P.E.I.’s beacons of history

Rising like white sentinels against a checkerboard emerald landscape, Prince Edward Island’s lighthouses keep ceaseless vigil over the horizon with their glass eyes, defying the wind, the ocean and time itself.

You can’t visit here with coming across some of the province’s 50 or so lighthouses. Although many are on private property and can only be admired from a distance, others are tourist attractions or even inns. Just as Don Quixote travelled the land looking for windmills, I delight in travelling P.E.I. looking for lighthouses.

Spectacular views
Elegantly painted in broad, eye-catching black and white stripes, the West Point Lighthouse, which logically enough is on P.E.I.’s west coast, is to me the province’s most impressive. The weather was glorious the day I visited, ideal for photographing the colourful scene of blue sky, green land and red sand.

P.E.I. lighthouses built prior to 1873 were octagonal, but after that they were more often a tapered square in design. Constructed in 1875, the West Point Lighthouse is 22.5 metres in height, making it the tallest of the island’s square-design lighthouses.

Automated in 1963, the WesPoint site was expanded in 1984 to add a museum, restaurant, crafts shop and country inn. The inn is billed as the only one in Canada to be housed in a working lighthouse.

I reserved a room several weeks before my visit. Even so, there were no rooms available in the lighthouse itself. Boasting romantic Victorian décor and whirlpool tubs, the lighthouse accommodations are booked solid way ahead of time, usually by honeymooners. I had to content myself with a room in the inn adjacent to the historic lighthouse.
Next page: A view at the end of the world

It was too early for bed so I did a little sunbathing on the beach, toured the museum to learn about the history of West Point and other P.E.I. lighthouses, and then had dinner in the lighthouse restaurant.

But first I climbed to the top of the lighthouse to admire the view of the ocean and orange-red beach. My “views from the top of the lighthouse” series of photos would nicely complement the “lighthouse viewed from the beach” series I’d shot earlier.

The lighthouse beacon is still operational. I was warned never to look directly at the light, which is so powerful it can blind you. Anyway, it was the horizon that drew my gaze, for the panorama on clear days is stunning.

Land’s end
The North Cape Lighthouse is closed to visitors, but its setting on the island’s northwestern point is an attraction unto itself. Looking out over the endless ocean, you feel like you’re at the edge of the world.

Swept by strong winds, the North Cape coast is the site of an experimental wind farm called the Atlantic Wind Test Site. After visiting the interpretation centre, I asked a guide to take me to see the modern windmills at the site. By the looks of it, some of the blades hadn’t been properly secured to the windmills – there was a blade in the water at the base of the cliff. Experimental, no kidding!

After a pleasant afternoon exploring the trails that wind around North Cape and watching the sun go down over the ocean, I enjoyed a delicious seafood dinner at the restaurant upstairs from the interpretation centre.

The next day, I got to admire the sunrise, but this time at East Point, at the opposite side of the island. Prince Edward Island is so small that I was able to get there in time. The East Point Lighthouse, 20 minutes east of Souris and open to the public, was built in 1867. The octagonal-design 19.6-metre structure overlooks the ocean currents and strong tides that result from the meeting of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Northumberland Strait.

Southern stops
To the south, the Cape Bear Lighthouse (1881) is adjacent to the old Marconi station, now a fascinating museum. An employee at this station, Thomas Barlett, was the first person to hear the SOS from the Titanic as the great ship was sinking off Newfoundland.

Nearby, the Wood Islands Lighthouse (1876), a square-shaped wooden structure, rises to 15.14 metres and is home to a museum devoted to the fisheries and coast guard. Not far away is the island’s oldest lighthouse, the Point Prim Lighthouse, which dates from 1846 and is open to visitors. The only round lighthouse in the province, its brick walls are 45 centimetres thick.

A Prince Edward Island Tourism brochure contains information on seven lighthouses that are open to the public in season (mid-June to mid-September). Under the “Island Lighthouses” program, anyone who visits at least five lighthouses and has his or her brochure stamped is eligible for a drawing whose prizes include a wool blanket, five kilograms  of lobster, an Anne of Green Gables figurine, smoked salmon and a painting of the island.

But ultimately, the true grand prize is discovering Prince Edward Island from the top of its coastal sentinels.

For more information on this or other Canadian destinations, visit the Canadian Tourism Commission’s website at www.travelcanada.ca.

More info: The Prince Edward Island Tourism website (www.peiplay.com) includes a section that lists all lighthouses in the province (www.peiplay.com/lighthouses). A brochure put out by the Prince Edward Island Lighthouse Society, which oversees maintenance and preservation of the lighthouses, includes directions on how to find many lighthouses; call (902) 859-3117 or email [email protected] .

Anne Marie Parent is a Montreal-based freelance travel writer who often visits the Maritimes.

Photographer: Prince Edward Island Tourism, John Sylvester