As I approached the summit, one final hurdle lay ahead. It wasn't the steep, crumbling slope under my feet. Nor was it the blazing midday sun. No -- as I climbed the dune in Eastern Ontario's Sandbanks Provincial Park, my greatest challenge was the all-dressed bacon cheeseburger, onion rings and chocolate milkshake I had just devoured outside the snack bar.
Just as mountaineers acclimatize to altitude, I stopped and waited for the grease rush to subside. Then, heartened by what awaited beyond the dune's 10-metre peak, I scrambled up the sandy mound, paperback in one hand, towel in the other.
I had seen the view from atop the dunes dozens of times before, either on a sand-seeking expedition out of Toronto, or on "Picton Day," the June exodus of class-cutting teens from my former hometown of Kingston. On this perfect summer Saturday, it encompassed blue skies, calm Lake Ontario waters and white sands framed by stands of eastern cottonwood trees, a picture that solidified Sandbanks as my favourite Canadian beach. The sand and scenery of some East and West Coast beaches may compare -- PEI's Cavendish and Vancouver's English Bay spring to mind -- but Sandbanks' summer is reliably hot and sunny, and the water is fresh, calm and surprisingly warm. If, like me, you often crave a splashy game of paddle ball -- that free-form, co-ed pursuit of the Frisbee-fatigued -- you'll only be up to your waist in water more than 100 metres offshore, owing to the three beaches' gentle, child-friendly slope out of East Lake (which is actually a bay).
Unlike much of surrounding Prince Edward County, which has seen a spate of development in recent years, little has changed at Sandbanks since I first arrived here in someone else's parent's minivan more than 15 years ago. The drive past the main entrance still winds pleasantly through thick maple forest. The aforementioned snack bar still serves up the thickest milkshakes around -- thanks to the staff's perennial lack of blender-awareness. And on a prime summer weekend, the park's Outlet, Sandbanks and Campers beaches are still busy, but not maddeningly so. After all, there's plenty of real estate: The 11 kilometres of beaches and dunes form two of the largest freshwater bay-mouth sandbars in the world.
Arriving at noon, it was easy to find a sunny spot devoid of errant Frisbees and sand-encrusted toddlers. Spreading out mats and towels, and unfolding lounge chairs -- my wife Angela and I are confessed beach-accoutrement addicts -- we settled into an afternoon of doing very, very little.
Once again, I noticed that time and sound perform strange tricks when one is prostrate on the beach. A lively conversation among a group of nearby teenagers -- "Dude, man, my wakeboard is sick" -- soon became a melodious trickle interspersed with the noise of splashing kids and squawking gulls. This was followed by an irresistible snooze, a groggy awakening and feigned surprise that two hours had passed in what felt like five minutes.
It was time for a swim, at which point our reasons for leaving Toronto became abundantly clear. To be sure, the Big Smoke has sandy beaches, some of which are quite pleasant. Trouble is, you'll be publicly ostracized for entering the water (and privately concerned should you develop a sudden rash). Indeed, I am always shocked by Torontonians' lack of Sandbanks savvy. Wasaga and Sauble beaches, both about two hours northeast of the city, seem to get all the attention -- mention Prince Edward County and you'll likely get a blank stare. True, Sandbanks lacks the shopping and nightlife of its busier Lake Huron counterparts. But in my mind, its location within a provincial park -- with extensive camping facilities mere steps from the sand -- is one of its best features.
The Visitors Centre & Nature Shoppe near the park entrance sells souvenirs and houses exhibits on Sandbanks' flora and fauna, including such oddly named plants as hoary puccoon and sand spurge, as well as migratory birds like swamp sparrows and pileated woodpeckers. There's also a wealth of special events for campers, such as slide shows, guided walks and Theatre in the Park, in which interpretive staff gamely don historical costumes to dramatize the century-old history of Sandbanks.
Angela and I were intent on suntans, however, and our afternoon unfolded lazily, as so many have on past visits. But when our thoughts turned to stylish shelter and French-fry-free sustenance, the annual routine was interrupted.
Our home for the weekend -- the brand-new Inn at Huff Estates, a 15-minute drive north of the beach -- is a prime example of how "the County," as it's locally known, is wooing affluent baby boomers and the thirtysomething condo crowd. The inn certainly wooed us: Located on the grounds of a two-year-old winery, the 20-room property is a modern departure from the upscale country inns -- such as the Devonshire and Merrill Inn -- and often-schmaltzy B & Bs that dominate the local accommodations scene. Decked out in dark wood and natural stone, rooms range from doubles to a 1,100-square-foot Winemakers Suite. All feature fireplaces, flat-screen TVs, high-speed Internet access and other necessities.
Lanny Huff, the winery's founder, has seen his home county change drastically over the past few years. He should know: His family goes back 10 generations in the area.
"When the wineries started opening up, and great restaurateurs and artists from Toronto started moving here, it really brought Prince Edward County into the new century," he said. "If you went back five years, you wouldn't have found a million-dollar house. Now, I know one builder who's working on five."
Despite obvious similarities with the tourism boom in the Niagara region -- with wine, food and theatre in leading roles -- Huff said the county aims to maintain its relaxed rural vibe. "Most of the development is being done very tastefully. You're not going to see a Burger King on every corner."
But could there soon be a winery on every county road? Huff Estates, which this year won a gold medal at the All-Canadian Wine Championships and a silver at the Ontario Wine Awards, joined 38 other vintners in this spring's Prince Edward County Wine Celebration. Six years ago, there was just a single winery in operation.
The county's culinary endeavours have grown alongside the viticulture, notably with the creation in 2003 of a Taste Trail encompassing two dozen inns, eateries, food shops and wineries. The next addition to the trail could be a venture by Toronto celebrity chef Jamie Kennedy, who is setting up a vineyard and restaurant in the village of Hillier.
After a continental breakfast of fresh pastries and local fruit on the Huff inn's main patio, we strolled over to the adjacent winery, a single-storey structure tucked into the terroir itself. After a few sips, we were tempted to forgo our Sunday at Sandbanks and embark on a food-and wine-tasting tour.
But the sun was shining and the midday air was heating up. Sometimes, we reasoned, it's best to stick with what you know: a chocolate milkshake, onion rings, and an all-dressed bacon cheeseburger.
Pack your bags
From Highway 401 eastbound, take Exit 522 (Wooler Road, just west of Trenton), which connects to Highway 33 south. Drive through Wellington and into Bloomfield, then take County Road 12 south to Sandbanks. From Highway 401 westbound, take Exit 566 (just west of Deseronto) to Highway 49 south. Drive through Picton and into Bloomfield, then take County Road 12 south to Sandbanks.
WHERE TO STAY
Inn at Huff Estates: 2274 County Rd. 1 (just off Highway 62), Bloomfield, Ont.; 1-866-484-4667; . Located on the grounds of the two-year-old Huff Estates winery, the 20-room property is decked out in dark wood and natural stone. Rooms range from large doubles to a 1,100-square-foot Winemakers Suite. All feature fireplaces, flat-screen TVs, and high-speed Internet access. Rates start at $179 a night, including continental breakfast.
The Devonshire, Inn on the Lake: 24 Wharf St.; Wellington, Ont.; 1-800-544-9937; . This upscale inn combines a prime waterfront location with comfortable bedrooms and elegant dining. Rates start at $169 a night, including full breakfast.
Merrill Inn: 343 Main St. E., Picton, Ont.; 1-866-567-5969; . This historic luxury inn located in the County's "capital" features 13 guest rooms with en-suite bathrooms. Rates start at $155 a night, including continental breakfast.
Sandbanks camping: 613-393-3319; www.ontarioparks.com/english/sand-facilities.html. 549 campsites are scattered over five campgrounds. There are 140 sites with electrical service, and all have a picnic table and fireplace grill. Washrooms with showers are located throughout the campgrounds. Fees vary according to the facilities and services provided, and range from $10 a night in low season (without showers) to $33 a night in summer (with electrical hook-ups and showers). Reservations are recommended.
THINGS TO DO
Regent Theatre: 224 Main St., Picton, Ont.; 1-877-411-4761; . Offers live theatre and music, first-run movies and Cinefest, part of the Film Circuit of the Toronto International Film Festival.
Taste Trail: . Encompasses two dozen inns, restaurants, food shops and wineries. A downloadable guide and clickable map is available on the website.
Sandbanks Provincial Park: www.ontarioparks.com/english/sand.html; 613-393-3319. Day-use vehicle permits range in price from $7 to $15.
Prince Edward County Chamber of Tourism & Commerce: 116 Main St., Picton, Ont.; 1-800-640-4717; .