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.
PEI 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.
Pocket-sized CHARLOTTETOWN, the administrative and business heart of PEI since the 1760s, is the most urbane spot on the island, the comfortable streets of its centre hemmed in by leafy avenues of clapboard villas and Victorian red-brick buildings. In small-island terms, it also offers a reasonable nightlife, with a handful of excellent restaurants and a clutch of lively bars, though the best time to be here is in the summer, when the otherwise sleepy town centre is transformed by festivals, live music and street cafés.
Built in 1964, the Confederation Centre of the Arts may be housed in a glass-and-concrete monstrosity, but it’s the home of the Charlottetown Festival and Anne of Green Gables musical, the island’s main library, a couple of theatres, the summer-only Story of Confederation exhibit and an eclectic art gallery (mid-May to mid-Oct daily 9am–5pm; mid-Oct to mid-May Wed–Sat 11am–5pm, Sun 1–5pm; donation suggested), whose changing exhibitions always have a Canadian emphasis and often include a variety of nineteenth-century artefacts.
The island’s most significant historical attraction is the Province House National Historic Site at 165 Richmond St, but this is likely to be closed until at least 2018 for a massive renovation. Until then, if you’re here in summer, visit the Story of Confederation exhibit (July & Aug Mon–Sat 9am–5pm, Sun 11am–4pm; free), housed at the Confederation Centre of the Arts. Here there’s a replica of the Confederation Chamber where the Fathers of Confederation – representatives of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, then-Canada (Ontario and Québec) and PEI – met during the Charlottetown Conference in 1864, to discuss a union of the British colonies in North America. It took two more conferences before confederation was finally achieved in 1867, though PEI didn’t join for a further six years, and only then because it was bankrupt after an ill-advised splurge on railway construction.
Prince Edward Island’s quiet roads and gentle terrain make it a great place for cycling, but although there are several cycle-tour operators, it’s much less expensive (and entirely straightforward) to plan your own route:in Charlottetown, both Smooth Cycle, 330 University Ave (Mon–Thurs 9am–5.30pm, Fri 9am–6pm, Sat 9am–5pm; t 902 566 5530, w smoothcycle.com; $25.99/day), and MacQueen’s, 430 Queen St (Mon–Wed & Sat 8.30am–5.30pm, Thurs & Fri 8.30am–7pm, Sun 10am–2pm; t 902 368 2453, wmacqueens.com; $20–50/day), rent out all the necessary gear and will advise on trails. The most popular of these is the 273km Confederation Trail (w tourismpei.com/pei-confederation-trail), a combined hiking and cycling trail (gravel surface) that weaves its way across the bucolic heart of the island from east to west, partly following the route of PEI’s old railway, which was closed in the 1980s. You won’t see much of the coast from the trail, but you won’t see any cars either, and it’s a wonderful way to take in the idyllic countryside.
Pulling in thousands of visitors every summer, the gorgeous sandy beaches of Prince Edward Island National Park extend along the Gulf of St Lawrence shore for some 40km. Rarely more than a couple of hundred metres wide, the main body of the park incorporates both the beaches and the sliver of low red cliff and marram grass-covered sand dune that runs behind – a barrier which is occasionally interrupted by slender inlets connecting the ocean with a quartet of chubby little bays. A narrow road runs behind the shoreline for most of its length, but Rustico Bay effectively divides the main body of the park into two: the smaller, more westerly portion runs from Cavendish – home of Green Gables – to North Rustico Harbour; the easterly section, which is wilder and more untrammelled, goes from Robinson’s Island to Tracadie Bay, with a third, smaller section lying further east still at Greenwich, at the mouth of St Peter’s Bay. The park has fifteen short hiking trails, easy strolls that take in different aspects of the coast from its tidal marshes and farmland to its woodlands and dunes.