The fake red braids are everywhere, as are the "Anne of Green Gables" soda, keychains, T-shirts and potato chips. And the commemorative Anne license plates. And of course the "Green...
The fake red braids are everywhere, as are the “Anne of Green Gables” soda, keychains, T-shirts and potato chips. And the commemorative Anne license plates. And of course the “Green Gables” movie all three parts and the animated series.
The 11-year-old freckle-faced orphan is a heck of a marketer, as it turns out, and the guardian of a killer franchise that has helped lift Prince Edward Island, Canada’s tiniest province, out from the shadow of Nova Scotia, its better-known, craggier neighbor. Anne lurks around almost every corner, and even a hip home-furnishings store in the island’s capital of Charlottetown can vow, in a sign, that it is only “95 percent Anne-free.” But if any islanders resent the fact that their homeland’s most enduring symbol and chief tourist attraction is a fictional character, they’re not talking.
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As for me, I prefer PEI unadorned, with its rolling green hills, royal-blue sea, fresh lobsters and the modesty of a place that with the notable exception of the Anne machine feels little need to shout its virtues.
Nearly two years after my father died, curiosity has brought my mother, two sisters and me there, to the land he left as a child. He had repeatedly expressed no interest in returning.
Half expecting a lonely and left-behind outpost, we find instead a tidy island idyll dotted with family farms and wildflowers, undisturbed pink-sand beaches and the quiet hum of a less-traveled place. Things are slow in this pocket-size speck of the world’s second-largest country, and no one seems to be complaining.
After an 11-hour slog from Boston, we cross a sleekly modern bridge from the lonely tip of New Brunswick, and there we are, smack in the middle of a paint-by-numbers canvas: Bucolic Landscape No. 1.
We pull over in Victoria, a tiny bayside artists village. The bay is there, all right, but the artists are nowhere to be found. All but a couple of the town’s shops are shuttered on this warm, sunny Sunday, and one gets the feeling that it wouldn’t be whole a lot peppier on any other day of the week. But there is a shop that makes its own chocolates OK, I’ve done my homework and a roomy porch on which to loll and watch people pass by (or not) as we drink coffee and lemonade and sample the wares. For me, it’s better than fine, and on this point there seems to be broad consensus.
This, I realize later, is vintage Prince Edward Island. There’s not much to keep you busy, but plenty to keep you happy. It’s a bloom that unfurls, petal by petal, at no one’s pace but its own.
Anne theme pops up everywhere
But a certain perennial preteen is allowed encouraged, even to break the staid isle’s rules, as we discover on a trip to Cavendish, a town on the north-central coast, a region that’s better known as Anne’s Land.
Cavendish, the childhood home of “Green Gables” author Lucy Maud Montgomery, is the vortex of Hurricane Anne, the belly of an excruciatingly amiable beast. If you’re looking for Anne-themed miniature golf or an Anne-style gas station, or if you want to get married in the Green Gables museum some people do then the Cavendish area is your place. About half of the island’s 800,000 annual visitors pay their respects to the Green Gables house, a farmhouse once owned by cousins of Montgomery that inspired the setting for the novel.
In a world in which travelers are more often seduced by action and glitz, the little orphan Anne is pretty much all that islanders are willing to offer up to the gods of tourism. But they do so with a gusto that can be somewhat disconcerting, elevating the celebration of the feisty but pure-hearted redhead to something between a cult of personality and a fetish.
“Is Anne of Green Gables really real?” The question posted on a tourism Web site acquires a certain existential heft. The answer proffered is almost mystical: “You have posed a question to which there is no short answer.”
No one embraces Anne as tightly as the Japanese, who were introduced to Montgomery’s 1908 novel when Canadian missionaries gave a copy to a former student just before World War II. The woman translated the story of the orphan who was taken on as a farmhand under the mistaken belief that she was a boy, and something clicked.
For decades, the book has been a staple in Japanese classrooms and bookstores, better known there than in its native country. A theory, espoused in more than one scholarly tract, is that Japanese females, especially, admire Anne because she has it both ways being a bit of a high-spirited rebel while ultimately remaining true to her homeland’s traditional values.
Today in Japan, there are Anne fan clubs (one of which created a 350-pound model, in sugar, of the Green Gables house), a line of Japanese homes modeled on the original Green Gables and an Anne bed-and-breakfast in Osaka. Planeloads of Japanese tourists arrive in PEI each summer to pay homage to “Akage no An,” or “red-haired Anne.” The Anne quests are so popular that menus at some harbor-front restaurants in the island’s capital are printed in Japanese.
Having no preteens (or Japanese) among us, we steer as clear as we can from all things Anne. Not that it’s so difficult on PEI, one is never far from a quiet corner. We find refuge less than a mile from the Green Gables house, along the red-sand beaches of Prince Edward Island National Park. Here, away from the water, lucky visitors might spot red foxes and other endangered species. Offshore, the Gulf Stream delivers some of the warmest water north of the Carolinas. And there’s not an Anne memento in sight.
Day trip to Montague
Another day, we head east from our base in Charlottetown to Montague, where my father and his family lived. Distances are funny on PEI, very un-Canadian. What looks like a long journey on a map is only about 30 miles, and we’re there in about 40 minutes. Indeed, almost every place on the island can be reached by car within an hour from the capital.
When my father was there in the 1920s, Montague was a faded shipbuilding center, populated largely by Scottish immigrants like his father. There still isn’t much there, although the town is one of the biggest on the island, with about 1,800 residents. You could drive through it and scarcely realize it.
We are pleasantly surprised to find a recently restored riverfront, complete with a prosperous-looking marina and boat captains offering seal-watching tours. At a waterfront restaurant, my mother and I devour bowls of plump, tender mussels that clearly enjoyed happy childhoods in the surrounding waters. Lunch for the four of us comes to some $20.
The town, bolstered by a renowned golf course nearby, gives off the whiff of a place that has managed a modest turnaround. Though we have no enduring connection to the place, it’s good to see that it’s doing all right.
When we return to Charlottetown the biggest town by far, with about a third of the island’s 142,000 residents the sense of quiet remains.
The historic center is a snow globe of a place, a town under glass, with Victorian street-scapes leading to a gentle harbor at the foot of the hill.
Along a main street, an old man in shorts and socks sits on the steps outside his shabby-yet-chic row house, doing a crossword puzzle. He’s in the same spot, still working on a clue, as night falls about three hours later. There’s little but a fresh breeze off the water to break his concentration.
In the town center, a marquee advertises a Gordon Lightfoot revue, featuring renditions of the Canadian singer’s hits. Apparently the capital isn’t big or hip enough to rate an actual visit from the aging balladeer.
From our hotel, between trips to outlying towns, we stroll from art gallery to outdoor cafe to waterfront boardwalk. Over parts of three days, I thirstily eye a brew pub that beckons, a mere block away. I never actually get there. It’s hard to explain, but we’re … not busy, exactly, but we always have other places to check out.
At night, we retire to our inn, a recently restored row of historic homes in the heart of the town. It’s a great place to come back to, with tea and warm cookies always waiting in the expansive yet cozy lobby. Even on an unusually warm summer evening, the grand fireplace makes me think the inn would be a great place to be briefly in the winter, as the snow (I imagine) blows into huge drifts outside.
For however toasty the island is on this trip, with temperatures climbing to near 90 for days straight, in the winters it returns to its true Canadian spirit, with temperatures frigid enough to make the other provinces proud.
Such weather and, of course, the fact that it’s an island helped keep PEI off the beaten path for decades. Indeed, in the 1870s, islanders were wooed into joining the Dominion of Canada partly because they were promised that, under such a union, they would be able to travel more easily to the mainland and Nova Scotia.
But the passage to its neighbors, though not far, wasn’t easy. The strait that separates PEI from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia can be icebound from January through late April, so the men who made the trip during the winter in the early years often had to help push the boat over the ice. According to one account, passengers and crew were harnessed to each other, and to the boats, for the perilous journey.
As recently as seven years ago, the trip to New Brunswick was somewhat of an ordeal, taking as many as six hours if the island was icebound. But all that changed in 1997 with the opening of the Confederation Bridge, an 8-mile, S-shaped span that the province touts as the world’s longest bridge over ice-covered water.
In some ways, the bridge changed everything. But while some mourned the presumed passing of a distinct way of life, to a visitor who hadn’t been there before the bridge, it seems as much a symbol, a helping hand across the water, as a radical change in the rhythm of the province.
It’s still a peaceful place, it still takes ages to drive there from any major city, American or Canadian, and Gordon Lightfoot still isn’t singing there.
And although the bridge has caused a welcome swell in the number of tourists, the island still seems uncrowded. We tour the province for a third day, on near-empty roads. It’s the second week in August, the height of the eight-week high season.
Our final foray is to the rural eastern shore. On an island where the ocean is never more than about 12 miles away, in the east it seems to be hardly more than 12 feet away. The region is PEI distilled more “country” than the rest of the rural province, more removed than other parts of an island that is already pretty remote.
It’s perfect bicycling territory. My younger sister and I leave my mother and other sister happily ensconced with their books in rocking chairs on the porch of our inn, perched a couple hundred feet from red-clay cliffs that drop into the sea.
As we cycle, a dirt road leads to a quiet harbor; up ahead, a finger of the bay curls back toward the shore. The pines here are more spindly, and all of the outdoors looks more unkempt nature with a five o’clock shadow. Form takes a back seat to function.
The houses are simple and utilitarian, not the trophy palaces you might see on a similarly serene patch of waterfront real estate south of the U.S. border. Quite often, stands of trees hug the rocky coastline, obscuring the postcard view the better to break winter’s fierce winds.
But for all its spartan demeanor, there’s also some pampering to be had along the eastern shore. Up the road a couple of miles is the Inn at Bay Fortune, a Cape Cod-style, elegantly weathered manse that used to be an actress’ summer home.
The heralded hostelry, set on almost 50 acres overlooking the water, is also home to the province’s most acclaimed restaurant and to a back yard striped with organic gardens. A few miles south is our hotel, the Inn at Spry Point, Bay Fortune’s younger sister and an up-and-comer in the best-food-on-the-island sweepstakes.
Of course, at these inns and elsewhere on the island, you’ll often pay a fraction of the price you would at home. As with the euro, the Canadian loonie’s value has climbed relative to the U.S. dollar over the past year. But with many Canadian prices roughly what they would be in the United States, and $1 U.S. worth about $1.40 in Canada, Americans still get a hefty discount. (High-season rooms at the Inn at Bay Fortune, for instance, start at $145 Canadian, or about $104.)
On our bikes, my sister and I stick to the roads that meander close to the shore. The lay of the land is fun yet forgiving, with the island’s elevation topping out at less than 500 feet.
So we roll along, with green all around us and blue up above and shimmering down below. Here, in this six-hundredths of 1 percent of Canadian turf, that feels just about right. And I can’t help but think: My father would really like this place.