When it comes to pastoral paradise, it’s hard to beat eastern Canada’s Prince Edward Island. With a population of little over 145,000, the tiny island offers miles of coastline with spectacular red sandstone cliffs, shifting dunes and enough unspoiled beaches to please even the pickiest of tourists.
On a recent trip to Nova Scotia, my boyfriend and I decided to make the extra journey north across the Northumberland Strait and visit the crescent-shaped province. We allotted three days for the adventure and chose a car as our method of transport (although bicycles are another popular option.) The “Garden of the Gulf” didn’t disappoint. Here’s what we saw.
Prince Edward Island (known familiarly as PEI) is one of Canada’s three maritime provinces. It lies between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Measuring just 2,185 square miles, or roughly the size of the U.S. state of Delaware, it is the smallest of the provinces and consists of a main island and 231 smaller islands. PEI is the only province of Canada without any land borders.
To access PEI, you can fly to Charlottetown Airport, drive from New Brunswick across the dramatic Confederation Bridge (more on that later) or make the journey with Northumberland Ferries, which operates May through mid-December. We chose the ferry and picked it up in Caribou, a town located just outside of the historic town of Pictou, about midway along the northern coast of Nova Scotia.
The ferry departs every 2 hours during peak season, so reservations were easy and available. We boarded the boat, stowed our rental car and climbed the steps to the upper deck. From the large outdoor seating area we were able to enjoy the expansive views and drink in the fresh sea air during the 75-minute journey across the Northumberland Strait.
As the famous red sandy cliffs of the island came into view, we docked at Woods Island Harbor and retrieved our car. Exiting the ferry, we passed by the Woods Island Lighthouse, the second oldest lighthouse on the island with an attached dwelling and tower. Completed in 1876, the structure was virtually inaccessible until the 1930’s when the present road was built.
Wending our way out of the tiny rural fishing community, we were instantly enveloped in the rolling farmlands and neatly-furrowed green fields that the island is known for. As we drove, solitary farmhouses with steep gabled roofs rose up out of wildflower meadows to greet us. Heading north with our windows down, we rode down pencil-straight roads that stretched endlessly towards the horizon. It was just like in a storybook.
We could see why Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery chose the idyllic place for the setting of her 1908 children’s storybook, “Anne of Green Gables.”
We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring PEI’s back roads, passing by tiny harbors and fishing villages with colorful fishing boats and lobster traps piled high on the docks. Although it was mid summer, we traveled for miles seeing no one. The only audible noise seemed to come from a group of towering wind turbines that we suddenly encountered coming around a bend. We stopped to snap a picture of their gigantic blades as they whooshed overhead.
As the sun set, we finally pulled into the beautiful Inn at St. Peters, situated on 13 acres on the northern side of the island on St. Peters Bay. The inn is listed as one of the top 25 small hotels in Canada and is surrounded by award-winning gardens. We dined on poached North Shore halibut and traditional boiled lobster in the Inn’s main dining room and retired to our private guesthouse, falling asleep with our windows open to the cool sea breeze and soothing nighttime sounds of the island.
PEI’s principal industries are farming and fishing and both offer a continuous series of picturesque views as you travel along the island. We woke up on Day 2 and traveled north through bright green fields planted thick with potatoes (one of PEI’s principal crops) and on up to Points East Coastal Drive to view the East Point Lighthouse in Elmira.
A stunning coastline of red cliffs and red-tinged beaches revealed itself as we drove. PEI is famous for its red soils, which are composed of sandstone and other materials with high iron concentrations.
Passing few cars on the all but deserted roads, we eventually arrived at the lighthouse, which like the Woods Island lighthouse, was constructed in 1867. The octagonal wooden structure with white-shingled exterior sits high on a hilltop overlooking the beaches. It’s a great place to watch sea birds and view the meeting tides that converge at the uppermost corner of the island.
On the way back down the coast, we stopped to tour nearby Basin Head Beach, a popular destination for locals and tourists and home to the Basin Head Fisheries Museum. The beach extends for miles in either direction and is known for its white silica ‘singing sands,’ that make a scrunching sound when you walk on them.
Later in the day we headed over to PEI’s National Park, located on the western tip of Greenwich, a peninsula that separates St. Peters Bay from the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The site is home to a fragile ecosystem of parabolic, or u-shaped dunes, and salt-water marshes. The dunes are very rare in North America and are highly unstable, moving from year to year. They are covered by marram grass, which helps maintain them and control their shape.
The park has an extensive trail system that meanders through the dunes and on down to the beaches. We took the floating boardwalk across stands of undulating marsh grasses and clear blue pools and climbed up onto a wood platform overlooking the coast. We spent the rest of the afternoon there, enjoying the unusual sensation of being on an empty beach in the middle of the summer.
Later, we had an excellent meal of mussels at one of the island’s many small, family-run restaurants. PEI is known for its seafood, especially its lobsters and mussels. The Prince Edward Island mussel industry is Canada’s top producer and exporter of rope cultured blue mussels.
We started our day with Outside Expeditions. A guide led us on a 2-hour kayaking tour of the quiet Brudenell River. Located on the eastern side of the island near Georgetown, the river’s heavily wooded shores offer great opportunities for bird watching. We paddled past flocks of interesting sea birds and finally stopped for a snack on a windswept sand bar. Beyond, we could see the frothy seas of the St. Lawrence.
In the early evening we headed down to Charlottetown, the capital of the island and home to Province house, which is known as the “Birthplace of Confederation.” PEI hosted the Charlottetown Conference in 1864, which led to the creation of Canada three years later in 1867. The island didn’t join the confederation, however, until 1873.
We spent a pleasant night at The Great George Hotel, an upscale hotel that encompasses an entire city block of adjacent historic buildings. It is conveniently located on the aptly named Great George Street. In the evening we strolled along Victoria Row and headed down to the Charlottetown Waterfront where a giant Ferris wheel caught the last few glimmers of the sun.
On the next morning we left the island via the Confederation Bridge, which links PEI with mainland New Brunswick. The 8-mile long bridge, constructed 1993-1997, is the longest in the world and is known as one of Canada’s top engineering achievements of the 20th century. Built on 62 piers, the concrete box girder bridge curves slightly on its way to the mainland, spanning ice-covered water for most of the year.
For more information on Prince Edward Island, its hotels, restaurants, golf and other activities, click here. July and August temperatures hover around 73 degrees Fahrenheit, but come prepared. The climate is known for its changeable weather conditions, which are strongly influenced by the surrounding seas.
Photos/herebydesign.net and shutterstock.com