road 13.

Quirky gift shop, on Road 13.

Quirky gift shop on Road 13

These are only the things we saw, and constitute a very small sample of all that’s on offer in the county. Grab some brochures and maps from the Picton’s Tourist Office to help plan your visit.

The food

Prince Edward County had be described to me as a food destination, so I was eager to discover some of its epicurean pleasures. I ended up sorely disappointed however, although part of the reason was circumstantial.

I somehow imagined an area dotted with gourmet food shops and bakeries where one could quickly assemble a picnic or buy some preserves to take home. While the area does have some of those, they are widely scattered around and not well advertised. We tended to stumble upon them randomly, except for the cheese place mentioned above which we found due to my excellent navigator skills. (We’re too old school for a GPS!) 🙂

Our main “problem” was the breakfasts. Our B&B fed us so well in the morning, that we were usually not hungry until mid-afternoon, by which time most restaurants had closed down until dinner. Lots of places also closed on Sunday. More than once we drove to a recommended restaurant or café just to be confronted by a “Closed” sign on the door.

Big breakfast

Big breakfast at our B&B

This is a far cry from Toronto with its restaurants open all day and 24-hour grocery stores. Given our bad timing, we actually ended up buying our meals from food stores more often than we would have liked (sandwiches, salads, even Tim Horton’s chili).

Along the road, we sometime saw a sign near a farm advertising “Pick your own” (usually fruits such as blueberries, or peaches) but this was also often followed by the word “Closed”. I’m not sure if we were out of season, or if they just didn’t open mid-week (although we did come across some produce stalls that were open.)

We were becoming a little discouraged on the food front, so on our last night we planned ahead to have a real dinner with a glass of local wine at Portabella, one of the best restaurants in Picton. It didn’t disappoint.

I had other restaurants on my list that I was hoping to try, and I’ll give you those next week when I talk more about the food and wine of Prince Edward County.

One place that always seemed open and provided a nice caffeine boost was The Bean Counter Cafe in Picton. They sold pastries and ice cream as well. Any town that can provide decent cappuccino can’t be all that bad.

Coffee at The Bean Counter Cafe (Picton)

Having coffee at The Bean Counter Cafe in Picton


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Mentioned in this post
  1. Belleville (Canada)
    City in Canada

    Belleville Canada
  2. Picton (Canada)
    City in Canada

    Picton (Canada) Canada
  3. Sandbanks Provincial Park
    Attraction in Canada

    3004 County Rd 12
    Canada
    (613) 393-3319
    http://www.ontarioparks.com/english/sand.html
  4. North Beach Provincial Park
    Attraction in Prince Edward Division Canada

    Prince Edward Division Canada
    (613) 393-3319
    http://www.ontarioparks.com/park/northbeach
  5. Macaulay Mountain Conservation Area
    Attraction in Prince Edward County Canada
  6. Lake on the Mountain Provincial Park
    Attraction in Prince Edward Division Canada

    Prince Edward Division Canada
    (613) 393-3319
  7. Sandbanks Estate Winery
    Attraction in Prince Edward Division Canada

    17598 Loyalist Pkwy
    Prince Edward Division Canada
    (613) 399-1839
    http://www.sandbankswinery.com/
  8. Waupoos Estates Winery
    Restaurant in Picton Canada

    3016 Prince Edward County Rd 8
    Picton Canada
    (613) 476-8338
    http://www.waupooswinery.com/
  9. Black River Cheese
    Attraction in Milford Canada

    913 County Rd 13
    Milford Canada
    (613) 476-2575
    http://www.blackrivercheese.com/

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