Michael Smith, chef, and co-owner of Prince Edward Island’s The Inn at Bay Fortune, raises a glass of sparkling wine as he welcomes the guests gathered on the front lawn. Behind him, the glassy bay is sparkling pre-sunset and there’s a faint aroma of wood smoke from the array of oysters, salmon and Arctic char tails roasted in the back garden for Oyster Hour just before. A six course menu including seafood chowder, wood fired halibut, smoked beef brisket, hanger steak and vegetables from the garden in artistic preparations is set to be served next in the dining room nearby. This is the hotel’s nightly, in demand FireWorks Feast, an epicurean fantasy and emblem of one of the main attractions of this Atlantic Canada island.
A casual look at menus around the Northeast will often list the provenance of the oysters, mussels and lobsters as PEI, so prodigious a supplier is this island of prime seafood from its clear, chilly waters. Visitors fly in, take the ferry from Nova Scotia or the 9-mile bridge from New Brunswick to sample the local oysters, which vary in brininess and sweetness depending upon which part of the island they’re farmed and which month they emerge. Shellfish is such a major part of the ethos of this island that it’s celebrated every September by the PEI International Shellfish Festival created by native Irishman and longtime local resident/restaurateur Liam Dolan. Beginning as a one-day event in 1996, it’s grown to a four-day extravaganza featuring tastings, demonstrations, chef competitions (including a kids’ competition) and entertainment that now attracts 12,000 seafood fans. This year’s festival is scheduled for September 14th-17th in the island’s capital Charlottetown.
A few weeks later, an even longer festival, Fall Flavors, includes daily events spread out around the island. But visitors can experience the bounty of this island at any time of year. For the most immediate experiences, they can sail aboard a 45 foot fishing boat with Top Notch Lobster Tours to watch the very sweet local lobsters being hauled out of the water and then cooked and served aboard the boat. For a real understanding of the varieties of oysters dotted around the island, they can arrange a visit with James Power of Raspberry Point Oysters who will both explain the production process and then shuck a variety of different oysters for a substantial tasting.
Excellent restaurants are also spread out all over the island. A recent addition to Victoria Row, a pedestrian cobblestone street of Victorian architecture in Charlottetown filled with restaurants and shops, Sea Rocket Oyster House opened a year ago serving a menu of classic and creative dishes. Among the standouts: tuna crudo with Jalapeño, lime and ginger sauce; baked oysters three ways and lobster rolls. If you sit at an outdoor table, you’re also entertained by musicians on a small stage across the street.
Liam Dolan’s Peake’s Quay Restaurant and Bar is also a prime location for local mussels and oysters, fish cakes, lobster rolls and Caesar salad, a dish ubiquitous on the island but no one seems to remember why. (It’s so important, though, that it has its own competition in the Shellfish Festival.) The restaurant also has a broad terrace overlooking the Charlottetown waterfront and the collection of shops on the historic wharf including a branch of local COWS Ice Cream known for its unique, whimsically named flavors.
Elsewhere on the island, Landmark Oyster House in the quaint southern seacoast fishing village of Victoria-by-the-Sea helps diners decide which oysters to choose from their daily supply by listing and describing the varieties by location- east, central and west-and then serving them either raw or baked with creamed spinach, smoked bacon and parmesan. Main courses include seafood linguine, a sandwich of shaved local beef, lobster rolls either cold or hot poached in butter and a massive double rack of tender sticky ribs. In another scenic fishing village on the north coast, North Rustico, Blue Mussel Café always has a line out the door because there are no advance reservations but you can join the waitlist posted on the website with a time estimate for a table. It’s worth going on it for thick, creamy seafood chowder, classic steamed mussels and a gratineed seafood bake along with views over the water.
Nearby, in Cavendish, the area setting of Anne of Green Gables, the classic children’s series that first brought the island to international attention, Green Gables Heritage Place allows visitors to view the house and farm that inspired author Lucy Maud Montgomery; it belonged to her relatives. To get there from North Rustico, it’s an easy, scenic drive through a stretch of Prince Edward Island National Park; the swath of trees brought down by Hurricane Fiona last September is still painfully visible but the striking red cliffs and sandy beaches are as beautiful as ever.
The natural beauty of this island has always been one of its draws and it’s in evidence in all areas with nearly 700 miles of shoreline cliffs, beaches and sand dunes dotted with more than 60 lighthouses and hiking trails including a 438 coastal walk around the island divided into 32 sections. You can also do coastal drives to admire the scenery: the North Cape Coastal Drive, the western stretch including the island’s second largest town, Summerside, several major oyster suppliers, the culture of the indigenous Mi’kmaq nation and beaches for paddle boarding with beach goats; the Points East Coastal Drive with 50 beaches, the warmest water, golf courses, the town of Georgetown and the Greenwich section of Prince Edward Island National Park; and the Central Coastal Drive which includes the the southern Red Sands Shore and northern Green Gables Shore with its sand dunes, seaside villages and pastoral farmland. Within them, isolated coves are perfect for kayaking, boating, kite boarding or paddle boarding.
While driving the Central Coast Drive, a sign may appear advertising a ceilidh, the Scottish/Irish get together with traditional music, a reminder of those heritages mixing in with indigenous residents and others of French, English and Acadian heritage in the early settlers of the island. The sign is worth following for both the music and the stories told about life on the island. And, since this is Prince Edward Island, there will always be exceptional food.
Where to Stay: Apart from its elevated culinary offerings, The Inn at Bay Fortune is set on 75 acres with 15 rooms decorated by co-owner Chastity Smith in a mix of rustic, traditional and modern design. The property also contains woodland walking trails which is fortunate considering how much guests are tempted to eat: breakfast is extensive and extremely high quality too.
In Charlottetown: History abounds at The Great George, a hotel created from 17 heritage buildings from the 19th century in the center of town. Photos on the piano in the lobby display several of the famous guests who have stayed here over the years but further back, several delegates to the 1864 Charlottetown Conference on Union, the first meeting leading up to the formation of the Dominion of Canada, were in residence here. There are 54 suites in traditional style with many brass bedframes and leather couches.