Canadian Staycation: Must-See Stops and Stays in Ontario’s Prince Edward County
Long a draw for seekers of sun, sand and lakeshore, PEC’s metamorphosis into a destination for aficionados of locally made wines and foods has made it “the county” for the gourmet set. Photo: Graydon Harriet
The county known as Prince Edward is located about two hours east of Toronto on the shores of Lake Ontario. Long a draw for seekers of sun, sand and lakeshore, its metamorphosis into a destination for aficionados of locally made wines and food has made it “the county” for the gourmet set flocking from surrounding cities such as Ottawa, Kingston and Toronto. But PEC retains a balanced rusticity, a grounding in authenticity and all the local colour and flair that make it a charming destination for urban refugees. Some come for a visit and never leave — and here’s where you might find them.
The Royal Hotel
Prince Edward County’s newest hotel is also one of the oldest, built in the late 1800s and lying vacant for the past several decades. It is now reborn as a boutique-style luxury hotel with a fine dining restaurant, lobby bar, spa, outdoor pool and large patio space, lavishly decorated with flowers, plants and assorted greeneries. Backed by Ontario ex-finance minister Greg Sorbara and his family, who also own the 700-acre Edwin County Farms in Northport, the renovation — well, a complete rebuild, actually — unexpectedly took five years. The design and attention to detail, courtesy of Toronto architecture firm Giannone Petricone Associates, is a study in elegance, incorporating Victorian motifs and locally sourced materials. Think limestone and granite, hard-wood timbers and veneers, and handcrafted artisanal touches — all evoking the natural landscapes that make “the county” such a visual and visceral treat. Even ensconced in a lobby nook with a delicious cocktail, you’ll feel surrounded by nature, in colours that nod to a spring forest, a lakeside beach walk or a dusky storm approaching across a farm field. The rooms are wonderfully appointed, stocked with locally made accessories and all the modern gadgets, though the vintage tea tray is pure old school: coffee is loosely packed in an urn, ready for your French press. (No pods here!)
These attentions to detail translate, quite naturally, to the dining experience, under the direction of chef Albert Ponzo (formerly of Toronto’s Le Select Bistro) and director of operations and sommelier Niall McCotter (ex-Cava and Chabrol in Toronto). Ponzo’s farm-to-fork cuisine is classically based via the techniques of France and his ancestral home of Italy, with much of the seasonal ingredients coming directly from Edwin County Farms. Pastas and pizzas are a strength, a chicken liver mousse is out of this world, and chef’s lightest of touches with fresh-caught lake fish or sustainably farmed trout make a simple dish a rare delicacy.
Pastry chef Sarah Villamere (ex-Fogo Island Inn, Raymonds, Langdon Hall) lovingly nurtures a seemingly endless supply of breads, pastries and sublime desserts, many on offer for takeaway from the Counter Café in the lobby. Service in the restaurant’s delightful room — artfully attenuated by ambient noise — is attentive and transparent, with casual chatter and a solid playlist (courtesy GM Sol Korngold, a self-described DJ and music fanatic) remaining at conversation-friendly levels. All the better to interact with enthusiastic servers, sommeliers, bartenders … all of whom express an unusual happiness. Unusual, except that we’re in “the county” — where everyone seems notably content.
247 Picton Main St., Picton; 613-961-2600; theroyalhotel.ca
Rosehall Run Vineyards
A visit to Rosehall Run puts you up close with Mother Nature, with a nice glass of wine in hand, of course. The tasting room overlooks several acres of pristine Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapevines — some of the very best in the county and the province — which are lovingly hand harvested and made into award-winning wines by Dan Sullivan. These are some windy acres — with Lake Ontario just over the ridge, breezes are formidable and pretty much constant. This is one of the reasons the grapes are so special, as wind relieves disease pressure and makes it easier to practice sustainable and low-intervention methods in the vineyards.
Tasting room visits are on a first-come basis, and the space is tiny, so plan accordingly ($15/person for 4 x 1 oz pours). Starting July 5, guests can book private tasting in The Nest, with Sullivan or assistant winemaker Lee Baker providing a 45-minute guided exploration ($30/person for up to six guests; add a charcuterie box for two for $20).
1243 Greer Rd., Wellington; 613-399-1183; rosehallrun.com
Fawn Over Market
Chef Alexandra Feswick opened her charming market and grocery store last year, with a focus on locally made products, produce, pre-made meals, condiments and candies. The Toronto ex-pat had previously traded her role as chef du cuisine at Toronto’s Drake Hotel for the executive chef role at the Drake Devonshire in Wellington in 2017, but decided it was time to go out on her own (with partners, of course).
Fawn Over Market is the place to buy charcoal and dish soap, if you’ve forgotten it on the way to the campground. Linger for an espresso, a slice of pizza or a pastry — and you’ll get the scoop on where else to go on your visit. Feswick stocks an impressive library of cookbooks for sale, too. This summer, watch for popups with visiting chefs and winemakers, with lots of seating on picnic tables at roadside.
22186 Loyalist Pkwy, Carrying Place; 613-955-1401; fawnovermarket.ca
A legend in “the county,” Stella’s is owned by chef Leah Marshall Hannon, who’s great grandmother Stella Pamajewon Marshall raised her on ingredients foraged, fished and hunted on the shores of Pickerel River. Her food is about as honest and pure as it gets, simple “comfort” foods described on a chalkboard menu that changes as often as the wind direction, always attuned minutely to the seasons. Expect dishes such as pork terrine, duck confit, rainbow trout and bison striploin — and vegetarian choices too — all sided with seasonally fresh garnishes, sprouts, seeds, berries, etc. Every single item comes from local farms, fishers and foragers, as does a wide range of beers, ciders, wines and spirits (perhaps with an occasional import).
2470 County Rd. 8, Waupoos; 613-813-6669; stellaseatery.com
It’s up on a hill and you’ll feel like you’re driving toward it but not getting any closer. But when you do, the lake and field views from Slake Brewing are as rewarding as their refreshing fruit-accented beers. Barrel aging is a mantra here, and the deep cellar is carved into limestone for the ideal cooling effect. The owners used to make beer in Toronto, but have opted for a simpler way of life, and simpler styles of beer that are light, fruity, fresh and perfect hot-summer-day sippers. Watch for wandering chickens on the expansive grounds, along with rotating popups with visiting chefs and food trucks.
181 Mowbray Rd, Picton; 613-919-0995; slakebrewing.com