Published: August 3rd 2006August 3rd 2006
Motorhome News from North America 18 21st - 28th July 2006
Prince Edward Island
Alrighty, let’s get started.
An eight-mile bridge separates Prince Edward Island from the New Brunswick mainland, sweeping like a giant snake across the wide Northumberland Strait. 140 miles long east to west, and up to 40miles across, PEI is home to 170,000 people who would doubtless never dream of living anywhere else on earth. The short summers are mild and sunny, the rolling fields so green and fertile and the ever present sea flows gently back and forth on shallow shores where the Micmac Indians once fished. The winters are long, chill winds drive down from the northeast and snow will blanket the ground as the sea freezes, cocooning the island to sleep out the winter. The French called it Ile St Jean when they arrived in 1663. The British renamed it, out of spite, to Prince Edward Island, in honour of Edward Augustus, the son of George III. In a blaze of patriotic fervour, they then chose to name its three counties, Princes, Queens and Kings, facing out towards the Gulf of St Lawrence - and England.
Shortly after our arrival, Janice felt
the need - as women often do, to sit in a chair for an hour and chat to a young hairdresser. Conversation turned to travel as it inevitably does.
“What can you tell me about the west side of the island?” Janice asked. “What should we definitely not miss?”
“I really don’t know,” the young lady replied. “I’ve never been.”
This is perhaps typical of islanders, who picture the end of the world to be where the land meets the endless sea, a self-contained life of contentment in a barrel. So, it was left to us to do our own research and journey the forty miles to the tip of Princes County at North Point. It’s around this area that they harvest much of the Maritime’s Irish moss. As everyone knows, Irish moss is a sea-weed used to produce carrageenan, a thickener for such things as ice cream, blancmange, jelly, cosmetics, toothpaste and latex paint. Yes, of course you knew all that! The practice of using horses to rake the storm-tossed sea weed, wading waist deep in the shallow waters along the shore still exists, though we saw men with hand rakes loading tractor trailers at North Point and a
film clip we watched showed tractors working on the water-margins and boats equipped with moss rakes, a somewhat more modern approach. PEI produces half of the world’s supply of carrageenan we’re told, an important contribution to the economy. Princes County is rather gentle, the ‘Emerald Isle’ as some know PEI, with its mud-red soil and mud-red beaches. There are no white dogs on PEI they tell us.
Queens, at the heart of the Island, benefits not only from its gift of lush rolling hills and golden sandbars close offshore, but also from the heritage of Lucy Maud Montgomery; the earth trodden by her most famous character, Anne of Green Gables. Green Gables Farm which today houses the memories of Anne, actually belonged to L M Montgomery’s father’s cousin. She never actually lived there, but visited on many occasions and walked the lanes thereabouts, doubtless daydreaming and planning her future as a world-renowned author. Today, the renovated farm is open to dreamers like us who travel in pilgrim fashion in an attempt to understand the grass roots of the storyteller’s story. It’s touristy but ‘nice’ - that good old English word so suited to the ‘oh so English’ gardens; the
hollyhocks around the door, the clematis on the wall and the lovingly tended borders.
If you are an ‘Anne of Green Gables’ fan - and there are many across the world, you should not miss the musical. It has been running for 42 years to date and, as PEI’s greatest tourist pull, it will doubtless eventually outrun Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap. I’m not on record as a fan and knew little of the story before we arrived, but we joined a packed theatre audience to watch the antics of carrot haired, freckle-faced Anne and her crew of fabulous performers re-enact the story all little girls - and millions of Japanese adore. A high percentage of visitors to PEI must end up here at some stage during their stay - though where they are during the rest of the day remains a mystery. There is a sense of emptiness across the island during the day, a timeless, peacefulness.
Should you need to catch a Number 98 bus to Victoria, it would be advisable to wait at the bus stop outside the Visitor Centre in Charlottetown, the capital of PEI. The red double-decker runs throughout the summer, adding a touch of
in Charlottetown, not really going to Victoria
‘Olde England’ to the downtown area lined with Queen Anne and Victorian, ‘New England’ houses. Charlottetown is the seat of Canada’s roots. It was here that the first meeting was held leading to Canadian Confederation in 1867.
Amongst the pages of ‘1,000 Things you must see before you die’, there is, I’m told, a mention of an exciting opportunity not to be missed on PEI. In a pretty garden tucked way out in the sticks there are three small buildings, a garden bar, a church and a summerhouse. They are built from 25,000 empty bottles; not beer you understand, but all good wine bottles, green and brown, white and yellow - all glistening in the sunlight. Now, is that exciting or what? I think we’re in danger of becoming tourists.
There are just two things on the ‘essential list’ for all visitors to PEI. The first is to have one’s fill of Anne of Green Gables - in whatever form that might take. The second is to seek out the best Lobster Supper money can buy! Our camp host recommended New Glasgow Seafood nearby for our evening meal. The unpretentious restaurant seats 500 diners every night of the
week for the ten weeks of summer and beyond, serving whole lobsters, mussels and chowder, and amazing jaw-wrenching lemon meringue pie in copious quantities. Numerous venues serve lobster suppers throughout the island, (many churches have also jumped in on the successful money-spinner to boost their funds) and certainly we wouldn’t have missed it. I’m not sure the lobsters like it a great deal - and I have to say, I don’t agree with plonking any living creature in boiling water, it sounds like Hell! Do a few sums by the way: 500 lobsters every night for ten weeks, served in different quantities at ten different venues - and then double it for good measure to take account of off-holiday season sales - then double it again for exports and you might have some idea of the value of lobsters to the economy!
Kings County to the east has the undulating countryside of Sussex and the shallow, muddy estuaries of our Suffolk coast; patchwork fields of ripening oats and golden barley, potatoes in flower and cabbages in rows on red-soiled furrows, fresh-cut meadows and verdant pasture, heads down cows in black and white, tree-lined fields of English proportions and mixed
woodland on satin hillsides and red clay beaches with red clay cliffs. This eastern end of the Island is swept by the ravages of the Atlantic Ocean in winter, constantly moving the long offshore sandbanks, a haven for bathers and nesting plovers in summer. For one brief moment there was a yearning deep inside for the windswept dunes of Norfolk. Generally though, the beaches are shallow, weed-fringed and heavy with muddy red sand. There are many small harbours along this coast with rows of wooden fisherman’s huts stacked with lobster pots and colourful marker buoys, and lined with bobbing open inshore boats. We counted as many as 90 boats in one harbour alone, a testament to the importance of lobster - and bluefin tuna, the prized pink sushi for export to Japan. Freshly caught tuna is rushed by truck across to Halifax, Nova Scotia. From there it is flown to Vancouver, and onwards to Tokyo where it arrives within 36 hours of coming ashore. This was net mending time for the lobster crews, their seasons are spring and autumn locally.
Birding has taken a back seat in recent weeks whilst we have been visiting friends and doing other touristy
things. Migration time will be upon us again quite soon and we’ll also be further out into the Atlantic where we should spot a few more sea birds. This east coast has brought a few new North American species over the past week or so, including gannets, great cormorants, razorbills, eider, black-legged kittiwakes and black scoter. We’re still hoping to reach Newfoundland to see the puffins before they finally leave with their young for the wide-open sea sometime in August.
Sunday brought intermittent showers, not at all encouraging with the temptation of some good-looking golf courses in the area. News of Tiger Wood’s lead in the British Open at Hoylake had reached us whilst checking out the weather forecast on the car radio - and where’s the most likely place to find a big-screen TV on a wet Sunday? Yes, at a golf course, of course! There were two courses on our route. We stopped at one for coffee in the morning to watch Tiger leading the procession and moved on for a late lunch at another where we saw the final few holes - and yet another trophy for Tiger’s mile long mantelpiece. We did eventually get to
play ourselves later in the week in glorious sunshine on an excellent course; as lush and green as green can be. Our lack of practice certainly shows, so we won’t talk about the scores in public!
The island’s roads are rather poor, (in common with much of Canada - even the major highways make driving hard work for much of the way) and the island’s coastal routes rarely offer views of the sea or places to pull off for a break. Away from the coast however, the roadside verges are trimmed with pride along the straight grids through farmland, edged with black-eyed Susan, ox-eye daisies, and lupins gone to seed. Signs at the roadside announce in big letters, ‘Irish Cobblers for Sale’, Fresh lobster, crab, mussels, oysters, clams - and quahaugs, whatever they might be.
Winnie’s next 5,000mile service was due this week and with some help from ‘tourist information’, we located a dealer to do the work. That’s our third service so far, with 15,000miles on the clock since we started. We have only encountered a couple of minor problems. Water has been getting into one of the front sidelights but hopefully that’s cured, and now we
need a new door-opening switch for the driver’s door when we can get to a Ford dealer - for the time being we have to open the passenger door either by hand or with the key. They’re just niggly things that can be easily and cheaply fixed.
A number of our UK motorhome trips have taken us to Scotland in recent years and, outside of a few major cities, the population is spread rather thinly across the moors and mountains into the Highlands. Imagine the crowds if the tens of thousands of Scots who have emigrated to all the far flung corners of the world had stayed there! The heather would be covered with tartan kilts, unruly haggis, the drone of bagpipes would be unbearable and the moors even deeper in sheep droppings and midges. Many Scots came here to Canada’s Maritimes, some none too friendly when it came to taking sides when England played America in past times of war. Their many descendants are still here, looking after the landmarks engrained in the island’s history. On our first day, we passed through Glencoe, Iona, Selkirk Road, New Glasgow, Culloden, Caledonia, Kilmuir and Glenwilliam, we heard bagpipes in their
Note the red sand in the bunker and the green grass
death-throes outside the Visitor Centre and met at least three MacDonalds.
And then there’s the Irish. There were roadside mailboxes painted orange, green and white outside the homes of Murphy, Doyle and O’Reilly. In addition to places like Belfast, there’s a small town in the west called O’Leary. O’Leary has a church or three, a few houses, an O’Leary Co-op and Tire Depot - and a quilting emporium of gargantuan proportions in the basement of the O’Leary Pharmacy. Quilting is one of those peculiar pastimes fulfilled with passion by ladies of all ages throughout Canada without the necessity to carry a WI identity card. This is an Aladdin’s Cave for lovers of quilting, embroidery, needlepoint, knitting and dressmaking - and all sorts of crafts for the long winter nights. Here, you will find buttons and beads, prints and patterns, bolts of fabric and balls of wool, ribbon and tape, and silks and cottons in a hundred shades. If it’s your thing, take a look at www.quiltgallerypei.com, but there is no way the website could do it justice! One presumes every man, woman and child on the island makes quilts in their spare time - the Quilt Gallery certainly has sufficient
stock for all of them!
Religion has a strong part to play on all islands, bonding communities and minding souls. The white churches of PEI mark the centre of towns and villages, reflecting history much in the way churches do in Europe. Often their ornate spires appear in quite remote areas, and, more often than not, there will be two side-by-side of differing denominations: mostly United Church of Scotland, United Church of Canada, Anglican, Presbyterian, Baptist and Catholic. Churches, like Nations, grow in resolve and loyalty in response to adversity, not wealth, and churches here are closing or falling down in disrepair in the face of falling congregations. There are a few churches for sale, for conversion to dwellings or businesses, but even as a gift, the cost of conversion would undoubtedly outweigh the final value.
A modest house on a modest plot will set you back some £20,000 here on the island; a palace on a few acres by the coast, perhaps £150,000. But don’t rush, there are plenty for sale and you might want to think on about those extreme winters and where a living might come from. There are some magnificent properties across the island;
white wooden buildings with delightful verandas and triple garages, an acre or two of manicured lawn to while away the summer months (both of them) on the ride-on mower. Change is wafting in on a soft summer sea breeze; the realty signs along the roads offer ‘Waterside acreage for Sale’ and Lots for Sale’, in anticipation of a growing population of retirees seeking peace and tranquillity. The huge number of properties on the market reflects continuing hard times perhaps, or a high percentage of second homes. But whatever the roots, it also impacts on the selling price. Today, this is a green and pleasant land, but, should the summer breeze eventually become a winter storm of invaders, its calm and gentle presence will be lost forever.
Campsites are generally still only half full. The attendant at one Provincial Park told us they were full two weeks ago whilst the sun beat down on the red muddy shores. “Where are they now?” I enquired. She shrugged her shoulders wearily. “They’ve gone home, but they’ll be back if the weather picks up again. Most of them only live a few miles down the road.” It seems the locals prefer to be in their caravans or trailer-tents by the beach to being in their own home! Campsites can be very sociable places, where friends are made and resurrected, and company is enjoyed over a glass of wine or around the campfire on many a balmy evening. One shopkeeper explained that the Americans are staying away because of the fuel prices and the poor exchange rate. “To compound this, the Canadians are taking advantage of the exchange rates to holiday in America,” he said. That’s a double whammy for Canadian tourism this season. I’d not thought of that.
We leave PEI with a feeling we have missed something of its splendour. For all of our hopes and lifelong images, the island is, well, just a pleasant place to spend a few days. Anne of Green Gables is but a dream, like many other stories born of local people and local knowledge - a watercolour painting on a rose-tinted wash. The salt air, the rust-red beaches, the pink wild roses and evening primrose, the St John’s wort and golden rod by the roadside, wild blueberries and raspberries picked fresh from the bush; these are all pictures printed on faded paper for a special page in the scrapbook. PEI has the charm and solitude of yesteryear.
We are privileged to have been there.
David and Janice. The grey-haired-nomads
An advertisement for a ‘British Pub’ in a PEI tourist brochure proudly announced: ‘Our speciality - British Curry dishes’. Now that’s another story!