Cavendish is the home of the fictional red-headed Anne of Green Gables, a somewhat heroic figure in Canadian children's literature (and, in fact, Anne is well known around the world, though most Americans probably have never heard of her). She's a simple but plucky girl who perseveres through the sheer force of her optimism. And her fictional hometown is -- make that was -- a nice enough area, featuring a bucolic mix of woodlands, fields, rolling hills, and sandy dunes, the ideal setting for the pastoral novels that made Anne so famous.
However, the enduring popularity of the novels has attracted droves of curious tourists over the years, and it didn't take savvy entrepreneurs long at all to figure out that this place could support a mini-Disney's worth of children's attractions, hotels, and eateries. The bucolic character of Anne's town has thus been severely compromised. There are wax museums and amusement parks here, all of which would probably alarm or embarrass Anne, plus a surfeit of motels and "cottage courts" (a peculiarly local form of lodging). This development doesn't approach the garishness of, say, Niagara Falls, but it's still pretty much unavoidable if you're passing through, especially along the main road (Route 6) west of Route 13.
The nicest thing I can say about Cavendish is that most of its attractions are set back from the road, and spread out well apart from each other. They don't harmonize with the landscape, but the collateral damage has been less than it could have been. And it's somewhat limited -- you only need head east or west of town on Route 6 for a few miles to get back to the lovely rolling fields that made this region famous in the first place.
As for "downtown" Cavendish, such as it is, there's truly "no there there" (as Gertrude Stein would say). There's no discernible village center, just an intersection of roads and a tourist information center; everything is sprawled out along all the approach roads. One amusement park, Avonlea, is developing its property and trying to create a sort of village center, but it's just not the same as the genuine, old-fashioned article. Remember -- this had always been a farming area; it was never a big market town, with a bustling main street; and it never will be.
My advice? If you're on PEI to stroll quaint lanes and villages, and couldn't give a whit about Anne, you're probably much better off blowing right through town (or finding a back-roads way around it) and heading north to North or South Rustico instead. There's plenty to do in the vicinity that feels a lot more relaxing and authentic.
If your kids do enjoy amusements, though -- or you do know who Anne is -- buckle in for a day or two. This is as touristy a ride as the Maritimes can muster.
North & South Rustico to Brackley Beach
A few miles east of Cavendish are the Rusticos, of which there are five in all: North Rustico, South Rustico, Rusticoville, Rustico Harbour, and Anglo Rustico. (Don't feel bad if you can't keep them straight.) It's a fun, relaxing place to head if you're seeking beaches, small harbors, and friendly locals.
The region was first "settled" by Acadians in 1790, and many present-day residents are descendants of those original settlers. (This was one of the first Canadian regions to be populated by Acadians following the Treaty of Paris, and is the oldest Acadian presence on PEI.) The Rusticos are attractive villages with far fewer tourist traps and auto traffic than Cavendish -- which means they're much easier to explore by car or bike. Out of the hubbub, they're all still close enough to the national park and Anne's land to work well as a base. And the island's famous beaches are virtually at your doorstep.
Where to hunker down? Most travelers choose North or South Rustico. North Rustico clusters around a scenic harbor with views out toward Rustico Bay. Leave time for parking, walking around, perusing deep-sea fishing opportunities, and peeking into shops. The village curves around Rustico Bay to end at North Rustico Harbour, a sand spit with fishing wharves, summer cottages, and a couple of informal restaurants. A wood-decked promenade follows the water's edge from town to harbor, a worthy destination for a quiet afternoon ramble or a picnic. Also here is Outside Expeditions (tel. 800/207-3899 or 902/963-3366; www.getoutside.com), one of PEI's best outfitters; they offer sea kayaking excursions around the harbor and into surrounding areas.
To find South Rustico, turn off Route 6 onto Route 243 and ascend the low hill overlooking the bay. Here you'll find a handsome cluster of buildings that were once home to some of the most prosperous Acadian settlers. Among the structures is the sandstone Farmers' Bank of Rustico Museum (tel. 902/963-3168), beside the church. A bank that's historic? In this case, yes.
The bank was established with the help of a visionary local cleric, the Reverend Georges-Antoine Belcourt, in 1864 to help local farmers get their operations into the black; Father and parishioners actually built the bank themselves, timber by timber, stone by stone. It then operated for some 30 years and helped inspire the credit union movement in North America before it was, ironically, forced to shut down by legislative banking reforms. The bank is open for tours from June through September, Monday through Saturday, 9:30am to 5:30pm, and Sundays 1 to 5:30pm. (You can call during the off-season and try to schedule a walk-through, as well, if you're in town.) Admission costs C$4 per adult, C$3 per senior, C$2 per student, and C$8 per family.
Right next door to the bank, there are two more structures worth checking out. Doucet House, a sturdy log building of Acadian construction dating from 1772, was the home of Jean Doucet, who arrived in these parts on a type of boat called a "shallop." It's believed that this might be the oldest extant home on the entire island. The house was moved from its waterside location in 1999 and completely restored -- which it badly needed -- and period furnishings have since been added to bring back that ages-old flavor. Its opening hours and admissions fees are the same as those for the Farmers' Bank; in fact, one ticket gets you into both.
Then there's the handsome St. Augustine's Parish Church (dating from 1838, with a cemetery beyond), also next door. If the church's door is open, enter and have a look around the graceful structure.
Brackley Beach is the gateway to the eastern section of PEI's national park, and it has the fewest services of any town in these parts. It's just a quiet area, with no village center to speak of; it can be best appreciated by those who prefer their beach vacations untouched by civilization or noise.
In southeastern Queens County, the village of Orwell is a great little historic detour off busy Route 1, about 32km (20 miles) east of Charlottetown. (Route 1 is the fast main road travelers drive to get from C-town to Montague, the Murrays, Georgetown, or the Wood Islands ferry.) Both sites mentioned below are near each other on a side road; there are few landmarks other than simple signs directing you here, so keep a sharp eye out for the corner and the turnoff.
The Orwell Corner Historic Village (tel. 902/651-8515) is one of the most aesthetically pleasing historic parks in the province. One of several sites on the island managed by the PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation, the village re-creates life as it might have been in a small island town of the 1890s. You can visit a general store, stop by a blacksmith shop, or wander through lush gardens and make a picnic in the shade of a tree. Events scheduled during summer here include a "poultry day," kids' camps, group garden walks, folk-music performances, and even hands-on craft demonstrations: Strap on safety glasses and take a stab at smithing, if you're brave enough. Also be sure to ask for a schedule of the lively ceilidhs (Scottish concerts) of traditional music that are held weekly in a community hall every summer; there's an extra charge to attend these, but they're well worth it.
The village is open from 9:30am to 5:30pm daily in July and August; 9am to 5pm weekdays only in June; and 9am to 5pm Sunday to Thursday from September through early October, when it closes for the season. Admission is C$7.50 for adults, C$4.50 for children 6 to 18, and C$20 for families.
A few minutes' drive from the village is the handsome, white-shingled homestead of Sir Andrew Macphail (tel. 902/651-2789). Macphail, a gifted polymath born in this tiny village in 1864, gained renown as a doctor, pathologist, professor, writer, editor, and agricultural tinkerer; you learn a lot about his exceptional mind and career by walking through the house, which includes a handful of exhibits and some period furniture. (There's also a restaurant.) But the real allure of this place is a stroll across the green lawn and through the 40-plus hectares (more than a hundred acres) of farmlands laced by several trails. These walks are lush, pastoral, and quiet, filled with the summer sounds of crickets and songbirds -- a great antidote to city life.
Admission to the site is free, though donations are happily accepted. The house is open daily from spring through fall, with shorter hours in the shoulder seasons. Also note that the gardens and grounds here remain open later into the fall, even after the home has closed.