‘You can’t possibly swim there,” insisted my husband, Oggi, surveying the turquoise waters of Prince Edward Island.
Prince Edward Island is, after all, way up in Canada. It’s further north than Maine, and nobody really swims there except for bears.
But lots of things about PEI, as it’s widely referred to, come as a surprise — like the fact that its waters are balmy by North Atlantic standards. Many people don’t realize the same Gulf Stream that makes palm trees grow in Cornwall does its thing on beaches across the ocean, giving PEI the warmest waters north of the Carolinas.
Also surprising is that on a small, sparsely populated island of 140,000, a Jewish population barely 50-strong can maintain a tight sense of community. It would be easy for these three dozen families simply to assimilate; there’s not much history here, after all, with the first Jewish settlers having arrived only about a century ago.
But PEI Jews enjoy being part of a small and heimish club, finding friendly territory amid Canada’s legendary diversity. With no synagogue or kosher eateries, they gather at each other’s homes for weekly Torah study, Passover seders and Purim hamantaschen.
Friendliness — a certain convivial warmth particular to island communities — is a signature of PEI. Indeed, perhaps the place PEI most resembles is another island named for a long-ago Briton: Martha’s Vineyard. Similarly blessed by Gulf Stream warmth that makes their fabled grapes possible, the islands share a pastoral New Englandy feel, with wooden seaside cottages, lush farm fields and salt-marsh lagoons.
What PEI has that the Vineyard does not, however, is a bridge. A matter of hefty to-build-or-not-to-build debate on both islands, PEI opted for the former in 1997, building the eight-mile Confederate Bridge and sparing us all the hassle of ferry reservations.
Even so, PEI remains unspoiled in every sense of the word. Not very many people come here; not many live here, either, leaving the visitor plenty of space to feel at one with the dunes. Wild summer landscapes of forest and beach extend for miles with nary a house in sight, let alone the McMansions you’d see in resort towns further south.
With more than two dozen emerald-green golf courses, many overlooking spectacular cliffs to the sea, Prince Edward Island is a putter’s paradise. It’s also ideal for those who like to wade through tide pools, dig for bivalves or follow the calls of loons and seabirds.
And the small-town manners and church-supper culture has changed little since the days of the fictional Anne of Green Gables, who is still the island’s claim to worldwide fame.
Anyone familiar with Lucy Maud Montgomery’s red-haired heroine will immediately recognize the place names on signs throughout PEI: Summerside, Cavendish, Charlottetown.
While Anne herself was fictional, there really is a Green Gables — a pretty green-and-white farmhouse in Cavendish that was Montgomery’s inspiration, and today is a national park and pilgrimage site. It’s open daily through early fall, with tours of the period-décor rooms, children’s activities and guided walks around Anne’s haunts.
Cavendish itself can be a bit touristy. But Green Gables sits on the fringe of PEI’s chief attraction: the Prince Edward Island National Park. Spreading out over 37 miles along the island’s north shore, the park is a natural wonderland of red sandstone cliffs, wide sandy beaches, dunes, thickets and bogs. In the late 1990s, the Greenwich section of the park was added; it has since become a highlight of the island, with a multimedia visitors’ center, miles of well-kept hiking trails, boardwalks and picnic facilities.
Charlottetown is the bustling arts hub from spring well into fall. The action kicks off with the Charlottetown Summerfest, a series of live concerts from June 29 to July 1, featuring acts from such Eastern Canadian spots as Halifax and Labrador.
At the Confederation Centre for the Arts, a year-round PEI institution, the summer-long Charlottetown Festival features Island storytellers, fiddlers, folk concerts and the ever-popular “Anne of Green Gables: The Musical,” now in its 48th year.
Just west of Charlottetown along PEI’s south coast is Victoria By-The-Sea, a postcard-perfect resort town and a good stop for those cruising the island. Along with the boardwalk, boutiques and ice-cream parlors, Victoria hosts an annual Playhouse Festival in its barnlike Community Hall. This summer’s highlights include “On Golden Pond,” “Trudeau Stories” and a Monday night concert series.