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Photos and text by Maureen Littlejohn
Prince Edward Island is full of memories for me. The rolling green fields, bright red mud, sunny smiles and drivers who stop for pedestrians were just the same on a recent trip as when I was a teenager, cycling the back roads with my best friend Melanie. This year’s fresh-caught lobster and scrubbed, island-grown new potatoes were just as delicious as when I attended my brother’s P.E.I. wedding almost 20 years ago.
As soon as I arrived in Charlottetown the feeling came back. Something always happens to me when I land on the island. The big city tension I tend to carry everywhere just melts away.
Revitalized and full of energy, I was ready to explore.
Prince Edward Island is home to 63 lighthouses, averaging one per 34 square miles. That’s the highest concentration of lighthouses in North America. A girlhood fantasy of mine was to live in one of these solitary towers, so on this trip I managed to stay overnight in one. West Point Lighthouse, built in 1875 and 21 metres high, is P.E.I.’s tallest lighthouse. Climbing to the top, after admiring the museum display on the ground floor, I was huffing and puffing. Being a lighthouse keeper, I realized, was not an easy job. Despite being winded, the spectacular view was worth taking on those endless spiral stairs. Plus, it was fascinating to get up close to the lamp and Fresnel prism lens that continues to be a beacon for safe sailing.
A small wing was added to the lighthouse in the 1980s, converting it into an inn. In 2010 renovations brought the 13 guest rooms up to four-star standard. Although they were already booked, I peeked into the Keeper’s Quarters and The Tower Room in the main building which were furnished with period antiques. My room was more modern, on the wing’s second floor, with walkout deck where I watched the sun go down in a glorious, rosy blaze.
At breakfast I met Carol Livingston, a retired teacher who spearheaded the community action to make the lighthouse into an inn. “We had a campaign called New Life for the Old Light. It brought people together in the community and once the inn and museum opened there was employment for them, too. It’s been good for the area.” The last keeper retired in 1963 and the lantern now operates electrically. “If I see the bulb is out, I’ll call the Coast Guard to fix it,” Carol explained.
While on the western part of the island, I decided to drop into Skinner’s Pond, the tiny hamlet where singer/songwriter Stompin’ Tom Connors grew up. Stompin’ Tom’s songs always make me laugh. Lyrics such as “Bud the spud from the bright red mud,” are easy to remember and contagious at parties. I had read that Tom bought and restored his old homestead, school and some surrounding land in the 1970s and I wanted to see them for myself. He passed away in 2013 at age 77, but Tom would be mighty proud of what’s going on in Skinner’s Pond. This year, the Stompin’ Tom Connors Centre Homestead & Schoolhouse opened on Canada Day. “He always envisioned something happening here,” explained Anne Arsenault, general manager of the local economic development group, Tignish Initiatives.Looking around the cultural centre with Anne, I saw that it was equipped with a gift shop, stage and bar. “We plan to showcase P.E.I. talent every night. There’s a stool at the end of the bar that’s reserved for Tom. He liked to drink his Moosehead beer warm,” said Arsenault with a chuckle.
My last western stop was the Canadian Potato Museum, a testament to the humble tuber that is P.E.I.’s top cash crop. “Approximately 1.5 million tonnes of potatoes are grown a year on 90,000 acres and the majority are processed for French fries,” tour guide Stanley MacDonald explained. My favorite exhibit was that of little coffins holding diseased potatoes, with explanations of the various blights that can ruin a crop.
Now it was time to head east. Victoria-by-the-Sea is an historic fishing village in the central part of the island. Wandering the charming main street, I poked my head into the many boutiques offering handmade soaps, jewelry, pottery and textiles. Renting a kayak from By-the-Sea Kayaking, I paddled around the Northumberland Strait, then headed to the Landmark Café for a cool drink and reviving lobster roll.
Along with lobsters and lighthouses, P.E.I. is known for a feisty fictional character. Lucy Maud Montgomery’s book Anne of Green Gables may have been written in 1908, but the story is still as popular as ever as witnessed by Anne, this year’s CBC series. It’s also big in Japan. The ginger-haired heroine has been a role model for Japanese women since the book was translated and published there in the 1950s. Hiroko Suzuki, with Tourism P.E.I., explained why. “She is so smart and strong. Anne is the reason I moved from Japan to Prince Edward Island.” Tough, funny and able to hold her own in a male dominated world, Anne symbolizes the ultimate in girl power, something that is a bit of a taboo subject in Japan. Around 3,500 Japanese tourists come every year to pay homage to the feisty red-head. Souvenir outlet Shop & Play in Borden-Carleton is a big destination for them. Donning puffy sleeved dresses and straw hats with red braids attached, they become Anne for a moment, posing for pictures to show off at home. When in Rome you must do as the Romans do and I happily put on Anne pigtails, too.
Across the parking lot at The Handpie Company, chef and owner Sarah Benetto O’Brien told me she had been inspired by a different fictional series. “I’m a huge fan of the Outlander books by Diana Gabaldon. I wanted to make handpies like the ones described in the novels.” Savory and sweet, the fillings depend on the time of year. I tried the number one favorite, roasted beets, corn and goat cheese. The flakey pastry melted in my mouth and the sweet beets, crunchy corn and silky goat cheese provided a delicious contrast in flavours and textures.
All this eating made it mandatory to visit a few outdoor spots and get some exercise. Basin Head Beach is renowned for its sand (it’s said to sing) and surf. Taking off my shoes and walking through the powdery dunes, I began to hear a squeaky sound coming from my feet. It was very faint, not exactly a song, more like the sound really clean, wet hair makes.
The other beauty spot I visited was P.E.I. National Park, Greenwich. A long, winding boardwalk took me over a quiet marsh area and at the end all I could say was “Wow.” Soft, shifting sands and feathery grasses swayed before my eyes – it was a parabolic dune system. Despite the hordes of touring school kids, I found it striking and, once they left, peaceful.
My last night in P.E.I. I did something I had done on every other trip – indulge in a traditional lobster supper. Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 15 in North Rustico is a 500-seat institution known around the world for its boiled lobster, all-you-can-eat mussels, seafood chowder and 18 metre salad bar. You order your lobster by weight. I opted for a one pounder and couldn’t get enough of the tender, white meat.
My head full of fresh memories, my belly full of lobster, I was sad to leave. But, with P.E.I., I know there will always be a next time.