Planning for PEI 2016: Why we love the Points East Coastal Drive region

Yay! It’s time to start thinking about our next summer vacation on Prince Edward Island!

This will be our third trip to PEI. In 2014, we spent a week near Murray Harbour, and in 2015 we spent a generally wet and rainy but still happy two weeks near St Peters Bay. We’ve criss-crossed and explored most regions of the Island, save for the North Cape Coastal Drive region, and while we have favourite spots throughout the Island, we always come back to the Points East Coastal Drive region. In 2016, we’ve booked 10 days at a cottage right on the water (yay!) between two of our very favourite PEI places: Souris and Basin Head Provincial Park.

Souris and Basin Head PEI

If you’re planning your first PEI vacation, I’d suggest making a list of things that are important to you and your family. Being on the water was important to us, but we don’t mind a bit of driving (ha, my kids may say otherwise!) so being an hour outside of Charlottetown will be fine for us. We like small towns and pretty scenery and really couldn’t care less about golf or nightlife. Cost is (always) a factor, and we find you get more bang for your buck when you are away from heavily touristed areas like Cavendish Beach. Souris and Montague, the largest towns in the Points East region, are plenty big enough for most of what we’ll need (groceries, restaurants and Tim Hortons) and most of our favourite restaurants are on the eastern part of PEI as well.

PEI2Mostly, though, we just fell in love with the easy-going, laid back feeling of everyone we encountered in the Points East region of the Island. There’s a little something for everyone – world class dining, white and red sand beaches, arts and boutiques, and outdoor adventures, to name a few. Here’s five of our favourite attractions and activities in the Points East Coastal Drive region.

1. PEI National Park at Greenwich

PEI National Park at Greenwich

A beautiful beach, a boardwalk through world-famous parabolic dunes, and amazing hiking trails – PEI National Park at Greenwich is one of our very favourite parts of PEI all on its own, but if you go, try to take advantage of the interpretive programs like Beach Detective.

2. Chef Michael Smith’s FireWorks restaurant at the Inn at Bay Fortune

I have a giant celebrity crush on “the world’s tallest freestanding chef” and even though we didn’t get the chance to encounter himself, my birthday dinner at his incredible restaurant was one of the highlights of our trip last year. The most amazing restaurant meal we’ve ever had, and something even the boys enjoyed.

Dinner at the Inn at Bay Fortune

3. Orwell Corner

Orwell Corners, PEI

Orwell Corner is an agricultural village settled in the late 1850s and restored to that time period. On the day we were there, the boys made candles, we visited the blacksmith shop, we learned about a child’s school day in the 1850s, had afternoon tea, and the boys fed the farm animals. It was the perfect mix of education and entertainment.

4. Basin Head Provincial Park

Souris and Basin Head PEI

I think it’s safe to say that Basin Head beach is our favourite place on PEI. Each time we visit, we have a bit of a different experience. Some days we jump in the waves, some days we explore the rocks and boulders, some days we just dig a really big hole in the sand. This may be the year that I let the big boys jump off the bridge, a Basin Head tradition for many. From squeaky singing sands to ice cream, I love everything about Basin Head. Conveniently, we’re just a few kilometers away this year!

5. Everything else

I need to tell you about the Lighthouses at Panmure and East Point and St Peters Bay. No wait, you need to know about the the ceilidhs. Oh and I really need to mention the restaurants like the Shipwreck Cafe and Red’s Corners and Brehauts. And the train rides at the Elmira Railway Museum. Oh, and the artisans like Peter Llewellyn’ Shoreline Designs and Teri Hall’s Fire and Ice Creations. And the simple joy of driving along a twisty coastal road admiring lupins and even rows of freshly planted potatos and the endless blue sea. And every kind of beach you could imagine – white, red, rocky, sandy, calm, fierce, playful…

Sigh. Is it July yet?

If you’re planning a PEI vacation, check out the Points East Coastal Drive website for accommodations, attractions and ideas.

Disclosure: Points East Coastal Drive is a sponsor of the blog, but I’m working with them because we are so enamoured with the region.

Revisiting Thunder Cove

Although we’d had a loose idea of what we planned to do pretty much every day of our epic PEI trip, we awoke the morning of the final day with no clear plan. We chatted as a family to make sure we’d done just about everything we’d wanted to do, and discussed how we wanted to invest our last precious hours. The forecast was rather grim, with grey skies and thunderstorms pending in the afternoon. The boys wanted to visit a Cows store for ice cream and souvenir t-shirts, and I wanted MOAR BEACH. The choice was clear: Cavendish!

The boys got their t-shirts and stuffies and browsed the kitschy shops on the boardwalk, and I looked speculatively at the heavy grey clouds, which seemed to want to disappate. We debated various beach options: Cavendish is right there, and we had not yet visited it on this year’s trip. Basin Head, our hands-down favourite, was a good hour and a half away. Brackley? Greenwich? Nope. As occasional peeks of sun broke through the clouds, I checked the tide tables. If we leave RIGHT NOW, we should arrive at Thunder Cove well before the tide climbs high enough to cut us off from the arch and teacup yet again.

As we drove, the peeks of sunlight grew in intensity, the clouds thinned, and by the time we pulled off on Thunder Cove Road, the forecasted thunderstorms had given way to unexpectedly sunny skies. Beloved and Simon found a comfy spot to park our blanket and sandcastle building tools, while Tristan led Lucas and me down the beach the 800m or so toward the rock formations.

As we got closer, I began to suspect that we were to be thwarted yet again. The waves, considerably calmer than our last visit, were nevertheless lapping gently at the foot of the cliff we had scaled. Tristan had already scurried up and over the rocks when Lucas and I arrived, and I tried to convince Lucas to walk through the seaweed-choked water to go around the rocks that we couldn’t climb over last time. Lucas took one look at the seaweedy waves and abjectly refused. I couldn’t say that I particularly blamed him, but there was no way that I was going to have come all this way not once but twice and be kept from the rock formations yet again. I’d even checked the tide tables! I was unsuccessfully trying to convince him to hop on my back for a piggy-back ride, and simultaneously trying to discern whether there were any jellyfish or sharks or killer whales hiding in the seaweed-tossed waves, when Tristan called to us from a ledge above.

“Come up!” he called. “There’s a path!”

Right. A Tristan path and a mom path are not the same. Mom paths are wide, have directional markers, and are maintained by the province. Tristan paths have scree, toe-holds and vertical drops. Regardless, turning back was not an option (oh you stubborn woman!) and the waterward option was less than palatable. Up we went to inspect Tristan’s path.

We started off where we ended our adventure last time, on a ledge that wraps around the edge of the cliff but becomes narrow, scree-filled and entirely inappropriate for seven year olds and those on the eve of their 46th birthday.

Revisiting Thunder Cove, PEI

I scowled and began to protest, but Tristan said, “No, look, we can go up and over.”

Oh good, higher is the direction I wanted to go. Not. But up we went, and to his credit there was a path, an actual path for humans and not just billy-goat kids, through the marran grass.

Revisiting Thunder Cove, PEI

What goes up must come down. Tristan skipped down, Lucas scootched down, and I eased down, one tentative, baretoed step at a time. Tristan coached me on each step.

Revisiting Thunder Cove, PEI

And then – success!

Revisiting Thunder Cove, PEI

We made it to, and through, the arch, and on to the teacup.

Revisiting Thunder Cove, PEI

Revisiting Thunder Cove, PEI

My trophy photo. In two weeks of grey skies, I love that we a beautiful blue backdrop for this one!

Revisiting Thunder Cove, PEI

And then, back up and over we went, some of us more quickly than (ahem) others.

Revisiting Thunder Cove, PEI

For Tristan, the final descent back to the beach was as easy as one big leap.

Revisiting Thunder Cove, PEI

Then he climbed halfway back up to hold my camera for me while I scootched and slid and picked my way down one careful step at a time. Lucas was half way down the beach by the time I got down.

Revisiting Thunder Cove, PEI

And look at that sky, that cloudless perfect blue sky. One could weep for all those grey cool days, but instead, we celebrated the sun by playing in the waves.

Revisiting Thunder Cove, PEI

Revisiting Thunder Cove, PEI

And so the tide begins to turn on my relationship with Tristan. I never would have made it up and over those sandstone cliffs if he hadn’t been there. It was partly sheer stubbornness (if he can do it, I can do it!) and partly his genuine conviction that of course we could get over the other side that motivated me. I see a sea change here, and I’m not sure if I’m ready for it. But at the same time, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Is there anything better than an adventure and exploring on a sunny summer day? Of course there is – when you share it with a friend!

A PEI tradition: a night at the ceilidh

We’d been at the ceilidh for about 10 minutes when I leaned forward and whispered in Beloved’s ear: “Okay, so maybe not ALL my ideas are good ones.”

A ceilidh, pronounced “kay-lee”, is part dance, part social gathering, part kitchen party, and PEI takes its ceilidhs seriously. On any given night during the tourist season, you can choose from up to seven or eight different ceilidhs on different parts the Island. Being part Scottish myself, and loving east coast music, attending a ceilidh was high on my list of things I wanted to do during our time on PEI.

I was expecting an evening of sing-along Irish folk music, maybe a little Stan Rogers, a sea shanty or two, some fiddle music and a grand call of “Sociable!” In other words, what we’d come to love at a night out at a pub like the Heart and Crown. Maybe there are ceilidhs like that on the Island, but the one we stumbled into was an entirely different kettle of lobster.

While I’d understood them to be family affairs, I asked anyway at the table set up at the entrance whether kids were welcome. The lovely white-haired ladies at the table clucked and cooed over the boys and said there would be no charge for Simon nor Lucas, but they did charge the adult’s admission fee of $4 for tall Tristan. We entered the darkened hall and I had my first inkling that maybe this wasn’t the show for tourists that I had anticipated. We had arrived just as the musicians were getting ready to play, and the hall was full enough that we had trouble finding folding chairs enough for all of us. I could spot maybe two other obvious tourist families (the hoodies and shorts were a dead giveaway), and the rest of the hall appeared to be filled with locals, not a one of them younger than 65. As we sat and waited for the music to start, discussions flowed around us about who was spotted speaking to whom and whose house needed a little paint on the porch and who was looking a little tired tonight and oh my goodness but did you see Debbie wearing that red blouse, she knows she can’t pull off red, what in tarnation was she thinking?

And then the music started. Well, it was mostly music. The fiddle made occasional and unfortunate screeches of a most unmusical nature. I like to think I have a fairly broad, if not eclectic, knowledge of many genres of music, but there was not a single song that I recognized. I can assure you that they were not something that Alan Doyle will be covering on Great Big Sea’s next album, of that I am sure. The best approximation I could offer would be early Pasty Cline mixed with the very whiniest type of “my tractor’s got a flat and my dog died and my wife ran off with my uncle Joe” western twang. After a few songs, new musicians would take the stage and clearly the evening was part dance and part talent show, 50 years after grade school ended.

And didn’t the dance floor just fill up with all those grey-haired locals? Couples danced, women without menfolk danced with each other, and each song they switched partners. Beloved nailed it when he called it a box social at the senior’s home. It was equal parts weird and delightful, and I couldn’t help smiling at how much everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Everyone except the boys, that is. While I can certainly appreciate the joy of the dancers on their social outing of the week, you can surely appreciate the torture that the evening wrought on their teenage souls. To their credit, they clapped politely after each song, but I could see plainly on their faces that they’d rather be trapped in the car through endless hours of New Brunswick highway than endure two hours of sitting through this. That’s the point at which I leaned over, laughing, and whispered in Beloved’s ear, “Okay, so maybe not ALL my ideas are good ones.” I think Lucas was actively sliding off his chair onto the floor as I said it.

I should mention here that I have serious dance anxiety. I have never enjoyed dancing. I’m naturally clumsy, and have no sense of rhythm whatsoever, and while I am incapable of ceding the lead to my partner I am not a strong enough dancer to lead. Beloved, on the other hand, is a wonderful dancer, which makes me feel even more clumsy and wooden and anxious. Watching the dancing couples filled me with joy, though, and I knew it was up to me to make the best of what I already thought was a rather delightful memory in the making. I asked Beloved to dance, and I managed not to break any of his toes in the process. More importantly, though, the boys watched us with interest. Another song passed, and when I asked Tristan if he would like to dance, he blushed and hesitated long enough that Simon jumped in for his opportunity. And then this happened.

At the ceilidh

At the ceilidh-2

At the ceilidh-3

And then Simon wanted to dance again, and Lucas wanted to dance again, and the other families were dancing, and some of the local men asked the young daughters of the tourist families to dance, and it was the sweetest, most charming evening. There was one fellow in particular who looked alarmingly like Mike Duffy to me, and he was having the time of his life. He jigged and stepped and kept his handkerchief in his pants pocket to wipe the sweat pouring from his bald brow as he danced with every lady in the room. He was adorable, and I harboured a deep fear that he’d make is way around to asking me to dance by the time the night was through – thankfully, for the sake of his toes and mine, he did not.

Just as we were getting ready to leave, the floor cleared for a square dance of sorts. It was really a bit of a disaster of couples, and every turn seemed to leave someone standing awkwardly out of place, and people bumped into each other and there were really only two or three folks who seemed to have any idea of their way through the chaos. One fellow in particular, I’m going to conservatively put him at 80 years old, seemed to know what he was doing and I so enjoyed watching him that when we happened to bump into him on our way out, I had to let him know how much I enjoyed watching him dance. His brogue was so thick that I could make out only about half of what he said, but the gist of it was, “I used to teach square dancing but there’s only so much one man can do. I can’t teach the whole bloody floor!” The disgust in his voice was priceless and worth the price of admission alone.

As we made our way out, several of the locals stopped us to wish us a good evening, or to tell us to stay. “We’re about to put out the lunch, you can’t leave now!” Lunch, at 9:30 pm, was being laid out as we left, and of course it comprised sandwiches on white bread, cut into triangles. While we didn’t stay for lunch, we were charmed by the kind words from the locals, complimenting the boys on the dancing and speaking to us as if we showed up every week and would be back the next week for more.

So while not all my ideas are good ones, some of them turn out for the best despite my intentions. Our ceilidh adventure was nothing close to what I’d expected, but I’m willing to bet the boys will never forget it.

Our amazing dinner at the Inn at Bay Fortune

Three rowdy boys, one fine dining experience – what could possibly go wrong? Absolutely nothing, in fact. Everything was perfect!

You might have heard that earlier this summer, my culinary hero Chef Michael Smith announced that he and his wife Chastity had purchased the Inn at Bay Fortune, the very same place that had launched Chef Michael’s television career back in the 90s when he was The Inn Chef. For weeks leading up to our trip, I agonized about making reservations: I dearly wanted to go, but I couldn’t quite get comfortable with the idea of leaving the boys on their own in a strange place for several hours while we were a 30 minute drive away. I also had a bit of trouble wrapping my brain around a $500 meal. When I found out that kids could join the “FireWorks” feast (everything is cooked over open flame in a stone oven) for half of the adult price, I couldn’t resist and asked Beloved if we could make reservations to celebrate my birthday.

Here’s a small list of the things I worried over in anticipating the dinner:

1. What to wear. Not so much for me – I have lots of pretty summer dresses perfect for a semi-formal dinner out. But the boys don’t have any pretty summer dresses, nor do they fit into mine. I managed to scrounge up some shirts with collars and no (obvious) stains or tears, although I did not realize until it was too late that I’d packed Lucas’s soccer socks instead of more moderate length sport socks.

Dinner at the Inn at Bay Fortune

2. Whether the boys would eat the food. I wasn’t as worried about this as I was about the clothes. More than half the meals we eat come from a Chef Michael cookbook, and his family tastes seem to align perfectly with our own. But still, I worried. Seven year olds have notably capricious palates.

3. Whether we’d make it through four hours and seven courses of food. When you are comprised largely of wiggle, four hours is an excruciatingly long time to sit at a table for dinner, especially when it runs two hours past your bedtime and you’ve been playing in the sun and sand all day. And I was a little worried about the boys’ behaviour as well.

4. The cost. The final bill was well over $400, which is a breathtaking amount of money for a meal in our world. However, it is on par with some of the other Island Experiences we’d considered like renting kayaks and canoes or deep sea fishing. One lucrative photo contract came through just before we left and helped pay the way, but the Scottish-Dutch DNA in my genes harangued me for even considering such an exorbitant meal.

5. That we would, and that we would not, actually meet Chef Michael himself. Of course, it would have been absolutely amazing if we did. We cook from his cookbooks, we watch his TV shows, and our favourite family photo hanging over our dining room table is a picture taken at his FlavourShack in PEI last summer. To say he is a major celebrity in our lives is a bit of an understatement. I think an IRL meeting with perhaps only Steve from Minecraft or Link from Zelda would make more of an impression on the boys. So I was worried that they would be disappointed if we did not actually get to meet the man himself, but also a bit nervous that we actually might, because (whispers) I have a bit of a crush on him.

As usual, I needn’t have worried about any of it. The boys were nothing short of amazing. They’re drinking Anne’s raspberry cordial, of course!

Dinner at the Inn at Bay Fortune

Lucas loved that he could help himself.

Dinner at the Inn at Bay Fortune

When I saw the menu, I heaved a massive sigh of relief knowing they’d eat almost everything that was being served. Simon was most excited about the 36-item house salad, but it was the seafood chowder and smoked halibut that had me drooling.

Dinner at the Inn at Bay Fortune

A more formal layout of the evening’s courses.

I can’t think of a more lovely setting for a birthday dinner – and note the personalized chalkboard trivet in the middle!

Dinner at the Inn at Bay Fortune

We started the evening with oysters in the actual kitchen where the Inn Chef was filmed. None of us had ever tried them before, and to be honest I probably would not have tried them under other circumstances. But heck, when on the Island, do as the Islanders do, right? To my delight, they were delicious, especially with a little signature Bloody Mary ice on them. And to my even greater delight, Lucas was willing to try them as well. He prefered the brine over the actual oyster, though.

The whole evening was a surprisingly family-friendly affair. We were welcome to inspect the grounds and gardens, which we did.

Dinner at the Inn at Bay Fortune

We were also welcomed (as were the kids) to get up and talk to the staff throughout the meal. Here, Chef de Cuisine Justin Miles rakes the coals under some roasting broccoli for the main course. (And I am absolutely adding flame-charred broccoli to our menu at home!)

Dinner at the Inn at Bay Fortune

I had every intention of being that obnoxious person who instagrams every course of a meal but the food was so amazingly delicious that the kids (ahem, and adults!) gobbled it up as quickly as it came out. The charcuterie was a massive win, and while I practically licked my mason-jar bowl clean of the seafood chowder that had been served in it, the kids liked that course less. They also surprised me by loving both the mussels and the smoked halibut. Lucas said the mussel shells looked like a heart and held them up and said, “Happy birthday, mommy. I love you!”

Dinner at the Inn at Bay Fortune

I also spent most of the meal re-imagining my dinnerware back home. Much as I love my reclaimed barn wood dining table, I think we need to trade it in for a butcher block table like the massive one we dined on. And we need more mason jars – both for drinking and for soup. And how amazing are these colourful pails – that’s the salad course!

Dinner at the Inn at Bay Fortune

As well behaved as the boys were, and they were in fact so well behaved that three separate servers complimented their behaviour and their manners, I am supremely grateful for the gift of the two women who were by chance seated beside us. We were wedged in between two parties, in fact, and when the boys saw the long table and realized they would be sitting beside strangers, they scrambled for the safe “inside” seat. One large party seemed to be comprised of an extended family of Islanders come home from across the country to have dinner together, and they were loud and cackled with laughter and turned their chairs inward toward their group and away from us.

On the other side of us were a woman and her mother, and by the end of the evening I wanted to go home with them. I can only imagine how some people might react to arriving at an expensive fine meal to find themselves sharing space with three young boys, but this lady sat down beside Simon, smiled a massive smile and said, “Hi, I’m Sheila and this is my mom. What’s your name?” Turns out Sheila grew up on PEI and her mother still lives in Georgetown, and they were two of the nicest people we have ever met. They regaled us with stories about growing up on the Island, shared insider secrets about locations for beaches and cottages and where to find wild sea asparagus, ribbed Beloved for not letting the boys jump off the bridge at Basin Head, and generally treated us like family. I truly thought the mother was going to ask to adopt Beloved – she was sitting at an angle where I couldn’t quite hear what she was saying most of the time, but her laughter rang out like a bell as she laughed loudly at each and every one of Beloved’s jokes and quips. When the evening drew long between the main course and dessert and the boys began to get silly, Sheila took one of the markers I had pulled out for the boys and showed them puzzles and mazes. They truly made the meal a memorable and delightful occasion for us, and I am forever grateful for their kindness.

So in the end, we did not get to meet Chef Himself at our dinner out. We did, however, eat the most amazing meal of our lives. There was so much food we could barely move by the time it ended. I was incredibly proud of my boys, who gamely tried a little bit of everything and embraced more than a few new tastes. A visit from “the world’s tallest freestanding chef” would have been the icing on an already delicious birthday cake, but meeting sweet Sheila and her charming mother made up for his absence. I’ll leave it to people who write about food for a living to offer a more serious critique of the menu, but I can tell you this much: we loved it, and it’s an experience none of us will forget.

What more could you ask for a birthday dinner out with your favourite menfolk? And maybe we can plan next year’s vacation to coincide with the Village Feast? Because oh yes, there will be a visit to PEI in 2016. 🙂

Sandcastles, a kite and fun at Orwell Corner

Since our sandcastle building workshop on the weekend, Lucas has been asking for the tools and the time to go back to the beach and put his skills to work. Despite the fact that the weather forecast said no precipitation for the next three hours, once again we arrived at the beach to drizzle that wavered into rain and back into drizzle for most of the morning.

We threw up our hands and said, “Screw it, let’s do it anyway.” Well, I might have used a different term than screw it. I may be just a leeeeeetle bit fed up with the weather. Twelve straight days with rain will do that to you!

I’d been dragging my fancy dollar store kite all over PEI, but I finally pulled it out of the package. I kept a watchful eye out for lightning!

Still raining. Shag it, I'll fly my kite anyway.

I even shared it with the boys!

Kite flying in the rain

Lucas was happy to get back to the beach and start building. The rest of the family played in the sand, too.



After a couple of hours, we were thoroughly damp and chilled. It strikes me as more than a little ironic that the folks back home are experiencing record-breaking heat, and we can’t quite make it to 20C. The air and water were both about 17C here. Brrrr!

Beloved and I have a special affection for pioneer villages. We visit Upper Canada village each year, and of course we love the Cumberland Museum. In fact, we were married in the Fanshawe Pioneer Village in London. So, a visit to Orwell Corners in PEI seemed like something we simply had to do. And as we drove over the Island toward Orwell Corner, the clouds started to break once again, showing hints of blue sky and sunshine.

Orwell Corner is an historical museum in the Points East Coastal Drive area of the Island, a fully preserved agricultural village settled in the late 1850s and restored to that time period. It fascinates me that each building rests exactly were it was built, and has not been moved and resettled like Upper Canada Village. Interpreters dressed in period costume chat with visitors, offering insight into village life. We particularly liked the blacksmith, perhaps because not so long ago Tristan said he would like to be a blacksmith when he grew up.

Orwell Corners, PEI

Then we made candles by dipping a wick in alternating buckets of hot melted wax and cold water. The boys said they will save their candles and use them on their next birthday cakes.

Orwell Corners, PEI

My favourite part, though, was the barn. We were poking around the animal stalls when the farmer asked if anyone wanted to feed the chickens. YES! Me, me, pick me!!

Orwell Corners, PEI

We fed the geese, too. And one of the barn cats came out to steal whatever he could catch.

Orwell Corners, PEI

We were charmed by the barn cats!

Orwell Corners, PEI

Orwell Corners, PEI

Although I liked the sheep and friendly piggies, too.

Orwell Corners, PEI

Orwell Corners, PEI

It was also feeding time for the calf.

Orwell Corners, PEI

I swear, I will never be able to ramp back up to city time after spending two weeks learning how to live the laid-back pace on the Island. We spent two hours poking around the dozen or so buildings in the village and chatting with the interpreters. It was small enough that the boys could explore at their own pace, and they spent half the time trying to coax various barn cats to come closer – there were no takers. I think they miss Willie!

Orwell Corner is a lovely place to pass a lazy summer afternoon, and you’ll learn something in the process. That’s a definite win in my books!

Exploring the tide pools at Argyle Shore

One of the things that most amazes me about the beaches on PEI is not the sheer abundance of them, nor their beauty (both of which are, indeed, amazing) but the vast differences in the character of various beaches. Each one we’ve attended (Brackley, Basin Head, Thunder Cove, St Peter’s Harbour, Covehead Harbour, Greenwich, and now Argyle Shore) has had its own personality. The first six are all on the north shore, known for wilder seas with waves and steep drop offs, but the southern shore is known for a far more gradual slope and its distinctive red sands. It’s also a lot easier to see the critters of the sea as the tide recedes and leaves little pools in the red sand where you can see crabs, tiny hermit crabs, mussels, snails and lots and lots of jellyfish.

Argyle Shore is a provincial day use park, which means no admission fees but on-site (and clean!) bathrooms, picnic tables, a parking lot, and in this case, play structures. No Argyle socks, though. We looked!

Argyle Shore-8

As you can see, in the height of tourist season it’s as madly crowded as the rest of the beaches. I continue to be astonished by the uncrowdedness of the place, even in peak season!

There’s a steep set of metal stairs embedded into the red cliffs to the rocky shore below. To your immediate left, a little spring-fed waterfall tumbles merrily down the cliff. You can see them both about mid-way along the cliff in this photo.

Argyle Shore-2

The rocks give way to sandbars with amazing ripple patterns from the waves. I was more fascinated by the ripples than by the critters in the tide pools!

Argyle Shore-6

Argyle Shore-5

Argyle Shore-3

The tide pools did make for fun with reflections!

Argyle Shore-4

The forecast had been calling for thunderstorms and rain in the afternoon but with a relatively clear morning. As we drove across the Island to the beach, it had been grey and rainy and we made resigned jokes about a redux of our rained-out visit to Victoria by the Sea, which is just down the coast from Argyle Shore.

And yet, when we arrived, the heavy gloom lifted and we were treated to patches of blue sky, just in time for our picnic lunch on the shore.

Argyle Shore

Argyle Shore-7

We are getting a LOT of mileage out of our picnic cooler this trip. It’s a great way to keep the expense of meals on the go under control and ensure the kids are only eating ONE serving of chicken fingers and fries each day. (Seriously, what IS it with kids’ menus at restaurants? Don’t get me started!) And there is something about food eaten outside in the fresh salty breeze that makes even the most humble sandwich a little more yummy. We’ve eaten ALMOST as much hummus and watermelon (not together!) as we have chicken fingers and french fries. Finger foods in ziploc boxes FTW!

So the idea behind exploring the tide pools was a bit of a bust. I’d hoped to find starfish and sea cucumbers, which we didn’t, but we did see an astonishing number of snails and the ubiquitous jellyfish. We saw tiny hermit crabs (I thought they were bigger!) and I may have shrieked like a girl when a palm-sized crab scuttled too close to my feet in a tide pool, but the kids weren’t as into poking around in the tide pools as I would have expected. The fishy smell of seaweed and rotting jellyfish may have biased them, as well. It was still a fun adventure, but the boys didn’t get into it as much as I’d thought they might.

Now we know. Next year, we stick with a cottage on the north shore. Because oh yes, there will be a next year on PEI. 🙂

In which Sandspit is not a corny tourist trap, much to her surprise

Last year, we drove past Sandspit Amusement Park on our way home from Green Gables and Cavendish. Lucas saw it, begged to go and and being more than a little tired, cried fat tears of dismay when we said no. We did promise him we’d go during the trip we were already anticipating for this year, and he never forgot about it through the year.

To be honest, I was not really looking forward to it – but the boys certainly were. And then the forecast never really cooperated with a definitive clear day. Who wants to visit an amusement park in the rain? With two days of thunderstorms in the forecast, we finally gave in on Monday despite the forecast for cool temperatures and intermittent rain.

We LOVED it. All five of us loved it, and to be honest, it was worth every penny.

It’s just a tiny little park – it reminds me of the kiddie section of Canada’s Wonderland. We went almost all of the rides at least once, and many of them several times. The Cyclone is an zippy little roller coaster with a killer hard stop at the end, but the discovery of the day for me was bumper boats. Growing up, I used to see television commercials for the bumper boats at Ontario Place and have always wanted to try them. I could have seriously spent five hours just riding the bumper boats over and over – except my arms and wrists might still be vibrating from the motors!

Screen Shot 2015-07-29 at 6.29.39 AM

And if you visit on a drizzly day, you won’t have to wait more than five or ten minutes in line for even the most popular rides. I was quite won-over by this sweet little park and there’s definitely a return visit in our future.

Sandcastles and SUNSHINE in PEI National Park

It was a celebrity sighting of the highest order. A whisper rippled up and down the beach as the crowd peered up in wonder.

“Is that what I think it is?”

“Oh my goodness, do you see what I see?”

“Holy crap, THE SUN IS SHINING!”

My mom left a comment on yesterday’s post saying she’d been talking to Mother Nature for us. Apparently not even Mother Nature ignores what Granny has to say!

We were on our way to Brackley Beach for a sandcastle making workshop (how awesome is that?) when we drove past one of the more youthful lighthouses on PEI. This one is a full century newer than the one near us in St Peter’s Harbour, built in 1967 and rebuilt in 1975. This might also be one of my favourite pictures so far this trip.

Covehead Lighthouse, PEI

Covehead Lighthouse, PEI

The Covehead Harbour lighthouse, and Brackley Beach (not to mention Cavendish Beach, and our favourite, Greenwich beach with its dunes and hiking trails) are all within the borders of PEI National Park. To visit them, you need to pay admission fees of $19.60 for a family, or you can buy a seasonal pass for $98. Or if you’re lucky, you did what we did and you order your seasonal pass before June 30 and get it for half price.

The PEI National Park pass has been one of the best investments of the trip. In addition to access to great beaches and hiking trails and a few convenient shortcuts around Cavendish, we’ve had two wonderful afternoons on the beach with their free (with park admission) interpretive programs. Last week, we were charmed by friendly Island native Rilla (is that not the perfect name for someone who works in PEI tourism?) and the Beach Detective program at Greenwich beach. She took us on a little tour of the beach and talked about what washes up on shore, how to identify it, and gave us a great natural history of PEI. (Did you know it used to be a peninsula? Or that there is speculation that with rising sea levels, at some point it will actually be three islands? And that the largest wild mammal is the coyote, which has only been an inhabitant of the Island for the last 15 years or so, having walked across the ice from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick?) We examined different kinds of seaweed, shells, rocks and sea critters – Beloved and I were captivated, and the kids were engaged and interested, too. And look at this awesome piece of driftwood we found – you can see rust marks from where the iron nails used to be, and there’s a wooden dowel or peg that used to fasten two pieces together. I can’t see how it could be anything less than a hundred or so years old, surely part of an old ship. How fun is that?

A photo posted by Danielle Donders (@dani_girl) on

Yesterday, we took advantage of another one of Parks Canada’s free programs: a sandsculpting workshop!

Fun at Brackley Beach, PEI National Park

If you’ve ever wanted to graduate beyond dollar-store pails and shovels, I highly recommend this amazing free workshop. The workshop leader, Maurice Bernard, is a master sandsculptor, a patient teacher and a lovely fellow with whom to chat. He’s also a talented artist. (Funny, now that I think about it, Rilla from the beach detective program at Greenwich also mentioned she’s a Parks Canada employee during the summer and an artist in the off season. Hmmm, my career prospects for PEI are looking better and better all the time – seasonal government, off-season photography.)

We’re also going to have to make a run back to the dollar store, not for pails and shovels but for drywall spacklers, rulers, spatulas and some really big buckets!

Fun at Brackley Beach, PEI National Park

Lucas was engaged in building that castle for, I kid you not, at least three hours. Long after the big boys got restless and moved on, he carefully smoothed, poked, shaped and sculpted. The big boys were more interested in the brute force tools.

“Hey, let’s dig a hole!”

Fun at Brackley Beach, PEI National Park

For the several hours we were on the beach it drizzled, the clouds broke and the sun shone briefly, and then they closed back up and turned grey once again. Before the drizzle turned to a deluge, we decided to call it a day, and headed to Cavendish to visit Avonlea Village, a stop we’d missed on our trip last year. The boys each took a turn playing the piano in the historic church, and I was reminded once again how badly I want a piano for the house. Simon has been taking lessons, and Tristan has taught himself to play using YouTube videos.

Avonlea Village, PEI

As afternoon wended toward evening, the rain gave way again and we had a genuinely sunny evening. Just in time for Cows ice cream!

Avonlea Village, PEI

As we drove back east toward our cottage, Beloved and I marvelled at the beauty of the countryside. Though we’d driven St Peter’s Road half a dozen times or more since we arrived last week, it had been so relentlessly grey that we were almost overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape in the warm light of the setting sun.

Though we were worn out from a day full of adventure, I had one more caper in mind. One of the activities I had most been looking forward to was watching the sunset on the beach. I’d imagined that over two weeks, we’d have many opportunities to enjoy both sunsets and, early riser that I am, sunrises on the water. However, with yet more rainy days in the forecast for the week ahead, I was genuinely concerned that this might be our only opportunity, so we drove up the ruddy red road that Tristan and I had walked earlier in the week to the abandoned lighthouse at St Peter’s Harbour. It’s prettier with the moon above it than with drizzle falling all around it!

St Peters lighthouse and moon

We looked out from the dunes…

St Peter's Harbour, PEI

… and stared out to the sea …

St Peter's Harbour, PEI

… but we didn’t walk in the water. The jellyfish were a little out of control. Ick.

St Peter's Harbour, PEI

So, to recap: three beaches, two lighthouses, amazing sandcastles, Cows ice cream, and bit of rain and a few glorious hours of sunshine. I don’t think we could have asked for a better day than that! Now let’s just hope the three days of downpour in the forecast is wrong!

St Peter's Harbour, PEI

And now we know that intermittent drizzle and a high of 19C with a stiff breeze off the water can still give you a perfectly lovely beach day, something you would have never convinced me of back home!

Sea glass, wild roses and a boardwalk through the dunes

We’ve had an amazing first week in PEI, but I have to tell you that it’s been a bit of an uphill struggle to be cheerful about the relentlessly awful weather. We’ve been here seven days, and it’s rained for seven days. Every single day, the forecast calls for showers for that day, and the next day or two — but the day three days hence will be partly sunny, and by the fifth day summer returns! And then three days later, it calls for showers for that day, and the next day or two — but the day three days hence will be partly sunny! It reminds me a little bit of the vacation version of this:

Ah well. We have seen a few bright spots, with blue skies breaking out for part of the day in Basin Head and Thunder Cove. I was so surprised to see blue skies when I woke up yesterday that I actually jumped out of bed to take a closer look, and I mean JUMPED out of bed and ran to the window. Blue skies! First actual blue skies since we arrived! Within an hour, I kid you not, it was raining. I mean, you expect a day or two of rain, and maybe a cool day or two, but this is truly relentless. We haven’t even cracked 20C in the last four or five days.

I’m not the only one who has noticed, either. Apparently the police in St John’s NL have issued an ABP for summer, and arrested two local weathermen for “failing to provide the essentials of summer – sunshine, good forecasts and blue skies – and trafficking of rain, drizzle, and fog.”

Leave it to the Newfoundlanders to find the humour in the situation. So, while I think it’s fair to characterize the weather as pretty much miserable, we haven’t let it stop us from getting out. We headed out yesterday in the rain toward Souris to check out the Mermaid’s Tears Sea Glass festival. We love sea glass! On the way, we deked up to the north coast toward Naufrage to have an early lunch at a restaurant I’ve heard mentioned a few times, and it turned out to be one of our new favourite PEI restaurants. The Shipwreck Point Cafe in Naufrage is a perfect place for families – casual, affordable and delicious. And the view would have been breathtaking, if it weren’t raining and glum. I did pause to take a photo of the Naufrage Lighthouse through the wild roses, though. It gives you a good idea of the sort of morning it was.

Naufrage Lighthouse through the wild roses

By the time we zipped down to Souris, the rain had let up again, and we headed down to the Mermaid Tears sea glass festival. It was truly delightful to see some of the ways people have turned beautiful shards and pebbles of sea glass into works of art. We timed our visit perfectly to hear an author reading and book launch by Teri Hall for her new book A Sea Glass Journey: Ebb and Flow. We’d been hearing about this book for most of our visit; the author was interviewed on the local CBC radio afternoon program, and when we arrived at Chef Michael’s FlavourShack, they were just unpacking a fresh crate of them. Turns out the author and Chef Michael are close friends, and he wrote the forward to her book. We even spotted a certain celebrity ex-wife at the reading – if you watch Chef at Home as often as we do, you’ll know who I mean. 🙂 If you love sea glass, it’s a gorgeous book and we were able to get ours autographed by the author and the photographer who contributed to it.

And there was fun for the kids, too, although mine loved just looking at all the sea glass crafts and speculating what we can do with the buckets full we still have at home!

Mermaid's Tears sea glass festival in Souris

Also, second lighthouse of the day. A two-lighthouse day is a good day!

After a few hours of sea glass, we headed back up the Points East Coastal Drive toward home and made a detour to check off one more item on my PEI bucket list: a hike through the famous dune trail and boardwalk at Greenwich in PEI National Park. It was grey and threatening to rain, and the low pressure seemed to be making the mosquitoes even more aggressive than usual, but it was still a spectacular hike of nearly 5 km through wild roses and raspberries and fields of wildflowers I couldn’t identify, a small but dense wood, and then the path opened to the floating boardwalk across Bowley Pond.

PEI National Park at Greenwich

PEI National Park at Greenwich

PEI National Park at Greenwich

While I might have preferred a deep cyan sky with wisps of white clouds for these photos, I do admit that the textured sky does add a different sort of dimension to it. I think this photo sums up my battle with the weather this week just about perfectly:

PEI National Park at Greenwich

At the end of the floating boardwalk, you head up and over the dunes and you can look back for a spectacular view of where you’ve been:

PEI National Park at Greenwich

Or you can head over the dunes to the sea, which is a welcome sight in any weather as far as I’m concerned. You can see Beloved and the boys have gone ahead without me – see the tiny people specs on the beach? I have spent a lot of this vacation running to catch up with them after getting distracted by one photo op or another.

PEI National Park at Greenwich

PEI National Park at Greenwich

We collected a lot of sticks. It doesn’t take a lot to make us happy.

PEI National Park at Greenwich

And then, after you’ve had your fill of beach, you head back up over the dune and do it all over again. First, you stop to dump the sand out of your sneakers and leave it on the dunes where it belongs.

PEI National Park at Greenwich

And you go back to the cottage and play noisy, giggly rounds of Scrabble and Uno, hoping that tomorrow the sun will come out to play… but knowing that any day that has sand and sea and fresh salty air is a good one, even if it’s a little damp and grey. And hey, the weather forecast says the day after tomorrow is supposed to be sunny…

In which they survive Summerside AND the cliffs of despair, and discover Link’s sword in New Glasgow

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!

Exploring Thunder Cove

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.

Exploring Thunder Cove

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.

Exploring Thunder Cove

(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.

Exploring Thunder Cove

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*

Exploring Thunder Cove

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.

Exploring Thunder Cove

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.

Exploring Thunder Cove

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.

French River, PEI

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.

The Toy Factory at New Glascow

^^ 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.

The Toy Factory at New Glascow

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.

The Toy Factory at New Glascow

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.

The Toy Factory at New Glascow

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.