Picton: Cruising into perfection

By John Morris

Prince Edward County is a confidence that boaters share with a few tourists and the locals, but it has yet to become a major tourist draw.  It’s very close to the mainland; only the Murray Canal, the Bay of Quinte and its associated waters separate it from the rest of Ontario, but it’s the largest island in Lake Ontario and comes with all the wonders that islands develop. “The County” has only been an island since 1889 when the five miles of the Murray Canal was completed; prior to that it was a peninsula, but we’ll cut some slack on that.

Today, Prince Edward County is booming with wineries, shops and charming towns but has (so far) managed to retain its rural charm. The main town in the County is Picton, a classically Ontario-esque community that completely retains its charm despite the rising tide of tourism and folks invading from the city. Adorable and historic, it has nonetheless avoided becoming Niagara-on-the-Lake so far, although getting there soon might be a good idea for those who prefer their destinations unspoiled.

Picton is roughly halfway between Belleville and Kingston down the inside protected channel the County creates, so whichever direction you’re headed in, it’s a fine overnight stop. Approaching down Long Reach, Picton Harbour is a pastoral delight that very likely doesn’t look too different from how it must have in the early 1900s when it was a centre of commerce and important port on the route west. The cement plant on the high western bank is a bit of a glaring reminder of progress, but otherwise the scene is unspoiled. Picton Harbour itself is as perfect a port as you can imagine and was very much on the schooner and steamship route back when coal ruled.

Working past Chimney Point, the entrance to the very sheltered bay, Prince Edward Yacht Club on the starboard side is an obvious place to moor for a few nights. PEYC – the acronym is boldly on the roof of the clubhouse that dates from the ‘30s (although the club dates back to the 19th century).  The bay, now used almost exclusively by pleasure boaters, is dredged regularly so there’s lots of water.  There’s also quite a bit of cruising traffic so the club can be crowded in the summer – call ahead. There is other dockage available in the bay at the Government Pier just south of PEYC, at the Prince Edward Cruising Club, the Tip of the Bay Marina (there are  also some good launch ramps here, if you are of the trailer boat persuasion) and at the Picton Harbour Inn at the head of the bay. All are much in demand during the beautiful months as boaters wind their way to and from the 1,000 Islands.

PEYC is a very active club. It once boasted a very active 6-Metre fleet and still has weeknight club and distance racing, which I am sure visitors can join in. I am particularly attracted by the Waupoos Wabbit Wace, which appears to be both a Looney Tunes delight and an annual fun club race in May.

It’s but a few steps up to the town from any of those mooring spots and what an winning place it is. Main Street looks like a main street should,  lined with shops and services, old and new. Particularly striking is the Regent Theatre, a once 1,000 seat jewel established in 1918, which has managed to escape both the wrecking ball and the Cineplex. It has a long and storied history including silent films and vaudeville and today is maintained by The Regent Theatre Foundation, a community based, not-for-profit organization that bought the then dark landmark from the founding Cook family in 1994 and restored it to its glory.

There is a fine assortment of fish and chips, bakeries, tearooms, antique and tchotchke shops that make for endless strolling. Back closer to the water, around the corner on Bridge Street past the Picton Harbour Inn is the striking Claramount Inn and Spa. Its colonial revival mansion dating from 1904 has some lavish guest rooms plus a spa where weary cruisers can enjoy some deluxe attention and the very classy Clara’s where you can switch the dining up several notches from the propane galley. There are other upscale eateries in the area too – The Waring House, a few bucks by cab, is a country inn of note that has deservedly established itself as the County’s gastro pub of record.

Back on Main Street, you can continue south for another few blocks to find the less village-y area that includes a No Frills and a pretty massive Canadian Tire that has, of course, everything. There’s a Beer Store too.  

To get all mushy for a sec, the walk back from the CT store is really what Picton is about. Sure, it has all the things you might expect in a modern Ontario community but if you’re cruising to find tranquility rather than WiFi, this really is the place. Heading back toward the harbour from those biggish boxes and signage, you can retrace the mood of two hundred years of visitors who came to Picton by boat. After all, that’s what boating is about.

This is an old town that remains small and intimate defying modernity in many ways. It was here that Sir John A Macdonald practiced law in the 1830s and buildings were built to be decorative as much as functional. There are museums, historic places and ghosts of the past all over the area.  That’s what Picton is about.

Photo Captions:
Photo 1 – An inn was reported on this site at the head of Picton Harbour as early as the 1790s.
Photo 2 – The Regent will be a century old in 2018! Today it's still a Picton landmark.
Photo 3 – Prince Edward Yacht Club provides a homey welcome to the many cruisers who drop by from everywhere
Photo 4 – Main Street in Picton carefully maintains its charm
Photo 5 – Looking from the east bank across Long Reach as it flows to Picton Harbour

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