CHARLOTTETOWN, Prince Edward Island — For 15 years, Prince Edward Island has been connected to the New Brunswick mainland by the Confederation Bridge, an architectural marvel spanning eight miles of the Northumberland Strait, making it the world’s longest bridge over ice-covered waters.
The bridge’s existence, however, is still something of a sore point among some lifelong Prince Edward Island residents, who believe it makes their little haven in the Gulf of St. Lawrence a bit too accessible to mainlanders.
Islanders always have had a healthy appreciation for their independence. Way back in 1864, they hosted the Charlottetown Conference, which would lay the groundwork for Canadian unification in 1867. But when that time came, the good people of Prince Edward said, in effect: Thanks, but no thanks. Islanders opted to remain free agents while they weighed other offers, even entertaining a brief, now-unthinkable courtship with the United States. It wasn’t until six years later, in 1873, that the “Birthplace of Confederation” actually cast its lot with the other Canadian provinces.
These days that same provincial pride is evident from the moment visitors come off of the bridge at Borden-Carleton. One of the first things they’re likely to notice is how well the Islanders maintain their land. Now understand, it wouldn’t be quite accurate to say residents of Prince Edward have well-maintained lawns. No, the lawns of Prince Edward are perfect. We’re talking mile upon mile of pristinely manicured greenery that would make the superintendent of Augusta National blush.
Ken Mill, who has spent nearly his entire life on Prince Edward, said visitors often comment on that when they visit his business in Rollo Bay, on the island’s northeast coast. (Did we mention that Mill’s business is moonshining? We’ll come back to that.) Mill said it all boils down to the civic pride that seems to be passed from one generation to the next.
He and other Islanders occasionally share stories about old-timers who grew up on PEI and never left, not even for a day. Shoot, why would they? They have easy access to the quaint capital city and rolling farm land, relatively tolerable winters and beautiful beaches. If Islanders need a fix of Tim Hortons (think Canada’s Starbucks) it’s never far away. Same, too, for Cows ice cream (think Canada’s Ben & Jerry’s), which was founded here and still hand-produces 400 buckets of Gooey Mooey, Wowie Cowie and 30 other artery-clogging flavors at its tiny factory on Capital Drive in Charlottetown. In an adjacent room, two Cows staffers churn out 1,500 T-shirts daily, with wacky graphics about “Mootube” and “Angry Herds.”
And what Islanders lack – this summer the local newspaper reported the classic nonstory: Costco had no plans to open a PEI store – they’re often just as happy to do without.
The local pride that’s so evident translates into a welcoming environment for tourists, perhaps because Islanders know they have a pretty good thing going, and they like to show it off.
In Charlottetown, the harbor-side capital, the atmosphere is festive on summer nights. Along Victoria Row, you might find a jazz quintet entertaining diners in open-air restaurants such as Castello’s and Fishbones. A few blocks down the hill, bands play nightly on an outdoor stage at Peake’s Quay, a touristy bar overlooking the marina and, more importantly, a Cows store. Prince Edward Island National Park on the North Shore is home to a stunning 25-mile sliver of beach that benefits from the gulf’s unusually warm waters. Due west, in Cavendish, visitors arrive by the busload at Green Gables Heritage Place to celebrate Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novel “Anne of Green Gables,” which itself was a celebration of island life.
The museum that honors Montgomery’s legacy also provides the target line for the tee shot on No. 11 at the adjacent Green Gables Golf Club. Golf has become one of PEI’s top attractions. This pastoral island, only the 23rd-largest in Canada, has more than 30 courses for its 142,000 residents and tourists. Some of the layouts are mom-and-pops – farmland roughly reshaped into golf holes. But most of the courses are the real deal, including Green Gables. It was designed in 1939 by Canadian icon Stanley Thompson and updated in recent years by Thomas McBroom, another prolific Canadian designer.
The area around Cavendish also is home to three of the island’s must-plays: Glasgow Hills, a Les Furber design, and two Graham Cooke courses, Eagles Glenn and Andersons Creek, where the mussels are free and plentiful. Andersons Creek gives away 15,000 pounds of mussels annually. That’s one of the benefits of living on an island where seafood is so plentiful that lobster – lobster! – used to be regarded as peasant food.
The Links at Crowbush Cove, on the northeast side of the island, generally is regarded as the best course on Prince Edward. It’s one of four provincial courses, the others being Mill River on the west side and Dundarave and Brudenell River, which form a 36-hole facility on the southeast coast.
At No. 23 on the list of Golfweek’s Best Modern Courses in Canada, Crowbush Cove seems underrated. There’s a lot here to like, starting with the conditioning. On No. 1, I passed a crew of three workers repairing divots. (Your tax dollars at work, Islanders!) Starting on No. 5, there is a tremendous stretch of holes that culminates on the par-3 eighth, played to the sound of the surf crashing just beyond the dunes to the right. The 11th is pure eye candy – 52 steps up a staircase to a tee providing a panoramic view of the gulf. Coming up 18, you’re met with disparate sensations – crows cawling in the woods off to the right and a calming view of the gulf to your left.
Locals seem to favor Brudenell River over its sister course, which is a bit of a head-scratcher. Brudenell is a pleasant, unpretentious, lightly bunkered and highly walkable parkland layout with some nice views of the namesake river.
Dundarave, however, is a completely different experience, a Michael Hurdzan-Dana Fry production known island-wide for its difficulty. Some locals speak of it in hushed terms, as if to suggest that something far more lethal than a few bogeys awaits anyone who dares to make the drive to Georgetown to play there. No question, Dundarave is a handful, but there are some scoring opportunities, such as the par-3 fifth and the near-drivable, par-4 16th. The short, par-4 eighth might be the coolest hole on the island, owing to the fact that it has more options than a fully loaded Mercedes.
As good as PEI’s golf is – and at times, it borders on sublime – Islanders always have been better at the post-round bonding. It seems the folks on Prince Edward Island grasped the idea of a 19th hole long before there was such a thing.
According to local lore, early unification talks in the 1860s were helped along by “the goodness of our champagne.” George Coles, leader of the island’s Liberal Opposition, would come to be known as the Father of Canadian Confederation in part because his thriving brewery was said to have nursed along talks during the 1864 Charlottetown Conference.
So it’s somewhat strange to learn that island elders so eagerly embraced the temperance movement. In 1901, Prince Edward became the first province to institute Prohibition, and then was the last to repeal it, in 1948. Even then, Islanders had to have a note from their doctors if they needed a nip. Spirits weren’t readily available at retail until the 1960s.
For years, Islanders responded with sophisticated rum-running operations on the North Shore and by producing their own home-brewed spirits.
“Every family on Prince Edward Island at some time had made moonshine,” said the aforementioned Mill, co-founder of The Myriad View Artisan Distillery.
Mill was speaking in the past tense, though moonshining remains something of an open secret on Prince Edward. Myriad View’s small retail shop, located in a red cottage on a lovely bluff overlooking the strait, is nicknamed “the moonshine confessional,” where locals share stories of brewing their secret spirits. Mill said one elderly man recalled putting mash in a steel garbage can and covering it with manure, which warmed the mash to help it ferment and also dissuaded liquor inspectors from investigating.
Mill’s business partner, Dr. Paul Berrow, a family practitioner, knew nothing of this history before moving to PEI from Manitoba. At social gatherings, Mill said, Berrow inevitably would be asked, “Hey Doc, do you want a drink of ’shine?” That got Berrow to wondering: Why can’t we do this legally? He and Mill, an otherwise upstanding “lifeboat man” in the Coast Guard, found a legal loophole to produce and distribute moonshine, and by 2007 they were selling their Strait Shine, and later their Strait Lightning, which checks in at a breathalyzer-busting 75 percent alcohol/volume. Those signature products pique visitors’ curiosity, but Mill and Berrow also produce more conventional spirits – rum, whiskey, gin and vodka – that are flavorful adaptations of local recipes.
All of this might seem odd to visitors, particularly international travelers. But it’s perfectly in keeping with the island’s independent and industrious spirit.