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The Canadian Island Called P.E.I.

September 07, 1986|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

SUMMERSIDE, Canada — If you collect islands for your memory book of travels, here's one to fulfill many a fantasy.

It's an island measuring only 40 miles at its greatest width and scarcely 120 miles long.

To the Maritime people of Atlantic Canada, the island is affectionately known as P.E.I. But however you identify Prince Edward Island, odds are that anything you may have heard about it is only a small part of the mosaic of its attractions.

For years this small island has appealed to special interest travel that ranges from angling for the world's largest bluefin tuna to reliving years of youth with "Anne of Green Gables," the classic novel about a young girl written here in 1908 and destined for renewed attention in 1992.

Other visitors come here from across Canada and the United States to wind surf, sun and swim in "solar-heated waters" and along some of the best beaches of northern North America. They stroll over sand dunes that seem to have been transplanted from the Sahara and set down between the sea, the cliffs of red sandstone and tranquil farmlands.

Harvest time is a mellow season and with it comes the color of gold to island trees. Winter is the season to make your own cross-country ski trails across unmarked fields of snow between farm and village homes that offer bed and breakfast.

Lobster and Culture

Gourmets trek to this island for dinners of fresh lobster. Most travelers seek out the museums, folk arts and crafts, the music, theater, architecture and festivals of a diverse cultural heritage. Active travelers from springtime to autumn are drawn by kayaking, canoeing, hiking, biking, horseback riding and the continent's greatest collection of golf courses with ocean views.

The many special interest attractions of Prince Edward Island are working closely together, each enhancing the other.

We began to feel this as soon as we got off the ferry with our rental car at Wood Islands, after the hour and a quarter crossing from Caribou, Nova Scotia.

From August into October, sportfishing enthusiasts are lured to North Lake Harbor on the island by dreams of catching the world's largest bluefin tuna. The largest to date, 1,201 pounds, was caught here in the early autumn of 1978. Giant tuna are being brought ashore daily for the traditional weighing-in ceremony, while tales are exchanged about battles that lasted for hours.

Meanwhile, other visitors enjoy the "singing sand dunes" of Basin Head and one of the finest marine museums on the North Atlantic coast. The dunes sing with the sounds of the birds, the winds and the sea.

In 1534, French explorer Jacques Cartier sighted the island and called it "the fairest land 'tis possible to see."

Prince Edward Island is more than just an island of fair land separated from the mainland by the Gulf of St. Lawrence on the north and Northumberland Strait to the south. It is also a province, the smallest in Canada, with its own governmental structure comparable to a U.S. state. Historically, the capital city of Charlottetown on this island is where the fathers of confederation met in 1864 to discuss a united Canada.

The very smallness of the island is part of its appeal. The total population in the 1981 census was tabulated at 122,505, with 15,282 in Charlottetown. We've been staying at the Silver Fox Inn of Summerside, the second largest town, population 7,828.

Our hostess, Julie Simmons, welcomed us into the bed-and-breakfast inn built as a luxurious private residence in 1892. It was designed by famed architect William Critchlow Harris and was a showplace during the halcyon early years of this century when silver fox pelts from P.E.I. were a symbol of high fashion around the world.

Six Bedrooms

The inn has six bedrooms, all with baths and period furnishings. Our room was $45 (Canadian), about $30 (U.S.), which wouldn't have paid for many silver fox pelts.

Before the pelts went out of high style one was sold in Summerside in 1911 for the then princely sum of $20,000. This kind of wealth is reflected in the stately homes seen in a walking tour of the town. Civic center today is in the gothic town hall beneath the tower clock.

Tourism has become a major source of income for this town that is still an important shipping port for potato growers. Fiddling, step-dancing and harness racing are highlights of the annual carnival held here in mid-July.

The new 52-room Linkletter Inn is built on the site of the 1839 Summerside House. Its Coach Room for candlelight dining has the atmosphere of an old English inn. We found our first fresh lobster dinner on P.E.I. at the nearby Brothers Two restaurant, which also is the box office for The Flyer's Feast dinner theater.

Driving Trails Beckon

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