The sea is an undeniable presence here and Islanders have lived by its rhythm and command for centuries. So it comes as no surprise that P.E.I. is home to no fewer than 63 lighthouses, many of which are still in operation. Together they monitor 1,100 kilometres of ruggedly beautiful shoreline, from calm ocean coves freckled with sea glass, to craggy red cliffs buffeted by spindrift tides. The reef-borne water here may be the warmest north of the Carolinas, but it has a history of luckless vessels and the ocean floor is littered with them (there is even the legend of a flaming ghost ship still occasionally sighted in the Northumberland Strait). One hour and 20 minutes’ drive ‘down east’ from Charlottetown you’ll find East Point Lighthouse, white-shingled and red-capped like something from a picture book, with a dramatic view of the Island’s most easterly point from the top of its 67 stairs. Built at the meeting of three stubborn ocean tides, it was for a long time one of the busiest aids to deep-sea navigation and has seen many maritime tragedies in its 150-year history.
Ten minutes away is North Lake Harbour, where deep-sea fishing charters compete with scenic cruises and weathered fishing huts cluster around wharves massed with rope. This is where I tasted my first – yes, first – silkily fresh lobster, courtesy of Captain J. J. Chaisson who, in addition to wrangling 3:30 a.m. starts and 300 traps in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, moonlights as The Fiddling Fisherman, taking groups out on his boat Chaisson A Dream for lobster suppers and thigh-slapping offshore ceilidhs. P.E.I. is known throughout Canada for its traditional folk music, but if you’d prefer to stay on dry land one of the best places to experience a gig is at the Trailside Music Café in the village of Mount Stewart. Performing during my visit were The Stanfields, and Atlantic Canadian folk rock band from Nova Scotia, and as I ordered fish cakes and fiddleheads (a seasonal specialty of curly edible ferns sautéed with carrots and cashews in maple butter), one of the musicians retreated into the field behind the café to tune his fiddle. Half an hour later the bad burst into a riotous throb of strings and drums as every table clapped along. I was the only person there who didn’t seem to know almost everybody else, but I clapped and hollered enthusiastically anyway. After the show I spent some time walking in the quiet springtime darkness to the unhurried animal rhythm of an island night. Barely two days on P.E.I. and my heartbeat had slowed, my limbs had loosened, and I’d become conscious of a kind of disorienting peacefulness.
In the pretty hamlet of New London you’ll find The Table Culinary Studio, very near the yellow-shingled farmhouse in which Montgomery herself was born. In the refurbished interior of this decommissioned church – the rafters newly whitewashed, a grand communal table where the pews would once have been – chefs Derrick and Roark host seasonal cooking classes and evenings of fine dining inspired by all-local island produce. I was here to learn how to cook with the Island’s black garlic, slow-roasted, caramelised garlic that is as black as pitch and spreads like double cream.
During the afternoon the rain closed in on all sides, hammering on the pitched tin roof and tilled earth outside, and for a happy moment it felt like there was nothing else in the world beyond that little room with its prettily mismatched china and uncomplicated welcome.