I bicycled past Prince Edward Island (PEI) on my 5000-mile marathon bike ride home— and had regretted it ever since. It was a bucket list item for me, and I was ever so close, merely a ferryboat ride away. But the clock was ticking.
They have built an 8-mile (12.9 k) bridge between New Brunswick and PEI since, and proudly point out that it is the longest bridge in the world— over ice— an interesting clarification that suggests cold and snowy winters. Peggy and I decided we could zip across the bridge, spend a day, and check out what I had missed. Fortunately, it was neither cold nor snowy and the ice had melted, but it was windy and rainy.
PEI is named after Prince Edward (1767-1820), the Duke of Kent and Strathearn, son of King George III, and the father of Queen Victoria, which is quite a legacy. The French initially named the island Île Saint-Jean and the English followed suit, calling it St. John’s Island. There were too many other St. John’s floating around the Atlantic Provinces, however. Thus Edward got his chance. I don’t have anything against the Prince, or the long-dead Saint for that matter, but I prefer the First Nation, Mi’kmaq name, Abegweit, which translates into land cradled in the waves. It is so much more poetic.
I often find that First Nation or Native American names for places have more magic and power than the current names we have given them. Mt. Denali, the highest mountain in North America, is another example. Originally named Mt. McKinley, after a little-remembered American President, the name has recently been changed back to its Athabascan name, Denali, which means the high one. (See my post on the train trip from Anchorage to Fairbanks, Alaska that Peggy and I made this past spring.)
The names for Prince Edward Island reflect its history, which is quite similar to its neighboring Atlantic Provinces, moving from First Nation to Acadian French to English and finally, expelled Scots. The Gaelic for PEI, by the way, is Eilean a’ Phrionns: the Island of the Prince.
The day we had allowed for our visit led us to focus on one place. We chose the small, south-coast town of Victoria. We couldn’t resist the description by Stephen Kimber, “The Trans-Canada Highway bypassed Victoria. So did the shopping centers and tourist amusement parks. And that— along with its independent-minded citizens— is what makes Victoria the enchanting, picture post card place it is today.” It sounded like our kind of town.
We arrived under dark clouds that were threatening a deluge but somehow held off for our visit. Given the bad weather and the fact that we had arrived before the summer crowds, it appeared that we were the only people in town. Most shops were closed and the “enchanting, picture post card” look was dampened somewhat by the lack of sunshine. Still, Peggy and I found much of interest.
Victoria had once been a bustling seaport doing trade with Europe, the West Indies, and the East Coast of the US. Peggy and I walked through the village of precisely laid out streets and Victorian homes that spoke to the earlier times. We were admiring the town’s lighthouse when a man came hurrying out of one of the homes and crossed the road to greet us.
“Would you like to go in the lighthouse?” he asked in a voice that almost demanded we say yes. Naturally we agreed. Of course we wanted to see the lighthouse. He introduced himself as Ben Smith. He was apparently the town greeter, unofficial mayor, and a candle maker— a virtual one-man chamber of commerce, not to mention crow-master. They seemed to be following him.
“Ah yes,” he allowed, “I feed them. Sometimes they go for walks with me, hopping along behind.” We pictured this strange parade walking/hopping down the streets of Victoria and laughed. As Ben hurried off to get the keys, the crows stayed with us, making sure we didn’t slip away.
Ben turned out to be as knowledgeable as he was nice. We got the A+ Tour, which included climbing into the top of the lighthouse up narrow, steep stairs to check out the light and then butt-scoot around a precipice to go outside for a view of the small town and its harbor. Ben took our photo and provided an ongoing lecture on the area’s history. After all of this, we insisted on seeing his candle shop and bought one as a thank you. We also sat in his ‘lucky chair.’
“The man who made this chair and gave it to me was struck by lightning on three different occasions and survived,” he explained. Peggy and I took turns sitting in the chair, just in case. Ben walked us back to our van and insisted we buy a lobster roll from the Lobster Barn restaurant on the dock. It was delicious.
Leaving Victoria, we made our way over to the New Glasgow Highlands Campground in the center of the island, which proved to be quite lovely. Along the way, we got something of a feel for the rural nature of PEI and more of a sense of the island’s beauty. But we knew we were missing a lot. One day is far too short of a time to visit the island. We’ll be back.
NEXT POST: I am back on my bike route crossing New Brunswick, entering Quebec, climbing up and over the Gaspe Peninsula, and crossing the St. Lawrence Seaway.