Prince Edward County Steals the Spotlight in Condé Nast Traveller

Posted by Drake, May 10, 2016
Drake Dev

This story, written by Dominic Wells, originally appeared in the May issue of Condé Nast Traveller.

Despite its slightly self-conscious, hipster design, the new 'Drake by the Lake' (the original hotel is in Toronto) has a friendly, club-house feel: play ping-pong or board games in the Glass Box playroom; settle down with a whiskey by an open fire in the sitting room; take a happy snap in the lobby photo booth. The seared trout with a ginger-and-parsnip purée in the restaurant is spectacular.


For me, the Canadian province of Ontario is the loveliest place I know. I grew up in the capital, Ottawa, where each winter the Rideau Canal freezes over to form the world's longest skating rink. In sweltering summers, we'd head to my best friend's cottage on Lake Ontario and dive off the wooden jetty into the deep, cold water, or camp in the wilderness of Algonquin Provincial Park, where we'd hoist our food up into the trees to fool the bears. In autumn, the woods were ablaze with bright oranges and deep reds, as though swept by a benign forest fire.

Yet in all those years I'd never been to Prince Edward County, an island on the edge of Lake Ontario where it now seems all my friends, grown-up and with kids of their own, escape each summer; a sleepy, secret place where it's possible to roll back the decades to a simpler, kinder time.

So, on a recent visit to Toronto, I borrowed a car and headed out to see for myself. The closest thing Prince Edward County has to a main hub is Picton (population 4,500) and it's like stepping into the model-town set of Jim Carrey's The Truman Show. There's a huge book store (books! Made of paper!) and, even more retro, a video shop, along with one of Ontario's only surviving Art Deco cinemas. When I stop for petrol, a dude in a baseball cap comes out to fill the tank and check the oil; self-service is a modern invention that hasn't yet arrived in Prince Edward County.


The houses here are grand, all soaring pillars and elaborate verandahs. Many of these date from the Barley Days of the mid 19th century, when the county became enormously wealthy from growing the crop and shipping it across Lake Ontario to the American brewing industry. Though Canada is a young country not always known for its love of history, the residents here maintain their old buildings with care.

I find an extreme example of this when I meet up with a friend of a friend, Shannon Kyles, a flame-haired whirlwind of a woman and a professor of architecture, who has recently moved house. Literally. Six years ago, Kyles was contacted by the owner of a Georgian cottage in Ancaster, Ontario, which was about to be demolished, and was asked if there was anything she wanted to salvage. 'The lady was rich,' she remembers. 'There was a Rolls-Royce in the drive. But she was crying because the mould was so bad she couldn't breathe, and had to throw out all her fur coats. Some of the wood was so wet you could push a finger through it.'

All the same, Kyles took the lot and, with the help of her students, labelled every salvageable piece, and had it all flat-packed and stored until she could pinpoint the perfect setting. She found it 160 miles away on the edge of Consecon Lake in Prince Edward County, where she bought 18 acres on which to have it rebuilt. It is a startlingly beautiful building, filled with evocative, salvaged items: a grand old sleigh bed; 1890s stained-glass kitchen windows rescued from Fort Hope. You can stay here if you want: it's called THE GRYPHON and Kyles rents it out by the room or in its entirety.


Kyles is not alone in her love of shifting old buildings. THE HAYES INN, built in 1838, was abandoned for the first half of the 20th century until local historian Roy Stevens rescued it and moved it 25 miles to its present location in the tiny settlement of Waupoos. And then there's the retired dentist, John Brisley, who has transplanted several historic buildings to the island, including a perfect white wooden chapel with an elegant steeple.

But that's not to say Prince Edward County is stuck in the past. Change has come with an influx of chefs, hoteliers and businessmen, all yearning to leave the rat race but unwilling to let go of urban comforts. The new DRAKE DEVONSHIRE, for example, is one of the prettiest little hotels you'll find anywhere, converted with flair and imagination from the old Wellington Iron Foundry, built in 1860.

I've eaten in some of Canada's finest restaurants, from Vancouver's Ancora in the far west to Toronto's Buca and the celebrated Raymonds in far-eastern St John's, but in Prince Edward County I have had meals to equal any of those, and at half the price. I would go back in a heartbeat just to taste again the crabcakes and strawberry spinach with Black River maple cheddar at MANSE, or the roast chicken with olive-oil spuds, dandelion greens, shallot confit and thyme at HUBB.


The chefs of Prince Edward County have embraced the trend of sustainable and locally sourced field-to-plate food. Hubb's Elliot Reynolds tells me, when I call him over to rave about the chicken, 'That's the advantage of knowing all the farmers.' As a joke, I ask if the chicken had a name. 'George,' he says, without missing a beat.


Following the lead of nearby Niagara, Prince Edward County now has dozens of independent wineries trying to scratch out a decent vintage in defiance of the harsh winters. Locals loyally insist the wines are terrific, and in truth some are not at all bad, but on the whole one is reminded of Samuel Johnson's dictum that it is 'like a dog walking on its hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.' Over a tasting at the DEVIL'S WISHBONE WINERY in a magnificent, 150-year-old barn with antique farm tools and pump organs and an open view of the river, I discover the harsh truth of this from the owner, Paul Gallagher.


'When I went to Burgundy on holiday in the 1990s, I couldn't believe the quality of the wine coming out of those tiny vineyards, and when I found out the whole of Prince Edward island is on limestone - which is what Burgundy is known for - I decided to give it a go.' But growing grapes in Canada is, as Gallagher says, 'a brutal exchange of wills between man and nature.' It takes five weeks to 'hill up' before winter, which is to bury the vines under soil to protect them from the cold, and another five to remove the earth in spring.

But if crops are difficult to tease out, the landscape itself is astonishing. Near DEVIL'S WISHBONE is the mysterious LAKE ON THE MOUNTAIN - mysterious because it yields water yet appears to receive none. The Mohawks called it O-no-ke-no-ga, or Lake of the Gods, and would travel from miles around to light ceremonial fires and offer sacred tobacco on its shores. From here you can stand atop a cliff, surveying a panorama of ferries and boats navigating a maze of waterways snaking lazily towards the ST LAWRENCE SEAWAY and the THOUSAND ISLANDS ARCHIPELAGO, and feel the same awe as the early settlers must have experienced when confronted with the vastness of the Canadian wilderness.


Further east is LITTLE BLUFF, a deserted cove reached along a path half-hidden in the bushes. Here the water is a rich, deep blue, and the grey stones that divide it from the bright green rushes have a Zen-like smoothness. Some have been piled into Andy Goldsworthy-style cairns by unseen hands. I find some black, foot-long feathers, and wave them idly, imagining myself as Icarus flying up to the bright summer sun.

On the southernmost corner of the island, down narrow tracks with water-logged potholes, I discover another deserted paradise, POINT PETRE WILDLIFE RESERVE, where the long beach is covered in tiny shells and graceful swans bob on the calm surface of Lake Ontario. Here the air is filled with an orchestra of different sounds: the inexorable ebb and swell of a string section of cicadas; a woodwind of bird calls; the occasional bass note of a frog. A sudden flock of birds, flying low and skimming the water so that its mirrored surface doubles their numbers, brings me back to earth.

But my favourite Prince Edward County spot is SANDBANKS PROVINCIAL PARK, the world's largest fresh water, sand bar and dune system, with miles of unbroken white sand that never get too crowded even in the height of summer. At DUNES BEACH, where there are shifting ridges 20 feet high, I could fancy myself in an African desert, except that the cool, clear water of Lake Ontario is no mirage.


A few days in Prince Edward County feels like hitting pause on a fast-forward life. Who knows how long it will remain so gloriously unspoilt - some residents are worried the smarty-pants new hotels and restaurants will begin to erode their way of life - but for now, the tight-knit island community remains as wonderfully old-school as the buildings in which they live. Everyone leaves their front doors unlocked. In fact, Shannon Kyles, the professor of architecture, even leaves her car keys in the ignition. 'A lot of people do that,' she said, surprised that I was surprised. 'It's in case one of my neighbours needs to borrow it,' she adds, as though this were the most natural thing in the world.


Read the full story here.

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