Canada’s smallest province offers a rich history, old-fashioned beach vacation experiences and thoroughly modern culinary delights
By Lola Augustine Brown
Prince Edward Island may be tiny, but once you visit it is impossible not to fall for its many charms. Here’s why you should visit (and why so many people make, or dream of making a return trip).
1. Dreamy beaches
Much of PEI’s 1,100 km of shoreline is fringed by pristine red-sand beaches, and even at the height of summer, you can find plenty of space to chill out and enjoy a little time by the sea with nobody getting too close. Many of the island’s prettiest beaches are part of Prince Edward Island National Park, and you can stroll or cycle the boardwalks, backed by grassy dunes and the caw of seabirds, or take a picnic at a picture-perfect red-and-white lighthouse.
Somewhat surprisingly, the waters around PEI are warmer than one might assume and Singing Sands beach in Basin Head Provincial Park is said to have the warmest waters north of Florida. All the beaches on the south of PEI sit along the Northumberland Strait, which faces eastern New Brunswick and northern Nova Scotia, creating a channel of warmer than average ocean water that is perfect for swimming, paddling and fishing.
Cavendish Beach is beautiful, but the resort town around it a complete tourist trap. However, if you want to step back in time and ride a rickety roller coaster, drive bumper cars or get dizzy on the tilt-a-whirl, then Sandspit Amusement Park is the place to go. There’s also a water park, plenty of touristy stores and tons of places that capitalize on nearby Green Gables (but more about that Anne character later).
Just along the coast is Brackley Beach, which is glorious. Close by is The Dunes Studio Gallery and Café, which is a sprawling art space with a beautiful sculpture garden that serves up a superb farm-to-table menu. After dark, you can enjoy the superfun Brackley Drive-In Theatre; which has a full-on ’50s theme complete with vintage cars on display.
2. Feasts for all appetites
Opportunities for memorable meals are everywhere in PEI, whether the best lobster roll of your life, fried clams at a beachfront shack or a multi-course extravaganza at one of the island’s many showstopper restaurants.
You’ll find the freshest seafood all over PEI, and you can truly get your fix by attending a lobster supper—at Fisherman’s Wharf Lobster Suppers in North Rustico, your lobster comes with all-you-can-eat mussels, seafood chowder and fresh-baked bread rolls (as well as salad, and dessert buffets).
Fisherman’s Wharf co-owner Forbes MacPherson says, “You come in, roll your sleeves up, put your bib on, and go to town.” At these suppers, the lobster is served whole, unfussy and perfect; you just have to dig in using the tools provided (they do make a few cuts into the shell to make it easier for those unaccustomed to eating lobster as the locals do). The atmosphere at these lobster suppers is very social and there’s traditional music playing. “It’s a bit like being at a wedding, because there’s music and everyone’s having a few drinks,” MacPherson says. “There’s so much energy in the room and everyone’s having fun, our lobster suppers are a real experience.”
Chef Michael Smith, one of Canada’s most famous TV chefs and a multi-bestselling author, has long called PEI home and owns The Inn at Bay Fortune, where you can eat at his incredible restaurant, Fireworks.
Smith describes PEI as a chef’s paradise. “We’re a great big giant green farm floating in the deep blue sea,” he says. “In recent years there’s been an increased appreciation for that. There are now so many amazing chefs working on the island and more artisan producers have started up here, whether they’re making craft spirits, mustard or sea salt.”
Another reason the food scene on PEI is so stellar, says Smith, is that “we are home to one of the world’s great cooking schools, The Culinary institute of Canada, so there’s a great chef culture based here.” If you love to cook, the Institute offers fantastic half-day and full-day culinary boot camps where you can learn how to master mussels, lobster and other local flavours (be warned, these are very popular and often book out well in advance), then feast on the fruits of your labour with classmates, accompanied by locally produced beverages.
Don’t leave PEI without sampling COWS ice cream, which you’ll find in specialty stores across the island, and at their creamery in Charlottetown, which has a museum and large gift shop (they are known for their punny t-shirts and branding). Lovers of sundaes should visit Holman’s Ice Cream Parlour in Summerside, as besides the fact they have a rotation of 100 homemade flavours, they also offer a Spaghetti Sundae, where strands of ice cream “spaghetti” are topped with Ferrero Rocher “meatballs” and then with berry sauce.
3. A historical capital
Charlottetown is about as quaint and charming as Canadian cities get. There are wide leafy avenues filled with historic homes leading to the waterfront. Exploring Province House National Historic Site where Canada was first formed, you’ll encounter the Confederation Players dressed in period costume and acting out historical scenes. Plus, the cobbled streets of Victoria Row, galleries, boutiques, and restaurants, and the Gothic Revival St. Dunstan’s Basilica are all beautiful. If you have a deep thirst for local history, the Confederation Players offer highly informative walking tours of the city, which are also great fun.
A highly walkable city, it is easy to imagine Charlottetown as it was, while still being able to grab a fantastic latte at Revolver Coffee on Victoria Row or surfing the oyster bar at Sims Corner Steakhouse just around the block (housed in a historic building that was, a century ago, a brothel and illegal drinking den). There are tons of great restaurants in Charlottetown, but you’d be a fool not to order a lobster roll at the Water Prince Corner Shop, as they are amazing.
Queen Street is the main shopping street that runs through downtown, with an interesting mix of shops, cafes and restaurants to check out. There are two fantastic used bookstores (The Bookman and The Book Emporium) a couple of doors apart, and just across the street is Bookmark, an indie bookstore, so you’ll have no trouble picking up a beach read in the city.
4. Cyclists delight
Because PEI is pretty much flat and any hills it does have would definitely fall into the rolling category, it makes for a fantastic cycling trip.
The Confederation Trail is a 470 km bike trail system that follows the old railway lines (the Canadian National Railway pulled out of the province in 1989), with which you could see pretty much all of the island via back roads, stopping at little villages along the way. Of course, you don’t have to do the entire trail—there are many places both in Charlottetown and in many other locations across the island where you could rent a bike, or an e-bike if that’s more your thing, and do a daylong excursion.
5. All about Anne
Though published more than a century ago, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s descriptions of PEI in the Anne of Green Gables books continue to entice visitors to the province. You’ll find Anne’s beloved raspberry cordial (or a facsimile of it) sold at souvenir shops all over the island, as well as straw boaters with ginger braids attached, and all manner of dolls and souvenirs.
If you’re not a fan, seeing all this may induce an eye roll. However, when you visit Green Gables Heritage Place—a Recognized Federal Heritage Building that sits within the national park— cynicism subsides and you can’t help but see why this beautiful farm and its idyllic setting proved such a perfect setting for Montgomery’s classic stories. You can tour the 19th-century farmhouse and the grounds, where you can pose in a carriage (and borrow one of those boaters with the braids to get that perfect tourist picture).
You can also learn more about the author at the Lucy Maud Montgomery Birthplace, which is located in her pretty and modest green and white home. Exhibits include the author’s scrapbooks with her stories and poems, artifacts from the era and a replica of her wedding dress.
6. Antiques and artisans
Shopping for goodies to take home is easy on the island, whatever you’re into. There are 11 antique stores across the island that form part of the PEI Antiques Trail, and many are housed in beautiful old homes or are run out of barns that add to the atmosphere when browsing.
With farmers’ markets in Charlottetown, Summerside, Cardigan, Kensington, and Wood Islands, you’ll find vendors selling everything from gourmet treats to pottery to jewellery, and many other arts and crafts. The markets often have live music and food trucks, so plan on giving yourself plenty of time when you visit. Follow the PEI Arts and Heritage Trail (artsandheritagepei.com) to discover 45 arts-and-crafts studios across the island, where you can watch artisans at work, take a class or buy unique souvenirs.
7. Lively live music
There are tons of fantastic live music venues across the island, and as you drive around, you’ll see hand-painted signs advertising ceilidhs (traditional parties with Celtic music, dancing and storytelling) at church halls and small venues. Each June, the PEI Festival of Small Halls attracts folk and roots performers from across the world to play in 30 intimate venues, many of which have amazing acoustics. The Indian River Festival sees a summer program of jazz, classical and international music held in St. Mary’s Church in Kensington. The PEI Jazz and Blues Festival takes over Charlottetown for five days at the end of June. There’s always someone playing somewhere when you visit PEI in the summer or fall.
At The Stompin’ Tom Centre in Skinner’s Pond, you can visit the Canadian music icon’s artifact-filled homestead and schoolhouse, and enjoy a summer concert series along with a range of other cultural events. You can also catch plenty of live music at pubs and restaurants too. Trailside Music Café and Inn in Mount Stewart always had live music through the summer and into October and attracted well-known musicians. It served great food, too, with four ensuite rooms for rent upstairs, all of which had a record player and selection of vinyl.
And talking about vinyl, the Hopyard Beer Bar in Charlottetown serves an impressive array of local craft beers on tap (and has bottles, too), but doubles as a record store (you can also request that they play your favourite records) and has a fantastic menu of internationally inspired bar snacks and more.
8. Foxes everywhere!
Red foxes are indigenous to PEI, sowhen you’re visiting the island, there’s a good chance you’ll observe them casually strolling through towns or along the coastal roads. Consequently, you’ll find a fox motif used on many souvenirs and artworks in PEI.
Despite the name, you’ll find red foxes in a range of shades, from sandy right through to black.
9. Craft brews and premium booze
Over the past five years, PEI has seen an explosion in the number of small-batch distilleries and craft breweries that have started up. You can now imbibe (or buy if there’s no tasting room) at 10 breweries, three cideries, three distilleries, and three wineries—that’s an impressive selection, considering how small PEI is.
Among these are old favourites such as The Gahan House in Charlottetown, which has been operating as a brewery and pub since 2000 (their fish and chips is great); and Myriad View Artisan Distillery in Rollo Bay has been making “Canada’s first legal moonshines” since 2006, but now you’ll find fantastic local drinks being made pretty much all over the island. Evermoore Brewing Company in Summerside is a gorgeous space to sit and sip—it was built as the city train station more than 90 years ago, then was a library before this evolution.
10. Indigenous experiences
You can spend time with Mi’kmaq educators and elders at the Lennox Island Mi’kmaq Culture Centre on the northwest coast of the Island.
There you can do a range of cool activities, such as digging for clams then baking them, bannock in the sands, building a traditional hand drum, learning quillwork, storytelling, and dancing. The centre has artifacts, cultural displays and photography that explains the Mi’kmaq way of life on PEI both before and after European settlers arrived.
11. Ocean adventuring
Not surprisingly, the deep-sea- and sport-fishing in the waters around PEI is excellent and there are plenty of operators all along the north shore who will take you out fishing for mackerel, cod and bluefin tuna.
Alternately, take a serene sunset cruise out of Charlottetown harbour with Peake’s Wharf Boat Tours, or a high-energy Zodiac boat excursion with Adventures Marine to check out the harbour, and the grey seals that live in large colonies around it.
Because the ocean is relatively warm and often calm, PEI is a fantastic place to go out sea-kayaking and paddleboarding. There are operators across the island that run tours, often with added extras such as clam digging (check out By-the-Sea-Kayaking in Victoria-by-the-Sea for this).
12. Sweet stays
A trip to PEI can be as fancy or down-home as you choose, and there are certainly plenty of cottage rentals to choose from (provided you book way in advance if you are planning to visit in the summer months). For an upscale stay in Charlottetown, The Great George hotel is comprised of a collection of thoughtfully restored Georgian homes and carriage houses, has a library with a fireplace for cocktails, and fancy concierge service. This is where the likes of Elton John and Rod Stewart stay when they are in town.
Another luxurious option is Dalvay by the Sea, a historic 25-room hotel and National Historic Site, which sits in the national park just across from Dalvay Beach and has its own lake (this is where Prince William landed his Sea King helicopter as part of a training exercise on his honeymoon tour with Duchess Kate; the couple then spent the afternoon at the property). The rooms are filled with antiques, and there’s a beautiful dining room that serves an excellent breakfast with a menu of locally sourced items. There are also a number of cottages on the hotel grounds.
The island has a host of lovely bed and breakfasts, such as Charlotte’s Rose Inn in Charlottetown, housed in a romantic Victorian home and known for its gourmet breakfasts. The Graham Inn in Hunter River has a gorgeous salt-water indoor pool. Staying at The Inn at Bay Fortune, you get to enjoy breakfasts made by Chef Smith and tour the farm gardens while enjoying impeccable hospitality.
Whatever pace you like to take on your vacations, PEI caters perfectly, with all the Maritimes charm and hospitality you’d expect and more. The gentle isle should be on everyone’s Canadian travel bucket list.