My first trip to Prince Edward Island occurred in the, dare I say, good old days in the 1990s. Back then, you had no choice but to take the ferry to get to the island from the other Maritime Provinces, as the Confederation Bridge had not yet been built. And one’s introduction to the fabulous lobsters and shellfish served throughout the island often originated as lobster rolls served home-style in church basements.
Fast-forward 20 years. My latest trip to the island last September also included lobsters and other shellfish, but this time I got in close to the action. I was in town for the four-day PEI International Shellfish Festival, and rediscovered why I’d always wanted to return.
Nicknamed “The Gentle Island,” PEI’s image of wholesomeness is legendary, long-lasting, and well-deserved.
Shellfish and More
At the Shellfish Festival, held in Charlottetown,10 international chefs duked it out creating recipes using the island’s top five shellfish products: lobster, soft-shelled clams, oysters, mussels, and rock crab. Exhibits under the big tent also included Lobster 101 with local celebrity chef Michael Smith, potato chowder competitions, Bloody Caesar demonstrations, and, of course, an oyster shucking competition.
How long does it take to shuck an oyster? World champion Patty McMurray can shuck 38 in a minute, a Guinness world record. He’s even invented an ergonomic oyster-shucking knife.
I was one of three judges at the oyster-tasting competition designed to determine the Oyster Grower of the Year, and Patty was one of the competitors. I learned a lot about oysters that day. I had visited the Raspberry Point oyster cultivation area earlier in the afternoon, as well as Prince Edward Aqua Farms in New London, where mussels, clams, and oysters are packaged.
Near the Raspberry Point area is Vernon and Bertha Campbell’s mixed farm. Here, we got to dig Russet Burbank potatoes and enjoyed a lovely “jar dessert”—dessert in a jar is a PEI specialty—along with tasty chowder and fresh oysters. We also discovered that, by law, farmers must rotate their crops.
You can visit a farm or oyster cultivation area in PEI and be back in Charlottetown easily within an hour. The province’s capital and only large city (population 34,500) is a quiet, tree-lined spot on the ocean. And the Shellfish Festival is going on there—unofficially at least—12 months of the year. Unlike in years gone by, today oysters are harvested all year.
Although an American chef won the festival’s shellfish cook-off, the second-place finisher was local Mike Clark, a chef at Terre Rouge Bistro in Charlottetown. At his innocuous-looking restaurant on Queen Street, Clark works on his many shellfish variations and, surprisingly, local beef. The gnocchi and beef dish was fabulous.
Row House Lobster Co. was great for lobster. I also have fond memories of Sims Corner Steakhouse & Oyster Bar where, on a sun-filled patio, we had our first fresh PEI oysters. Needless to say, the steaks come from local herds. All these top-rated restaurants find it easy to subscribe to the 100-mile rule so everything is fresher than fresh. What’s more, they’re all within a few minutes’ walk of each other.
Love of Conversation
Back at the festival grounds we didn’t let the humble tents stop us from having a great time at the annual Feast and Frolic supper. Diners are entertained for four hours as the 60 or so tables of eight compete in friendly, old-fashioned competitions. Who tweeted the best photo? Who had the top way of illustrating a verse to a song? And who will win the bottle of champagne? No one really cares—the activities are just ways to encourage interaction and talk at each table.
It’s a known fact that islanders love to chat. This we confirmed while on a plane tour of the island offered by Dick Lubbersen of FD Air Tours, a great talker imported decades ago from Quebec. We were able to cover over one-third of the island with Dick while he kept up a constant stream of conversation.
From clerk, to barista, to waiter, to man on the street—no one here is ever in too much of a hurry to stop and talk. Drivers share this easy-goingness too; I saw many of them involved in small heroics to make sure the pedestrian always enjoyed the right-of-way.
Getting Away From It All
A chance to get away from the madding crowd—just kidding, there are no huge crowds on PEI—came when we made our way to the Prince Edward Island National Park near St. Peter’s Bay. We had the entire place to ourselves as we walked the 4.5-km Greenwich Dunelands Trail, hoping to get rid of some of the pounds we’d put on in Charlottetown. Along the way, we had a chance to observe flora such as British soldier lichen, painted leafhoppers, bayberry plants, and earthstar mushrooms.
Upon crossing a long boardwalk over Bowley Pond we came upon the famous parabolic dunes—a rare inland spit of sand formerly part of a family farm and now protected as part of the park.
Anxious to enjoy some kind of company, we made our way to two unique nearby distilleries. The Prince Edward Distillery opened only a few years ago, but is already creating one of the best potato vodkas in the world. It recently beat out Polish brand Chopin, the perennial favourite, in that category. The American owners, who had a tradition of distilling, decided to create a distillery on the island when they realized how just long the winters are!
Just a few minutes away is the Myriad View Distillery where legal moonshine is being made and sold. Actually, you can now buy it at the PEI liquor board, but it’s much more fun to get it from the source.
As we drove back toward Charlottetown from the Souris area, we learned that the oysters that won the festival’s Oyster Grower of the Year award were raised at the nearby Colville Bay Oyster Company. The nutrient combination from the mix of salt and fresh water in Colville Bay creates the perfect environment for some of the world’s best oysters—and makes a solid base for potato vodka and moonshine too!
Bruce Sach is a veteran Canadian travel writer.
The 2015 Shellfish Festival runs from Sept. 17–20: www.peishellfish.com
Terre Rouge Bistro Marche: www.terrerougepei.com
Row House Lobster Company: www.rowhouselobster.ca
Sims Steakhouse and Oyster Bar: www.simscorner.ca
F D Air Tours: www,fdairtours.com
Hillhurst Inn B&B: www.hillhurst.com