As you wander past pretty painted houses or feel the breeze in the sand dunes by a picturesque lighthouse, you might be forgiven for thinking you’ve stepped back in time on Prince Edward Island. Things seem to slow down in PEI, which is Canada’s smallest province, as you relax into the unhurried pace of island life.
The island capital Charlottetown has a small town feel, but there’s plenty of creativity, great food and history to enjoy and the town makes a central base to explore the rest of the island. We visited in June when the weather was just warming up, and here are some of the fun things to do in Charlottetown and Prince Edward Island that we can recommend.
1. Charlottetown – Island capital, small town feel
For a state capital, Charlottetown has a surprisingly small town feel, where you could imagine walking down the street and bumping into friends and neighbours. The historic centre encompasses only a few blocks and is very walkable, although you’ll need a car to easily explore the rest of PEI. The city seems to combine a creative energy with a relaxed and laid back lifestyle, and a self sufficiency that makes up the idea of being an “Islander” and feeling part of “Island Life”.
In the historic centre, pretty painted houses mix with turn-of-the century-brick shopfronts and Victoria Row (locally just known as The Row) is where everyone seems to end up on a Friday night, having a drink or meal in one of the many bars and restaurants that line one side of the street.
Charlottetown is the ideal place to base yourself if you have a few days in PEI, with plenty of restaurants and bars to try in the evening and easy access by road to the different parts of the island known by their old county names of Prince’s, Queen’s and King’s.
A short stroll from our hotel at The Great George, took us to the waterfront overlooking the Hillsborough River, with a small marina and plenty of activities available to try on the water such as kayak or stand up paddle board. There’s a big tradition of Celtic culture here, stemming from the Irish and Scottish descendents of many islanders, with ceilidhs and folk bands that are part of island life. We got a taste of PEI’s Celtic culture when we popped into Brìgh Music and Tea and heard some fiddling while being served with a cup of tea.
The Confederation Centre of Arts in the centre of Charlottetown not only hosts musical and dramatic performances, but is a centre for Canadian visual arts. There are permanent collections of paintings and sculpture, like the pieces that we saw in the foyer, as well as changing exhibitions on themes of Canadian arts and nationhood. Entrance to the exhibitions is by donation.
Charlottetown is proud to be the birthplace of the Confederation and in the Confederation Centre of Arts there’s a replica of the Confederation chamber where politicians met in 1864 at the Charlottetown Conference. There’s a short film that explains how their discussions to unite the three maritime provinces in Canada eventually led to the uniting of Canada, so that Charlottetown can claim to be the birthplace of the Confederation that brought the states of Canada together as one nation.
2. Get foodie – Taste of the town tour of Charlottetown
A food tour is a great way not only to familiarise yourself with the best restaurants in town, but to learn about the local food culture and the dishes to look out for on menus when you eat out later. We had a fantastic food tour on Experience PEI’s Taste the Town tour, our guide leading us though the best places to eat and picking out the typical local specialities.
Being an island you might guess that seafood features heavily on most menus, with Canada’s Atlantic coastline offering deep, cold water where lobsters, scallops, oysters and fish abound. There are many excellent places around Charlottetown to taste fresh seafood and we visited the Old Dublin Pub and Claddagh Oyster House for some of the local mussels and the seafood chowder, a typical local dish in the Maritimes.
Another must-try dish is Lobster Roll, with plenty of local restaurants competing for the title of the best lobster roll in the region. We think that the Lobster on the Wharf restaurant came pretty close with their floury soft white roll filled with an abundance of lobster chunks bound with just the right amount of mayo and crisp lettuce. Of course it didn’t hurt the flavours that we were sitting on their deck in the sunshine with a great view of the harbour!
The distinctive red soil of PEI is well known for growing excellent potatoes and we tried some of the best fries made with local potatoes from The Chip Shack. The owner Caron a.k.a Queen of Fries dispenses hugs and smiles along with the best fries in town – with fresh cut local potatoes that are double fried to make them extra crunchy.
There was so much great food that we tried in Charlottetown and PEI that I’ll be devoting an article in the future to the delicious dishes and places to eat that we found.
More info: Taste the Town food tour of Charlottetown
3. Get musical – See a show in Charlottetown
You can’t be in Prince Edward Island long before falling for the charms of the red-haired orphan Anne of Green Gables, and where better to get to know her story than by going to a show like the Anne and Gilbert musical at The Guild Theatre.
The musical is about Anne and her childhood sweetheart Gilbert Blythe falling in love. Gilbert is smitten and all their friends are sure they are destined to be together but Anne is not convinced – she’s an independent woman after all!
However, as you would hope Anne slowly realises that Gilbert is not just her best friend but the man of her dreams and of course the romance ends happily. The show is a joyous evening of song and dance, and we enjoyed the snippets of island life and the the insights of the songs like “You’re island through and through” which showed the insider’s view of PEI and island life.
Another show that is often playing at The Confederation Centre in Charlottetown is Anne of Green Gables – the Musical, which tells the story of Anne of Green Gable’s childhood. The musical, based on L.M. Montgomery’s novel, is now in its 54th season and is a musical adaptation of the book in which Anne finds love and belonging in the home of the elderly brother and sister Marilla and Matthew.
4. Get back to the land – Farmers Market Charlottetown
Eat Fresh! Buy Local! This is the ethos of farmer’s markets across Canada and the Charlottetown farmer’s market is an especially vibrant and lively one to visit. The farmer’s market takes place every Saturday 9am to 2pm all year round in a permanent building at 100 Belvedere Avenue, which is a little way from the historic centre, so you may need to drive depending on where you are staying.
Even if you are not shopping to cook for yourself, you can wander around and admire the fresh produce of the season – miniature spring turnips and greens when we were there, all proudly proclaiming their pesiticide free and organic credentials.
Look out for the many varieties of potato that the red soil of PEI is famous for producing, and lots of home made jellies, jams and handicrafts to take home.
Mixed in with the produce there are plenty of stalls selling dishes and snacks that are ready to eat; cakes, pastries and seafood snacks, so it’s a great place to come hungry and stay for brunch or lunch.
More info: Charlottetown Farmer’s Market
5. Get literary – Anne of Green Gables
As you explore the island outside Charlottetown, one of the unmissable things to do is to immerse yourself in the story of Anne of Green Gables, set on Prince Edward Island. The story of the red haired orphan Anne Shirley, looking for love and belonging, has won the hearts of readers around the world.
The novel written by LM Montgomery was published in 1908 and became a children’s classic that reached an even wider audience through films and TV series. The book is based on the author’s experiences of rural life in Prince Edward Island, and we visited Green Gables Heritage Place at Cavendish, the green roofed farmhouse owned by Lucy Maud’s cousins that she visited as a child.
The farmhouse has now been made into heritage centre, with rooms restored and furnished to look as if Anne and her adoptive parents Marilla and Matthew have just stepped out to visit a neighbour. You can see the bedroom with pretty print wallpaper and iron bedstead that might have been Anne’s, her dress hanging on the door.
There are plenty of activities and tours at Green Gables Heritage Place, a video to watch and a large interpretive centre was being built nearby while we were there. The authentic horse drawn buggy with a dressing up box of clothes nearby, is of course carefully positioned to become your Anne of Green Gables selfie!
After you’ve visited the house, you may like to follow one of the walking trails through Lover’s Lane, the Haunted Woods and Balsam Hollow that are inspired by those described in the book.
If you want to extend your Anne of Green Gables Experience, you can also visit the Anne of Green Gables Museum at Park Corner nearby, the home of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s aunt and uncle and the house where she chose to get married. You can see the view of Anne’s “Lake of shining water”, wander around the flower gardens and take Matthew’s Carriage Ride in a horse drawn buggy.
Even if you get no further than Charlottetown, you’ll be reassured to know that you can buy raspberry cordial soap, Anne of Green Gables dolls, and your own copy of the novel, in the Anne of Green Gables store at 110 Queens Street, Charlottetown.
6. Get to the coast – The Lighthouses of Prince Edward Island
Although the gently rolling countryside and red earth farms of PEI were pretty, it was the coastline of sand dunes and lighthouses that really inspired me. All along the coast are more than 60 lighthouses that kept the ships sailing these waters safe, but are now iconic landmarks that make a pretty picture. Many of the lighthouses are open to the public, maintained by community groups or are still kept working by the government where they are required for navigation. There’s a Lighthouse Lover’s Tour where you can drive around the coast to see all the lighthouses and we managed to stop at a few of them on our driving tour of PEI.
Covehead Lighthouse in PEI
On the northern shore of PEI, Coverhead Lighthouse is set in the sand dunes and must be one of the most photographed lightouses of PEI. It makes an easy stop as you drive between Green Gables Heritage Place and Dalvay by the sea, with a handy parking place so you can hop out and take your photo. The beach and sand dunes here were beautiful too and in summer this whole stretch of shore would be a gorgeous place for a swim.
More info: Covehead Lighthouse
Cape Bear Lighthouse in PEI
We visited Cape Bear Lighthouse on our way to the ferry, since it is on the south east shore, and only 20 minutes drive from the Wood Island Ferry. The lighthouse was also the site of a Marconi Wireless Station which was the first place in 1912 to receive the distress call from The Titanic, which hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic with a loss of over 1500 lives.
The lighthouse was closed when we visited, but there is a small Marconi museum and gift shop and you can climb up the lighthouse for views towards Cape Breton Island.
More info: Cape Bear Lighthouse
East Point Lighthouse in PEI
East Point lighthouse as the name suggests, is on the furthest eastern point of PEI and it has a welcome centre and adjoining cafe. What I liked about this lighthouse was that you can climb to the very top and get views over the ocean, although the buzzing flies in the lantern room at the top were not quite so attractive.
The lighthouse is like a mini-museum, with interesting information in the different rooms as you make your way to the top, from portraits of the lighthouse keepers to artefacts from the lighthouse. The East Point Lighthouse is also known as the Confederation Lighthouse, since it was built in 1867, the year of the Confederation and has been in action ever since.
More Info: East Point Lighthouse
7. Get outdoors – Greenwich Dunes Trail
Our walk along the Greenwich Dunes Trail was one of the favourite memories from our trip, especially the section nearest the sand dunes, where we walked across the pond on a meandering boardwalk. The first part of the hike took us on a flat path through farmland, until we reached an area of woodland where the boardwalk started.
The area is known for its parabolic dune system, blown into shapes by the wind, with wetlands that attract wildlife and rare plants species. We passed lots of interpretation signs on the boardwalk that gave us more information about the flora and fauna, but most of all I loved the peace and open skies as the trail led us over the dunes for a sight of the ocean.
More Info: Greenwich Dunes Trail
8. Get Historic – Dalvay by the sea
In an idyllic position, overlooking the sand dunes of the northern shore we found Dalvay by the sea, which is both historic hotel and a national monument that you can visit even if you are not staying there. The substantial house was built by a wealthy businessman, Alexander MacDonald as his summer reidence, which he named after his childhood home in Scotland, Dalvay-by-the-sea.
The hotel also featured in the Anne of Green Gables films and TV series as the White Sands Hotel mentioned in the novel where Anne attended a music recital. More recently, the hotel was visited by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2011 on their honeymoon tour, when a reception was held for them overlooking the sea.
Dalvay by the sea is now a privately owned historic hotel, with 25 guest rooms in the main house, which are furnished in period style with antiques and wood lined walls that are still reminiscent of a holiday cabin.
Even if you are not staying at the hotel, you are welcome to visit the downstairs public areas, with a seating area around the stone fireplace in the lobby and a spacious library, where you can order a coffee. The restaurant is also highly regarded and open to non-residents in the houses’ original dining room where the MacDonald family would entertain their guests.
More info: Dalvay by the sea
9. Get arty in PEI – the Dunes Gallery on the Arts and Heritage Trail
I love to discover local artizans and crafts when I travel and when shopping for souvenirs I try to support local artists for unique and one-off finds that reflect the place they are made. One place we stopped that was a treasure trove of artistic creativity was The Dunes Gallery, which is on the road from Charlottetown to the north shore with an extensive art gallery, beautiful gardens and a restaurant.
The gallery features the pottery of owners Peter and Joel as well as supporting local artists, with the colourful paintings and prints of over 50 artizans on display. We would have loved to have lunch at the restaurant, which was closed when we visited, in a glass conservatory leading out to the gardens and patio, with a menu based on fresh seafood and local produce.
We picked up a booklet for the PEI Arts and Heritage trail which features 140 artists, artisans, arts and heritage sites around the island and discovered there’s also an app that you can download to track the places to visit as you tour the island.
10. And Relax! Stay at The Great George Hotel in Charlottetown
We loved our stay in Charlottetown at The Great George Hotel which made a perfect base for us to see the island’s capital as well as touring all the other places we visited around PEI.
The Great George is a historic boutique hotel that has expanded from its original corner building, along the street and around the block taking in all the pretty pastel painted houses nearby that hide hotel rooms beside their quaint facades.
The hotel has been the smart place to stay in Charlottetown since the 1850s, when it hosted some of the delegates at the Charlottetown Conference when Prince Edward Island became the Birthplace of Confederation.
The Great George is in a great location too and despite being bang in the centre of Charlottetown’s historic district, there’s a car park tucked away in the courtyard which means that it’s no problem to park your rental car.
Inside there’s a homely but elegant feel, with the spacious ground floor given over to confortable sofas and seating areas where you might sit and read, have a chat or play a board game seated around the fireplace. This is also where a buffet breakfast is served with fresh fruit, yoghurts and those very moreish cinnamon buns to go with your coffee.
All the more welcome because it’s included in your room rate when breakfasts in most Canadian hotels are a chargeable extra! We also appreciated the warm chocolate chip cookies that awaited us at reception when we returned from a day’s sightseeing and the complimentary happy hour glass of wine.
We were in a very spacious Witter Coombs ground floor suite which took up the whole ground floor of one of the cottages, incorporating a large bedroom with a jacuzzi in the corner and a separate living area, all tastefully decorated in a mixture of antique, designer furniture and original artworks. I mused that our suite that took up the whole ground floor of the cottage would once have been the home of a Charlottetown families over the last couple of centuries, probably all squashed into a couple of rooms.
The atmosphere of The Great George Hotel is warm and welcoming, with friendly but unobtrusive service and I’d highly recommend it as a place to stay in Charlottetown. The hotel does not have a restaurant, but as you are in the heart of the historic district, there are any number of excellent places to eat within a few minutes walk of the hotel, including the collection of bars and restaurants along pretty Victoria Row.
More info: Great George Hotel in Charlottetown PEI
Visitor Information for Prince Edward Island
Getting to Prince Edward island: We flew into Halifax, which is the closest international airport, and then drove to PEI as part of our 7 day road trip around Nova Scotia and PEI. The island is connected to the mainland by both a bridge and a regular ferry service and it’s fun to try both if you can. We drove across the Confederation Bridge from New Brunswick, from where it’s a 45 minute drive to Charlottetown. There is a Toll of $7 when crossing from PEI to New Brunswick, but it’s free in the other direction when travelling from New Brunswick to PEI.
On the way back, we explored the South East area of PEI and then took the Wood Island Ferry back across to Caribou, Nova Scotia. There are up to 8 ferry crossings per day and the cost is $78 CAD round trip – more info on the ferry operated by Northumberland Ferries.
For other things to see in Canada visit the Canada Tourism website.