Prince Edward Island, in the Canadian Maritimes, is one of those rare travel destinations that lives up to its own press, perhaps because that press is so understated. The travel brochures describe a small, lovely, peaceful island of red soil, rolling green hills, friendly people and expansive beaches. On two separate trips--the most recent a camping vacation last summer with two other adults and five children--that's exactly what we found.
Located just north of the provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island--or P.E.I.--is a 140-mile-long crescent of farmland and beaches, with a year-round population of about 125,000.
Although serviced by several airlines, most visitors reach the island by ferry: One runs from Cape Tormentine, New Brunswick, to Borden, P.E.I.; the other from Caribou, N.S., to Wood Islands, P.E.I. The ferry rides provide a kind of buffer, allowing the tourist to shake off the "there" of the mainland and prepare to embrace the "here" of island life.
Inhabited by the Mi'Kmaq (Micmac) people for thousands of years, Prince Edward Island was claimed as a European discovery in 1534, and settled in the early 1700s by French-heritage Acadians, who named it Ile Saint-Jean. In 1758, the British occupied Prince Edward Island, deporting many of the Acadians. The following years brought Scottish and Irish settlers, and Loyalists fleeing the Colonies during the Revolutionary War. In 1864, P.E.I. claimed its title as the "Birthplace of Canada" by hosting the Conference on Maritime Union, during which the idea of confederation of provinces was first proposed. (It became a reality in 1867 and what is now P.E.I. joined in 1873.)
The biggest draw for visitors to P.E.I. is the town of Cavendish, which is in the middle of the crescent on the northern shore, in the greenest, lushest part of the island. It is home to the "Green Gables House" of the novel "Anne of Green Gables" fame. The specter of Anne--invariably described as a "feisty little red-haired waif"--haunts the island, and even a visitor with zero interest in Lucy Maud Montgomery's 1908 fictional heroine would be hard pressed to avoid her. Scores of motels, ice cream stands, miniature golf courses and restaurants bear names with some reference to Anne and her story. And tourists by the busload roll up for a walk through the Green Gables House--the setting for the novel--and to snap up such souvenirs as straw hats with little red braids attached. (Voila: Instant Anne!)
Maintained by the Canadian park service, a tour through Green Gables is free and not without its charms; my two daughters, then 6 and 3, were thrilled to spot Anne's broken slate and puffed-sleeve dress, and Marilla's brooch--all featured in the novel--as we toured the rooms. True Lucy Maud fans make pilgrimages not only to the Green Gables House but to other spots around the island, including Montgomery's birthplace, her home, the schoolhouses where she taught, the Anne of Green Gables Museum and the cemetery in which the author was buried in 1942.
While in Cavendish, however, even the most devoted Anne-o-phile should not ignore Prince Edward Island National Park, with its spectacular beaches, crashing surf and dramatic cliffs and dunes.
What we had not hoped for was fine cuisine, and we were not disappointed there either. It's quite possible that P.E.I. has a number of fine restaurants, but taking a low-budget vacation with children is not the way to sample them. We settled, instead, for campfire suppers of roasted island potatoes, grilled, farm-raised mussels and chowders of fresh local seafood. We bought vegetables from resident gardeners and fish from fishermen's boats. We ate cheaply and very, very well. Our one splurge was to indulge in a local tradition: the P.E.I. lobster supper.
Lobster suppers, which are held roughly from mid-May through mid-October, are offered in at least 10 locations; some sponsored by churches and nonprofit community organizations, and some by private enterprise. Judging by those we have attended, the dinners are no-frills affairs . . . a perfect showcase for unadorned, local seafood and for the friendly service that characterizes even the most touristy of attractions on the island.
As you are served at this family-style meal, you are more likely to rub elbows with someone diners from the States or mainland Canada than with a P.E.I. native. But the locals make up the kitchen and wait staff and seem happy to chat with visitors. And the suppers are a bargain: For about $20, one can gorge on chowders, lobster, salads and pies. Nonalcoholic beverages are included, and wine and beer are available for an additional cost in some locations. A P.E.I. lobster supper is also a great place to take the kids: No one frowns when an errant elbow tips over the milk glass, and waitresses nimbly sidestep crawling toddlers.
The mother of all lobster suppers is the New Glasgow Lobster Supper in the town of New Glasgow, near the island's center. We went there several years ago, after a day spent hiking the cliffs of Cavendish and dodging waves in the crashing surf at the spectacular Cavendish National Park. The large, low-slung hall provided just the place to shake the red island soil from our shoes, and to slake appetites made ravenous by sun and salt air.
We dined on fish chowder, lobster (served hot or cold), homemade rolls, potato salad, coleslaw, pickles, cake and four kinds of homemade pies--apple, cherry, raisin and lemon--served with Elmer's ice cream, a local brand. Most of the suppers offer an alternative to lobster; ham, salmon, steak and scallops seem to be popular, and all offer reduced-price children's menus with hot dogs, hamburgers and the like.
New Glasgow is also home of the P.E.I. Preserve Co., where a 1914 buttery houses a restaurant, tearoom and gift shop selling local hams, mustards, honeys and vinegar.
It was during our first trip to P.E.I., when we rented a cabin near Alberton, on the western end of the island, that we hit many of the major attractions: Green Gables, Cavendish National Park, North Cape (the site of a wind generation installation and a great place to fly kites) the West Point Lighthouse (a hotel, restaurant and lighthouse museum). We also toured numerous small museums (the Potato Museum in O'Leary, the Seaport Museum in Victoria, the Acadian Museum in Miscouche).
We drove a lot during that visit, admiring the small, orderly houses with neat lines of laundry drying on the back-yard clotheslines, the dusty potato fields and the rolling pastures where cattle grazed at the ocean's edge. We gorged on local ice cream--Elmer's and the rich and well-marketed Cow's brand, the Ben & Jerry's of P.E.I. (Their brochure features a photograph of a cow wearing an "instant Anne" hat with braids.)
We spent a delightful day in Victoria, a small village on the south shore with a turn-of-the-century feel, a chocolate factory and a number of craft shops and small restaurants. And we also briefly toured the capital city of Charlottetown. There, we purposely skipped the musical "Anne of Green Gables," which seems to enjoy an indefinite run at the Confederation Centre of the Arts, but I genuinely regret missing "Annekenstein," billed as "a satirical review of all things Anne," produced annually by the Off Stage Theatre.
On a return trip last summer, however, we pitched our tents on the wind-swept peninsulas of the provincial parks on the eastern end of the island, north of Souris, and barely moved except to explore one spectacular beach after another. We collected beach glass and shells, and the children delighted at the sight of clams, crabs, periwinkles, blue herons and--at one beach--a fox. Our biggest sightseeing expedition was to the East Point lighthouse (nice view) and the Basin Head Fisheries Museum, which was hosting sack races and a mussel feed on the day we were there.
The beach at Basin Head is a vast expanse of "singing sand" that makes noise when you walk on it; it's more like squeaking, actually, and the sound is due, I'm told, to a high silica content. Walk past the small strip by the parking lot, and the beach is virtually deserted. Because of a combination of geography and the Gulf Stream, one can actually swim off P.E.I. without turning blue. But although the islanders like to brag about "warm" water, we found it a bit of a hyperbole. It's definitely warmer than, say, Maine, but still quite brisk. (Another note about camping on P.E.I.: During our trip in August we encountered no noisome insects, but friends who camped there earlier in the summer reported being tormented by mosquitoes.)
That second trip proved to be the most memorable, but that is perhaps because we are, as a family, more temperamentally suited to collecting seashells than driving from attraction to attraction. But both our trips revealed to us a quiet, lovely place, low on excitement but high on natural beauty and friendliness.
GUIDEBOOK: P.E.I. Pleasures
Getting there: From LAX, fly direct (one stop but no change of planes) on Air Canada to Halifax, Nova Scotia; then change in Halifax and fly to Charlottetown; round-trip fares start at $529.
For those vacationing in or near eastern Canada, two ferries serve the island from mainland Canada. Both have many trips daily and neither accepts reservations. Marine Atlantic runs the ferry from Cape Tormentine, New Brunswick, to Borden, P.E.I.; call (902) 794-5700. Northumberland Ferries has service between Caribou, Nova Scotia, and Wood Islands, P.E.I.; call (902) 566-3838.
Where to stay: Dalvay by the Sea Hotel, Box 8, Little York, Prince Edward Island, C0A 1P0; rooms about $160-$270 per night, including dinner and breakfast for two; telephone (902) 672-2048.
Stanhope by the Sea, Box 9, Little York, C0A 1P0; about $70-$130 per room; tel. (902) 672-2047.
Rodd Mill River Resort, Box 399 O'Leary, C0B 1V0; rooms start at about $85-$185; tel. (800) 565-7633, (902) 859-3555.
West Point Lighthouse, O'Leary RR2, C0B 1V0; rooms start at about $70-$110; tel. (902) 859-3605.
The Inn at Bay Fortune, Souris RR4, C0A 2B0; about $110-$160 per night, per room, including breakfast; tel. (902) 687-3745.
Where to eat: New Glasgow Lobster Supper, P.E.I. Route 258, New Glasgow; tel. (902) 964-2870. Lobster dinners range $20.95 to $28.95, depending upon size of lobster; lobster for children, 6-12, $8.95; children 3-6, $4.45; children 3 and under free; $11.95-$14.95 other meals for kids hot dogs, roast beef or ham. Open daily 4-8:30 p.m.; this year through Oct. 9.
For more information: Department of Tourism, Parks and Recreation, Prince Edward Island Visitor Information Centre; P.O. Box 940, Charlottetown, P.E.I. C1A 7M5; tel. (800) 463-4734. Ask for a free copy of "Visitor's Guide to Prince Edward Island."
Canadian Consulate General, Tourist Information, 300 S. Grand Ave., 10th Floor, Los Angeles 90071; tel. (213) 346-2700.