It was a bird’s nest that first lured me to Prince Edward County. And not even a real bird’s nest. This one was meticulously crafted out of bits of yarn and wool, cradling a trio of small blue eggs. I had spotted the nest in a booth at Toronto’s One of a Kind craft show and after speaking with Tara Wilkinson, the fibre artist who made it, I learned that she made these whimsical creations at her Love Nest Studio, near Bloomfield, Ontario. So later that summer, Henk and I decided to head east for a weekend to this pretty corner of Southern Ontario to check out that studio and explore all the other things to do in Prince Edward County. What we found was everything you would want in a grownup getaway: art, wine, food, and even giant sand dunes and swimming!
Prince Edward County: A Mecca for Artists
Whether they are from the region, or are one of the many transplanted Torontonians who have escaped the big city, artists have been flocking to Prince Edward County for years. The reasons are many, starting with a lifestyle that is as peaceful and idyllic as the inspiring natural landscapes, not to mention an enthusiastic community of like-minded people. Art is everywhere here and forms a big part of County culture, supported by the Prince Edward County Arts Council, which hosts a number of signature events throughout the year.
June and July Event: Art in the County
One of Prince Edward County’s longstanding events is the Art in the County juried art show and sale that is now in its 27th year, and takes place in June and July in Picton. The show features the works of over 75 artists in a range of media, and the calibre of the art is top notch. Prices range from a few hundred dollars and up, but whether you come to buy or just admire the work, the exhibition is one of the best showcases for the area’s talented artists and artisans.
NOTE: For 2020, the annual Art in the County art sale and show is being held online from June 19 – July 31, due to Covid-19 restrictions.
The Year-Round Arts Trail
There are year-round ways to experience the arts in Prince Edward County, as well, with gallery exhibitions, workshops and demonstrations happening in the towns and villages. Or just drive the county roads, and chances are if you see a property with a barn on it and a blue Arts Trail sign, there’s a studio in there where you can find an artist at work. A full list of the County’s open studios is listed on the Arts Trail website, so you can follow your own route to find a specific studio of interest, or just choose a random selection and surprise yourself.
On our getaway to Prince Edward County, Henk and I did a bit of both, and were delighted to discover the modern Oeno Gallery which had a contemporary interior gallery and a large sculpture garden as well. But there were also spontaneous encounters with artists on their own properties, and of course we stopped in to see the Love Nest Studio of Tara Wilkinson who had inspired our weekend in the first place. (As it turned out, Wilkinson’s studio was actually in a converted chicken coop, which seemed both funny and appropriate!)
The Arts Trail turned out to be one of the highlights of our visit and we could see why it is one of the most popular things to do in Prince Edward County for both residents and visitors alike.
September Event: Prince Edward County Studio Tour
Plan your weekend getaway in late September and you can take advantage of the annual Prince Edward County Studio Tour, another long-running Arts Council event that features both local and guests artists’ work.
This studio tour weekend is a great opportunity to visit the studios of more than 40 artists, learn about their passion for art, admire their work and of course purchase something if it catches your eye. Some of these studios are only open to the public on this weekend, so it’s an opportunity to check out everything from jewellery to stained glass to sculpture and painted works.
TIP: The Studio tour is scheduled for September 25-27, 2020 and is absolutely free.
Be sure to check the Studio Tour website for maps of studio locations, artists’ portfolios, and to see if the 2020 weekend event has been postponed or cancelled due to Covid-19.
Fruit of the Prince Edward County Vines: a Wine Region That’s All Grown Up
Prince Edward County is Canada’s fastest growing wine region, known as “the other wine region in Ontario”, and during the past 10 years or so this new kid on the block has really come of age, just like their wines. Some of the wineries have been here for two decades, and those earlier winemakers faced a steep learning curve in order to capitalize on the local terroir and understand this micro climate’s nuances. The limestone-rich soil defines the character of this region’s wines, along with the moderating effect of Lake Ontario, but winemakers must also deal with the risk of deep cold in the winter months. All of these factors lend themselves well to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, but winemakers are also getting creative and finding success with Baco Noir, Merlot and Reisling grapes.
Wine tastings are a popular pastime in the region and certainly one of the best ‘growup’ things to do in Prince Edward County. It’s easy to plan a route to the various wineries using the maps found on the County Winegrowers’ website. Many of these wineries also have restaurants where you can order a meal accompanied by a new favourite vintage. Henk and I enjoyed an Italian lunch after our wine tasting at Casa Dea Estates Winery, one of the oldest and largest establishments in the region that produces local VQA wines from their 65+ acres of grapes. Along the same route we had mapped out, we also stopped in at another of the first vineyards established here, Sandbanks Winery, and brought home some bottles of their popular Baco Noir.
The wines here in Prince Edward County may be young and innovative, like many of the winemakers behind them, but this creativity and unpretentiousness is reflected in the experience you’ll find here as well.
The Bounty of the County: Small Towns with Big Dining:
Artists and winemakers aren’t the only people putting Prince Edward County on the map with their creativity: more than 10 years ago, the region was recognized as the Gastronomic Capital of Ontario by the Globe and Mail. The chefs continue to deliver on that promise today, not just with the abundance of premium farm-to-table ingredients available, but with the imaginative seasonal dishes they create with them.
A great way to sample some of Prince Edward County’s restaurants is during the twice-annual Countylicious prix-fixe event that takes place in April and November every year. Restaurants offer lunch and dinner menus with several choices for each course but at very reasonable prices ($20 and $40 respectively). Choose a fine dining restaurant that appeals to your palate and explore the bounty of the county, paired of course with a local vintage!
Prince Edward County’s Taste Trail
If you prefer to discover foodie spots for yourself, the region offers a self-guided Taste Trail directory that includes everything from sustainable farms to small cafes and larger restaurants. You can plan your feeding frenzy by region or by type of dining (everything from vegan options to pet-friendly restos), then head out and enjoy the bucolic scenery along the way.
‘Throwback’ Thing to Do in Prince Edward County: a Drive-in Theatre!
We grownups will remember drive-in theatres, not as a funky retro concept, but as a regular part of growing up. So how much fun would it be to relive a little of that nostalgia with a visit to the Mustang Drive-In Theatre in Bloomfield. (except this time, we might actually watch the movie – nudge, nudge, wink, wink!)
The Mustang was owned for more than 30 years by the same couple and recently changed hands. The new owners, entrepreneurs Dawn Laing and Drew Downs, were featured on Breakfast Television recently after acquiring the drive-in. They had gone to the Mustang to see a movie and fell in love with the whole business idea of it. So they approached the owners, bought the drive-in from them, and have been upgrading the facilities for their re-opening on Canada Day in 2020. (Fun Fact? That repurposed bus in the photo is actually the ‘ticket booth’!)
TIP: Check the Mustang Drive-in website for official opening times, what’s playing and more. And if you have a furry friend in your family, bring them! The Mustang is a pet-friendly drive-in, too.
White Sand Dunes in Sandbanks Provincial Park
If you’d like to include some natural R&R on your weekend getaway to Prince Edward County, and want to take advantage of this island’s lakeside location, head to Sandbanks Provincial Park.
With a name like Sandbanks, you know there must be beaches, and this park has not one but three, including Dunes Beach on the southwestern shore, where Henk and I headed. Like its name suggests, Dunes Beach is characterized by tall sand dunes that slope right down into the waters of Lake Ontario. These dunes are the world’s largest barrier dune formation, forming sheltered bays behind them that are also perfect for swimming or a paddle. We were visiting in July, but even in the height of summer the beach wasn’t too crowded and there was plenty of space on the dunes to sit back and soak up the sun.
A Weekend Getaway FROM it all – TO it all!
Whether you come for its fine art, fine food, fine wine, or fine white sand, Prince Edward County has everything you could want in a grownup weekend getaway. In fact, there’s so much here to explore, you might want to make your stay longer than just a weekend (if for no other reason than to take in a movie at the Mustang!). Because whether you come to get away from it all, or to discover all the things to do in Prince Edward County, one weekend may just not be enough.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION FOR PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY GETAWAYS:
Where Exactly is Prince Edward County?
Prince Edward County is actually on an island about 2 hours east of Toronto (177 km) just off the north shore of Lake Ontario. It is predominantly a rural county with about 25,000 residents and includes charming communities like Bloomfield, Wellington and Picton, where you can find boutique shopping, and independently-run accommodations and restaurants.
Where to Stay in Prince Edward County
For those who love unique or boutique places to stay, (like Henk and I), Prince Edward County is a great option, since there are no chain hotels or ‘branded’ accommodations here. Instead, depending on your accommodation preference, you can choose from a selection of small inns, bed and breakfasts, or stand-alone rental properties. A good place to start your search is the list of accommodations on the county’s website. For our next visit, Henk and I definitely want to check out the refurbished retro-cool Drake Motor Inn which made Conde Nast’s 2020 Hot List of new worldwide hotels! (We stayed in a similar funky re-do in Victoria at Hotel Zed.)
Where to Eat in Prince Edward County
As mentioned, there is something for every taste in this farm-rich region. But if you are looking for some of the top-rated dining options, check out the Blumen Garden Bistro in Picton, the Bloomfield Public House in Bloomfield or the Drake Devonshire in Wellington (fans of this Toronto brand will be thrilled to find this property, no doubt!) Likewise, there is a 7Numbers location here in Picton, a familiar name for many in the city who love its rustic Italian fare.
Day Trip or Weekend in Prince Edward County?
Although it makes for a terrific day trip from Toronto or Kingston, our recommendation would be to spend a weekend in the County, especially if this is your first visit. You’ll need that much time in order to explore all the things to do in Prince Edward County, and you’ll want to follow the food, wine or art trails at a leisurely pace – because ‘leisurely’ is the whole point of a weekend getaway, isn’t it?
Jane Canapini is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and the North American Travel Journalists Association. She established GrownupTravels.com in 2014 to share information and tips based on personal experience so her readers could get the most out of their travels.