This isn’t the first time I’ve written about Prince Edward County, in fact I just wrote about it this past April. PEC has become a birthday tradition for me, and also a right-of-spring-passage at the time of year we really need to unravel work and winter stress. So why write more? Well, lots of reasons actually. First, shockingly many many people I know haven’t even heard of the wonders of the County, much been there for a visit. Second, the wine keeps getting better and better, and everyone knows it. Finally, there is a new kid in town; the Drake Devonshire, which after much fanfare, is finally open, and everyone keeps asking me “how was it”, so here’s what I thought.
I was little suspicious of a trendy and stylish Toronto hotel setting up a resort-like space in Wellington, which like the other small towns in the County (Picton, Bloomfield) are exactly what you picture a small Ontario town to be, and hardly need to be “cityfied”. But I love the Drake Toronto and when I lived in the area, spent many, many evenings dining, drinking, and dancing in the various spaces of the hotel, so I was game to give the Devonshire a try.
The Devonshire is up and running despite the fact that the official opening is not until spring of 2015; a little more time to finish up an outdoor deck in time for the season, and work out the kinks in running what is already a very popular operation. We booked the Winter Warrior package, and let me just say that this is the best deal around right now; for $377 -$397 (Price for two people, based on double occupancy) you get:
-One night’s accommodation
– Breakfast (coffee, juice, choice of entrée)
– Dinner – Seat at the Chef’s table (appetizer, main course, dessert)
– Packed lunch (including mini bottle of wine)
– Complimentary pick up and drop off from choice of hiking trail
– Winter warmer cocktail upon return
And they don’t skimp like some places that create special meals/drinks for such packages; we enjoyed entrees and beverages from the “regular” menus. They weren’t quite ready for the hiking part of the package (we were actually the first people to book this package) but that worked out fine, since we had a busy two days of winery-visits planned, so I’m not sure when we would have squeezed in a hike anyway.
The building, a century old building with a very interesting history, has been beautifully renovated. I loved what they did; modern country (if that’s such a thing in the design world) is evident everywhere. The addition (which houses the sun-filled dinning room overlooking the lake) was also beautifully integrated into the already breathtaking surroundings. If you’ve visited Drake Toronto, you’ll recognize some quintessential elements: the photo booth, the art, and the locally crafted Canadiana accessories.
The service was excellent everywhere except for the dinning room, which (in their defence) is moderately acceptable in this “working out the kinks” stage. They were clearly understaffed for a full house (during this “low” season), and for some reason, inexperienced in some areas of service. We went over twenty minutes, between plates, without water or wine despite having ordered a bottle when we arrived. Only after inquiring were we told the wine was “chilling”. Note: letting us sit there without explanation, without an opportunity to select something else, or without bringing us something else while we wait is not good. Like I said, hopefully they’re just working out these kinks.
Other than our mediocre dinner service, I really enjoyed everything about this place. The setting was beautiful, the food excellent, and the accommodations very comforting. We we left, they sent us on our way with a delicious lunch (soup, sandwiches, scones, fruit, and wine); perfect to sustain us during our winery visits. This year we went to our perennial favourites to restock the wine racks for the holidays, and add some more to the cellar collection: Exultet Estates, Rosehall Run, The Old Third, Stanners Vineyard, Hinterland Wine Company. I find that the more I visit our Ontario wine regions the more I gravitate to the same wine makers who I know are making high quality, estate grown wine.
PEC has a special place in my heart because it is the first road trip we ever took together about eight years ago. Back then beautiful landscape, a charming B&B, and delicious local restaurants were all we looked for out there. We did pop into a few wineries but were horribly disappointed by the offerings. Fast forward five years, and the wine scene changed drastically, I suspect, in response to many city-transplants who saw a golden opportunity. Prince Edward County has since become one of my favourite areas to visit for incredible farm to table eats, and local award winning wines. Our most recent visit started with a fantastic Countylicious lunch at East and Main, followed by a one night stay in Bloomfield at Angéline’s Inn, a family run property with charming suites, coach houses and the newly renovated Walter Motor Inn. Saturday evening we also had an opportunity to enjoy the culinary delights of Chef Elliot and the wine wisdom of Sommelier Laura at The Hubb eatery and lounge. It was a perfect spot from where we headed out to visit, taste and buy some of the incredible wines of the area. This time around we visited Hubbs Creek Vineyard, Lighthall Vineyards, Casa Dea Estates Winery, Rosehall Run, The Old Third, and Hinterland Wine Company for their latest (& greatest) offerings. It was, indeed, just what needed to forget about the stresses of everyday life, and the horrible winter we’ve had this year.
This summer’s road trip took us to California, specifically San Francisco, Wine country (Sonoma, Napa, Anderson Valleys) and Mendocino. So rather than one gigantic post, I thought this would best be done in three parts; here, my friends, is part one.
We landed in San Francisco and took the Bart into town in order to pick up our rental car. I mention this bland point because, once agin, we landed in a city smaller than my own which has an easy to use and extensive public transportation system; this always causes much envy. Dragging suitcases and carry-ons through a strange city, especially a very hilly one, is not fun, but renting a car in the city always guarantees a MUCH cheaper rate than picking up at the airport (half price actually). Truthfully, I will admit that the walk from the Bart station to the Hertz office left a bad taste in my mouth for a city we were soon to return to for five days. We walked through a “rougher” neighbourhood, and despite the fact that there were two of us, we were heckled and accosted (more on this later). Once we had the car, we made our way out of the city, but not before stoping for some much needed sustenance at Tacolicious, a popular (small chain) Mexican inspired restaurant.
San Francisco is cold. Some may call it mild, but having just arrived from a super hot and humid Toronto, the 17 degrees was shocking. I was glad to drive away to our first stop, Santa Rosa. Santa Rosa is a very small city in the Sonoma Valley; a less expensive option compared to the trendy Healdsburg, it would serve as the perfect home base for the activities of the next four days.
After this full day of flying and driving, our dinner at Willi’s Wine Bar was exactly the California welcome we needed. Super fresh and local food accompanied by an endless list of both local and world wines, almost all of which were available by the glass. Needless to say, we spent the evening eating a variety of small plates (oysters, in-house made charcuterie, etc.), and tasting some of the incredible wines the area had to offer.
The next day was the start of three full days of wine tasting in the area. The options are overwhelming, and it pays to do a little research before you go; talk to people who have been, and get your hands on some of the great maps available at most hotels, restaurants and wineries. We had some starting points in mind thanks to fellow oenophiles and the other wineries we hit were a result of recommendations from the wineries we visited, sommeliers and winemakers we met; this led us to some of our favourite spots. Be prepared to pay for tastings, $6-$10 in Sonoma and Anderson Valley, and $25+ in Napa. The big difference we noticed about these regions was that in Sonoma & Anderson Valleys the wineries we visited waved the tasting fees with purchase (which was pretty much every time for us), but in Napa tastings fees are charged regardless of what and how much you buy. I think it’s more than fair to charge for tasting wine when no purchase is made, but when it is, I think it’s in bad taste to charge me an additional $25 for the four small drops of wine I tried (and in most cases, shared!).
The wine region of Sonoma county is stunning, and it is easy to be distracted by the beauty of the wineries; gorgeous vineyards lined with silvery green olive trees, and perfumed by the beautiful eucalyptus trees. We had an incredible first day and tasted some really great wine, but the favourite that day was definitely St. Francis (if you want a more detailed list of most of what we tasted on this vacation, you can click here: Wine Tasting in California 2013).
Our second dinner in Santa Rosa was at Jackson’s Bar and Oven, a last minute recommendation we received from some locals. The wood-oven pizza, oysters, dessert and the wine were fantastic; and it was great to be able to walk back to our hotel.
Our second day of winery visits was done via road bikes. I can not talk or write enough about how biking on vacation is the BEST way to see and experience the place you’re visiting. We do this every time we vacation, and it’s always a highlight. The ride through the Sonoma Valley vineyards was definietly the BEST ride I’ve every done on vacation, not in terms of athletic performance, but in terms of the sheer beauty of the surroundings. The route we rode was almost absent of cars, which made the experience even more idealic. We rented road bikes from two spots: Echelon Cycle in Santa Rosa, and Wine Country Bikes in Healdsburg. We spent the day tasting and buying (conservatively) stopping also to enjoy lunch at the busy and delicious Dry Creek Store. The favourite here was the beautiful Bella Vineyards and WIne Caves; a stunning winery at the end of our bike route, which poured us some of my favourite wine.
Our third evening was a spontaneous decision made after talking to locals all day, the Santa Rosa Night Market; every Wednesday in the centre of town, hundreds of people gather to enjoy a delightful combination of local food, craft vendors, live music, children’s activities, a wine tasting garden, and some costumed characters (my favourites were the dancing ninjas). We weren’t sure sacrificing our hard-to-get reservations at a heralded foodie destination was the right thing to do, but it turned out to be perfect way to continue to experience many of the things this area has to offer.
Our third day of wine tasting took us to the famous Napa valley. After three days of being in this area, we debated whether or not to visit this very touristy, and (in the opinion of locals) highly overrated wine region, but we felt that we should visit at least once, especially since we were so close. We drove through the, sometimes unbearable, traffic to hit up some spots recommended to us, most especially the bubbles. The favourite Napa spot was Pride Mountain Vineyards, who welcomed us despite their reservations required policy. The wine here was outstanding, and they were the only place we visited this day that waved the tasting fee with purchase.
We hit up the usual suspects for bubbles, but had the best experience at Mumm Napa, not only because of the Fine Art Photography Gallery (permanet exhibit of Ansel Adams as well as a rotation exhibit), but because of an unexpected opportunity to taste their Pinot Noir (the only wine they make); this wine was INCREDIBLE, and one of the best Pinots we tasted. Proof that being friendly with strangers can yield unexpected pleasure.
Our final evening in Santa Rosa took us back to St. Francis Winery for the first night of their Outdoor Summer Film Festival; a screening of Dirty Dancing. For a wine-loving 80s’ girl, this was the best thing! We borrowed a blanket from our hotel and sat among the locals sipping wine and eating some great food truck eats. It was the perfect ending to our Sonoma stay.
Stay tuned for PART II: Mendocino and Anderson Valley
So while unpacking all the great local food we brought back from Burlington, Vermont I was reminded of a conversation I had recently with someone who insisted that eating local and organic was only possible for the rich. I don’t believe this is so, mostly because I was raised on whole, local food. We did not eat processed food, not even “sliced bread in a bag”. We were not rich; my parents were new immigrants and worked hard, but their food habits stemmed from their own upbringing, most especially my mom (who did grow up poor) whose family ate food when it was in season and preserved it for the times it was not. Now as an adult, I continue to eat only whole natural food, but in our house we don’t exercise the same “in-season” restraint my mom practiced. Our income allows us to buy organic whenever we see it in store, and I know that makes us food-priviledged. But convenience aside, and even though it is changing slowly, I still think we lack a real appreciation and expectation for local food. We do not love and demand food from our local farms in the same way other places like Burlington, Vermont do. Everywhere you go you see pride of local farm and industry, and a local food culture that is so ingrained in the fabric of the whole state. Just in case you are wondering where I am going with all of this (again), consider this: we purchased all the food items below at City Market (a grocery co-op) in Burlington. You’ll notice that we bought some big ticket items like meat, cheese, milk, butter, etc. (including enough for a dinner party next week), but what you can’t see is that, in addition to all the fun local goodness below, we also purchased our “regular” weekly groceries, two bottles of wine, freshly made deli sandwiches for our drive home, and a snazzy new cooler bag for the SAME money we spend on our weekly groceries alone here in Toronto. So I ask, how long can we really afford not to eat local?
So what does one do in Stowe once you’ve done all the skiing? Lots!
Sample beer at a local craft brewery:
It always makes me so happy to see people playing and exercising in the glorious outdoors, especially families. I am most impressed by little kids because they don’t care how much they suck, they just want to play and they don’t care how many times they fall, they just get up again. I think I’ve embraced the not-caring-how-much-I suck part, but after two injuries (knee and shoulder) I’m a little more fearful of falling, especially since both injuries, which took two years to recover from (still working on the shoulder recovery), came from relatively minor falls. However, I did “give ‘er” the best I could this weekend on these beautiful mountains, and the best part was being surrounded by so many people who also wanted to play outside regardless of ability. It’s worth noting that this is hardly a place for beginners; I cross country skied the “flat” loops ever time, and as you can see from the photo, Vermonters have an interesting definition of flat, but the spirit of sport and love for outdoors are the most contagious of all.
Of all the places I’ve been, nowhere celebrates the local goodness made by neighbouring farmers, brewers, and cheese-makers as much as Burlington Vermont. I’ve been here yearly for the last five years, but always in the summer when crops are plenty and it’s easy to eat/buy local. I wasn’t sure the same would be true in February, but I was dead wrong. The pride of food and drink can be seen everywhere.