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Friday, July 25, 2014

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P.E.I. reaches out to the child in all of us

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An Anne impersonator guides guests through Green Gables.

They call it the “gentle island.” As soon as visitors disembark at Prince Edward Island’s small airport, soft Atlantic breezes begin to work their magic. Thoughts turn to sand beaches, ocean views, and – for Lucy Maud Montgomery fans – a certain red-haired orphan, Anne of Green Gables.

An eye-catching palette of red soil, rolling emerald hills, indigo seas and feathery white caps deliver the enchantment that makes visitors forget the cares of the world. The perfect place to begin exploring the island is with a trip to a Parks Canada beach, where we’ve made a date with island artist Maurice Bernard.

“A great day for sand castles!” declares Maurice, urging us city types to get down and sandy on a cloudless autumn day at Cavendish Beach. Digging in the sand clears away urban cobwebs. In summer, Parks Canada ensures that Maurice is around once a week to teach castle-building arts to kids and their parents. The Parks folk also erect “Discovery Dome” tents where kids can learn about, observe, and even touch aquatic creatures.

We’re an international group, with visitors from India, Korea, China and Canada. As we dig, a young island father generously shares his expertise, having spent the summer building beach mermaids with his kids. As we bond over our seductive sand mermaid, it’s clear that no one in P.E.I. remains a stranger for long.

A century and a half ago, a meeting was scheduled in Charlottetown to discuss a maritime union. When some beaver-hatted, frock-coated gents from elsewhere in the colony crashed the party – John A. Macdonald in the lead – it’s said that the 50 cases of champagne they brought with them were particularly welcome. Soon everyone concluded that Confederation was a splendid idea.

Make that almost everyone. Little P.E.I. did not join Confederation until 1873, after John A. found funds to pay for the beleaguered island railway. That railway line now forms a splendid series of island biking trails. Still, the momentum for Confederation began at Province House, 150 years ago this coming summer. Grand celebrations will mark the occasion.

In today’s Charlottetown, actors in 19th-century period dress wander the streets, conducting tours that begin at Waterfront Boardwalk. At the Confederation Centre for the Arts, the musical confection based on L.M. Montgomery’s novel about Anne has achieved rare status: it’s the longest-running musical in the world. The upcoming festival features the return of CanadaROCKS, one of the most successful gatherings of Canadian musical talent ever.

Inside the centre’s art gallery, a fine Canadian collection – plus touring shows –  is highlighted by portraits of the founders of Confederation and works by painter Robert Harris, a poignant dramatist of the struggling nation. If some Harris scenes seem familiar, it’s because they have inspired TV’s “heritage moments.”

Tourists from Japan, China, Australia, England – and New England – love the province. Among the most popular recent visitors were William and Kate, who touched down here during their Canadian tour. In a particularly nice blend of the modern and the traditional, Prince William performed one of his required helicopter training moves on what the fictional Anne Shirley had dubbed “the lake of shining waters.”

The couple next took part in a dragon boat race, a race that Kate’s team won – a point locals recount with glee. Islanders like strong women. Life-size cardboard cutouts of the photogenic young royals greet visitors at Dalvay by the Sea, a splendid lakeside hotel. Built as a summer home in 1896 by an American oil baron, Dalvay has operated as a hotel since 1930.

Now a historic hostelry-within-a-national-park, Dalvay’s period details – the grand staircase, the massive stone fireplace, the wood-panelled library – speak of earlier days, or perhaps of the 1985 Anne of Green Gables film, which featured the hotel. Apart from a few benign ghosts from the era when gentlemen dressed for dinner, the hotel is renowned for its signature dessert from the 1960s: sticky date pudding. No wonder guests return decade after decade to relax in quiet rooms without TVs or phones. Croquet is played on the vast green lawn. Kayaks are included the room rates, bikes too.

Cavendish was first made famous by writer L.M. (Aunt Maud to her family) Montgomery, who published Anne of Green Gables in 1908, on her sixth try with a publisher. From that day to this, the book has been a bestseller, beloved from Korea to Poland, from Sweden to Japan. Even the least sentimental P.E.I. tourist finds it hard to resist a visit to Green Gables, walking through the “Haunted Woods” guided by an Anne impersonator, thence to peer into the house, admiring the gardens, gazing around the old barn on the farm owned by Montgomery’s relatives.

Montgomery’s bumptious orphan found her longed-for home on the island with a sister and brother who grew to love her. Among the book’s wide readership has been Mark Twain, countless generations of children and the Polish troops and resistance fighters in World War II who passed their copies around like contraband. Long revered in Japan, today’s Japanese children know Anne via animator Hayao Miyazaki’s version of the orphan’s tale. One Montgomery relative-turned-Anne-entrepreneur traces his family’s history on their 300-acre P.E.I. farm back to 1776.

The notion of “home” forms the backbone of P.E.I. in ways too numerous to count. Like good homeowners, islanders take careful care of the place: no billboards or mobile highway signs ruin the views, and the majority of farmers have gone organic, with pesticide use on the wane. Fresh fish and organic vegetables star on the menus in Charlottetown’s many charming restaurants.

And then there’s the home-based music. “Come to the ceilidh!” (KAYlee, Gaelic) is an invitation you’ll hear frequently. Island musicians hone their skills, rooted in Acadian, Scottish and Irish traditions – where else? – at home, at “kitchen parties.”

The easy nature of the island that the Mi’Kmaq Indians called Apekweit, “land cradled on the waves,” continues to resist modernity’s most noxious fumes. Roadsides are dotted with collections of wooden vacation cottages familiar from the 1950s and ’60s; friendly looking foxes share bike trails with cyclists. Fishing villages, inlets, cliffs, dunes and the beaches where “Irish moss” is still harvested with horses, appeal to the child in us all. Cradle, home, paradise: there’s only one Prince Edward Island. 

 For more information: www.tourismpei.com; www.parkscanada.gc.ca; www.confederationcentre.com; www.dalvaybythe sea.com

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