Spring had come once more to Green Gables – the beautiful, capricious, reluctant Canadian spring, lingering along through April and May in a succession of sweet, fresh, chilly days, with pink sunsets and miracles of resurrection and growth.
Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
Step from a tiny plane on to the tarmac at Charlottetown in May and the first thing you notice is the scent. My city lungs could write an ode to it: the shock of its vegetal freshness, laden with salt, the earthy tumble of ploughed fields and the botanical sweetness of a landscape of balsam fir and pine. ‘Welcome to Prince Edward Island’, says a neat little sign on the bricks of the airport terminal, and the ghost of my eleven year old self pinches her arm just to make sure.
Home to 146,000 people, Prince Edward Island is the smallest province in Canada, measuring just 280 kilometres from point to point. Cradled by the Gulf of Saint Lawrence to the north and turbulent Northumberland Strait to the south, the ‘Garden of the Gulf’ is also one of the most beautiful – with lushly rolling hills falling to red sandstone cliffs, gabled timber farmhouses nestled in fields of dandelions and deep, pure stands of Acadian forest. It is also the birthplace of both Canadian Confederation (in the spring of 1864 the premiers of the provinces met in Charlottetown to first discuss a unified government) and a story beloved by so many generations of readers that thousands travel each year to visit a small island farmhouse by the name of Green Gables.
I read Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables for the first time when I was ten. An instant bestseller when it was published in 1908, it is difficult to account for the effect the story had on me as a girl; like many readers I identified with its mishap-prone, red-haired heroine not in looks or circumstance, but imagination and precocity, and took her spirited determination as a blueprint for my own. Anne is quick-witted, brazen- hearted and always seems to be running across fields or communing with mayflowers in shadowy places, and I worked my mind’s eye over every nook and valley of her island world until it felt as real to me as the memory of any place I’d ever been and loved.
I hired a car at the airport and within 20 minutes was in downtown Charlottetown checking in to the pink-gabled Harbour House Hotel on a quiet, tree-fringed street near the water. Charlottetown figures thinly in the eight novels that make up the Anne series so I didn’t know what to expect, but was delighted to discover street upon street of timber houses painted in shades of blue, yellow and red – their deep verandas and lamp-lit window seats beckoning in the fading light, gardens bright with tulips and daffodils. P.E.I.’s capital city is not only refreshingly human-sized but navigable almost entirely on foot. Be sure to walk the southeastern end of Great George Street from Province House to see the colourful early-19th century wooden terraces opposite the gothic spires of St. Dunstan’s Basilica. Come early evening a stroll by the bustling outdoor cafes around Peakes Wharf is the perfect way to experience the ambience of this historic harbour where the Confederation Fathers landed 152 years ago. Also make time to visit the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market, with its excellent lobster tacos, fresh produce and artisan crafts, and to play a game of pre-dinner checkers on Victoria Row, a cobbled pedestrian street lined with local boutiques and restaurants. If you listen closely to passers-by you may be struck by the maritime dialect, with its almost Celtic lilt. PE.I. prides itself on its mixed heritage, from the indigenous culture of the Mi’kmaq to the first Scottish, Irish and Acadian French settlers, and its musical vernacular is an unexpected delight.