PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY, ONTARIO – You think you know a place. And then, wham, it smacks you upside the head and spins you around and puts a grin on your face that can barely be measured.
I’ve been all over southern Ontario in my 35 years living in Toronto. I’ve been all over the country and the world in my eight years as a full-time travel writer. But I’d never driven around Prince Edward County to truly explore the towns and had never set foot on the sand dunes of Sandbanks Provincial Park until late July, when the Ontario Tourism folks set me up with a visit as part of their new “Where Am I” campaign that outlines the many surprising things in the province.
I’d been to the beach just outside Sandbanks many years ago. Somehow, though, we ended up staying at a friend’s cottage and relaxing the day away rather than trekking a few feet down the road to the park to explore the dunes. Which is a shame, because they’re one of the most unique and mesmerizing things I’ve seen in Canada.
If you park at the Dunes Beach parking lot and walk towards Lake Ontario, you see some beige/brown (okay, sand-coloured) dunes off in the distance. But it’s not until you start walking towards them that their size starts to compute in your brain. And then you think, “I’m in Ontario? In Canada?”
These are apparently the largest “baymouth barrier dune formations” on the planet, which is saying something (and a half). They rise dozens of meters above the warm waters of Lake Ontario around Dune Beach, rising and falling in dramatic fashion and offering fine views out over the lake and up into the forests and fields of Prince Edward County.
The sand is amazing soft and supple, which gives you a good workout for your calves and knees and helps build up a reasonable sweat on a 30 degree C (roughly 80 Fahrenheit) summer’s day in southern Ontario. There are a few pale green trees and shrubs on some of the dunes. At other times, they march onward and onward in waves, with what appears to be endless grains of sand marching off to the horizon.
Visitors, many from Quebec out for a reasonably priced camping holiday, giggled and wandered about on the dunes. I mostly stood in awe, trying to imagine the ancient forces of water and wind that lifted the sand into the Ontario sky and left it here for us to enjoy.
Most folks stick to the area near the parking lot and change areas, but I made a point of hiking up and down the dunes (avoiding sensitive vegetation) for a few thousand steps, admiring the vistas and traipsing through thickets of trees. I walked for a good half-hour, but I could still what appeared to be endless dunes marching off in the distance.
When I go back (not if, but when) I want to take a serious run at more of these dunes. And probably pack a lunch and some water. And maybe a compass, although as long as you follow the line of the lakeshore you’re almost certainly not going to get lost.
The dunes being a bit tricky to navigate for long distances, I scrabbled my way down a steep dune near a quiet bay (where a solitary boat appeared to have docked overnight with a single, lucky passenger or captain) and walked through the warm, shallow waters (not even to my knees) to get back to the changing areas and parking lot. The water slip-slapped at the shore as I gazed down at small patterns of sand on the lake bottom. In some cases, the water and wind forms long, miniature ridges that look like tiny rows of hills. In other cases, they formed patterns that looked like human fingers or even the v-shapes of the seagulls lining parts of the shore.
A fantastic walk, for sure. And I only explored a small part of the park, which encompasses a series of fantastic beaches and encompasses more than 1,500 hectares (3,800 acres). By the way, it’s open from April 29 to Oct. 11 for both day use and camping this year. If you plan to come on a weekend, come early as it’s gaining popularity and can get crowded in peak season.
Back in the main part of Prince Edward County (north of Sandbanks park), I found several delightful villages and some great food offerings, as well as a lovely B & B and very good wines.
Wellington is a small village in the western side of the county and is home to the renowned Drake Devonshire Inn, an offshoot of the popular and trendy Drake Hotel in Toronto (but not affiliated with the Toronto singer/songwriter/artist of the same name). I grab a table on the patio with a view of Lake Ontario and a series of painted Muskoka chairs and admire the serenity as I gobble down a lovely butter lettuce salad with lime dressing, very good calamari and excellent pomme frites with pecorino cheese and truffle oil, set off by a glass of local Huff Estates Rose (which I find later is not for sale but available only at restaurants. Rats!).
I wander into a new gallery (it only opened officially July 15) called Sybil Frank, where I admire tremendously colourful pieces I’d like to take home (especially the Andrew Stelmack works) and funky animal sculptures, including a bench shaped like a sheep.
“The Pumpkin Festival they have in Wellington in the fall is great,” gallery worker Elizabeth Sanders tells me. “It’s kinda the anti-Drake, with families and pumpkin hats and apple turnovers.”
Further down the road I find OAK clothing, a trendy spot above the hardware store.
“The town has changed,” Sanders tells me. “Last year there weren’t any ice cream shops. Now there are four!”
I stay the night at a B and B near the village of Bloomfield. It’s a modern, beautiful and light-filled home called The Mystic Dandelion, run by a Toronto refugee named Silvia Cambray and her French partner, Sebastien Schwab, who’s a cook that has his own catering company and also works at the restaurant at Huff Estate Winery. It’s a lovely, large room with all the amenities and a large bathroom. There’s a nice pool I don’t have a change to try, and zucchini muffins, berries peaches and homemade yogurt at breakfast, along with excellent coffee.
Picton is a much larger town and pretty much the heart of “The County.” Located at pretty much the far eastern end of the county, it features a pretty harbour and a lovely main street that’s becoming increasingly trendy. I don’t need more caffeine but the young girls working at The Vic coffee shop (next to the wonderful Regent Theatre) insist I try some. It’s quite good and the pastries look great , too, and it’s a bright, Art Deco kinda feel to it.
The Regent Theatre has a glorious, old-time lobby and presents a good deal of live shows, including one on The Beatles’ records’ so-called B-sides.
I stop to admire the books and kids’ toys at Books and Co., then sit down on the patio for a lovely lunch of Thai chicken wings and salad at The County Canteen, then check out something called Bird House City; a series of birdhouses (200 or so) in a field next to a pretty park with a pond and nature trails. The birdhouses are adorable; mostly in the shape of small hotels or fancy Victorian cottages but sometimes with cube shapes or the outline of a horse. Very quirky, but quite beguiling.
My final stop is a brief visit to Norman Hardiee winery, where they have a wood-burning pizza oven and a nice patio overlooking the vineyards. I love the local and Niagara Pinot Noir, especially.
Great wines, great beaches, great food. There’s so much to like in Prince Edward County and Sandbanks, and I can’t wait to explore it more fully!