From excellent food and friendly locals to singular beauty at every turn, Kate Armstrong is easily wooed by the charms of Prince Edward Island.
WHEN even the local prison has the name Sleepy Hollow, you know you're somewhere special. And quirky. Welcome to Prince Edward Island – PEI to the locals – a tiny, alluring appendix off Canada's east coast.
PEI's charming peculiarities are immediately evident. Weatherboard and shingled cottages predominate. Farmers' market stalls are straight out of Mr McGregor's garden of Beatrix Potter fame. The tree-lined historic centre of Charlottetown, the island's capital, is beautifully preserved. The province's car number-plate slogan, "Canada's green province", reflects both its green rolling fields and the island's impressive recycling and composting regulations, while the local paper, The Guardian, "Covers PEI like the dew", according to its masthead.
It's all very quaint but without being kitsch. Except, some argue, when it comes to Anne of Green Gables. Famously, PEI was home to author Lucy Maud Montgomery and the setting for her Anne of Green Gables series. As my Lonely Planet guide asserts, so genuine is the island's beauty, residents and country charm that the only inauthentic thing about the island are the red nylon plaits of Anne herself. "Anne" is found at several associated sites, many of which are around the village of Cavendish (see breakout).
These days, the crescent-shaped island – about 225 kilometres long and 64 kilometres across at its widest point, and linked to New Brunswick by the 13-kilometre-long Confederation Bridge – offers many activities. There are about 30 golf courses and 50 lighthouses, seven of which are open to the public; you can pick your own fruit and vegetables (look for the signs "U-picks"), go kayaking or cycle along the 360-kilometre Federation Trail that crosses the island.
The undulating hills and fertile lands of this agricultural green belt – known as the "Million Acre Farm" – churn out fresh produce from carrots and pumpkins to cauliflowers and rutabagas (swedes). Plus, of course, potatoes – the island's largest agricultural commodity.
PEI is ringed by sandy beaches and an ocean full of oysters, mussels and lobsters. And most of the 140,000 or so ultra-friendly locals know their foodstuffs and love their cuisine.
My visit in September coincides with the island's annual food festival. Visitors flock here for the island's gourmet delights – home-made jams, cheeses and wine from Rossignol, the island's only winery – and to dine at restaurants. Many celebrated chefs have relocated to PEI for its remarkable local produce and appreciative diners. Michael Smith, Canada's answer to Jamie Oliver, is the island's food ambassador. Charlottetown also boasts the Culinary Institute of Canada, one of the nation's leading cooking schools.
I plan my trip around PEI's delineated regions: Red Sands Shore features red sandy beaches and red cliffs, the colour due to iron-oxide levels; North Cape Coastal Drive is famous for its agriculture and potatoes; Green Gables Shore is Anne of Green Gables territory; and Points East Coastal Drive has a beautiful dune system and the forested Greenwich National Park.
I soon discover it's easy to get lost if you veer off the main thoroughfares. PEI's road map resembles a spider's web gone wrong; it has the most roads per capita in Canada. And locals tend towards vague directions: "Turn right after Bob's house" refers to the actual home of their cousin Bob, not a signed landmark as you might presume. Plus, getting around can be slow-going. "One hand-width on the map [about 40 kilometres] equals one hour of travel," my local friend Pam tells me. Potholes are common thanks to winter ice thaws and the speed limits are a leisurely 40km/h to 60km/h.
My trip starts in the island's capital Charlottetown, population 38,000, touted as the birthplace of Canada. In 1864 at Province House, a handsome, three-storey, neoclassical building, the "Fathers of Confederation" met to plot the creation of Canada.
Nearby is my accommodation, the Great George, a hotel comprising stunning colonial buildings of weatherboard and shingles characteristic of the island's architecture. The old-world facade hides luxury rooms – mine has a spa bath and small balcony. The highlight here is breakfast – guests enjoy a large buffet within the foyer-cum-lounge area, where sofas and old-fashioned armchairs are grouped tastefully around coffee tables.
It's a short stroll to the waterfront where yachts are moored in small harbours. One jetty is home to a Cows ice-cream shop, where a large sign declares "Canada's best ice-cream". Unfortunately, I don't indulge – the queues are too long and I'm short on time; island service comes with an ultra-friendly chat and obligatory inquiries about your origin.
On my first evening, I dine at Charlottetown's restaurant gem, Lot 30, the property's assigned number when Charlottetown was divided up in the late 18th century. This is my first experience of virtual food preparation – real-time images of head chef Gordon Bailey plating up are beamed via a TV screen over the bar. I don't meet Bailey, though I become intimate with the tattoos on his biceps; his Edward Scissorhands manoeuvres create edible masterpieces before our eyes. If the "virtual" meal preparation is fun to watch, the cuisine is divine to taste: Atlantic haddock, caramelised sea scallops, grilled beef rib, all served with ubiquitous potato.
Over several days, I absorb PEI's history – the Mi'kmaq people were the island's original inhabitants, followed by the Acadians (French colonists of the 1700s) and then Scottish and Irish immigrants. Traditions live on: Irish wakes to celebrate the life of a dead person and meetings in village community halls.
Other charms include the stunning cemeteries, with lawn-covered graves that meld into the pretty landscape under tree canopies and the black, and white letters on church noticeboards (an example: "Get off Facebook and take out Faithbook").
Victoria-by-the-Sea, about 40 kilometres west of Charlottetown on the island's Red Sands Shore, is a pretty toy-like village laid out in a neat grid. The yellow, mint and cream-coloured Victorian buildings house tea rooms, art galleries and a chocolate shop, Island Chocolates. The village is best known for its theatre festival, held in the stunning Victoria Playhouse Theatre, a heritage community hall.
Although it's raining, I paddle a kayak along the Red Sands Shore coastline. It's tough against the wind but worth the effort, if only to view the magnificent reds, contrasted against the grey ocean and the stunning lighthouse, topped with red and white stripes. Lighthouse keepers used to be held in high esteem; theirs was an important role.
That evening, still in Victoria-by-the-Sea, I attend the food festival's Potato Fest. Local chef John Pritchard creates a high-end culinary meal featuring the spud: pickled rainbow trout on a bed of marinated heirloom potatoes followed by potato-crusted PEI halibut and slow-roasted pork belly with wild mushroom and potato mousseline. The dessert? Honey cake with maple potato puree.
Not a skerrick of starch is left on my plate. Pritchard is pleased, "Potato has a velvety texture and is a pretty blank canvas and adapts itself to any flavourings," he says.
The island's artisan Prince Edward Distillery even produces potato vodka. Its 40 per cent alcohol content packs a punch, as does the cheeky name of a popular island radio station: 102.1 SPUD FM.
The next day I head west from Charlottetown through potato country – large, undulating fields – to O'Leary, home to the Potato Museum. I'm here to do the Spud, Fudge and Tales tour, comprising visits to the museum and a potato farm plus other potato-related treats.
The museum has information and exhibits on potato varieties – from sebago and yukon gold to kennebec and shepody, the first Canadian-bred potato. In the small cafe, volunteer Joanne prepares cinnamon potato pinwheels, potato biscuits and delicious chocolate potato fudge.
O'Leary's former pharmacist, Stanley MacDonald, has volunteered here for the past 10 years. This enthusiastic, gentle Prince Edward Islander chats sympathetically about the challenges faced by PEI's potato farmers: crop disease, pressure of amalgamations and heavy outlays.
I farewell O'Leary and drive past lawn-covered cemeteries and attractive weatherboard village halls, dominant features of PEI's landscape. I meander "up west" (as the locals say) along the North Cape Coastal Drive. This is Acadian country, so called for the former French colonists and their descendants, many of whom still speak English with a French accent. Here, everything is more remote, more rugged, more isolated and the wind more intense. The North Cape, the island's northwestern tip, is dominated by energy-producing turbines.
I keep an eye out for horses on the seashore, where they drag rakes along the shallows to gather Irish moss, used as an emulsifier in toothpaste and the like. The carrageenan industry hit its peak in the 1970s; these days, stocks are low. I'm out of luck with the horses. But as I pull into Howards Cove, I observe two-man teams efficiently offloading from their boats the morning's lobster hauls. Large crates full of stunned lobsters are weighed and loaded into vans for immediate transport.
The lobster catchers say times are tough and prices are lower per pound than in previous years.
In former times, lobster was so abundant it was considered a poor man's food. Several locals tell me how, as children, they longed for anything but lobster sandwiches in their school lunch boxes.
These days, "lobster supper" signs attract visitors to the island's eateries. Halibut, haddock and salmon are also plentiful.
Further east, on the northern coast, stretching for 42 kilometres and bordered by forest is the PEI National Park. With time and fair weather, you can stroll along a boardwalk over the region's extraordinary, ever-shifting parabolic sand dunes.
This evening's meal is at Ship to Shore, part-owned by John Bil, whose relaxed demeanour is hardly what you'd expect of Canada's three-time oyster-shucking champion. I reveal that, for me, the taste of oysters is like licking a copper tap (apparently, it's something to do with the iron oxide). Bil is encouraging: "Pacific oysters are stronger, while oysters here are milder."
He proffers an oyster in its shell; I bring it to my lips and toss it back. The oyster slips into my mouth. It feels and tastes OK in a briny kind of way. And, for the first time in my life, taps don't enter my mind.
On my final morning, I cycle in the national park near Dalvay, along a bike path that extends 10 kilometres west alongside marshland, reeds, and purple and yellow flowers. I then follow the loops through the stunning forest, under a canopy of black spruce, pine spruce, maple and birch trees.
Back in the car, I catch a radio news report: "Three high school playing fields in Charlottetown were vandalised last night by joy riders in vehicles. Police are replaying security tapes of PEI's car washes to try to identify two particularly muddy cars in the hope of catching those responsible."
I never discover if the culprits were captured. If they were, such are the island's enchanting habits, they're probably feasting on lobster at Her Majesty's pleasure in Sleepy Hollow.
ANNE AROUND EVERY CORNER
PEI's Green Gables Shore region is so named for its sights and activities relating to Anne of Green Gables. They include the Green Gables cottage itself, owned by the author's cousins and an inspiration behind the books; the author's birthplace, a small cottage in a separate village; and the Anne musical, an annual summer event performed by professional actors in Charlottetown. Plus, there's a Disney-fied replica of the fictional Avonlea village, a museum exhibiting many of the author's artefacts and souvenir shops selling everything from red plaits to ceramic figurines. And this is a mere snapshot.
However folksy, the industry surrounding Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables (first published in 1908) draws thousands of visitors a year to PEI. Interestingly, between 5000 to 10,000 annual visitors are from Japan. Some come to visit all things Anne-related, others hold their weddings here. The Japanese attraction? The character herself — the feisty, free-spirited orphan with long, red plaits — and a long-standing relationship with the books. At the outbreak of World War II, a departing Canadian missionary gave a copy of Anne of Green Gables to a young Japanese woman, Hanako Muraoka. During the war years, Hanako secretly translated the text, even smuggling the book and translations to bomb shelters during air raids. The tale of Anne and her exploits, considered optimistic and imaginative, was officially published in Japan in 1952 as Akage no An ("Anne with Red Hair"); in the same year it became part of the Japanese school curriculum.
The writer was a guest of Air Canada and the Canadian Tourism Commission.
Air Canada flies daily between Sydney and Vancouver, with connections to Charlottetown, from $1900 return. aircanada.com.
The Great George, 58 Great George Street, Charlottetown has doubles, including breakfast, from $220 a night. +1 902 892 0606, thegreatgeorge.com.
Ship to Shore Restaurant & Lounge, 2684 Route 20, Darnley. +1 902 836 5475, shiptoshorelounge.com.
Lot 30, 151 Kent Street, Charlottetown. +1 902 629 3030, lot30restaurant.ca.
Sims Corner Steakhouse & Oyster Bar, 86 Queen Street, Charlottetown. +1 902 894 7467, simscorner.ca.
See + do
By-the-Sea-Kayaking, Victoria-by-the-Sea: Rental costs from $C25 ($25.70) an hour. Kayaking and clam-digging tours cost $C70 a person. +1 902 658 2572, bytheseakayaking.ca.
Dalvay Beach Bike Rentals, Dalvay-by-the-Sea: Explore the Shore package, including half-day bike rentals and picnic, is $C69 a couple. +1 902 672 2048, dalvaybythesea.com.
PEI Potato Museum, 1 Dewar Lane, O'Leary, open May 15 to September 15; admission $C7; Spud, Fudge and Tales tour $C49 per person. +1 902 859 2039, peipotatomuseum.com.
Rossignol Estate Winery, 11147 Shore Road, Little Sands, open May 1-October 30. +1 902 962 4193, rossignolwinery.com.