Prince Edward Island: Desperately avoiding Annie

The lure of a fictional red-haired heroine eventually proves too much for Daniel Scott.

Travelling on Prince Edward Island, which floats like a stretched butterfly off Canada's Atlantic east coast, I am living a dream. Not my own, you understand, for while the image of a freckle-faced girl with braids the colour of maple syrup figured in my childhood, it never consumed me like it seems to have done to almost every woman I know.

Somehow, the story of this slightly bad-tempered orphan growing up on a farm beside the Gulf of St Lawrence captured the imagination of successive generations so effectively that it has sold more than 50 million copies. Published in 1908, the book has never been out of print.

To many, then, including busloads of Japanese schoolgirls that are regularly disgorged at the Cavendish National Historic Site which commemorates the character's creator, Lucy Maud Montgomery, a visit to this idyllic rural island is like getting a glimpse of the Holy Grail.

But surely, I reason, there has to be more to Prince Edward Island than its connection with a pig-tailed character named after the colour of her home's roof?

For eight days I resolve to put her out of mind and set off in search of other pleasures on what islanders call PEI.

At first, based in a cottage at Shaw's Hotel, near Brackley Beach on the island's north coast, my quest goes well. By day, I ride my hired bike behind the dunes in nearby Prince Edward Island National Park, skirting Brackley Marsh and Dalvay Lake, where there is a cluster of imposing historic houses. Already, the number of mansions I see on PEI suggest it may be Canada's version of New York's Long Island.

By night, I settle in for dinner in the friendly restaurant at Shaws, Canada's oldest family-operated inn, established in 1860, before returning to my cottage to light my log fire, set each day by room service. One morning I embark on a section of the 400-kilometre Confederation Trail, a shared cycling and walking path that reaches right across the island.

I ride alongside the Hillsborough River, a waterway that sustained an aboriginal presence on the island for 11,000 years, between the villages of Morell and St Peters, on the north-east coast.

The Mikmaq people harvested oysters and quahogs (a hard-shelled clam) here and feasted on eels, salmon and white perch from the river and waterfowl and their eggs from its banks.

There remains an abundance of food at the riverside, with field upon field full of the island's famous potatoes and wild strawberries, blueberries and blackberries crowding the trail.

My reward for a sunny day of cycling is a traditional lobster supper at New Glasgow, perilously close to the Cavendish home of the ginger-nutted miss.

Marvellously unpretentious, almost school-refectory in style, this is all about generous platefuls of well-prepared island seafood washed down with local "Beach chair" beer. On an island where there are lobster flavoured potato chips and a Mclobster roll on the fast food menu, it seems there is more than one orange pretender to the role of tourist icon.

The banquet inspires me on a one-man mission to discover the provenance of the island's seafood. I begin, off Georgetown on the east coast, by joining third generation fisherman Perry Gotell to learn the tricks of the lobster trade. Then, near New London on the north coast, I meet Alistair Macdonald at Raspberry Point Oyster Company to get the inside gen on prising a dollar from intransigent molluscs.

Another morning, way out west, off Tignish, I embark on a "Feeding the giants" tour with Captain Kenny McCrae. In search of bluefin tuna, our hopes are dashed by heavy swells in the deeper ocean.

However, we see Minke whales, more than 50 grey seals and squadrons of gannet, dive-bombing the sea like demented arrows shot from the sky.

Back on dry land, I arrive at the seaside hamlet of Victoria in time for a once-in-a-blue-moon sunset. Conjuring pristine reflections of fluffy white clouds in the indigo waters of the Northumberland strait, which separates PEI from the mainland, it renders the evening as still and luminous as a 19th century oil painting.

Dinner, mirroring my down-to-earth lobster supper experience in New Glasgow, is in the backroom surrounds of Victoria's Landmark cafe. The home-made food is so moreish that it draws mirthful comments like "my dessert stomach is never full" from neighbouring diners.

For my last few days I move into the capital Charlottetown, installing myself in the heritage Hillhurst Inn. All wood panelling, period furniture and four-poster beds, it's an appropriately regal home at the heart of a town named after the wife of King George III.

Although I'm still trying to avoid the girl with the braided red locks, it becomes increasingly difficult in Charlottetown's compact centre. On the main Queen Street, there are giant billboards proclaiming a long-running musical based on her, a store stuffed full of orphan-related souvenirs and, oh god, even a chocolate shop bearing her name.

Luckily, I am distracted again by PEI's flourishing food scene.

I'm booked on an eight-stop "Taste the town" walking tour with a spritely older guide named Heather Carver. Leading our small group into temptation upon temptation, Carver disseminates PEI's history in between our slurps of locally made "Wowie Cowie" ice-cream and sips of artisan vodka made from eight kilograms of the island's finest potatoes.

"Charlottetown was where Canada's founding fathers met in 1864," she tells us near the harbour, "but, when the delegates from the provinces arrived in row boats, a circus was in town, so nobody was here to meet them."

Notwithstanding such inauspicious beginnings, the Charlottetown conference formulated a plan for confederation and the city became known as "the birthplace of Canada". The 150th anniversary celebrations of the accord are ta0king place on the island through the year.

I like every stop on the "Taste the Town" tour. But I'm most impressed by the Terre Rouge provedore and cafe on Queen Street. Its produce isn't just delicious - one aged cheddar is as flakily pungent as parmesan - but all are sourced from within a 160-kilometre radius.

Now, if I were PEI's marketing team I'd be moving that fictional, outdated schoolgirl into the background and championing the "Queen of Fries", at whose harbourside shack we end our tour.

If ever there was a modern gal with whom to charm the masses then this sassy chip-frier, who moonlights as a rock singer and sports a "Queen of Fries" tattoo, is it. With her "life is delicious" sign outside the shack, chips "made with love" and the offer of free hugs to patrons, she'd have to be good for business.

Yet it is the "Queen of Fries" who shames me into visiting Cavendish. "You've got to go," she insists, after learning of my two young daughters, "for the women in your life."

So, next day, I dutifully trudge around the homestead where J.M. Montgomery penned all nine books about her red-headed heroine, through the Haunted Wood and down Lovers Lane where she once roamed to a neighbour's house named Green Gables.

Although I've managed eight days on PEI with scarcely a nod to the legend, my surrender, when it comes, is absolute.

Spotting me eyeing souvenirs for "the women in my life", three giggling Japanese schoolgirls pressgang me into trying on a pig-tailed ginger wig, green school frock and straw boater, before capturing my humiliation on their mobiles.

So somewhere in Okinawa is a bizarre image, not of their beloved Anne Shirley, but of a scowling middle-aged Aussie they've nicknamed "Dan of Green Gables".

The writer travelled as a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission and PEI Tourism.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Air Canada has direct flights to Charlottetown from Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. Delta has flights from New York in peak season. See flypei.com.

STAYING THERE

Shaw's Hotel, Brackley Beach, has hotel rooms and cottages beside its own inlet near Prince Edward Island National Park. One-bedroom cottages from $140 a night. See shawshotel.ca. Hillhurst Inn, Charlottetown, has nine elegant rooms in a leafy, central location. From $139 a night. See hillhurst.com.

EATING THERE

Terre Rouge Bistro Market, 72 Queens Street, Charlottetown. See terrerougepei.com. New Glasgow Lobster Suppers, New Glasgow, 1.4-kilogram lobster for two to share costs $74.95. See peilobstersuppers.com.

MORE INFORMATION

au-keepexploring.canada.travel; tourismpei.com; experiencepei.ca.

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