Isle of smiles

I once heard a sage professor define civilization as where you never have to lock a door – and that’s why he lived in Prince Edward Island.

No locks suggest security, stillness. Stillness there is in abundance on PEI, in the Great Blue Herons immobile in marshes, in rivers that scarcely drop. This is no land of swishing wheat, clanking freight trains, volume.

Besides being still, PEI is unCanadianly small. Forests are copses, hills pimples. It is made to be seen from a height of forty-eight inches. Which makes it a child’s paradise.

No wonder a little girl is its icon. This is a place so tiny by Canadian standards that, conceivably, Anne Shirley could have slipped away from Green Gables to walk its length – 274 kilometres on today’s Trans-Canada Trail PEI section – and earn a certificate for completing it.

Not everybody walks. I drove across Confederation Bridge from New Brunswick in 12 minutes, dry. A century ago, fishermen, wet and freezing, took 12 hours to row their catches across the same strait.

I learned that at Gateway Village, a welcoming place of parkland, historic exhibits and shops, just across the bridge. Nearby, a giant video cased in a faux-lobster shell, told the story of modern lobstering.

PEI is like that: ebb and flow, past and present, old ways, new stylings. It’s the province where neither the premier nor the leader of the opposition dare miss the opening “family” day of the harness-racing season. Where people welcome CFAs – those who are “come from aways.” Where a musical, Anne of Green Gables, has been running for 40 summer seasons. Where the soil is oxidized red. Where the lobsters, Malpeque oysters, strawberries and new potatoes are to give your soul for.

It’s “down home.” But that doesn’t mean unchanging. A jam factory there now mixes strawberries and Grand Marnier for one brand. A national TV star, native-born Tamara Hickey, hosts a multi-media historical show. And at the Spot O’ Tea restaurant in the seaside village of Stanley Bridge, its owners put on a song-and-jest routine – they happen to be Catherine MacKinnon and Don Harron, that hayseed Charlie Farqhuarsonwho is Catherine’s sophisticated hubby.

PEI is small, it could have been smaller. The Hillsborough River and Malpeque Bay nearly splice it in three. These, plus numerous other shallow inlets, provided me (and will you) with some of the most painterly (green fields, russet earth, yellow foreshore) and safe kayaking and canoeing in the world.

There are really only two half-busy roads on the island, from the entrance points of Wood Islands ferry terminal in the east, The Bridge in the west, both converging on Charlottetown. For the rest, rent a bike from 20 or so outlets on the island.

But if you must drive, find a church lobster supper, as at St. Ann’s, which is conveniently close for camper-families at Prince Edward Island National Park. It has been serving hefty portions of lobster, corn and pie for 30 years. Or eat on a wharf loaded with traps, like that at Cardigan.

And then to sleep. Preferably in a bed and breakfast or, uniquely, at West Point Lighthouse, the first lighthouse in Canada ever to offer accommodation. Women won it that distinction. Led by “Mrs. Lighthouse,” the great-granddaughter of its first “keeper” who is also known as Mrs. Carol Livingstone, a group of local villagers formed a co-op. Their place has nine rooms, a restaurant, crafts shop and museum. They have photos of lights from Cape Bonavista to Key West in the dining room, records of the 75 other lighthouses around PEI, and – nudging you into the present – a whirlpool, champagne and a bicycle built for two for honeymooners.

All this – and Charlottetown too! It really doesn’t merit an exclamation point. It doesn’t act like a capital. It only has 32,000 people. Torontonians would call its highest building a pipsqueak. But what it lacks in population and height, it makes up in history and Annephilia.

There’s an Anne of Green Gables Store and Lucy Maud Dining Room. Plus young, overwhelmingly female, pilgrims from Japan, a country where Anne & Co. are in school curricula as examples of family values. And this is all before the Cavendish beach area on the North Shore where the Anne-thises and -thats multiply.

But Charlottetown does usurp the historic monopoly. There is Province House where the possibility of a joined nation was first mulled over. There are the “mullers” – modern students, in top hats and frock coats, playlet-acting on downtown streets. And, in newly opened Founders Hall, the “Time Travel Tunnel” takes visitors back to 1864 and into the pages of Canadian history. There’s Sir John A. and the other “fathers,” trying to create a nation, and being ignored. And why not? Slaymakers and Nichols Olympic Circus was in town, first time in six years. It was only after Sir John cracked out his ship’s hold of wine to go with the oysters, that Charlottetown took notice. And partied. After that, Canada, somehow, was born.

This is history-without-tears. Quite fitting for an island of smiles.

For more information on this destination, visit the Canadian Tourism Commission website at
For general information on Prince Edward Island: Phone: 1-888-734-7529 or visit:

If you go, don’t miss:
Golf: PEI’s courses are bucolic.
Victoria: A tiny South Shore fishing village with summer theatre.
Peake’s Wharf, Charlottetown, for harbourside shopping and dining.
Founders Hall where Canada’s Birthplace Pavilion transports you through history.
Basin Head Fisheries Museum, at northeast corner of the island.
The handsome, historic buildings of Georgetown, once PEI’s capital.
Bluegrass, fiddlers’ and other musical festivals at Rollo Bay, near Souris.
And, of course, a sand-between-your toes stroll along a North Shore dune-backed beach.

Writer’s Biography
Percy Rowe was a Canadian journalist for 50 years, half of them as travel editor of the Toronto Telegram and Toronto Sun. He is now a freelance writer. The author of five books, he is currently writing three others on travel and life in Toronto, Montreal and New Delhi for U.S. schools.

Photo: Tourism PEI/John Sylvester