Bucolic Birthplace of Canada and Anne of Green Gables
Pastoral as a picture book, with tiny towns set among rolling green hills, Prince Edward Island (PEI) is surrounded by the cold North Atlantic and crisscrossed by red-dirt roads, the visible clue to the island’s deep red sandstone bedrock. A primarily agricultural island, it’s both the smallest and most densely populated province of Canada – the latter statistic hard to believe when you look around and see only cattle and (maybe) a lone tractor in the distance. It makes you appreciate how underpopulated much of the country is.
From the sea, fishermen pull the island’s other major crops: lobsters, clams, scallops, and oysters. In the town of Summerside, the mid-July Lobster Carnival features feasts, fiddling contests, and games, while North Rustico’s Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant has tanks able to hold 40,000 pounds of lobster next to the kitchen, May through October. Seal-hunting, once a major money-maker, has given way to ecotourism, with half- and whole-day trips to the vast ice floes just west of the Magdalen Islands, where more than 400,000 harp seals return annually to bear their young. Known as whitecoats for their gleaming baby fur, these pups were hunted commercially till public outrage forced a government ban on the practice.
PEI’s bucolic lifestyle was nurtured by isolation, and even now – with the island connected to the mainland by the 8-mile Confederation Bridge (built in 1997) – the feel is more cow pasture than rat race. Scenic red roads are perfect for driving or cycling, and three officially designated routes are designed to showcase the island s best features. The Kings Byway concentrates on the east coast, winding through dozens of small, rural hamlets, and green fields, and letting onto gorgeous ocean views. Lady Slipper Drive, around the west coast, is even more rural, passing lighthouses, villages, and (among other things) a group of houses in Cap-Egmont made entirely of recycled bottles.
Blue Heron Drive is probably the most traveled (and most commercial) route, as it passes through the north shore’s PEI National Park, which includes the home of L. M. Montgomery and her novel Anne of Green Gables. The park is situated on a spectacular stretch of coast along the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and boasts 25 miles of beaches, sand dunes, and red sandstone cliffs, plus ponds, woodlands, and wildlife. Cavendish, the area’s most-visited town, is on the touristy side, with every other shop dedicated to Ms. Montgomery and her creation. Montgomery was born here in 1874, and set her novel among the area’s rich beauty. Translated now into some fifteen languages, the book has fan clubs around the world and draws 350,000 visitors annually to Green Gables House (inspiration for the novel’s Cuthbert Farm) and other sites. For accommodations, there are cabins right next to Gables House at the Green Gables Bungalow Court, but Dalvay by the Sea Heritage Inn is a more evocative choice. Commissioned in 1895, this seaside Victorian mansion has been a summer resort since the 1930s, offering a TV-and-phone-free environment; simple, bright rooms; and chef Keith Wilson’s excellent cuisine, with influences from the Mediterranean, Northern Africa, and the Asia-Pacific Rim.
South of Cavendish and the park, Charlottetown is the Philadelphia of Canada, the place where the Fathers of Confederation met in 1864 to discuss unifying the country. Providence House was the site of the meeting, and today you can visit the Confederation Chamber and several other rooms, all restored to appear as they did in the 19th century.
Old Charlottetown has cobblestone, gaslit streets lined with 18th-century mansions, many now converted to inns and bed-and-breakfasts. The waterfront area, where their merchant-builders made their money, has seen its warehouses converted into seafood restaurants, shops, and nightspots. Most of PEI’s original settlers came from Ireland, Scotland, England, and France, and today you can hear their descendants playing Celtic and Acadian traditional music at a number of places in town, including the Irish Hall and the Olde Dublin Pub.