Slightly expanded version of an article originally published here: http://www.viarail.ca/sites/all/files/media/pdfs/via_destinations/2011/vol8n3/36_via_vol8no3.pdf
Unfortunately for rail travel on Prince Edward Island, the last section of track was abandoned in 1989, eventually replaced by the Trans Canada Trail bicycle path. The good news for cyclists today is that the path of the PEIR meandered wildly, consisting of 147 miles of track for a 120-mile-long island. The contractors were paid by the mile, adding iron solidity to the term “crooked business”. The cost of the railroad, on the verge of bankrupting the government, prompted the Island to reconsider joining the newly minted nation of Canada in 1873, an unpopular idea nearly ten years after John A. McDonald and George-Étienne Cartier crashed a meeting in Charlottetown of the leaders of a proposed Maritime Union, failing to convince them to join their new country. The idea that people would eventually experience the ghosts of Confederation by bicycle along the very path upon which gleaming tracks once promised to unite a nation from Atlantic to Pacific would probably strike the Fathers of Confederation as retrograde. But Prince Edward Island probably contains as many historical ironies per square mile as any place on Earth. There is now a statue of John A. MacDonald, sitting on a bench a block away from where he was found, legend has it, one morning after a particularly productive session of nation building, face down and unconscious at the corner of Great George and Richmond Streets. The statue, while personable, almost seems like it was built to sustain considerable abuse.
If history can’t persuade you to cross the waters, then your stomach might. Food culture on Prince Edward Island has, like everywhere in the last 15 years or so, turned the idea of taking shame in one’s origins on its head, insisting that fine cuisine is best produced using local ingredients. Lobster was once considered poor people’s food, tantamount to eating rats, scattered as fertilizer over farmers’ fields and, as a sandwich ingredient, hidden by schoolchildren out of a sense of intense shame. For people of a certain age, lobster tastes like poverty. It’s because of the commonness of these ingredients that the Island has stumbled into what ought to have been its natural role for decades: seafood mecca.
The word Malpeque holds the same cachet for oyster connoisseurs that Champagne does for lovers of bubbly. Whether you’re at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station or Joe Beef in Montréal, it’s the gold standard. And much like privileging an appellation regionally can be unjust to a comparable product produced just outside the product’s boundary, beautiful oysters can be found all over the Island, not only in Malpeque, each variety representing its particular bay or area. Johnny Flynn, proprietor of Colville Bay Oysters in Lower Rollo Bay was welcoming enough to me in the month of October, asking, “Do you like oysters?” That’s a bit of a no-brainer for me and we proceeded to pop open several of the lightest, most delicious oysters I’ve ever eaten, within eyeshot of the bay in which they were cultivated. Strictly speaking, he’s not a retailer but ships to your better restaurants and seafood shops, absolutely worth seeking out at your local oyster-friendly establishment.
A foodie tourist could do themselves no greater favour than booking into the one-day Boot Camp at the Culinary Institute in Charlottetown, particularly Seafood 101, followed by a meal composed of the fruits of your labour in the picturesque L.M. Montgomery dining room.
Also highly recommended is the Cow’s creamery for their aged cheddar. I picked up a reasonably priced block of their extra-old variety and found it to be about the best cheddar I’ve ever tasted. Recently at About Cheese, a specialty shop on Toronto’s Church Street, I enquired about Cow’s prize-winning clothbound cheese. The owner wistfully reported that he didn’t stock it anymore because Cow’s had signed an agreement to sell it through Loblaw’s, so I wandered three blocks south and picked some up. The good news about that is, if you’re near a Loblaw’s, the cheese is much less hard to find than it used to be and is absolutely great.
Charlottetown’s Farmer’s Market is a great source of local food of a very high standard, animal, vegetable, and lox on a bagel. The bagel guy smokes his own salmon (and eels!) The place is full of characters, both sellers and buyers, and is a neat place to people-watch as most of the regulars are there as much for the opportunity to catch up with friends as to pick up a few quality groceries. In season, many local fishermen will sell you a bag of mussels for a fraction of what you’d pay on the mainland for mussels that have had to endure a transit. As healthy and fresh as the produce here is, don’t leave without a bag of freshly deep-fried doughnuts.
On Sept. 8, 2010, an obituary found its way into the email accounts of expatriate Prince Edward Islanders everywhere. Even for those who’d never met Gordie Dunn, it was clear that an era in the cultural life of the Island had passed. Charlottetown’s most famous bootlegger had died. The word “bootlegger” may conjure images of the Jazz Age, but while “speakeasies” ceased operation in every other corner of North America post-Prohibition, bootleggers remained a cornerstone of Charlottetown social life into the 21st century. Gordie’s establishment dominated Chestnut Street until the authorities decided to roll up the industry, once and for all, in 2004. Bootlegging establishments were essentially bars in houses, unlicensed, operating on a “gentleman’s agreement” between clients, proprietors and police. Such blind spots are essential to the social fabric of the Island.
Carrying this torch legally forward is Ken Mill, of Myriad View Distillery in Rollo Bay. He began, in 2008, producing what might have knocked Sir John A. unconscious in 1864: moonshine. Or “shine”, as he’s allowed to call it by the liquor authorities. It’s a beautiful drink, as clean and fresh, at 51% alcohol, as can be imagined. Then there’s his Lightning. At 75%, I don’t think I’ve had my sinuses cleared, or my heart warmed, quite so thoroughly in my life. His rum, bottled at 57.1%, is what’s known historically as Sailor’s Rum or Mariner’s Rum. This level of alcohol is the origin of the word “proof”, being the quality at which gunpowder would still ignite if you spilled some on it. Watered down more than that, your gunpowder will fizzle out like a damp squib. He also produces a mighty gin, which, with the high alcohol content, almost freezes its botanical ingredients in time. He’s developing a client base loyal enough to make the trip from the mainland especially to stock their shelves. His product is only available on the Island, either at his distillery or through local liquor stores, so you may want to stock up while you’re here. Tell him Gordie Dunn sent you.
Down the road is Prince Edward Distillery, makers of an award-winning potato vodka, potatoes being, of course, practically the identity of the Island. The vodka tastes distinctly of potatoes, in a very pleasant, subtle way. For an alcoholic trifecta, there’s a winery nearby, Rossignol Estate.
As recent advances in home theatres have made going to the movies almost repugnant, it’s heartening to know that there are two moviegoing experiences on the Island that remind you that it used to be fun. City Cinema is the Maritimes’ last remaining repertory cinema, its cosiness almost a dream for fans of art-house movies. And Brackley Drive-In preserves a distinctly 1950s atmosphere, even in its concession stand, with classic cars framing either side of the outdoor screen.
The show on Prince Edward Island, however, is nature. There are many family-friendly beaches scattered all around the Island. These, however, don’t compare to the epic, cathedral-like beauty of Greenwich Beach. My ritual is always to grab a bite at local institution Rick’s Fish and Chips in nearby St. Peter’s, either before or after your visit to Greenwich. So fortified, you’re ready for the lengthy trek through spectacular dunes, some tall as houses, to the water, which you’ll hear more and more insistently as you approach. Just when you think you’re about to arrive, another layer of dunes presents itself, to the point that you might think you’ll never get there, that the waves are just an auditory illusion. The payoff for all this work is that the beach is yours and you’re alone with the immensity of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It’s a treasure of the Island.
If You Go
-Holland College, Culinary Boot Camps: 4 Sydney St. Charlottetown, (902) 566-9305, www.hollandcollege.com/bootcamps/bootcamps/culinary/full-day-camps
-Colville Bay Oysters, 83 Lower Rollo Bay Road, Souris, (902) 687-2222, www.colvillebayoysterco.com/
-Cows Creamery, 397 Capital Drive (North River Causeway) Charlottetown, (902) 370-3155, www.cowscreamery.ca/
-Farmers Market, 100 Belvedere Road, Charlottetown, (902) 626-3373, http://charlottetownfarmersmarket.weebly.com/
-Myriad View Disillery, 1336 Route 2, Rollo Bay, (902) 687-1281, www.straitshine.com/
-Prince Edward Distillery, 9984 Route 16, Hermanville, (902) 687-2586, www.princeedwarddistillery.com/
-Rossignol Estate Winery, 11147 Shore Road, Little Sands, (902) 962-4193, www.rossignolwinery.com/Rossignol-Winery.html
–City Cinema, 64 King Street, (902) 368-3669, citycinema.net/
-Brackley Drive-In, 3164 Brackley Point Road – Route 15, (902) 672-3333, drivein.ca/
-Rick’s Fish & Chips, 5544 Route 2, St. Peter’s Bay, (902) 961-3438, ricksfishnchips.com/