A Prince of a Place

Prince Edward Island's lack of pretension is what makes Canada's smallest province so genuinely charming.


July 07, 2002|By Alan Solomon | Alan Solomon,Special to the Sun

There is majesty here, but the usual rules on travel destinations don't quite apply to Prince Edward Island.

The one major historical site -- Province House in Charlottetown -- is a place where, on the record, nothing actually took place. The creation of a nation called "Canada" got its start on the second floor, but as an idea, not as legislation or resolution or a declaration of anything. That came later.

The island's two "cities" are hardly cities. Charlottetown's population is slightly over 30,000 soaking wet. In Kansas, Summerside, the other "city," would be just another dot.

There is no famous geyser or mountain or cape on Prince Edward Island. The big tourist draw is a fictional house. Thousands of people -- including a sizable number of Japanese, annually flock to Prince Edward Island just to see Green Gables, an ordinary farmhouse where, in real life, nothing extraordinary happened.

On the other hand, the town of O'Leary does have a 14-foot potato.

So what is Prince Edward Island? Pretty wonderful, once you understand it.

P.E.I., as it's commonly known, is Canada's tiniest province -- about a fifth of the size of Maryland -- a spit of red-dirt potato farms floating between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Because of the high amount of iron oxide in the soil, the dirt is red, and the sand on most of its beaches is red, and the soft cliffs that continually crumble into the sea are red.

It is a land of countryside -- some rolling, some not -- and shingle-sided cottages with clothes drying in the sun, and historic white churches, and fishing villages little changed (aside from satellite TV dishes) in a hundred years.

It is a place of lighthouses and those red beaches. One of the beaches, at Basin Head, is famed for its "singing sands." The sand, supposedly because of its silica content, "sings" when a foot slides across its surface. It's more like a dog's yelp, but "yelping sands" doesn't have the same dash.

One thing Prince Edward Island isn't is as isolated as it was.

When the 8-mile Confedera-tion Bridge opened five years ago, connecting P.E.I. with the New Brunswick mainland, that ended total reliance on ferries (and, for some, small airplanes), and maybe its happy feeling of separation.

"The potential for P.E.I. is in being different, something ... that gives us a special character," one local leader recently told the Guardian, Charlottetown's newspaper. "The sense of being an island was really important to that. I see the bridge as being sort of a backward technology."

The number of tourists visiting the island (where 134,000 live year-round) jumped from 788,000 in 1996 to 1.24 million a year later. The number has held steady since then. Most brought their credit cards, and tourism is booming.

Prince Edward Island now has 25 public golf courses on 2,185 square miles, an area about the size of Miami-Dade County -- which has 16 public courses and, being slightly farther from the Arctic Circle, a longer golf season.

You want to know why people love Prince Edward Island?

It isn't Charlottetown, which, aside from Province House and a surprising number and variety of good restaurants, has no great attraction for visitors.

Queen Street, the main commercial drag, is an imperfect mix of Victorian brick buildings, modern approximations of Victorian brick buildings and a massive arts center (summer home of Anne of Green Gables -- The Musical) with all the exterior charm of a 1970s-era hospital.

Better are a couple of side streets -- Sydney and Richmond (aka Victoria Row) -- which have managed to retain a sense of another time even while being home to a brewpub and an Anne of Green Gables kitsch emporium; and Great George Street, not as great as the name and some literature out there suggests, but nonetheless tree-lined and pleasant.

The Hillsborough River waterfront, long as derelict as the derelicts who hung out there, has in the past decade been converted into a park, garden, marina and fake fishing village with the obligatory casual pub. Here too, are fudge, ice cream and T-shirt shops, the better to draw cash from visitors who arrive there on cruise ships.

From mid-June almost through August, Canadians reportedly throng to this area, called Peake's Wharf. The same thing, I was told, happens at Spinnaker's Landing, site of another fake fishing village on the waterfront at Summerside (population 14,500). For the nine other months of the year, both places mainly sit there, shops closed.

The idea of Canada

More genuine in every way is Province House. Opened in 1847 and still home to the provincial legislature, it was in this sandstone Greek-columned building that modern Canada got a kick-start in 1864.

That story is too long to squeeze into this travelogue -- but it's a tale of economics, railroads, oysters, lobsters and some concern that if the North won the U.S. Civil War, America might be tempted to annex Saskatoon.

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