The young woman at the cash register of the gift shop regards me blankly. Then her nose crinkles, as if I’d asked her where one might go to see the lobster fights instead of a suggestion for family activities in Summerside and she shrugs. “There’s not much to do here.”
So we’ve discovered. It took about 90 minutes to drive to Summerside, and you’d think in all my obsessive researching, I’d have thought to look up whether it was a place worth visiting. I knew it was PEI’s second-largest city, home to the local tax office, and had a nice place on the waterfront called Spinnaker’s Landing. I figured as the second largest city, it would have half as much interesting stuff as Charlottetown, and that would keep us busy for a couple of hours at least.
Not so much.
We asked two locals for advice on family-friendly activities nearby, both of whom looked at me with the same expression of “what, here?!” before shrugging and offering no helpful advice whatsoever. So we ate our picnic lunch on the boardwalk at Spinnaker’s Landing (as the rain started to fall, again) and debated whether we should go further west toward the Bottle Houses at Cap Egmont, or north toward Thunder Cove. I’d wanted to go to Thunder Cove since I read about it last year, and it was cheaper than the bottle houses, so off we went.
Best decision of the day!
Thunder Cove is like many of the beaches on the north coast of PEI – the water is rougher, and gets deep quickly. The sand and sea stretch out as far as the eye can see.
If you’re taking pictures of the surf, and you’re squatting down on the sand, you should be wary of the Universe and its playful sense of humour, as that surf will rush right up over your feet and soak your hiking boots from the top down. Just sayin’. It was a long, squelchy six hours later before those boots came off.
(It is also a testament to the weather our first week here that I was wearing hiking boots on the beach. I brought two pairs of shoes on this trip, and grew ever so tired of getting my feet soaked in the endless rain while wearing sandals. Joke’s on me, apparently I am just destined to have damp toes this vacation.)
But ahem, back to Thunder Cove. To our right, endless beach – but to our left, these wonderful red sandstone cliffs and caves and cubbies.
And just beyond these caves, I knew there was a famous rock formation called the teacup and a very cool sandstone arch. Unfortunately, we arrived just as the tide was coming in.
Hmmm, we wondered. Could we climb up these cliffs and over the dunes to get to the teacup and arch?
*cue ominous music*
Up wasn’t too difficult. Up was a breeze, in fact. I almost got even more of a soaker than I already had as the tide chased me up a few easy steps and slopes in the sandstone. Tristan, ever the adventurer, scampered like a mountain goat around and confirmed that he could get to the teacup easily. And in case you are wondering, “easily” by definition to a 13 year old boy includes a narrow, scree-covered six inch wide ledge 20 feet above the tide crashing in over sandstone rocks. Lucas was half way through the loose rock scree before I came around the edge of the cliff and saw him and it was five breathless minutes of chewing on my heart while alternating between cajoling, ordering and shrieking him back to the safer edge of the cliff.
So, here’s a lovely picture of the time the boys did not plunge down the rock face into the crashing tide below. Note the lovely rock formations in the background, and we are plenty close enough, thank you very much.
And then we faced one more small problem, which was actually two small problems. The first was getting down again. We walked back along the sandstone shelf and looked down at the tide below. I looked at Beloved, and saw my concern reflected on his face. “Um, how did we get up again?”
Did you see this one coming? Sadly, we did not. Remember that thing I said about the tide coming in and chasing me up the cliff? In the 15 minutes or so it had taken us to explore the not-path to the teapot and have a heart attack and celebrate the not-untimely-demise of any of our progeny on the crashing rocks of death, the tide had come in behind us, blocking our access to the beach.
Did I mention the waves, and the wind? It was seriously so loud that we had to shout to hear each other. So we v-e-r-y carefully picked our way back down the ledges, scootching on our butts when necessary, and trying to time our final leap to the sand to coincide with the retreat of the surf. Except for Tristan, who hopped down like gravity and the laws of physics disdained him.
And then we took a celebratory selfie.
With no particular destination in mind but several hours of daylight left, we set off in the general direction of Morell, which brought us through the heart of what I think of as the tourist zone – New London, Rustico, Cavendish and New Glascow. When we came into French River, I mentioned to Beloved that it was one of the most picturesque and photographed harbours on an island lousy with picturesque harbours. Sure enough, as we crested a hill I saw exactly what I’d seen in a hundred photographs, so of course I stopped the car so I could collect my own. I personally think it’s the most beautiful one yet. It has a little je ne sais quoi that the others lack. And by je ne sais quoi, I mean Lucas.
As we drove eastward, in my mind I ran through the pages and pages of tourist pamphlets, blog posts and review sites I have perused over the years. Beloved was navigating. “Look on the map,” I told him. “Do you see a little town called New Glascow anywhere nearby? I think they have a toy store or something there.”
Second best decision of the day!
The Toy Factory is tiny, comparatively speaking. It fills the main floor of a house, but it’s packed to the rafters with interesting things and, on the day we arrived, people. There seems to be a theme of toys for imaginative play: pirates, knights, fairies and gorgeous handmade wooden toys that hearken back to a simpler time.
The very first thing I saw as I walked in was Tristan staring with naked covetousness at a Master Sword and Hylian Shield behind the counter. If you don’t know what that means, you haven’t been obsessively playing Legend of Zelda (and reading the books, and learning to play an ocarina) for the past few years of your life. And if you do have an idea of the DEFCON-5 level of covetousness we’re talking about, you’ll understand how close to his head actually came to exploding when they let us play with them for a photo op.
^^ Actual metal sword. He has been asking for one consistently for more than a year. The only thing that kept me from fulfilling his heart’s deepest desire was not any sense that perhaps a sword is not an appropriate beach holiday souvenir, but the $100 chunk out of our vacation budget. They do have an online store, though, and Christmas is coming.
As if that weren’t cool enough, there’s a toy workshop in the back. And as if THAT weren’t cool enough, they actually let you make your own little wooden toy that you can purchase for the princely sum of $4.95 or leave behind to add to the store stock. We did one of each.
And though we’d been there for nearly 90 minutes at this point, and I was beginning to wonder if we would ever leave, I was still utterly charmed by this Islander’s laconic interaction with Lucas. There were kids everywhere, and I could overhear the workshop folks talking amongst themselves about how it had been a busy day in a busy week, but to this fellow there was no need to rush. He had a wood-burning wand, and they were personalizing each child’s wooden toy (there were magic wands and race cars being made) by burning over the child’s name written in the child’s own handwriting. And then he added a PEI 2015 “license plate” and a decorative star on top. He even asked Lucas what kind of star he might prefer – a traditional five-point star, or the asterisk kind. And then he added a circle around the star at Lucas’s request. It was like Lucas was the only person in the store on a quiet day – I was seriously charmed.
Did I mention the playground out back? Or the bunnies? Or the curiousities spread out over the grounds? Heed this advice: go to the Toy Factory. No matter where you are staying on PEI, it’s worth the drive if you have kids who love imaginative play.
TL;DR? Summerside, not so much. However, Thunder Cove and the Toy Factory at New Glascow were two wonderful new discoveries that made for an amazing day of adventure. As Tristan said, any day with leaping from cliffs, a Master Sword and a Hylian Shield is an amazing day.