Prince Edward County has long been a celebrated secret, the kind of place that is especially alluring because the first-time visitor leaves with the warm conceit of discovery, like so many others before them.
It is a spectacular splash of land that hangs down into Lake Ontario, unknown to most travellers zipping along the 401 just north of Belleville, and as such rather unspoiled by an incursion of chain stores. Strangely, almost magically, most people remain oblivious to this large projection, an almost-island that hangs by a thread to the mainland, even when scanning a map. Mention the dunes at the Sandbanks Provincial Park and that might jog a memory.
The county inspires travelogue writing: windswept rugged shoreline, pristine white sand beaches, rolling countryside, bucolic pastures, and quaint, rustic and stately homes. In early summer, the air is heavily scented with lilac, the legacy of early settlers’ plantings. Soon after the roadsides bloom with orange Daylilies, Queen Anne’s lace, purple chicory and blue cornflowers.
Mostly “the county,” as it is endearingly referred to as if there is only the one, is about a fiercely rooted people who are just as loyal and proud as other somewhat isolated communities. Recent interlopers-urban professionals, artists, winemaking aspirants and chefs-love to be enveloped in this culture of belonging to a place. No doubt the long-time locals are weary about all this grandstanding praise bestowed by the newcomers. Yet, they continue to make room for everyone, even gays and lesbians, belying commonly held assumptions about rural conservative values.
The romantic grit of the early inhabitants has endured to this day. In the past people hewed and hoed, braved shipwrecks and rum running, grew barley for the beer trade, picked and peeled tomatoes on hot days. Today, in addition to traditional livestock, dairy and cash crop farming, they hoe organic vegetable plots, kneel in vineyards to tend grape vines, or hold down three part-time jobs to stay put.
Everything county is celebrated here from the escapades of notorious characters to funny place names like Soup Harbour, Tooth Acres Lane and Gommorah Road. CDs, plays, books and T-shirts extolling the county constitute a significant cottage industry. The pre-1801 Union Jack, a Loyalist leftover from more than 200 years ago, hangs outside residences and stores.
At the moment, the county is not too commercial, but with the incursion of vineyards and wineries there is a danger of not being able to buy a grilled cheese sandwich for under, well, whatever they charge in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Fortunately, the local inhabitants will have a lot to say about that.