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Cottage Country's Old-Fashioned "Charm" Can be Overrated

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I've spent some or all of more than 20 summers in the village of Wellington, Ont.

Through almost all that time, I would often stop at the town's single restaurant, the Wellington Grill. The Welly Grill was not the most salubrious restaurant I've ever seen. Last summer, when it finally closed, its old stove was laid on the sidewalk for all to see. The stove looked like the altar in some rural Catholic shrine, encrusted with melted ... alas, not candle wax in this case, but years of congealed fat.

Still, the place had character. Locals on their way to work, or to church, or to fish would stop by the Grill, mingling with visitors bicycling across Prince Edward County or driving to the famous Sandbanks. The same waitresses worked the place year after year, serving the same menu.

And then the Grill was gone. In the Grill's place has opened a new restaurant, a simple but stylish Italian trattoria called Pomodoro. It's the second fine restaurant to open on a single block of Wellington's tiny main street, after the truly outstanding East & Main. Both Pomodoro and East & Main are owned by the same enterprising couple, Kimberley Humby and David O'Connor.

We all miss the Grill, as we miss anything familiar. The county is evolving into Muskoka East, mostly for good, sometimes for ill. Old farmsteads are rebuilt as art galleries. (Good.) Suburban-style McMansions arise on the lakeshore. (Not so good.) Wellington's small lake-front inn has been bought by the uber-chic owners of Toronto's Drake hotel. (Fingers crossed.)

Tourism is nothing new in the county. The brick Victorian townhouses of the little town of Bloomfield were long ago converted into emporia specializing in all manner of twee: scented candles, expensive soaps, pillows embroidered with cat faces, refrigerator magnets stamped with bitter wise-cracks about ex-husbands.

What has changed over the past three or four years is the scale and sophistication of the county's tourism industry. I sometimes hear complaints about the changes. Prices have gone up, it's true. Some of the vicinity's rustic folkways have faded. Bad merchants face new competition. (For years, the area suffered under a bike rental monopoly operated by the world's grouchiest ex-hippy, who bored customers with long expositions of his antique political views. Now Ideal Bike in Belleville offers better prices and products, plus pick-up and delivery.)

Yet through the change, the county has done an admirable job preserving the charm and character described so amusingly in the best recent book about the area, Geoff Heinrichs' A Fool and Forty Acres. Heinrichs is the pioneer of the area's winemaking, and the mastermind who built the Keint-He brand into one of the region's finest.

Thanks to the efforts of people like Heinrichs, and others like the chef Jamie Kennedy and former MPP Richard Johnston (founder of By Chadsey's Cairns winery) who have contributed so much to local food culture and community spirit, there seem every summer to be new opportunities for local people. The county economy supports house builders and yoga instructors, dog groomers and wine writers. Something like prosperity is washing into an area whose best days once seemed to have ended with rum-running to Prohibition-era Rochester. Even the local hockey team, the Wellington Dukes, is winning, bringing home Ontario's Buckland Cup in 2011.

There's a ways to go yet of course. It'll take more tourism to bring unemployment levels down, more innovative agriculture to raise incomes up. But even as a summer visitor, I have to say: I prefer these bad new days to the good old days that never were. And I think I speak for all the summer people when I say I enjoy the county even more for never knowing what the year-round population says about us behind our backs.

This blog was originally published in the National Post.