After the dense forests and rugged, misty coastlines of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND (PEI) is a real surprise, a land of rich, red earth, gently rolling farmland and neat villages of Victorian homes. Visit in the summer and it really does seems like a rustic oasis, little changed since local-born novelist Lucy Maud Montgomery described the island floating “on the waves of the blue gulf, a green seclusion and haunt of ancient peace”. Even today, Canada’s smallest province remains thoroughly agricultural, with Islanders remarkably successful in controlling the pace of change. Fish and lobsters are still sold off fishing boats, doors remain unlocked and everyone seems to know everyone else; laws ban large billboards and there are no freeways. The French settled what they called Île-St-Jean in the 1720s, but the British turned them out in the 1760s and renamed the island in 1799.
Charlottetown, the graceful capital, sits on the south coast, its tree-lined streets, wide range of accommodation and fine restaurants making it the best base for exploring the island. On the north coast, Prince Edward Island National Park is the island’s busiest tourist attraction, with kilometres of magnificent sandy beach and a profusion of sights associated with Anne of Green Gables. PEI also has a well-deserved reputation for cuisine; the island is home to organic farms, fine oysters, mussels and artisan producers of all kinds, from potato vodka and gouda cheese, to ice cream and home-made pickles. It remains best known for the excellence of its lobsters, which are trapped during May and June and again in late August and September; the catch is kept fresh in saltwater tanks to supply the peak tourist season (this careful management is one of the reasons the lobster population is flourishing). Look out for posters advertising lobster suppers, inexpensive set meals served in several church and community halls during the lobster season.
Anne, Lucy and PEIPEI may be the home of Confederation, juicy oysters and tasty lobsters, but even the most jaded travellers spend a couple of hours paying homage to Anne of Green Gables. The heart-warming tale of a red-haired, pigtailed orphan girl that Mark Twain dubbed the “most lovable childhood heroine since the immortal Alice” has become a phenomenal worldwide sensation since it was published in 1908, and the vivid descriptions of rural PEI, handsomely captured in the 1985 TV miniseries has undeniably inspired many a trip here. Thousands of Japanese tourists visit every year; the book has been on school curricula there since the 1950s and remains extremely popular.
Many visitors find it hard to separate the fictional life of Anne Shirley and the real life of her creator Lucy Maud Montgomery, one of Canada’s best-selling authors. In 1876, when Montgomery was just 2, her mother died and her father migrated to Saskatchewan, leaving her in the care of her grandparents in Cavendish. Here she developed a deep love for her native island and its people, and although she spent the last half of her life in Ontario, PEI remained the main inspiration for her work. Completed in 1905 and published three years later (after being rejected five times), Anne of Green Gables remains her most popular book. Today, many Islanders remain conflicted over her legacy, hating the commercialization of the novel but deeply proud of the author’s success.