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Destination: Canada : Green Gables and Lobster Dinners : Prince Edward Island is the place to gorge on shellfish, 'Anne' mania . . . and peace

August 14, 1994|MARIALISA CALTA | Calta is a free-lance writer based in Vermont

CAVENDISH, P.E.I. — Prince Edward Island, in the Canadian Maritimes, is one of those rare travel destinations that lives up to its own press, perhaps because that press is so understated. The travel brochures describe a small, lovely, peaceful island of red soil, rolling green hills, friendly people and expansive beaches. On two separate trips--the most recent a camping vacation last summer with two other adults and five children--that's exactly what we found.

Located just north of the provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island--or P.E.I.--is a 140-mile-long crescent of farmland and beaches, with a year-round population of about 125,000.

Although serviced by several airlines, most visitors reach the island by ferry: One runs from Cape Tormentine, New Brunswick, to Borden, P.E.I.; the other from Caribou, N.S., to Wood Islands, P.E.I. The ferry rides provide a kind of buffer, allowing the tourist to shake off the "there" of the mainland and prepare to embrace the "here" of island life.

Inhabited by the Mi'Kmaq (Micmac) people for thousands of years, Prince Edward Island was claimed as a European discovery in 1534, and settled in the early 1700s by French-heritage Acadians, who named it Ile Saint-Jean. In 1758, the British occupied Prince Edward Island, deporting many of the Acadians. The following years brought Scottish and Irish settlers, and Loyalists fleeing the Colonies during the Revolutionary War. In 1864, P.E.I. claimed its title as the "Birthplace of Canada" by hosting the Conference on Maritime Union, during which the idea of confederation of provinces was first proposed. (It became a reality in 1867 and what is now P.E.I. joined in 1873.)

The biggest draw for visitors to P.E.I. is the town of Cavendish, which is in the middle of the crescent on the northern shore, in the greenest, lushest part of the island. It is home to the "Green Gables House" of the novel "Anne of Green Gables" fame. The specter of Anne--invariably described as a "feisty little red-haired waif"--haunts the island, and even a visitor with zero interest in Lucy Maud Montgomery's 1908 fictional heroine would be hard pressed to avoid her. Scores of motels, ice cream stands, miniature golf courses and restaurants bear names with some reference to Anne and her story. And tourists by the busload roll up for a walk through the Green Gables House--the setting for the novel--and to snap up such souvenirs as straw hats with little red braids attached. (Voila: Instant Anne!)

Maintained by the Canadian park service, a tour through Green Gables is free and not without its charms; my two daughters, then 6 and 3, were thrilled to spot Anne's broken slate and puffed-sleeve dress, and Marilla's brooch--all featured in the novel--as we toured the rooms. True Lucy Maud fans make pilgrimages not only to the Green Gables House but to other spots around the island, including Montgomery's birthplace, her home, the schoolhouses where she taught, the Anne of Green Gables Museum and the cemetery in which the author was buried in 1942.

While in Cavendish, however, even the most devoted Anne-o-phile should not ignore Prince Edward Island National Park, with its spectacular beaches, crashing surf and dramatic cliffs and dunes.

What we had not hoped for was fine cuisine, and we were not disappointed there either. It's quite possible that P.E.I. has a number of fine restaurants, but taking a low-budget vacation with children is not the way to sample them. We settled, instead, for campfire suppers of roasted island potatoes, grilled, farm-raised mussels and chowders of fresh local seafood. We bought vegetables from resident gardeners and fish from fishermen's boats. We ate cheaply and very, very well. Our one splurge was to indulge in a local tradition: the P.E.I. lobster supper.

Lobster suppers, which are held roughly from mid-May through mid-October, are offered in at least 10 locations; some sponsored by churches and nonprofit community organizations, and some by private enterprise. Judging by those we have attended, the dinners are no-frills affairs . . . a perfect showcase for unadorned, local seafood and for the friendly service that characterizes even the most touristy of attractions on the island.

As you are served at this family-style meal, you are more likely to rub elbows with someone diners from the States or mainland Canada than with a P.E.I. native. But the locals make up the kitchen and wait staff and seem happy to chat with visitors. And the suppers are a bargain: For about $20, one can gorge on chowders, lobster, salads and pies. Nonalcoholic beverages are included, and wine and beer are available for an additional cost in some locations. A P.E.I. lobster supper is also a great place to take the kids: No one frowns when an errant elbow tips over the milk glass, and waitresses nimbly sidestep crawling toddlers.

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