Cycling Prince Edward Island, Canada: How an ill-fated railway makes for an unforgettable biking adventure

In the late 1800s, a strange fever took hold of Prince Edward Island. It may not have caused sickness, but it was certainly contagious, spreading rapidly throughout practically every territory in North America.

As politicians and the public caught the bug – soon dubbed 'Railway Fever' –  outcry mounted for the island to build its own line; never mind that there was nowhere near enough money to build one. 

It proved a fateful decision. Having resisted pressure to join the Confederation  –  essentially a unification of the British Colonies – for decades, spiralling debts caused by the railway's construction forced the island to finally relent. In 1873, swayed by the offer of a government bailout, PEI joined the Confederation, giving birth to modern day Canada.

A dusty red dirt track is all that remains of the railway line. Now known as The Confederation Trail, it was abandoned in 1989 and has since become a Mecca for biking enthusiasts and the country's first completed section of the Trans Canada Trail.

We set off from Borden Carlton, a southern gateway to the island linked to the mainland by The Confederation Bridge. The bridge is an engineering marvel. Costing over a billion dollars, it spans nearly 13 kilometres and is the longest crossing over ice-covered waters in the world. Aside from ferry services, it's the only connection to New Brunswick and mainland Canada. 

In no time, sprawling farmlands have replaced the faintly industrial backdrop, the rich red soils iconic to Prince Edward Island dominating the landscape. A heavy concentration of iron oxide turns the soil this colour and also makes for fertile farmland, one reason the island is famed for potato production.

Aside from the occasional other cyclist, we're alone. A series of iron gates installed every few kilometres prevents any cars from gaining access; the odd slalom between them a small price to pay for the solitude.   

The  trail, completed in 2000, was devised as  a cycling and walking path though snowmobiling is steadily gaining popularity throughout winter. 

Further inland, cheerfully painted wooden farmhouses stand isolated among vast plantations of corn, barley, wheat and canola. There's a real all-or-nothing approach to house maintenance here, properties are either pristine, with white picket fences, or a dilapidated mess. More than once I spot rusted Ford Pickups and machinery parts strewn among the overgrown grass; it's like the outskirts of Detroit meets Little House on the Prairie. 

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If you're the type to find skin-tight Lycra and epic distances appealing, the 470-kilometre trail can be tackled tip-to-tip from the far east to far west coast. A lack of time and, let's be honest, fitness prevents us from such an ambitious undertaking; instead we've chosen to cherry-pick certain sections, veering off occasionally to explore. At Victoria by the Sea, a line of weathered wooden barns, their eclectic paintjobs peeling, skirt the far side of a wharf alongside battered fishing trawlers. There are cluttered antique stores, artisan cheese shops and busy boutique restaurants sandwiched between palettes of lobster traps and rusted skiffs bobbing in the harbour. Cycling between 30 to 75 kilometres per day develops an appetite. 

Come lunch, we hoe into bowls of creamy seafood chowder, stuffed lobster rolls and locally brewed craft beer. Lobster is absurdly cheap here – you can pick one up for about $20 – even fast food chains have it on the menu.

Sitting on the outdoor deck of a restaurant, watching seagulls fight for scraps on the dock as kids jump from a nearby bridge into the river below, it can be tough to motivate ourselves to get back in the saddle.

Though most of the route has only gentle gradients, the distances ensure evenings are all about kicking back. At Shaw's, a charming beachside lodge on the northern tip of Brackley Beach, we unwind in our own private two-storey cottage, drinking whisky by an open fire. 

Accommodation on PEI comes in all forms, from budget B&Bs and campsites to upmarket inns and hotels. Among the swankiest is Dalvay by the Sea; a heritage listed gem built in 1895. It's fit for a prince, as the cheesy cardboard cut out of 'Wills and Kate' out front will testify to.

We opt to stay at Inn at St Peters, an elegant 13-acre waterfront property on the far north coast. The moment you walk in, you know you're in safe hands. 

A stylish front bar beside rows of stuffed bookshelves is the perfect setting for a pre-dinner gin and tonic. In the dining room next door we sample beef tenderloin, veal medallions with fettuccine and 'quacked scallops with wrinkle crinkle salad'. It's safe to say you're eating well when a deviation from lobster rolls comes as a welcome reprieve.  

Our route continues skirting the north coast. At Cavendish we near the site where Lucy Maud Montgomery penned her 1908 best-selling novel Anne of Green Gables. So we keep cycling.

With every lookout more spectacular than the last, progress is slow. Sheer amber cliff faces plunge into the icy blue waters of the Gulf of St Lawrence. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries this stretch of coast was infamous for the number of ships smashed to oblivion against its unforgiving shores. A deadly mix of sandbanks, squalls, rocks and fog proved too much for many a hardy sea captain. 

Our final leg takes us through Greenwich and Prince Edward Island National Park, the country's third smallest but among the most highly regarded. Since it was established in 1937 it's become a popular site for hiking, kayaking and even geocaching – a bizarre and somewhat nerdy form of GPS driven hide and seek. 

On its doorstep, the Greenwich Interpretive Centre is a great place to learn more of the island's history. More than 20 multimedia exhibits detail a fascinating timeline, from the earliest Mi'kmaq settlers 10,000 years ago to the present day.

Bikes returned, saddle sore but happy, we head back to the capital, Charlottetown,  a flourishing maritime town on the southern shore. Among the tree-lined avenues and historic wooden houses, celebrations are in full swing for the 150th anniversary of the Charlottetown Conference, the very meeting that paved the way for PEI to eventually join the Confederation. 

Quaffing beers in the sun along the waterfront, people dance, chat and watch live bands. The pubs around town are full, the atmosphere convivial without ever spilling over into rowdy.

Given the island's longstanding reluctance to join Confederation, the irony of all this revelry isn't lost on me. But then, who am I to stand in the face of such a great party?

After all, were it not for the building of that ill-fated railway, none of this would ever have happened. 

The writer was a guest of World Expeditions and the Canadian Tourism Commission.

TRIP NOTES 

MORE INFORMATION

canada.travel.com, experiencepei.ca.

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.

CYCLING THERE

World Expeditions' self-guided Prince Edward Island bike tour starts from $1850 with a single supplement of $620 applicable if you'd rather your own room. Price includes some meals, six-nights accommodation, bike rental, information pack and one piece of luggage transfer between inns. Phone 1300 720 000; see worldexpeditions.com.

Five More Prince Edward Island Must-See Sights.

PEI Brewery

Tour this newly renovated award winning facility for an insight into the history of brewing on PEI before sampling outstanding handcrafted ales. See peibrewingcompany.com.

Trailside Cafe

The best place on the island for live music, the Trailside is to PEI what the Bluebird Cafe is to Nashville. The venue attracts some surprisingly celebrated acts from around Canada and try  the Hellfire Jack Burger. See trailside.ca

Water Prince 

For a seafood chowder or lobster roll, don't look past this superb little family run corner restaurant in the heart of Charlottetown. See waterprincelobster.ca

Province House

Visit the birthplace of Confederation and learn more of the history of the site and the current Legislative Assembly. See parkscanada.gc.ca

Acadian Museum

Learn more about the French colonists who first came to this island  through an extensive collection of photographs, illustrations and artefacts. See museeacadien.org/an/.

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