by SARAH STAPLES, DRIVING
In our first drive of the Great Canadian Road Trips series, experience the fine cuisine and quaint history of southeastern Ontario
To commemorate Canada’s 150th birthday, Driving is covering the country with a series of Great Canadian Road Trips, with itineraries revealing not just fun-to-drive routes, but also the pit stops, scenic views and local culture – all the things that make a road trip fun. This month, Sarah Staples takes us to Ontario’s laid back Prince Edward County, with a stop at nearby Shannonville Motorsport Park for some high-powered thrills.
The multi-hued, open-wheel formula cars and brightly-wrapped sports cars buzz around Shannonville Motorsport Park for a few laps first – then it’s my turn. “Fast enough for ya?” quips Ken Pavri, as my head bends with the Gs toward tight corners and my fingers reflexively white-knuckle the dash.
I’m riding shotgun with Pavri, the co-owner with John Burnet of Brack Driving Concepts, at their Spring Fling weekend: an annual race academy that prepares drivers to qualify for racing licences.
Pavri and Burnet are long-time racing coaches, and Pavri used to drive in the Honda Michelin, Players GM and Firestone Firehawk racing series. He opens the throttle, and I watch pastel-green wooden bleachers blip by against a backdrop of darker Boreal forest.
If an afternoon at the racetrack were all this weekend had to offer, it’d be grand. But more excitement awaits a few minutes away in Prince Edward County, a man-made island (split from the mainland by a narrow canal and connected by bridges over the Bay of Quinte along southern Lake Ontario). It’s one of Canada’s top wine-producing regions.
There are at least 40 wineries there – astounding growth, if you consider that the first two vineyards were only planted in 1996, taking advantage of the county’s mineral-rich clay and limestone soil. There are also growing numbers of cider companies, craft brewers, cheese-makers and restaurants rounding out this award-winning wine and culinary destination.
My simple plan is to sip, spit and sample my way along a conveniently-mapped ‘Taste Trail’ – starting at Three Dog Winery, not far from the racetrack.
Tourism used to be a summertime affair, but now most wineries stay open from late March through early December, when the vines get buried for winter, explains vintner Sacha Clarke-Squair, as we sit with her husband John Clarke on Muskoka chairs, enjoying the late-afternoon sunshine.
I’ve booked a room at a pretty Victorian stay, Angeline’s, in Bloomfield. A separate 1870s white cedar-planked cabin-for-two is already taken – Justin Trudeau and Sophie Grégoire Trudeau had nabbed the coveted reservation the week earlier. But I get the next best thing: a suite with a formal parlour decorated as a fusion of antiques and vintage finds.
Dinner is at the inn’s restaurant, The Hubb. Owners Eliot Reynolds and Laura Borutski had honed their skills (he as chef, she as sommelier and front-of-house) at the Fairmont Whistler before returning to Reynolds’ hometown. My meal is perfectly executed. The roasted lake trout with zucchini and preserved lemon, and lobster mayo, is a tiny explosion of different flavours.
Borutski returns with a homemade peanut-butter ice-cream bar. “Like I really needed that,” I say, then proceed to devour it. The sommelier nods approvingly when I mention where I’ve been that day. “You should see the dunes next,” she advises.
Just past dawn, I arrive at Sandbanks Provincial Park and follow the families who are busy clambering up the steep sandhills. At the top of one of those giant heaps, I snap some memories of the Bay of Quinte – wide-open and blue, for miles – and watch as the children keep tripping and landing on their knees, wobbling as they get themselves upright again. Such uncomplicated fun.
Prince Edward County is an easy drive about two hours equidistant from Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. I’ve squeezed a road bike, assorted outdoor gear and duffels into the ample hatchback of a red 2017 Infiniti QX30 AWD with a zippy 2.0-litre, 208-horsepower turbo four-cylinder engine.
Infiniti’s subcompact SUV competes head-to-head with the Mercedes-Benz GLA, despite the fact they’re both based on the same platform. There’s an emphasis on styling in the QX30’s boldly-sculpted dash and subtly oversized grille. And there’s a luxuriousness to its Nappa leather seating, as well as all the useful high-tech extras (including a handy birds-eye-view parking assist camera).
All in all, the QX30 offers a balance of flash and functionality that’s ideal for this sort of hip country getaway. One minute I’m hiking through the provincial park. The next, I’m off around the West Lake to kick back with man-bunned Gen-Xers at the Drake Devonshire Inn in Wellington.
The Toronto-based Drake hoteliers took over an older lakeshore motel some years back, and have turned it into a place to see and be seen. I admire white-tipped waves of the lake over breakfast of eggs benny.
At the next table, members of the ‘Topless Club’ – convertible car enthusiasts, who drive the wine route here every spring – tell me they’re heading out next on one of the original Canadian byways: Highway 33, the Loyalist Parkway. That’s a classic scenic drive starting near Trenton that cuts south through the county, and eventually becomes a lakeshore route all the way to Kingston, the first capital of Canada.
Many of the main wineries are clustered around the Drake, on or just off the Parkway. I keep moving on down the road, tasting cool-climate Chardonnays and pinots. Norman Hardie Vineyard and Winery at the top of a rich, loamy hill braided with vines. Then Sandbanks Estate Winery. The Grange. Rosehall Run.
Folks know when they live someplace special. You see it in the boldly-painted heritage farmsteads along the wine route, which were built by United Empire Loyalists from about the late-1700s. And you see it in ‘barn quilts’ – renderings of quilt patches – visible on the sides buildings everywhere, from barns to grocery stores. The barns themselves are tall and puffed out like sentries, painstakingly restored, and almost always painted cherry red.
There’s another layer to the Loyalist story. Many of the Six Nations Confederacy indigenous peoples were Loyalists, and Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte were given lands in the area in exchange for their loyalty to the British.
As the afternoon fades, I check into Jackson’s Falls Country Inn, in Milford, a one-room schoolhouse converted into a retro retreat that’s filled with paintings and limited-edition prints gifted to its innkeeper, Lee Arden Lewis.
Four generations of Lewis’s family lived on or near the Tyendinaga Mohawk reserve, not far from Shannonville’s racetrack. I head downstairs to her restaurant, Public School House, for my first Mohawk feast. There’s Lyed corn soup with a pork base. A ‘Chief’s platter’ featuring bison salami and crispy-chewy fried bread called bannock. Boiled pickerel. Applewood-smoked elk with wild rice. They’re recipes (with a contemporary twist) from Lewis’s childhood.
She has Scottish-emigrant heritage, too. And by dessert, she’s pulled up a chair and we’re delving deep into what it means to be a Canadian.
“I grew up a proud Mohawk and a proud Canadian, so I feel like I have a split personality,” she says. Canada Day celebrations in July that will mark 150 years of Confederation are leave her feeling conflicted.
As a young lawyer, Sir John A. MacDonald would take this very road, shuttling between the political corridors of power in Toronto, Ottawa and Kingston. Canada’s first Prime Minister, the story goes, liked to stop by a little limestone tavern near the eastern ferry landing that I’m not surprised to learn is still standing after 150 years, now known as The Inn at Lake on the Mountain. I linger for a while, feeling the history there, the beating heart of home.