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The Secret of Prince Edward Island

April 13, 1986|STEVE LIBBY | Libby is a Sumter, S.C., free-lance writer.

CHARLOTTETOWN, Canada — "The first thing we have to do," the man from the tourist office said, "is to tell people where we are."

He's probably right. But in so doing he may intimidate some of the 400,000 visitors who come to Prince Edward Island annually and consider the place the best-kept tourism secret in the hemisphere.

Between Northumberland Strait and the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Atlantic Canada, Prince Edward Island strikes too many as being as distant as another planet. Yet this beautiful island is only 545 miles from Boston (thanks to a pair of ferry rides), 805 from New York (via New Brunswick) and either 480 or 315 miles from Portland, Me., according to your routing.

It's a short hop away from major northeastern American and Canadian cities, and airline connections are excellent. But in many ways Prince Edward Island is a world apart.

Take Charlottetown. No big city, this, it's the seat of the island's government, attracting some of the most sophisticated men and women from the Atlantic provinces.

Trees Line Downtown Streets

Stately trees line downtown streets where the initial meetings leading to Canada's confederation were held in 1864. Twenty thousand people live in this business and social center so there's lively entertainment, a downtown revitalization program including restoration of the Hillsborough Harbour waterfront area, historic old houses and active little theater and music groups.

At Confederation Centre there's always something doing--classic films, concerts, sporting events (curling and ice hockey are popular) and the like. It's all Scottish in heritage, yet Charlottetown is possibly the most Americanized of all cities in Canada's Maritime Provinces. Like it or not, within half a mile stretch of University Avenue you find such Yankee infiltrations as McDonald's, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and an A & W root beer stand.

But to the gratification of most tourists, that's about all you'll find to remind you of the U.S. of A., excepting for linguistics, which are definitely English.

You'll search long and hard to find a better restaurant than Minnie's, where a fine menu is served in quiet suburban surroundings. Downtown, at the Griffon Room of the Dundee Arms Motel, luncheon is elegant (with excellent seafood chowder). Specialties include quiche, stuffed P.E.I. mushroom caps and other area favorites.

At both places young businesswomen, smartly dressed, are as much in attendance as are the barristers, government officials and other professional men.

The major towns of Prince Edward Island offer accommodations up to U.S. standards and at far lower prices. Bed-and-breakfast tourist homes, farm vacations and inexpensive campgrounds beckon backpackers and family groups.

The rolling P.E.I. countryside makes it popular among bicyclists as well as hikers. Summer temperatures ranging from 60 to 90 make the season pleasant. Many choose to visit in the shoulder seasons, spring and autumn being superb and a time when prices are generally lower than in the middle of summer.

One hundred and forty-five miles long and 40 miles wide across its widest point (and only four miles across, at pretty Summerside), P.E.I. is a wonderland of picturesque fishing villages, vast potato and cattle farms and, perhaps surprisingly, some tobacco farms.

Sand Bathing Beaches

P.E.I. has more good sand bathing beaches than anywhere else in Atlantic Canada. Village families of Scottish, Micmac Indian, Acadian and British descent each brought their culture and handicrafts to the island.

At Murray River, a resort community of 100 less than an hour from Charlottetown, a handful of members oversee Woods Island Handcrafts Co-Operative, an excellent showplace with many bargains. Many of the 150 members bring in quilts, wooden and stuffed toys, ceramics, hooked rugs and other handmade items where they are offered for sale.

Two of the 14 original founders of the 12-year-old cooperative, Florence Beck and Margaret Billard, are generally there hand-weaving on handsome old LcClerc looms upstairs over the showroom.

Men and women also work in the shop's basement (between mid-June and December) turning out wooden toys, household items and useful novelties with band-saws, lathes and planers. Visitors are invited to watch.

The provincial government conducts workshops to inspire home crafts.

Moments from the Murray River Co-Op is another toy shop and five miles away lives one of the island's best-known builder of boats--lobster boats, yachts, Thunderbirds for the younger set--and doing it all by hand, from design to application of epoxy paint.

Rich red soil grows potatoes by the thousands of tons. Fresh apples and vegetables are offered at roadside stands, part of the joys available during a P.E.I. vacation.

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