By: Lesley Riva
Shaped like a croissant with a few bites missing, Prince Edward Island floats peacefully off the coast of New Brunswick. The smallest of Canada’s maritime provinces at just under 2,200 square miles, the island defies any preconceptions about harsh northern climates. The rocky Nova Scotian peninsula, solid bulk of Quebec, and hanging promontory of Newfoundland form a great embrace that protects the island from the frigid northern waters, so summer is warm and mild and the water is swimmable. The season is brief: Most of the inns and eateries that serve visitors don’t open until mid-June, and generally close up shop by mid-September. Yet even at the height of what would elsewhere be the summer rush, PEI remains low-key: just a lovely, uncrowded, unhurried place that has retained its rural character – rolling meadows and potato fields – and gorgeous unspoiled coastline.
The island is also a locavore’s delight, with farmers’ markets brimming with fresh baby radishes, tiny new potatoes, curly garlic scapes, and wild blueberries; plentiful local lobster pulled from the chilly waters; and a booming shellfish industry that stocks the pristine bays and coves with thriving beds of mussels and at least six varieties of PEI oysters. While upscale restaurants are scarce (largely owing to a lack of tourists to patronize them), there are a handful of great eateries and plenty of unpretentious spots serving up the likes of fresh scallop burgers, steamed lobsters, and fish and chips. The raw variety can’t be beat: Stop at a Malpeque Bay seafood shack and order a dozen on the half shell. When the oysters are this fresh, frills are superfluous. Even a lemon seems like overkill.
Be warned: This is not a destination for those craving crowds, shopping, or nightlife. But to cleanse the spirit with a walk on a windswept beach, bald eagles wheeling overhead, this is the spot. Throw in kayaking across sparkling bays, passing a curious seal or two; biking from lighthouse to lighthouse along red sandstone bluffs covered in wild roses; and some of the best golf in North America (10 of Canada’s top 100 courses are located right here), and one begins to grasp the island’s understated charm.
Discover the understated charm and unspoiled coasts of Prince Edward Island with our slideshow by photographer Annie Schlechter.
Where to Eat
Perhaps the best thing about the budding PEI food scene is that one can’t really call it a scene. On an island devoid of urban irony and pretension, there are no hopping hipster joints, no trendy spots serving pork belly and fennel pollen – just an abundance of fresh local ingredients and a growing number of top-notch chefs who know what to do with them.
Flex Mussels (Peake’s Wharf, Charlottetown; 902-569-0200) makes no bones about what it’s celebrating: glossy, plump PEI mussels, pulled from the water only hours before hitting one’s plate. The location is enchanting, with views of the Charlottetown harbor, but the sight of steaming bowls of bivalves may be the best view around. The formula is simple: Start with mussels and sauce them any way you like, with Thai-inflected lemongrass and coconut milk or basic garlic and white wine. The place is such a success that the owners opened a New York City branch in 2008, to the delight of jaded Manhattan palates.
Champion oyster shucker and Flex Mussels veteran John Bil opened a simple but superlative little seafood joint last year on the shores of Malpeque Bay. The Ship to Shore Lounge (2684 Route 20, Darnley; 902-836-5475 or 902-940-6405; www.shiptoshorelounge.com) offers native oysters, lobster, pots of steamers, and fish and chips. The fish is native and impeccably fresh; the veggies are organic; and the setting is low-key, no-frills, and friendly. Bil describes the decor as “channeling the 1970s.”
Once the summer home of actress Colleen Dewhurst, The Inn at Bay Fortune (758 Route 310, Bay Fortune; 902-687-3745; www.innatbayfortune.com) is now a quietly elegant inn (see Where to Stay) and a fine place to dine while celebrating a special occasion. Dewhurst came to the island to film Anne of Green Gables and was so charmed she promptly set down roots; it’s easy to understand why when one settles in at a table on the wraparound porch, with views of the well-tended gardens and peaceful inlet beyond. The inn’s menu is sophisticated, seasonal, and locally sourced, from the island lamb to Nova Scotia scallops. Dayboat (5033 Rustico Rd., Hunter River; 902-963-3833) is another wonderful pick for a more serious meal. Lunch is served on an attractive outdoor deck, and the carefully curated menu includes local seafood and island-raised meats, such as PEI smoked salmon, Pickle Point oysters, and crispy roast mackerel with island mushrooms.
After a day at the beach or on the links, sometimes one just wants cheap and cheerful fare. Rick’s Fish ’N’ Chips & Seafood House (Route 2, St. Peter’s Bay; 902-961-3438; www.ricksfishnchips.com) fits the bill: The service is friendly, the fish fresh, and the chips are hand cut from PEI potatoes. Grab a picnic table on the deck with a view of St. Peter’s Bay and try the marinated mussels or an oversize scallop burger. Richard’s Seafood eatery (Covehead Wharf, Covehead; 902-672-2376; www.richardsfreshseafood.com) is another island favorite: a classic clam shack with an outdoor deck facing busy Covehead Harbour. As fishing boats chug by, dig in to a plate of fried clams or a juicy lobster roll. Out on the lonely western coast, Seaweed Pie Café (Route 14, Miminegash; 902-882-4313) is a cozy little roadside eatery that serves up local specialties like homemade fish cakes with baked beans and mustard pickle, or Acadian meat pies with buttermilk biscuits. The namesake dessert is anticlimactic: just sponge cake with cream and fruit, thickened with carrageenan made from the Irish moss that washes up on PEI shores.
And don’t leave the island without digging for dinner. A new website created by innkeepers Bill and Mary Kendrick, Experience PEI (www.experiencepei.ca), connects visitors with area oystermen, clam diggers, and lobster fishers. One can go oyster tonging in Malpeque Bay, digging for bar clams on the south shore tidal flats, or lobstering on a 45-foot fishing boat – and every tour involves sampling the fruits of one’s labor. Tours cost anywhere from $40 to $85 a person, including dinner.
What to Do
PEI is a place that inspires introspection, and a visitor would be forgiven for merely taking a stack of books to the beach and listening to the surf roll in. But those looking for more strenuous activity have plenty of choices, from hiking and golfing to biking and sea kayaking.
Prince Edward Island National Park (off Route 6 in Dalvay and Route 15 in Brackley; 902-672-6350; www.pc.gc.ca) offers a breathtaking swath of dunes, sandstone cliffs, salt marshes, and open coastline, with hiking trails, picnic areas, beaches with lifeguards, and also long stretches without a single soul in sight. A new 5-mile bike path runs along the shore, past lighthouses and fishing ports. Further east another section of the national park, Greenwich Dunes (Greenwich Road, Greenwich; 902-961-2514; www.pc.gc.ca), may harbor the most exquisite scenery on the Atlantic Coast: A floating boardwalk traverses salt ponds, dramatic dunes, and miles of untouched beaches where one might spot eagles nesting in the bluffs. The visitor’s center is worth a stop, to see multimedia presentations on island history, flora and fauna, and recorded oral histories from Acadians, Mi’kmaq, and other early PEI inhabitants.
For golfers, the island is paradise: The courses are varied, the crowds nonexistent, and the green fees reasonable. With views across the north shore dunes to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, The Links at Crowbush Cove (Route 350, Morell; 800-235-8909; www.golflinkspei.com) is the island’s crown jewel of courses and among the best in North America. Further south, the 18-hole Dundarave (Route 3, Cardigan; 800-235-8909; www.golflinkspei.com) is another top-ranked course, with striking red sandstone bunkers and glimpses of the Brudenell River through the pines. The manicured gardens and lakes of the Brudenell River Golf Course (Route 3, Cardigan; 800-235-8909; www.golflinkspei.com) have won it a spot on Canada’s top 100 list. Golfers can choose from more than 30 courses on the island of various levels, all within 50 miles or so, ranging from rolling woodland to open links.
The island’s gentle hills and moderate climate are made for two wheels, and a tip-to-tip bike path offers further encouragement. The Confederation Trail runs 167 miles along the bed of the old Prince Edward Island Railway, almost the length of the island, with another 100 miles or so of branch trails along the way. The stretch from St. Peter’s to Morell, along the shores of St. Peter’s Bay, is particularly scenic, as is the segment by the Hillsborough River. Plover Bike Rental (15465 Northside Rd.; 902-961-3223; www.stpetersbay.com) in St. Peter’s Bay is a good starting point on the island’s eastern end, and in central Charlottetown, MacQueen’s Island Tours (800-969-2822; www.macqueens.com) rents high-quality bikes and runs shuttle service to points along the trail. For kayaking, try Outside Expeditions (North Rustico Harbour, North Rustico; 902-963-3366; www.getoutside.com), offering a wide range of guided tours – from beginner paddling in sheltered bays and rivers to 6-hour sea kayaking voyages – at north and south shore locations.
Given the island’s latitude, it is common to hit a patch of blustery weather. If the sun’s not cooperating, take a morning to stroll around Charlottetown’s leafy, Victorian streets and the Confederation Centre of the Arts (145 Richmond St., Charlottetown; 902-628-1864; ww.confederationcentre.com). Yes, the Anne of Green Gables musical runs all summer, yet also on tap are extensive art galleries run by intelligent curators, free daily concerts at noon in an outdoor amphitheater, and small productions of works by Canadian playwrights.
Where to Stay
Dalvay by the Sea (www.dalvaybythesea.com), housed in an imposing Victorian manor on the grounds of Prince Edward Island National Park in Dalvay, sits across the road from miles of windswept beach. Lodgings include rooms (slightly old-fashioned) and independent cottages that sleep as many as six. Use the tennis court and kayaks, or rent a bike. The inn’s wood and fieldstone dining room offers tranquil lake views. High tea, served every afternoon, is a sublime experience of homemade scones with clotted cream and lemon curd, fresh strawberries, and finger sandwiches of smoked local salmon.
The Inn at Bay Fortune in Bay Fortune, on the island’s eastern side (www.innatbayfortune.com), has just 18 rooms, a few of which come with private decks or balconies. Built as an artist’s retreat, it still has a quiet, intimate feel. While not directly on the water, the inn is surrounded by extensive gardens with views of a small inlet and is close to sheltered eastern beaches. The kitchen serves a full breakfast and dinner, and the food is some of the island’s best. The Inn at St. Peters (www.innatstpeters.com) lies right on the shores of St. Peter’s Bay, close to the entrance of Greenwich National Park. These rooms are more impersonal, yet each has a small deck with splendid water views. The main house has a handsome dining room with a stone fireplace and an inviting screened veranda overlooking the bay.
Shaw’s Hotel (www.shawshotel.ca) in Brackley Beach is an island tradition (and a Canadian national historic site), operated by the Shaw family since 1860. It’s a homey, old-timey place, set between the beaches of Prince Edward Island National Park and a tranquil bay and salt marsh, though most rooms do not have water views. The attraction there isn’t the lodgings, which have the salt-stained, frumpy feel of one’s grandparents’ summer cottage, but the vast array of activities the hotel can help arrange, including special children’s programs (hayrides, sing-alongs, cookouts) as well as kayaking, biking, windsurfing, and fishing.
Sometimes, the best views and values can be found in a summer rental. The island has a large stock of cottages for rent, and an excellent tourism website (www.peiplay.com) allows a prospective visitor to search by size, location, cost, and a host of other useful criteria. In addition, the island tourist board rates every rental cottage on a scale of one to five stars, providing some objective guidance.
How to Get There
By Air: Delta flies nonstop (about 2.5 hours) from New York to Charlottetown Airport (YYG) from June 17 through August 16. Air Canada travels to the island via Montreal, Toronto, Halifax, and Ottawa from various U.S. cities year-round (www.flypei.com).
By Car and Ferry: PEI is connected to the New Brunswick mainland by the 8-mile Confederation Bridge, which spans the Northumberland Strait. Ferries run as often as nine times daily from Caribou, Nova Scotia, to Wood Islands, PEI (www.nfl-bay.com).
A rental car on the island is indispensable for easy access to beaches and coastal areas.