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« Culture Shock | Main | On the Road »
Wednesday
Jul082009

10 Great Things to Do (and Eat) on PEI

Okay, okay, so nothing will stump you guys. I don't know why I try. :) I was, of course, on Prince Edward Island, best known for being the smallest Canadian province and the home of Lucy Maud Montgomery, who published the enduringly popular Anne of Green Gables in 1908. In fact, Anne is a huge draw here - on some parts of the island it's impossible to take two steps without bumping into some Anne-themed establishment or memorabilia, or a Japanese tour group looking for the same. Nevertheless, as fascinating as Anne is, for the last few years the island has been pushing hard to break out of its literary pigeonhole and establish a new identity - a culinary one.

A couple of weeks ago I may have chuckled a little at that notion - what kind of culinary identity can an island of English, Scottish and Irish (okay, and a few French...) immigrants cultivate? Well, the island had more than a few surprises in store for me. In fact, I was flabbergasted - PEI is a gastronomic powerhouse, a province of passionate food-lovers, chefs and growers who have been celebrating their local bounty for far longer than has been en vogue elsewhere. As my wonderful guide, Pam, explained, "we've always been a poor island with most people making a living from fishing and farming. As a result we never really lost our farm-to-table tradition - we just didn't know it was something unusual until the rest of the world started trying to re-establish theirs."

From high-end to cheap-and-cheerful, I didn't have a bad meal in seven days. Here are ten things I don't think anyone who visits this verdant, friendly and oh-so-delicious island should miss.

1. Eat a Traditional Lobster Supper
For a taste of island life, there's nothing more fun or more authentic than a traditional lobster supper. Three places on PEI offer them nightly throughout the summer months, and each has their own local following. We went to the one in New Glasgow, which takes place in a raucous and bustling 500-seat hall. The way it works is this: at the door, you decide on the size of lobster you want (1-lb, 2-lb, 3-lb or 4(!)-lb), pay the corresponding price, get a ticket and sit down. Then you're served with not only the lobster you ordered, but all-you-can-eat seafood chowder, freshly steamed mussels, coleslaw and potato salad, bread and rolls, ice cream and 5 varieties of pie for dessert. The food is not exactly high-brow, but does that matter when you're up to your elbows in lobster juice? You can see a picture of my lobster at the top - I ordered a 1.5 pounder, but the waitress remarked when she brought it that it seemed closer to 2 lbs. In any case, it was an odd sensation to look down at a half-eaten lobster and think, "gee, I don't know if I can fit in any more lobster." Luckily I managed to, though it meant I had to restrict myself to only one kind of pie for dessert. I know, sacrifices, sacrifices.
www.peilobstersuppers.com

2. Go Lobster Fishing
One of the more interesting initiatives to take root on PEI recently is to offer visitors the chance to experience traditional island activities. There are a number of outfits offering everything from oyster 'tonging' to clam digging to moonshine-making (!). Then there's the lobster fishing experience, which is kind of in a class by itself because it's not only fun, it's really hard work. We went out with Perry Gotell, a 3rd generation lobster fisherman who has only recently started letting visitors come along for the ride. It's no free ride, though - you have to be ready to go at 4am and be prepared to spend a good ten hours on the water, hauling up traps and plucking out live lobsters as they retaliate by doing everything in their power to snap off your fingers (they are vicious little buggers!). If it sounds like an adventure, it is; then, of course, there's the achingly fresh lobster you get to eat, cooked in a pan of seawater on the deck of the boat, which goes an even longer way towards making up for all the nearly-pinched-off fingers.
www.tranquilitycoveadventures.com
www.experiencepei.ca

Aren't these old clapboard lighthouses beautiful? They're everywhere, many of them still in use.

3. Explore Victoria-by-the-sea
Victoria is a lovely seaside village just west of Charlottetown, comprised of a sleepy harbor and a few blocks of cheerfully-painted clapboard homes. There's not a heck of a lot to do here - that is, except eat. I highly recommend lunch, for example, at the Landmark Cafe, a quirky, cozy little place with a globe-trotting menu (owner Eugene Sauve and his family spend the off-season traveling all around the world, presumably getting inspiration for the café's daily offerings). For dessert, step across the street to Island Chocolates, a 100-year old Victorian house turned into a teahouse and chocolate studio. Brother-and-sister Eric and Emma (he's 32, she's 28) have been running the place since their father died two years ago, and make everything the shop sells, from luscious cakes to delicate European-style filled chocolates. And while you're here, ask to see Eric's photo album from Ecuador, where he spends the off-seasons working with a cacao cooperative, helping to train indigenous communities to produce their own high-end chocolate.
www.victoriabythesea.ca/dine.html

The ubiquitous lobster roll offers a slightly less-messy way of getting your daily lobster fix.

4. Drink some Moonshine
Lobster, oysters and moonshine are the PEI trinity, I was told. Apparently everyone used to have someone in the family that made illegal spirits (thanks to the fact that PEI had prohibition longer than anywhere else in Canada), and many probably still do. Nevertheless, just because it's moonshine doesn't mean it has to be illegal, as the two guys who founded the Myriad View Distillery realized one day; as long as the taxes are paid and basic safeguards are instituted (so no one goes blind, you know), moonshine should be just as legal as any other kind of distillate. Not only were they right, they hit upon a brilliant business model: people are fascinated by the subject of moonshine, and tourists and islanders alike flock here to taste (and buy) Myriad View's take on the local firewater. On the tamer end is their standard 'Strait Shine', which at 50% alcohol is enough to give your cheeks a ruddy glow; the hard-core, however, go for the 'Strait Lightning', which at 75% alcohol pretty much numbs everything from your lips to your stomach on contact. It was this stuff, according to owner Ken Mill, that one day prompted a happy customer to pay him the ultimate compliment by email: "Awesome product!! After being given a bottle of your PEI moonshine by a business associate of mine, I have to say it is good enough to be sold in a mason jar out of the trunk of a car in Eastern Tennessee. Keep up the good work!"
www.straitshine.com

5. Go Swimming
In my neck of the woods, swimming in the sea is considered an extreme sport. Well, maybe I'm exaggerating a little, but it's true that the waters around Puget Sound never really warm up, and only the hardiest of folk brave them for recreational purposes. Not so on PEI; the waters here are well-protected from the cold North Atlantic currents, and in many bays around the island they warm up to bathtub temperature by early August. Color me jealous! And naturally, many people basically spend their entire summers at the beach, and with so many beaches around, you can probably have one all to yourself. In other words, don't forget your swimsuit.

6. Eat Mussels at Flex Mussels
Everyone who visits Charlottetown must have one meal at Flex Mussels. It's an unwritten rule, apparently. Of course they serve things besides mussels, like for instance a pretty mean lobster roll, but let's face it, the reason to come here is for the 23 flavors of mussels. If you're feeling unadventurous you can go with the classic (white wine and garlic), but why would you when you can get Bombay (curry, cinnamon, star anise and cream), Spartan (kalamata olive, tomato, oregano and lemon), Maine (white chowder, bacon and lobster), South Pacific (kaffir lime, ginger, lemongrass and wine) or Mexican (chipotle, cilantro and lime)?
www.flexmussels.com

The 14-km-long Confederation Bridge links PEI with New Brunswick, on the mainland. Before it was built in 1997, the island could only be accessed by ferry.

Fried clams and chips, yum yum!

7. Browse Charlottetown Farmer's Market
If you want to get a feel for the tightly-knit island community, and see how seriously they take their local produce, come spend a Saturday morning at the the capital city's farmer's market. Locals start trickling in at about 8:30, stopping to have breakfast and catch up with neighbors in the attached café (the market is housed in a large purpose-built building, which gives it a very European covered-market feel), before perusing the stands overflowing with just-picked island vegetables and fruits. Of course there are also local cheeses, bread, jams, honey, and crafts to be found, as well as food stands cooking up everything from samosas to doughnuts to island-roasted espresso. A word of advice, though: get here early unless you like battling very large crowds!

8. Slurp an Ice Cream at Cows Creamery
Cow's Ice Cream is a PEI institution, and their multiple locations are thronging all summer long. Not only is their ice cream top-notch (and full of crunchy, crispy, nutty, gooey bits and pieces), their hilariously-named flavors will leave you chuckling with every bite: wowie cowie, gooey mooey, calfe latte, and Moo York cheesecake were some of my favorites.
www.cows.ca

9. Dine at Lot 30
If I had to put my finger on the best food of the entire trip, I'd say without hesitation it was dinner at Lot 30, a new restaurant in Charlottetown owned by a (handsome, tattooed, and did I say handsome?) young chef named Gordon Bailey (above left). This surprises me, actually, since the food here falls into a category I'm generally not that crazy about, namely high-end cuisine. So many times flavor seems to almost be an afterthought at this level, playing second fiddle to innovation and presentation; not so with Gordon Bailey's food - he belongs to a rare breed of chef that can skillfully balance all three. Looking back over my notes, I'm reminded again of how utterly delicious everything was (all the "yum!!!"s scribbled in the margins certainly help): the seared foie gras paired with a perfectly caramelized scallop and nugget of deeply savory braised beef (which our waiter recommended by telling us that it was the dish that prompted him to beg for a job at the restaurant), the butter-poached lobster tail with the two most perfectly roasted fingerling potatoes I've ever eaten, the meltingly tender apple-glazed pork belly, the molten oka (a Quebecois cheese) paired with curry-scented hazelnut crumble... When he came out to chat after the meal it was all I could do to not jump out of my seat and plant a kiss on his cheek in thanks (see above re:handsome), though it was probably a good thing I didn't since his wife (who manages the dining room) was standing nearby. Then again, with food like that coming out of the kitchen every night, I probably wouldn't have been the first...
www.lot30restaurant.ca

10. Have a Piece of Seaweed Pie
In all honesty, this is more a gimmick than something you really must try. We heard a rumor about this delicious seaweed pie being served at a cafe in the tiny town of Miminegash (what a name, huh?), on the far western side of the island, a two-hour drive from Charlottetown. Imagining it would be some sort of savory quiche or spanakopita-type thing, we set off to have lunch there one afternoon, arriving famished at the very homely Seaweed Pie Café (which is, it seems, just about the only business in this tiny hamlet). To our shock, the seaweed pie was listed under desserts. Seaweed and sugar? Hmmm... Well, after eating some perfectly passable chowder for lunch, we gamely ordered a slice of the famous pie - only to have something resembling a chiffon cake covered in whipped cream and berry sauce brought out! It turns out that the seaweed collected locally is rich in carrageenan, a clear, tasteless substance which is extracted by boiling, and which is used as a thickening agent in all kinds of food and cosmetic products. The cafe uses it to thicken the whipped cream in their "seaweed pie", which really doesn't contain either seaweed or pie, but is still pretty tasty, if you like light, billowy desserts. It's a very clever marketing trick, however; as we were leaving an entire tour bus pulled up and several dozen people spilled out intent on eating the café's namesake pie. I imagine they wouldn't have been so eager to make the trip out to middle-of-nowhere Miminegash if the local specialty was called "chiffon torte topped with carrageenan-thickened cream".

And a bonus 11th: if you can, make a trip here for their biggest food festival of the year, Fall Flavors. For ten days in early autumn, the entire island is turned into a food extravaganza, with workshops, classes, demonstrations, dinners, contests and 'experiences' all centering around food. Just about all the island's chefs and producers get involved, and visitors can pick and choose 'a la carte' what kinds of activities they'd like to participate in. I can't imagine anything more fun - you can be sure that next time I head to PEI, it'll be for this. For all the info, see www.fallflavours.ca.

Anyone recognize this guy? Canadians? He's a charming fellow named Michael Smith, cookbook author, television personality and champion of PEI gastronomy. We shared a lovely dinner with him and his wife Rachel at the Inn at Bay Fortune, where he headed the kitchen for many years (and was launched to fame and, ahem, fortune). He's now deeply involved in all kinds of food initiatives around the island, including many (no doubt wildly entertaining) events at the Fall Flavors festival. p.s. That's the talented photographer Martin Thompson (who I was traveling with) taking his picture.

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Reader Comments (44)

How perfectly appropriate. I will be going to work on an organic farm in PEI for a week in August - so this post is so relevant to me personally. Thanks for all of the amazing tips!

July 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCalantha Elsby

Really lovely post and beautiful photographs. If only I could have that much lobster on a daily basis!!

Michael Smith looks skinnier in that pic than on TV.

Fun post! Makes me sad I'm allergic to shellfish!

July 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

omg. boiled lobster and deep-fried clams? you are torturing me.

(And that chef ain't bad, either...)

July 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

what a great adventure filled with all that lobster...mmm!

July 9, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterkat

Hmmm....I've dreamt of going to PEI since I was 12. Now I have more good reasons to go there. Specifically for that lobster. I have my share of crab here, but lobster is a rare treat on the west coast. You bet I recognize that guy. Michael Smith is one of Canadas great "food stars" with at least 3 television shows now and in the past including a couple travel ones where he goes to unique cooking situations all over Canada and the world. I think I like him because he seems "real" and actually teaches some great techiniques on his current At Home show.

July 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTami

I love Micheal Smith (aka Chef at Home...), I miss his shows here in the U.S.
Beautiful photos.

July 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRita

I'm ashamed to say that I've never been to PEI. And I live in Toronto! It's on the must-do -soon list for sure.

July 9, 2009 | Unregistered Commentercherie

Nice timing, Melissa,
I'm moving to the Maritimes for a year and am looking for all the tips I can find. Thanks (again)!

July 10, 2009 | Unregistered Commenteraj

when i think of PEI, i think of amazing mussels. thanks for enlightening us to the rest of the bounty and beauty the island offers. that lobster dinner and fried clams.. oh my.

July 10, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterrick

The cake looks so tempting to me. I always like cakes since my childhood. And those are great pictures too, thank you for the story!

July 10, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterjonathan

I was on PEI last week, so it was great to come across your blog post. It was so beatiful and I thoroughly enjoyed my first big lobster experience. I happened to bump into Chef Michael during my first few minutes in Charlottetown. He sure is tall! Thank you for sharing your photos--they're beautiful.

July 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDarina

Your photographs are beautiful, the seaweed pie looks delicious!

I linked your website on mine, I hope you don't mind :)

July 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLouise

Seaweed pie. It's the first time I heard. Thanks for sharing :)

July 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAdriana

Returned from 5 days in PEI/Halifax last night and arrived home to find your blog sent by a relative in my inbox. We loved our dinner at New Glasgow and enjoyed Cows Creamery in Halifax. One of our best meals was at the "tourist restaurant" in Peggy's Cove outside Halifax. Wonderful seafood chowder and halibut sandwiches. What a lovely part of the world.

July 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBetty

I visited PEI last year for vacation; it was wonderful. I recommend visiting Coleville Bay Oysters. You can buy them straight from the "dock" in Souris Bay.

What a beautiful place.

July 15, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermary

wow what beautiful pictures I can almost smell the seafood! thanks for sharing

July 15, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterchatondeluxe

Prince Edward Island is where I was born and raised (now living in USA). Thanks for sharing your story. Hmmmm , I could eat a big bowl of mussels and Lobsters right now!

July 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKimberely

Thank you for this luscious read and mental vacation. Sounds like the trip of a lifetime!

July 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLorrie@ReadIt&Eat

I'll admit Anne of Green Gables is the first thing I think of about PEI, but now I really want to visit!

July 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKelsey

Weaweed pie...intrigued. Beautiful, beautiful photos. Enough to make me want to pack up and head out!

July 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMegan Gordon

I always liked the idea of visiting Prince Edward Island but now it sounds like a must - beautiful place with amazing food, how could I resist. Very, very jealous.

July 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGemma

The lobster looks yum!

July 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSneaky Magpie

What a beautiful images!
I would want to award you with Beautiful Blog award.
Please read the rules here:
http://www.coffeeandvanilla.com/?p=7020

Enjoy your day, Margot

July 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCoffee & Vanilla

Wow! Be in no doubt, I would trade one of my kidneys and wrestle hippos to eat some of that seafood.

July 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDaniela Restrepo

I haven't been to PEI since I was seven, but I remember absolutely adoring it. I used to work at the Cows ice cream in Ottawa until it sadly closed. That stuff was amazing! And I'm jealous you got to meet Michael Smith!

July 24, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermargaux

I worked on PEI woofing ( Working on an organic farm) a couple of years ago. It is a really unique place, I love it and cannot wait to go back.

July 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSympathy

May I suggest the Huntley Dairy Bar in Alberton for Fries with the works and a shake, it is the best greasy spoon going on P.E.I. beats Poutine by a mile, get the half order though it comes big... Contrast that with the fine dining of 42nd street in Charlottetown and the Home Place in Kensington, don't forget the shipwrights cafe on the county line road in Margate. Also you can get cooked lobster for $4.50 a pound cold pack at the food basket, on you way to either Cousins or to Thundercove/ Penderosa. Cows please..... It's the Frosty Treat...or nothing.

July 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAndy D

I know Michael! He's a fantastic guy - and great cook, obviously. I'm envious of your trip - I've been wanting to visit the other end of Canada for years!

July 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJulie

oh wow i love this blog. what could be better than food and traveling?!

you should definitely submit some of your photos to www.donteatthatyet.com

Their goal is to create a visual restaurant review site similar to tastespotting

July 29, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterjyoh

Amazing stuff! The fried clams look magically delicious!

July 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMr.Choice

What a wonderful post! It (and, of course, the perfect pictures) actually made me giddy, eager to get off the couch and go!

August 5, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermdvlist

Thanks a lot! I'm also a gourmet and pastry enthusiast and this would really go to my compilation. I would also like to share. I came across a good site about European and Swiss cooking which also gives free sample family-secret recipes.

August 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLeon Gregory

Wow! Beautiful pictures!

October 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCharlie

This gives me LOTS of information on P.E.I ,thank you SO MUCH!

October 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

May I suggest to anyone interested in visiting Prince Edward Island to also visit "Victoria Row" downtown in Charlottetown.
There are several restaurants and shops along the row and "Northern Watters Knitwear" in particular, makes their sweaters and accessories with antique Swiss looms in the back of the shop. It is amazing to watch and they have several Island Artists featuring their work inside.
They are one of the last spots to use looms to make their products in North America and they sell skeins of wool spun right on Prince Edward Island.
It is a great shop to browse through and I highly recommend it!

March 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKati Croken

It's been a childhood dream to go to PEI, well, mainly because of good old Anne Shirley :) Your trip and photos are an inspiration!! I would love to go there someday.. maybe for Fall Flavours?

March 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCherie

Great post. Very entertaining read and photography. Thanks.

March 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLevinson Axelrod

If your visiting downtown Charlottetown be sure to take in Sirenella Ristorante' across from the Delta on Water St. Authentic Italian at it's finest..romantic,quaint,and very affordable. Other places to try... The Pilot House, Maple Grille (very quaint), The Claddagh Room(check out ole Dublin afterwards), Globe World Flavours, The Merchantman and Simms. There are many great locations. I should know ...I've lived here most of my life. Enjoy !!

May 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterM B Meadows

I would love to add a link to thhis on our site. We have 100's of families that come to PEI every year. this will really help.
Thank you so much, your blog rocks.
Alan Brennan
www.peivacationrentals.com

October 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlan Brennan

We're here on PEI now and we've done/eaten/seen several of these already but you've given us interest in completing the rest! Thanks for a wonderful blog about this beautiful Island. I live away now in the USA but LOVE coming home every summer!!

July 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSandra

Excellent photos and tips! We're headed back to PEI this August after a long three year absence. What a great place to unwind.

February 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEdward Fielding

i lov you

May 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBen Hall

Hi there! Great article about my lovely little island that I love so much!! Great Post and I love the photos to go with each section!! <3

July 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRachel Peters

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