As the waitress walked over with a menu, she pointed to the activity on the pier just a few feet away.
“We’ve got a little excitement today,” she said. “It’s drawing the crowds.”
“Crowds” was an exaggeration, considering just three people stood watching the “excitement,” which entailed the lowering of a new engine into a boat, part of a modest fleet in this tiny fishing village on the western edge of Canada’s smallest province.
The customers at Catch Kitchen + Bar (www.facebook.com/TheCatchPEI/info), which shares a building with the local community center, include those who’ve made the drive to nearby Cedar Dunes Provincial Park, where a black-and-white-striped lighthouse towers over a lonely stretch of beach.
Guests in the know often order the lobster poutine. Even though it’s listed as an appetizer, the bowl contains enough french fries — topped with cheese curds, scallions and chunks of lobster in a cream sauce — to easily fill two tummies.
The poutine, a uniquely Canadian concoction, contains two of PEI’s biggest claims to fame: lobster and potatoes. Both are hugely important to the economy of the island, wedged between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Of course, lobster is a lure for tourists, but so, too, is the lowly potato.
That point is emphasized by the 13-foot fiberglass spud outside the Canadian Potato Museum (www.peipotatomuseum.com) in O’Leary, where visitors are welcomed with samples of chocolate potato fudge.
A walk through the exhibits illustrates the importance of PEI’s potatoes. Farming and harvesting equipment, some of it dating to the 1930s, is on display, and a film explains that potatoes are the province’s biggest cash crop. One quarter of the sprawling nation’s taters are grown on the comparably tiny island. Guests learn that a single spud contains more potassium than a banana. The tuber is, of course, the core ingredient at the museum’s restaurant, PEI Country Kitchen.
It’s impossible to miss the word potato during even a cursory glance at the menu. There’s potato soup served with a potato biscuit. The deep-fried potato skins — loaded with bacon, cheese and sour cream — come with a side of freshly cooked potato chips.
Locals, however, stop by for the far-from-ordinary French fries, made with potatoes harvested just a few miles away.
“It takes about 10 minutes to prepare a really good fry,” museum manager Donna Rowley pointed out. After the slices are soaked in cold water, they’re blanched using low heat before being fried in hot oil for 2 1/2 minutes. “People go gaga for them.”
During an eastward, cross-island drive, handwritten signs advertising “dug daily” potatoes dot the roadsides. But in the village of Georgetown, with its clapboard buildings, seafood is the economic engine.
“We need some more fish, folks. The pressure is on you,” skipper Perry Gotell told his rod-and-reel-holding guests during a voyage aboard the Tranquility 2000.
Gotell, who comes from a long line of fishermen, retired after 30 years to launch Tranquility Cove Adventures (www.tcapei.com).
During a two-hour trip along the Brudenell River, an ocean inlet, landlubbers learn the ways in which lobster, rock crab and mussels are “hauled.” They’re encouraged to grab a rod to try to hook some mackerel. The oily fish are then grilled on board using lemon pepper and other seasonings.
PEI locals are divided over the best place to enjoy fresh seafood. Three small restaurants often make the list: Rick’s Fish and Chips in St. Peter’s Bay, the unrelated Richard’s Fresh Seafood in Stanhope and Water Prince Corner Shop in Charlottetown.
At Rick’s (www.ricksfishnchips.com), owner Rick Renaud cooks with fish such as cod, haddock, mussels and oysters, which he incorporates not only into his fish and chips but also dishes such as Cajun mussels and seafood pizza.
“I buy fish from fishermen,” he said. “We try to keep it as fresh as we can.”
Freshness is also top of mind at Richard’s (www.richardsfreshseafood.com), which includes a market selling the local catch. Folks who’ve had their fill of fish-and-chips can indulge in a 2-pound order of steamed clams or a lobster club sandwich, served with tarragon mayo on a grilled Kaiser bun.
In the bustling capital of Charlottetown, plan to book ahead for a table at the small Water Prince Corner Shop (www.waterprincelobster.ca), located in what was once a store at the corner of Water and Prince streets. Owner Shane Campbell has grown his business for 25 years.
“I source the best that’s out there,” he said of his food. “I read the guest book (to review comments) first thing every morning.”
The restaurant’s so busy that Campbell keeps a thousand pounds of live lobsters in tanks beside the kitchen. The lobster dinner comes with seafood chowder and steamed mussels.
During a three-hour walking tour of the Charlottetown waterfront, visitors learn how residents and the sea are inextricably linked.
“We’re all about food here,” Mary Kendrick, the owner of Experience PEI (www.experiencepei.ca), said. She added that guests are “feeling, touching and tasting” during the Taste the Town tour.
The morning began with a stop at Lobster on the Wharf (www.lobsteronthewharf.com), where guide Paul Kelley pulled a whopper of a crustacean from a tank as he shared that it takes seven years for them to reach 1 pound in weight. Seafood samples are passed around before moving on to try mussels at Claddagh Oyster House (www.claddaghoysterhouse.com).
At the final stop, it was back to the rich earth. The Chip Shack is where Caron Prins, the self-proclaimed “Queen of Fries,” holds court. The guides say her hand-cut fries are PEI’s best, although that’s a crown for which there are plenty of contenders.
Jay Jones is a freelance writer.