Canada’s smallest province, just 224km (139 miles) long and only 64km (40 miles) across at its widest point, has a gentle rural atmosphere of rolling green meadows in the interior, with a coast of long sandy beaches at the foot of terracotta cliffs. Prince Edward Island (PEI), nestles snugly in the Gulf of St Lawrence, separated from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia by the Northumberland Strait. More than three-quarters of the area is given over to farmland.
Jacques Cartier named the island Ile St-Jean when he spotted it in the 16th century, but the French didn’t colonise it until after their retrenchment following the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. Like Nova Scotia, the island was transformed by the Acadians’ deportation and their replacement by New Englanders, who named it after Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, in 1799. The New Englanders preferred to exploit their property as absentee landlords, leaving it mainly to Irish and Scottish immigrants to clear the forests for shipbuilding and agriculture.
Prince Edward Island’s great historical moment came in 1864, when its capital, Charlottetown, hosted a meeting of Maritime leaders, with delegates from Ontario and Québec, to chart the path to Canada’s federal status as a united dominion. Since 1997, Confederation Bridge has connected PEI (at Borden-Carleton) with Cape Jourimain in New Brunswick. Despite fears that the island would lose its distinct character, the bridge has certainly boosted tourism.
After visiting centrally located Charlottetown, you can take three well-marked scenic drives around the island: Blue Heron Coastal Drive in the centre, North Cape Coastal Drive to the west, and Points East Coastal Drive to the east, corresponding roughly to the three counties, Queens, Prince and Kings.
The island’s low-key charm is reflected in its capital city (population 32,000). Named after the wife of George III of England, Charlottetown offers a colourful mix of greenery and Victorian-style buildings in red stone. It’s a busy port, a commercial and tourist centre, but remains resolutely old-fashioned.
From Charlottetown, you can head north to the great beaches of Prince Edward Island National Park. The north shore’s amazingly warm water (22°C/72°F in summer) offers the balmiest bathing in the Maritimes. The park includes the most popular attraction on the whole island, Green Gables House, a neat white-frame farmhouse with green shutters. Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874–1942) lived here as a child and later used it as the setting for her novel, Anne of Green Gables. Here, Montgomery’s typewriter is displayed.
The Orwell Corner Historic Village includes original log cabins built in the early 1800s. Most of the early settlers here were Scottish and in summer the sounds of the Highlands can be enjoyed at a weekly ceilidh, an evening of Scottish music and dancing.
In 1803 a Scotsman by the name of Lord Selkirk financed the emigration of three shiploads of impoverished Highlanders, who had lost their land in the Highland Clearances, to Prince Edward Island. The ‘Selkirk Pioneers’ settled in Eldon, 13km (8 miles) south of Orwell, and today a restoration and reconstruction, the Lord Selkirk Pioneer Settlement, provides insight into their existence. It is one of the largest collections of authentic log buildings in Canada. The clans gather in Eldon every year in early August for the Highland Games.
Read more about Canada in Insight Guides: Canada
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