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Take a Road Trip to Prince Edward County

06/12/2015 05:41 EDT | Updated 06/12/2016 05:59 EDT
Torsten Schon via Getty Images
Cheese and wine

Ontario's Prince Edward County is world-class touring country. Just a few hours from Montreal, Ottawa, Syracuse, or Toronto (and a free ride from Kingston on the Glenora Ferry), it's one of those places where the trip really begins once you leave the highway -- a perfect place to while away a weekend.

The County, a wine-growing region on a large headland at the eastern end of Lake Ontario, technically became an island a couple of centuries ago when the Murray Canal opened the lake to the Trent-Severn Waterway. It's a fast-growing haven for creative types from all over, making for an appealing mix of country charm and urban sensibilities.

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Picnic truck: Photo, Lin Stranberg; courtesy Jenn Donville and picnicpec.com

PEC is loaded with pleasures so simple they're brilliant, especially for people who may feel like their brains have too many tabs open at once. This is active and easy unwinding. Nothing requires much organizing and self-guided tour routes are just a click away.

Get Going

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Sandbanks Provincial Park: Photo, Lin Stranberg

You can enjoy fabulous local food and wines while meandering along quiet country roads on the Taste Trail, visit artists' studios and galleries on the Arts Trail or hike the nature trails of Sandbanks Provincial Park, famous for sand dunes and balmy beaches.

Last weekend Skye Collyer and I felt like we hit the jackpot, feasting our eyes on the infinite shades of green rolling out on both sides of the Loyalist Parkway as we drove to Picton for the Great Canadian Cheese Festival. All this peace, all this beauty, and the best cheese in Canada too.

The Great Canadian Cheese Festival

The Great Canadian Cheese Festival, love child of founder Georgs Kolesnikovs, has been an annual happening for the last five years. You don't have to be a cheeselover to have a good time -- there are wines, meats, preserves, all kinds of small-batch comestibles and handmade products, live music, great food trucks and a petting zoo.

The focus is on artisanal and farmstead cheeses, and on makers rather than mongers, so you get to sample a dazzling variety of cheeses and connect with the people who actually produce them. A bite of brie here, a taste of cheddar there, and soon you've fallen in love with the stuff.

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Jean Morin of Fromagerie du Presbytère: Photo, Lin Stranberg

We met established producers like Albert Borgo of Quality Cheese from Vaughan, Ontario, celebrated talents like Jean Morin of Quebec's Fromagerie du Presbytère, and young up-and-comers like Shep Ysselstein and his wife Colleen Bator, who started up Gunn's Hill Artisan Cheese on the family farm near Woodstock. BC farmer/cheesemaker Debra Amrein-Boyes explained the intense yellow colour of many of her Farm House Cheeses : its from the beta carotene produced by her grass-fed cows.

We loved the flavourful summer sausage from Martin Littkemann and Lori Smith's Ontario Water Buffalo Co. and the mellow Albert's Leap, made from their milk by Quality Cheese.

On the way out we bought some craft Caesar mix from Josh Linde at Walter (perfect for summer parties) and a bottle of blackberry syrup from Wellington Made (we like it with soda). Wellington maker Shelly Walsh, who grows her own blackberries, was happy to be there. "It's a wonderful example of reaching out to a focused group of people," she said.

If you love farmers' markets and/or lively wine and cheese parties, the Great Canadian Cheese Festival is made for you. Next year's dates: June 4-5, 2016.

The Drake Devonshire Inn

The County has hotels, motels and B&Bs galore, but we had reserved months ago at the Drake Devonshire Inn because it was at the top of our list (and everyone else's too -- easy to see why both Travel & Leisure and Condé Nast Traveller UK named it one of their their Best New Hotels of 2015).

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The Drake Devonshire Inn: Photo, Lin Stranberg

Because it's known as the Drake by the Lake and owned by Jeff Stober of Toronto's Drake Hotel Properties, we were kind of expecting a rural replay of the Drake on Queen West. It's all that and more -- fresher, cooler, and way more playful. Before checkout the next morning, we'd tossed beanbags, ridden bikes, and played outdoor ping-pong. For us, it was a breakout country hit.

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Dining room at the Drake Devonshire: Photo, Lin Stranberg

Eye candy is everywhere. A paper gems sculpture by Kristen Hasselfeld, a giant wall mural by Faile of Brooklyn, a modified piano by Gordon Monahan, and the piece de résistance, that Great Lake itself. With soaring ceilings done up in Douglas fir, the dining room oversees the shoreline and provides unbroken Lake Ontario views. It's out of this world.

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Lake Ontario from the dining room: Photo, Lin Stranberg

Chef Matty deMille's kitchen plays up the vibe, artfully simple with a twist of fun. The pickerel is perfection, the burger's a classic, and the beef tartare tickles the palate like a Big Mac with a pedigree. "With a small menu, you need to hit all points," he says.

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Lake Ontario pickerel at the Drake Devonshire: photo, Lin Stranberg

Like lovely Brandy on the front desk and best-waiter-ever Ricky in the dining room, Chef deMille came to the County on a break from the city and ended up staying on. The friendliness, authenticity and sense of community are what packs the Drake Dev with so much appeal.

But don't just take it from us. You need to see for yourself what all the buzz is about, and we're betting you'll be glad you did. With only 11 rooms and two suites, it's pretty well sold out every weekend through the summer, so plan a weekday stay, reserve for lunch or dinner, or just drop by for cocktails.

For more information: www.prince-edward-county.com

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Photo: Lin Stranberg

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