Town & County

Prince Edward County is a gorgeous place to spend a day. It's also pretty great for second homes and satellite offices

By Maryam Siddiqi

On Tuesday December 4th, 2012

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Philip Bender, Alexandra Mayeski and their children enjoying their spacious new yard in Picton

When Jane Southren, a partner at Lerners LLP in Toronto, visited Prince Edward County for the first time, she fell in love with its country feel, unspoiled views of Lake Ontario and neighbouring bays, and village-like Main Streets.

“I live in a cosmopolitan centre, so I was looking for something more quaint, and not as polished as Niagara-on-the-Lake or Muskoka,” she says. “It’s more approachable, but still has everything you want to do.” Five years ago, she bought a 1960s-era house with a friend on four acres of land overlooking the lake. “It was definitely a labour of love,” she says of their work on the vacation home, which included ripping out wall-to-wall shag carpeting. Right now, Southren is only able to visit six or so times a year. “If I could, I would go every other weekend.”

Southren was on the leading edge of what’s become a full-blown trend. Toronto and other southern Ontario-based lawyers are checking out PEC for day trips, buying a second home, setting up satellite offices and even getting entrepreneurial by launching businesses that have nothing to do with law.

Alexandra Mayeski, senior litigation counsel Toronto firm Dykeman Dewhirst O’Brien LLP and her husband Philip Bender, general counsel at North America Construction, now live and work here. Like others new to the area, they have fallen in love with this affordable, idyllic region that feels like it’s a million miles away from the gridlocked, hectic city.

The county — a 700-square-km island sitting just south of Belleville — is a swift two-hour drive from Toronto. While the 401 can get busy, it’s nothing compared to the Friday-night hell of the 400 during cottage season. The only traffic “jam” during a weekend trip last fall was caused by a boat crossing the Murray Canal, off the Bay of Quinte.

And while real estate prices in Niagara-on-the-Lake or Collingwood are best discussed after a still drink, land in PEC is still reasonably priced. A compact bungalow on 87.5 acres facing Lake Ontario recently sold for only $315,000, while an historic farmhouse with four bedrooms on South Bay went for $440,000.

Development in PEC, on the rise over the past five years, shows no signs of slowing: The island has 32 wineries and that number grows annually. Next spring, Toronto’s Drake Hotel is set to open an outpost in Wellington. But for every new vineyard or inn there is a hundred-year-old barn still used for farming or as an auction centre. Yes, the city folk are coming, but they don’t seem to be affecting the local vibe and look.

For daytrippers, the area is incredibly easy to navigate. Only a handful of quiet main roads run through the island, and the two main — and very well signed — routes visitors are encouraged to follow are the Arts Trail or Taste Trail. “The views are just gorgeous,” says Southren. Drives can include stops to take in Lake Ontario (the county has 800 km of shoreline), visit artists’ studios, browse antique shops, stock up on local vintages or indulge in county cuisine.

The Marshmallow Room Bakery in Bloomfield is the place for fresh baguettes and Black River Cheese in Milford for aged cheddar or flavoured mozzarella — the beginnings of a luxe picnic. The County Cider Company, east of Waupoos and perched on an escarpment, offers an unmatched view of PEC, and the cider is just as refreshing. And if kids are in tow — or even if they aren’t — head to Buddha Dog in Picton for gourmet hot dogs topped with Black River cheese.

Norman Hardie Winery & Vineyard boasts critically acclaimed wines and an outdoor pizza oven that is fired up every weekend in warm weather. Hardie himself commissioned cooks from Terroni and Pizzeria Libretto in Toronto to help develop recipes and train his staff. Hardie and his team also host harvest parties in the fall — guests help pluck the vines and get a pizza party/pig roast in payment.

For dinner, the best place in the county is East and Main. The Wellington restaurant often opts for local ingredients such as in its classy take on fish and chips: local catch on a bed of crisp fries with juicy carrots and beans on the side.

This year-round destination promises lots to do. Sandbanks Provincial Park maintains 10 km of cross-country skiing trails plus sand dunes and picturesque beaches. But locals and regular weekenders prefer the quieter North Beach, near Consecon, or the even quieter Point Petre, a limestone beach on the shore of Soup Harbour.

Lawyer Alexandra Mayeski takes advantage of this secluded beach when she needs a break, describing it as “a hidden gem for locals.” Mayeski and husband Bender moved to PEC from Burlington last July. “We did the big Bay Street thing for a while and wanted to simplify,” she explains. Both lawyers now share a small office in Picton, just up the street from their home, and go into their respective head offices once or twice a week. They now spend more time with their two young children and have taken up new hobbies, the small vineyard on their front lawn — and future plans for winemaking — being one of them.

Also delving into viticulture is Steven Rapkin, a former partner at McCarthy Tétrault LLP, now a senior consultant for the Marsden Group. He co-owns Long Dog Vineyard & Winery in Milford with husband and wife team James Lahti and Victoria Rose. Like many other wineries here, it’s known for its Pinot Noir. Rapkin likes the area’s rising cool-factor. “People have known about it for biking and Sandbanks, but the 100 mile diet is attracting a lot more people. Now, there’s a real community of locals and transplants from Toronto and Ottawa.” He used to spend every weekend in the county and some weekdays too. But since becoming a consultant in early 2012, Rapkin has reluctantly been in Toronto more than he’d like.

Other lawyers who’ve recently decamped to the area are getting entrepreneurial as well. Andrea Burke and Sean Campbell, both senior litigators at Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP in Toronto, have owned a second home in the area since 2006. In 2008, they bought the Hayes Inn near Waupoos at an auction — they’d been admiring the 1838 building for some time.

The couple completed the restoration of the inn, where rooms start at $165 per night. The dining room features restored landscape paintings and top-notch meals courtesy of chef and manager Steve Chaves, former chef at Langdon Hall.

Burke and Campbell try to visit the inn a couple times a month from their weekend home not far from Bloomfield. “It was the old houses that brought us here,” Campbell says. They’ve just finished renovations to their house and have turned to the exterior of the property with a lavender garden and newly planted Pinot Noir vines.

Planting roots in Prince Edward County, physically and otherwise, is catching on among urban lawyers. The growth in population and popularity is evident, but the new restaurants, wineries and shops seem to go out of their way to fit into the landscape. PEC gives visitors an authentic experience in the country, but also a dilemma: do you share this haven with others, or keep the secret to yourself?

Photography by Matthew Plexman


Web exclusive: Maryam Siddiqi’s photos of Prince Edward County