I eyed the only other group waiting in the lobby of the small Charlottetown airport on Prince Edward Island (PEI). They were three, average-looking middle-aged men, not a Bradley Wiggins among them. I was relieved that not everyone else in my cycling tour group was going to be ridiculously fit and young. The three men were physicians from Minneapolis who, once a year, got together to go on a cycling trip. I could take them.
I’m an enthusiastic, if not particularly accomplished, bicyclist and an equally enthusiastic Canadaphile. So a few years ago, for a milestone birthday – I’m not saying which, but you can use the word “century” in its description – my friend Patricia took me on a cycling trip of PEI. I came upon pictures from that trip while cleaning and, still avoiding the cleaning a week later, I’m going to tell you about the trip.
PEI is one of Canada’s Maritime Provinces and the 104th largest island in the world. Inhabited by the Mi’kmaq when the French found their way there in 1534, it became Canada’s 7th province in 1873. It was named after the father of Queen Victoria and the entire island retains a very Victorian look and feel.
We – the docs, Patricia and I — were picked up at the airport in a van by two older-but-buff guides and driven to Victoria-by-the-Sea where our week-long tour would start. There, we were joined by the last of our tour group: a couple of young marathoners from Texas.
Victoria-by-the-Sea is a small fishing village — we’d learn over the week that the coast of PEI is lined with one charming fishing village after another — with a beach, a chocolate factory and a semi-professional theatre where we saw a bad performance of A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters. We’d also learn that PEI is full of lighthouses and the first one we came across was the one at Victoria. The sign in front said, “Open by chance.” Chance opened for us. There was an exhibit about keepers on the first floor, and we climbed the few steps to the lantern room.
The goal of the group’s first day on the road was to make it to Fort Amherst National Historic Park for lunch. Fort Amherst, built in 1758, was the site of the first European settlement on PEI. There are no structures left at the fort, but it has an expansive view of Charlottetown across the harbour. The docs and the marathoners bombed down the road at warp speed. Patricia and I stopped to commune with cows grazing next to a cemetery. We stopped to take a picture of wildflowers along the road. We stopped for the delish mid-morning snack of fruit and nuts laid out for us in the back of our sag van in a church parking lot. The guide driving the van thanked us: she’d spent an hour cutting and peeling fruit, and we were the only ones who partook.
That’s the way it was the entire week. Patricia and I were, it turned out, the only ones who had made the trip to see PEI. The others were there to race (which begs the question: why come all the way to PEI?). Since we each were given maps and directions in the morning and left to ride to the next town/hotel on our own, it worked out well.
The second day was when the actual traveling began. We rode along the southern coast from Victoria to another seaport, Summerside. Summerside is stuffed with huge, Victorian mansions and we had the afternoon to do a self-guided walking tour of the old residential area. Our hotel was across from the harbour and the Harbourfront Jubilee Theatre, so in the evening we went to see the musical “Anne and Gilbert,” based on the Anne of Green Gables book series by Lucy Maud Montgomery. It redeemed Canadian theatre after the Victoria Playhouse experience. The marathoners went to the College of Piping for a free performance.
PEI’s most famous resident is the fictional Anne of Green Gables, the main character of a children’s classic about a smart and spunky turn-of-the-century orphan sent to live with on a farm on PEI. Our morning ride the next day was to the Anne of Green Gables Museum, where we had a box lunch, then on to Kindred Spirits Country Inn in Cavendish. We made it there in time to visit the house that inspired Green Gables, next door to the inn and now a museum on turn-of-the-century farm life.
Green Gables is within the boundaries of PEI National Park, and we rode through the park to our next destination, the Stanhope Beach Resort. The resort started as a log cabin in 1789. Subsequent owners build around the cabin (now part of the hotel lobby) and it officially became a hotel in 1860. It’s located on a bluff at the tip of a peninsula and has the look and feel of an Edwardian summer home. Croquet anyone?
Our tour ended in Charlottetown, the capitol of PEI. We rode to the park for a nature talk by a ranger before hitting the Confederation Trail – a rail-to-trail that spans most of PEI – toward our Charlottetown hotel, the Inns on Great George. I was a little self-conscious, stomping into the elegant Inns in my bicycling clothes, bugs splattered all over me, with hair a la Albert Einstein despite the helmet (or because of it). The inn subsumes an entire block of early 19th century houses.
Before our farewell dinner, we had a walking tour with a costumed – Victorian, of course — guide. Charlottetown: founded by the French in 1720, taken by the British in 1745, attacked by Massachusetts in 1775, became a city in 188…. Wait a minute: attacked by Massachusetts?! Actually, Massachusetts-based privateers who, under the guise of helping the American cause during the Revolutionary War, took two ships to PEI, looted Charlottetown, and took several prisoners. When they got back to Massachusetts and presented the prisoners to George Washington, he was furious. He told them to return the prisoners and the property. They returned the prisoners.
Travel companions can make or break a trip and we all got along fabulously – the docs, the marathoners, the guides and two History Tourists – and we all hated to leave at the end of the week. The tour was run by the Easy Rider bicycling tour company. Their motto is “Ride to Eat.” I can do that.