When thinking of road trips, the first destination that comes to mind might not be an island in the Canadian maritimes. If you have been looking to go beyond a routine summer vacation, however, Prince Edward Island delivers. Here, you can trade in the Great American Road Trip and downsize, swapping the alien landscapes and the countless hours of driving in favor of pastoral corners filled with charm, ruddy coastlines dotted with lighthouses, and some of the most delicious seafood you will ever eat.
During your time on PEI, you can drive, bike, and walk along its shores to your heart’s content. The Island is modest in size (stretching only about 140 miles in length) but its awe-inspiring views will make you want to stop at every chance you get. And the best part is — you can. Say goodbye to long days spent cramped inside a car, and say hello to your new favorite place to hit the open road.
Charlottetown is the perfect starting point for your adventure on Prince Edward Island, and not just because it’s the location of the Island’s only major airport. Its many activities and walkability will give you the perfect transition into Islander life, so be sure to acquaint yourself with the capital city before hitting the road. Early in the day, stop in at Kettle Black or Receiver for a cup of coffee or a delectable bite to eat. Then, check out the shops along Victoria Row and make your way to St Dunstan’s Basilica, a National Historic Site. Don’t miss the multicolor architecture just across the street at the historic Great George Hotel. Stay a night or simply walk through — the hotel dates back to before Canada was even a country, and new renovations have highlighted the historical while also featuring some key modern touches.
Whether you’re Canadian or not, you might be interested to know that the roots of Canada’s nationhood can be found in the humble streets of Charlottetown. In 1864, a small group of representatives from the Maritime colonies of British North America and the Province of Canada (comprising present-day Ontario and Quebec) met in what is now known as the Charlottetown Conference: the first meeting of Confederation that would eventually lead to the creation of Canada three years later. As such, a visit to the Confederation Centre of the Arts should be high on your list. With galleries, theatres and exhibitions, you can learn about Charlottetown’s integral role in Confederation.
In the evening, head to ‘The Row’ for a drink. Its cobblestone streets and brick buildings are the perfect setting for a pre or post meal beer or cocktail. For dinner, stop by Terre Rouge for sumptuous farm-to-table options or Claddagh Oyster House to get your first taste of PEI’s noteworthy seafood.
Points East Coastal Drive
As you embark on your coastal journey, you’ll want to head Southeast towards Point Prim Lighthouse. Along the way, those interested in more history should consider a stop at Orwell Corner Historic Village, while others with a keenness for folk art might enjoy Hannah’s Bottle Village. Point Prim Lighthouse is charming and, for a small fee, you can climb up to its lookout. Just a stone’s throw away from this structure, grab lunch at the Point Prim Chowder House, where you can dine on a mouthwatering selection of chowder, oysters, lobster rolls, and other seafood specialties.
Here, you will also get your first real look at PEI’s most recognizable natural feature — the red sand coastline. The landscape all around the Island is marked by vivid red sand beaches and rock formations due to an abundance of iron. This combines with the bright apple green of the Island’s foliage and the soft yellows of the surrounding farmland to create some of the most quaintly intriguing landscapes in North America.
As you continue your route east, you’ll want to check out Wood Islands Lighthouse. While it is now fully automated, the lighthouse and residence are open as a museum. If you’re so inclined, make your way over to Rossignol Estate, which boasts itself as PEI’s first winery. Try one of their many fruit wines, including their unique (and popular) blueberry wine.
Finally, a trip to this portion of Prince Edward Island wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Inn at Bay Fortune, led by proprietor and celebrity head chef Michael Smith. Its flagship restaurant, Fireworks, is one of Canada’s finest and features a lively, community vibe, with a selection of dishes produced entirely through the mechanism of an open flame and sourced from the onsite farm. If you are to make a splurge on anything during your time on Prince Edward Island, make it this experience.
Central Coastal Drive
Hikers and beachgoers alike will find satisfaction at Prince Edward Island National Park at Greenwich. While the trails are relatively flat, the journey from the trailhead is immensely invigorating. The highlight of the entire trail is a boardwalk that takes you over the brackish and through the dunes, finally emptying you out on a secluded beach. If one beach isn’t enough, head west to PEI National Park at Brackley-Dalvay. Here, you’ll find a system of incredible beaches connected by both road and trail, in case you’re looking for another reason to stretch your legs. You’ll have some more company at this section of the park — especially in the summer — but it still remains one of the quieter attractions on the Island.
After spending time in the sun, purchase a snack (or a Buddha statue) at the eclectic Dunes Gallery and Cafe. Alternatively, drive further west to the Blue Mussel Cafe, and relax on their sunlit porch overlooking the North Rustico harbor. The eponymous mussels with blueberry beer and lime are a must. The next stop on your journey will take you to the site that inspired PEI’s most famous cultural export, Anne of Green Gables: Green Gables Heritage Place. From this Cavendish homestead owned by her distant relatives, author LM Montgomery took many details that would come to influence her beloved Avonlea. As a result, however, Cavendish tends to be more tourist-heavy. Escape from the rush to one of the most beautiful vistas on the Island at the Cape Tryon Lighthouse. Situated at the end of a small dirt road, the structure overlooks an almost unbelievable cliffside panorama.
While Cape Tryon is the perfect place for a scenic picnic, those interested in heartier fare and a traditional dining experience could seek the elevated comfort of Broadway 45 in Kensington or the classic seaside vibes of Ship to Shore in Darnley. But take care not to linger, because the true star of the evening are the red cliffs at Thunder Cove. Forces of wind and water have eroded the cliffs into spectacular shapes, and by the evening light of golden hour , they seem to almost burn above the shining sand. Like Cape Tryon, this gem isn’t exactly hidden, but it will make you feel like you have discovered something truly special. Afterwards, roll down your windows and enjoy a nighttime drive to the west side of the Island, where you can enjoy a stay at the family friendly Mill River Resort.
North Cape Coastal Drive
If you’ve been reading this and wondering where you’re going to get your fix of potato history, you’re in luck. The small community of O’Leary is home to the Canadian Potato Museum, which devotes itself to the humble spud and the role it has played both in PEI and around the world. The cafe offers many potato offerings, but at least try some of the potato fudge before leaving. Find your way back to the shoreline for the West Point Lighthouse, known for both its striped appearance and its folklore. Boasting a unique graphic black and white striped pattern, this combination lighthouse, museum, and inn has been the home to everything from ghost lights to a sea serpent. Spend some time walking along the shore, and don’t be surprised if something mysterious pops up along the horizon.
For lunch, head to The Catch just down the road. Enjoy hefty portions on their upstairs terrace followed by a lazy drive down the nearby backroads. As you make your way back east, head to Summerside and stroll through the candy-colored shops of Spinnaker’s Landing. Hidden amongst the more kitschy finds are some distinctively PEI wares from local artisans. In a similar vein, enjoy a break from all this seafood by ordering one of the many delicious vegetarian offerings at FiveElevenWest.
Continue along the south side of the Island to Victoria-by-the-Sea, a harbor town with looks lifted straight from a postcard. Whether you’re in the mood for some theater at the Victoria Playhouse or some moonlight kayaking courtesy of By-The-Sea-Kayaking, you will find more actual activities here than you might expect. You can stay at one of the inns in the area or head back to nearby Charlottetown for the night. If you choose the latter, make some room to try a pizza from Piatto Pizzeria and finish out the night with a sizeable scoop from Cows, PEI’s delectable creamery.
Whether you plan on staying a short weekend or an entire summer, Prince Edward Island’s small size and wealth of offerings make it perfect for explorations of any length. While this article focuses mainly on more permanent fixtures, the summer months are filled with festivals, as locals and visitors alike come together to celebrate the many different aspects of the Island’s culture. Even more, the relative proximity of the various parts of the Island allow you to actually enjoy these different aspects without spending hours upon hours getting from place to place.
PEI is essentially a living exaltation of the virtues of traveling small. In a time where we are becoming more and more attuned to the impact of traveling, we can further appreciate the opportunity to travel in a purposeful and detail-oriented way. Amongst the lighthouses, mussels, and sea serpents, that is probably the most beautiful thing about this small Canadian province — it doesn’t overwhelm you. It instead asks you to close your eyes, smell the cool sea salt air, and feel the red sand between your toes.