The International Shellfish Festival comes to Canada's remote eastern island in time to catch changing leaves and uncrowded trails.
Ah, Prince Edward Island. In my many visits to Canada, somehow PEI had never appeared on the radarscope. The most-densely populated and smallest Canadian province had eluded my geographical grasp until now. When the weather outside in the northern hemisphere is warm and pleasant, it is time to focus your attention and, more importantly, plan a visit to this small, yet important, Maritime Province. It will be well worth your while. First, as Sargent Joe Friday used to say on Dragnet, a television show of long ago, “…just the facts ma’am.” What are the facts?
The province comprises the island of the same name located in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, east of New Brunswick and north of Nova Scotia from which it is separated by the Northumberland Strait. The capital and largest city, Charlottetown, situated centrally on the island’s southern shore, is built around a large natural harbor. In 1997, the Confederation Bridge connecting the west end of the island to New Brunswick was opened, replacing a ferry. A second ferry on the east end of the island providing access to Nova Scotia continues to operate, and a third ferry sails between Souris and the Magdalen Islands.
The island’s landscape has been heavily impacted by humans since the arrival of European explorers in the 16th century. Today, there is no original forested land on the island, but about half of the land is covered by new growth forest. The province’s industry is dominated by agriculture, successful because of the distinctive red sedimentary soil.
Beyond Anne of Green Gables
The pastoral landscape has a strong bearing on its economy and culture, and author Lucy Maud Montgomery made it the setting of her classic children’s novel “Anne of Green Gables.”
The shoreline of the island consists of a combination of long beaches, dunes, short sandstone cliffs, salt-water marshes and numerous small bays and harbors covered by reddish sand whose distinctive color is due to the high amount of iron oxide in the rock.
The white sand at Basin Head is unique on the island, and the unusual shape of its grains cause a humming noise as they rub against each other when walked upon. The magnificent sand dunes at Greenwich are of particular significance. The shifting, parabolic dune system is home to a variety of birds and rare plants and is also a site of significant archaeological interest.
All of this is compacted in an area larger than Rhode Island, yet smaller than Delaware. To see this province, long drives are NOT required, in fact, a lot of the character of the province is defined by how close everything is to everything else. The longest drive, east end to west end, is about the same as from New York City to Baltimore. Contrast that with the 800-mile plus drive across Texas, and that might bring smiles to many families.
Around & About the Island
Any tale about PEI would be remiss not to mention the wonderful characterization of “Anne of Green Gables.” You can visit Green Gables, now a Canadian Historic National Site, year round (property is closed for the holiday weeks of late December and early January). It is located in Cavendish, 30 plus miles from Charlottestown, a well-placed base of operations for any family excursion. You will find many visitors from other places besides Eastern Canada – Anne has enthusiastic fans from all over the world visiting, including many from Japan.
But there is much more for everyone. If you are expecting high tech rides and canopy tours over vast jungle forests, this is not the place. As you might expect from an island, low-tech water-based activities take on much, but not all of the responsibility for family entertainment.
The island’s historical significance is also an important factor; from this tiny outpost of the huge country of Canada, the idea of joining this great land under one flag came to fruition in 1867, with no small thanks to PEI.
Today, the capital, Charlottestown, is composed of a business center, government center and many residential areas, lush with plants and well-cared for houses.
High rises? Not too many on the island. It is rare outside of a few buildings downtown to find anything over 5-stories tall, making this a perfect place for the family that wants a taste of city life, without being overwhelmed.
Charlottetown’s Historic Inns & Sites
If you wish to travel to Charlottetown, you will either drive over the Confederation Bridge from New Brunswick, ferry over from Nova Scotia, or fly in to the diminutive Charlottetown Airport. No matter how you arrive, it will be quiet, calm and uncluttered, the antithesis of travel in most other parts of North America.
Among the various accommodations here, we were fortunate to stay at a place called The Great George (902/892-0606), located near the Province House and most of downtown. A walk to the waterside took five minutes, tops. This particular property is comprised of many different buildings, some dating back to the 1840’s! There are many different room styles to choose from, and many are suitable for a family’s comfort. There is no restaurant on the premises, but a sumptuous breakfast is prepared in the lobby, and coffee, tea and cookies are prepared fresh in the late afternoon. A great education for those young travelers-in-training to learn that branded lodging is not always what you might want.
Its slightly more than 32,000 residents are among the friendliest in the Dominion of Canada and Charlottestown’s Province House reflects this warmth in style. If you want to give your children a modest grounding in the province’s history, this is an excellent location to do so. You can experience the Canada of 1864 in this unassuming building which is the real McCoy. It was there at that time, and here today. The compact, two story porticoed neo-classical building fits in with much of that part of town.
At Founder’s Hall, you are taken through the process that took Canada from being an organization of four colonies in 1864 to the dynamic country it is today. Yes, history to most is dull, uninteresting, and best left forgotten in most instances. Not here. The addition of historical events coupled with modern media makes for something beyond musty display cases and names barely remembered. Instead of reading captions and looking at pictures, you are thrust into theatrical video presentations complete with period-garbed reporting staff. Here, there is something for young and old alike. Coupled with a rather favorable admission price, this is a wonderful way for a family to spend a few hours and to learn about how Canada started its path toward nationhood.
While Charlottetown is not as large as Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver, it has all the trappings of urban regions everywhere. There are great restaurants, stores, ice cream parlors – we love Cows, the ice-cream name to know(!), hotels, marinas, anything you would find in a cosmopolitan location. One very family-friendly feature is a series of walkways and boardwalks encompassing the harbor, marinas, and the more aquatic side of this city, also close to places to eat and shop. Unlike many large cities, the relatively compact downtown core is perfectly sized for family visits.
Another facet for families is the Saturday Charlottetown Farmer’s Market where you will find everything in the way of delicious produce, artisanal crafts, and a tasty breakfast! About 2 or 3 miles from downtown, this is not within walking distance, but you can call (902/626-3373) for directions. Open year-round, please note that the Farmer’s Market is also open on Wednesdays during July and August.
Noteworthy Excursions & Events
As with any voyage of discovery, whatever time you have for a visit is always half of what you need. With that in mind, our small group made two trips out of Charlottetown that were quite unique. Family discovery is not always about big and bustling, or humankind’s technology. Sometimes it is about simple pleasures.
One of those pleasures is a little town named Victoria-by the Sea. Located on the South Shore, this town of 200 — 30 minutes from Charlottetown — is within sight of the Confederation Bridge. It is not Disney World by any means, just a wonderful place to let the kids run around, look at the tidal flats, visit a small maritime museum, and have an ice cream at the Landmark Cafe, about ½ block walk from the pier. Parking? Loads of it. This is a great chance to experience life as it is in a seaside village like Atlantic Canada. There are a few other places to dine and small inns if the spirit moves you to spend a night.
The other pleasure, more scenic, was Greenwich National Park. This Park combines a series of wild dunes, plants and birds and archaeological sites, an extensive boardwalk and stair system through the marshes and over the dunes, with a huge, wide sandy beach, perfect for swimming during July and August. The modest fees involved are well worth the drive from Charlottetown (about an hour or so) to this Northeast PEI retreat. The Interpretation Center at the Park Entrance is a must to learn about the region, in fact all of PEI, with an audio-visual presentation about the province. There are plenty of places to stop along the way to dine and walk around.
The family does not live by bread alone. In Atlantic Canada (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland), the water surrounding each Province is not the grist just for sea shanties and fish and chips.
Shellfish abounds in these cool, North Atlantic waters and what better way to celebrate this with the weekend-long PEI International Shellfish Festival, held annually in mid-September. Can you resist attending the World Invitational Oyster Shucking Championship? The World Cup of Oysterdom? There will be a special children’s activity called…”The World is your Oyster.”
Many of the downtown seafood restaurants will be sponsoring oyster shucking demonstrations during the Festival and you might want to stop at the Claddagh Oyster House (902/892-9661) booth and watch Mr. John Bil, 2005’s champion. The admission fees are very family-friendly. Food (a great way to introduce the under 16 set to oysters, mussels and clams, if they haven’t eaten them already) and drinks are additional, but quite reasonable.
What a great incentive to make it a weekend. In fact, make it a week in PEI – your family will not forget this wonderful Northern Paradise! And if you can’t make it this year, try out this recipe by Kaleel Sakakeeny that will bring a taste of PEI back to your home.
Mussels & Oysters Galore: Kaleel’s Mussels a la PEI Recipe
Home-grown Malpeque oysters and blue mussels have earned Prince Edward Island, Canada’s smallest province, a big reputation worldwide. At the Charlottetown docks each September, you can witness the drama of the Canadian oyster-shucking championship; sample sweet, salty oysters on the half-shell; and enjoy a big bowl of creamy chowder or a bowl of plump mussels prepared by top chefs. There’s music, markets and fun for everyone.
While Europeans have had a love affair with mussels for 1,100 years, North Americans have only recently embraced the mighty mollusk. “Ten years ago, customers were ordering 200 pounds a week,” says mussel man Brian Fortune of Atlantic Aqua Farms in Orwell Cove. “Now, they’re taking 16,000 pounds a week.” With their sweet meat and glossy black shells, mussels have muscled their way into all the best restaurants, and they’re the best bivalve bargain in the supermarket. Try them for yourself.
Ingredients to have on hand: Preparation time – 30 minutes
2 lbs. PEI mussels, rinsed
1/2 cup dry white wine or beer
2 Tbsp. diced celery
2 Tbsp. diced onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup chopped parsley
Place wine, celery, onion, garlic and mussels in a large pan. Cover and steam over high heat for 6 minutes or until mussels open. Discard any that don’t open. Serve immediately with juice, sprinkled with black pepper and parsley. Serves two.
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