Prince Edward Island (PEI) may not be the world's most exciting vacation spot, but it's a place that has always inspired travelers I know to do exactly the one thing they came here to do: relax.
There's something about this richly hued landscape of blue seas, henna-colored cliffs capped with purple flowers, and green, green fields that triggers a pleasant disconnection with the hurry-scurry, Twitter-it-now pace of modern life. Indeed, even change is slow here: Over the past 120 years the island's population has grown by just 30,000.
Beyond its restorative qualities, the landscape here is remarkable for its gentleness. It's sometimes difficult to believe pastoral PEI and boggy, blustery Newfoundland even share the same planet, never mind the same gulf. The island's northern coast is lined with red-sand beaches washed by warm waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The swimming here is far warmer than that in Maine or New Hampshire. You'll also find low, rolling hills in the interior blanketed in trees or crops (especially potatoes, for which the island is justly famous). Small farms make up the island's backbone: One-quarter of the place is still dedicated to agriculture, more than 2,000 individual farms in all. As David Byrne might say: Same as it ever was.
PEI was first sighted and explored in 1534 by the tireless French explorer Jacques Cartier, who discovered Mi'kmaq native Canadians living here. Over the next 2 centuries, dominion over the island bounced between Great Britain and France (who called the place Isle-St-Jean). Great Britain was awarded the island in 1763 as part of the Treaty of Paris that was hashed out to settle the Revolutionary War; a little more than a century later, the first Canadian Confederation was held in Charlottetown and resulted in the official creation of Canada in 1867. (To be fair, though, PEI didn't actually join this new confederation until 1873; a careful lot, these folks.)
The island is British and civil through and through, which means people are friendly. It's also very small, yet there are numerous side roads -- roads that are usually (but not always) well marked. In any case, it's difficult to become disoriented here. Still, you should try. Whether you're on a bike or in a car, it can be quite pleasurable getting lost on the back roads, secure in the knowledge that you'll eventually end up either at the junction of another road -- or at the sea.
There's one more thing you should know. For all its stuttery steps toward modernity, this island is still largely steeped in the slower pace of an earlier era. Milkmen still make their rounds; you return soda bottles for refilling, not recycling; and gas-station attendants cheerfully pump your gas and wash your windows without your ever needing to ask. Take a cue from this slow cadence and schedule 1 or 2 extra days into your vacation, with absolutely no plans, in a cabin or cottage. Even if it rains, you probably won't regret it.
The information we present here is divided into the counties that trisect PEI. They're easy to remember: They rise, in order of royal hierarchy (Prince to Queens to Kings), in the direction of England.
Who Is This Prince Edward Guy, Anyway?
Prince Edward Island is named for Prince Edward Augustus (1767-1820), who was the son of King George III of England. A strict disciplinarian, Augustus rose swiftly through the British military ranks and was posted to Halifax in 1791 with the elite Fusiliers unit; his rise continued, until he was promoted to the position of official commander in chief of all British forces in North America in 1799 -- a post he seems to have held for only 1 year. After returning to England, his career languished, and his retirement as a duke to a Devonshire cottage might have been his ultimate undoing: After a walk in the cool mists, he caught a cold or pneumonia and expired at the age of just 52.
However, Edward's one true lasting claim to fame occurred when he married very late in life and his wife bore him a daughter (she was less than 1 year old when he died). And because neither Edward's father nor his uncle had any surviving grandchildren -- by legitimate wives, anyway -- Edward's daughter became, by default, the Queen of England. (Grab an encyclopedia if you want to understand the convoluted rules of British succession.) In 1837, the girl acceded to the throne, where she would preside over one of the most impressive expansions of empire in world history.
We remember her today as Queen Victoria: the face that launched an era (and an architectural style).