The plus and minus of a bridge not too far

Prince Edward Island and the province’s 135,000 residents will never be the same. The $840-million engineering marvel, the 12.9-kilometre-long Confederation Bridge across the Northumberland Strait joining New Brunswick to PEI, has been a huge success — over a million tourists used it to visit the island last year.

Even the most optimistic tourism experts predicted PEI might achieve a million tourists per annum by the year 2000. The 1997 million mark is a remarkable increase over the 741,000 visitors who enjoyed PEI in 1996.

“This is an historic moment for Prince Edward Island’s tourism industry,” says Wes MacAleer, PEI’s Minister of Economic Development and Tourism. Economically, the tourist influx brings many financial benefits to the island where the unemployment averages 14 per cent. However, the bridge marks the beginning of the end for PEI’s insular lifestyle.

Most islanders are happy with the bridge. But there are diehards — “An island’s just not a real island if you can drive to it, is it?” grumbled one resident.

I recently drove over the bridge and found it no big deal. Just like driving over the Burlington Skyway in Ontario, only longer. Metrhigh concrete wind barriers block any views over the sides of the bridge, and the sea up to 60 metres below. However, you can see the island looming up in front and New Brunswick fading behind. It takes less than 15 minutes to make the trip, under normal driving conditions. There are strict rules against stopping on the bridge, and cycling and walking are forbidden. A shuttle bus carries cyclists and walkers across.

The bridge certainly makes it easy getting to and from the island. No lineups waiting for a ferry, which didn’t run in bad weather. The bridge is open 24 hours a day, every day, all year — except during the most violent of storms. However, for those that long for a sea voyage, there’s still a ferry running from the southern tip of the island over to Pictou, Nova Scotia. Once on the island, visitors are only an hour or so from some of the most beautiful scenery and beaches in Canada, so take a camera to PEI and lots of film — it’s a photographer’s paradise. Best of all are the warm, friendly people — they all seem to have taken post-graduate courses on how to be nice to visitors.

The downside of this influx of visitors? Some of the most popular beaches will become even more jammed than they are already as tourists arrive in ever increasing numbers, and attractions such as Anne of Green Gables and Charlottetown will be swamped during July and August. But there are still plenty of empty beaches away from the main tourist centres, where visitors can frolic in quiet comfort and solitude.

The best way to see PEI is to visit the small villages and enjoy the island’s many festivals. Whether it’s potato, lobster, oyster, strawberry or blueberry, there’s a festival every summer weekend. Most are community-run events, and the traditions of the land and sea are strong. Celtic music figures prominently, and Ceilidhs and shindigs draw enthusiastic crowds with their down-home style of entertainment.

Every time I visit PEI, I strive to visit a lobster festival at a church in one of the island’s fishing villages. It is a gourmet delight — bad for my waist, but ever-so delicious. Heaping plates of lobster with all the fixings, home-cooking by the ladies of the village. You can’t top it.

PEI just might become a trifle too crowded once two million tourists are using the bridge each year to visit the island. Until then, it’s a wonderful place to vacation, for a few days or a few weeks, any time from May to October.

And, thanks to the bridge, it’s an easy drive.