Byline: William Thomas
It’s prettier than New Brunswick, tamer than Newfoundland and better manicured than Nova Scotia or your front lawn for that matter.
Comprised of three royal counties – Prince, Queens and Kings, PEI is caught in warm water between the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Northumberland Straight and captured by a lot of idiosyncrasies. You can sleep overnight at the West Point Lighthouse and buy T-shirts dyed with authentic, red PEI dirt. You can learn to play the bagpipes or attend a concert at the College of Piping in Summerside and you can watch a Japanese bride take her vows at Silver Bush wearing the same braids and gown as Lucy Maud Montgomery.
After potatoes and lobster, Anne of Green Gables is this island’s most precious commodity. So much so than when Islanders were asked for suggestions on naming the Confederation Bridge, now linking them to mainland New Brunswick at Cape Tormentine – the “Span of Green Gables” got an awful lot of attention.
And let’s hope the world’s largest eggbeater (15' tall) near the Acadian town of Tignish never topples down on the Potato Museum at O’Leary (MASH!) making the Seaweed Museum at Miminegash very, very nervous. Tignish’s Tracker pipe organ in the church is so rare and finely tuned musicians come from all over the world for recitals. O’Leary is known for great golf, skiing, tobogganing and dogsled racing while the interpretive centre at Miminegash will tell you how much Irish moss you ate in your last ice cream cone.
Odd, that such a small island would boast the long and glorious 350 kilometer Confederation Trail or that Charlottetown, called the “Cradle of Confederation” and the tiniest capital in all of Canada, would be home to more history and heritage than several other provinces.
Add to all that eccentricity the brightly coloured fishing boats bobbing in the rocky harbours beside stacks of wooden lobster traps and it’s like Peggy’s Cove has gone provincial. Gentle, rolling green fields meander down to sandy shores and you’re rarely out of sight of a river, a lake or a backwater bay. Simply put, this island is just too postcard quaint for its own good. They ought to put a white picket fence around this whole picturesque province and call the place PEIville.
Distinguished by lonely back roads and sprawling sand dunes, towns of four buildings and tree-lined open fields, you get the feeling PEI is the most sparsely populated province in Canada. In fact, it’s the most densely populated province that somehow manages to look like a secluded sweep of grassland surrounded by the sea.
And yet, throw a stick in any direction and you’ll likely hit a cottage. Like no where else in Canada is the cottage “king” of accommodations. They are everywhere – beside bays, behind barns, along roads, on riverbanks, in woods, within towns and in the middle of nowhere. Of every type imaginable they range from a gentrified garden shed with an outhouse down the path to two-family, five bedroom chalets with hot tubs and fireplaces.
And when it comes to the traditional PEI cottage, you cannot do any better than the original – Shaw’s at Brackley Beach.
In the early 1800s, it was common for farmers to supplement their incomes by renting out rooms for summer visitors. In 1860, Scotsman John Shaw took the logical but nevertheless risky step of building a five-room inn on his farm near Rustico Bay.
That was 146 years ago during the time Englishman Francis Mclintock was surveying the bottom of the ocean for the much anticipated first transatlantic telegraph cable. So, although there were no phones in the rooms at Shaw’s Hotel, there were plenty of Kerosene lamps, quilts and hand-hewed accessories that adorn Shaw’s rooms even today.
By 1890, the hotel had expanded to 30 rooms and since then it has only gotten bigger and better. Today Shaw’s has 15 hotel rooms on three levels, all decorated in country elegance surrounding the original farmhouse, which is itself a spacious suite with a sitting room, fireplace and antique furnishings. Today’s Shaw Hotel, circa 1860, is Canada’s oldest continually family-operated inn. I know this because Sam, the Shaw’s big friendly golden retriever, led me to a large bronze plaque on the front lawn on which Parks Canada declared the hotel a national historical site.
Besides the 12 cottages that circle the main, three-story lodge, 13 more cottages have been built along a red car path that leads down to the bay. Made of either pine or cedar, the only commonality among all PEI cottages, the newer ones have more privacy as well as woodstove fireplaces, full kitchens, color TVs and BBQs out on the comfortable decks facing the bay.
From honeymooners to large families, more and more visitors are renting Shaw’s cottages in the winter. Rustic looking from the outside, they offer a taste of PEI decadence as robe-clad couples wander with drink in hand from hot tub to fireplace to gazing at sunsets on the deck.
Not content with just great accommodations and prime location, the restaurant at Shaw’s is known throughout the island for its superb seafood buffet. Here among all the fresh delicacies of mussels, steamers and scallops, only Atlantic lobster is a repeat entree during the week. Sunday brunch has a dazzling dessert table which has become a special ritual for locals.
Unhurried and unstructured, Shaw’s Hotel offers accommodation only or an American plan with breakfast and dinner included in your room rate. Ask and you shall receive a special box lunch to take along on a daily excursion.
Centrally located, you can drive from Shaw’s to downtown Charlottetown in 20 minutes, to Summerside in 50 and more importantly, to New London in 30 minutes and Carr’s where you can get the best fresh seafood on the East Coast, a few steps from the fishing boats. Near the intersections, the tiny white house where Lucy Maud Montgomery was born displays her wedding dress and scrapbooks.
Whether it’s into Charlottetown for a “dancin’, fiddlin’, laughin’” Ceilidhs at The Benevolent Irish Society Hall or a day trip up to North Cape to watch seals and marvel at one of the world’s largest reefs at low tide – the island is incredibly accessible.
Whether it’s betting on a harness horse at the Charlottetown Driving Park Entertainment Centre or bicycling around deep inlets and across tidal streams, PEI is a place of sheer pleasure with a pace of yesteryear.
And everywhere is that Down East Irish wit. Frustrated at not being able to find a restaurant open after eight o’clock in mid-October after the tourists had gone home, I said to a gentleman overturning chairs onto dining room tables: “You people must get a lot of sleep out here, eh?”
“We would,” he said without so much as a smile, “if we stayed open.”
William Thomas is the author of seven books of humour including Never Hitchhike On The Road Less Travelled. Signed copies of his books are available at www.williamthomas.ca