I’m looking across a frozen Lake Ontario into a cold white distance. A bitter wind sends sheets of crystalline snow skidding across the lake’s surface and over the waves of buckled ice heaped up near the shore. It could be a Caspar David Friedrich painting, such is the epic dourness of the weather.
Luckily, I’m inside and warm and have ordered a gin Caesar with which to enjoy the view from the picture windows in the bright, friendly dining room of the Drake Devonshire inn. On this Saturday afternoon, the first rural offshoot of Toronto’s much-ballyhooed bohotel is pleasantly peopled, but there’s hardly what you’d call a bustling brunch crowd. It’s the dead of February in the Devonshire’s first season of business in Prince Edward County, and there aren’t a lot of tourists making the trip to tiny Wellington in the middle of a blizzard.
This makes me happy. I wish the Drake no ill will, but there’s a serene, secret vibe about a summer spot in wintertime that makes it feel as though you’ve stumbled into the remote retreat of some quasi-mystical club. Tourist trappings are stripped away, leaving the true essence of the place visible. Locals see you as less of an interloper and are liable to size you up as someone discerning enough to recognize that there’s more to their beloved home than what’s featured in the tourist brochures.
If you’re someplace like Prince Edward Country, where the community is small, proud and tight-knit, everyone tends to gravitate toward the same events. On this weekend, there is a lot of talk about the annual seed exchange in Picton, although the real anticipation is for the maple syrup festival that will take over the County for a weekend at the end of March.
There’s a serene vibe about a summer spot in wintertime that makes it feel as though you’ve stumbled into the retreat of some quasi-mystical club
Come June, the place will be packed with weekend refugees from Toronto and Ottawa. The County is a hot ticket for arts-minded urbanites and wine enthusiasts, and the buzzing new inn will almost certainly bring a new cohort to its shores. Ditto for the Hayloft Dancehall, a rustic music venue (read: refurbished barn) in nearby Cherry Valley, recently purchased and revamped by the proprietors of Toronto’s Dakota Tavern and set to open in May 2015.
In summer, there will still be fun to be had on the sunny beaches of Sandbanks Provincial Park, but there will be a lot more people sharing in it, and finding a quiet moment to stare out the window to see the sublime, frozen world of an old Romantic painting will be that much harder over the din of clinking plates and party tunes.
Finishing our drinks, my crew and I debate the virtues of an outdoor activity. The County’s flat, open landscape makes for great cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, and those with especially good boots can try pulling walleye out of the ice on the Bay of Quinte. We succumb to the warmth that’s enveloped us, though, and opt to stay inside for the night, sitting around a crackling wood stove and partaking in some Oyster Stout from the local Barley Days brewery.
The following morning, we arrange to meet friends for brunch. A lot of businesses in Wellington are closed for the season, or operating on reduced hours. So we head along Loyalist Parkway to Bloomfield where Agrarian Bistro and Speakeasy serves up comfort food, proudly local. As soon as our party is seated, the server comes over and strikes up a conversation; the slower pace of business means there’s a bit more time for chatting. Within minutes, some familiar faces have filed through the door — again giving the impression that in off season, the whole County travels as a unified pack, into which visitors daft enough to come in the dead of winter are lucky enough to be admitted. We exchange a few pleasant words with a local painter, Stewart Jones, whose studio is back in Wellington. Then everyone tucks into their waffles, Huevos Rancheros and Eggs Royale. Talk turns, inevitably, to the maple syrup festival.
I’m tempted to come back for it. The end of March, I figure, is still cold enough to keep the travelling masses at bay. Even if the whole of Prince Edward County shows up, I suspect it’ll still feel like an exclusive party to which only those out-of-towners with golden tickets or hearty snow tires are invited.
Of course, even if I can’t make it out to for the sugarbush festivities, I’ll return in the fairer months. Who can resist a sun-drunk day at Ontario’s best beach or a lazy tour of the rustic wineries lining Closson Road? But I’ll feel a certain nostalgia, then, for the snow-shrouded Prince Edward County of mid-February — for that hushed sense of intimacy, peace and privilege that only comes with visiting in the off season.