North Cape Coastal Drive PEI
In late February, 2020 Alison and I returned from a trip to Central America just as the entire world was about to change in ways that were unimaginable at the beginning of the year. As travel writers our plans for a trip to Australia, New Zealand and Tahiti in April and May died in the miasma of Covid-19. Up until early July we could not even leave Nova Scotia, but we now have an ‘Atlantic Bubble’ and with the assistance of Tourism PEI we are making our first visit out of province to The Gentle Island. I will be doing a number of posts from PEI starting with the North Cape Coastal Drive. Read along and find out how travel within the Maritimes has changed since Covid – 19.
The first thing you need to do after deciding to visit PEI is fill out the online declaration form which you can find here. It’s certainly not onerous and if you do forget, you can do it in person upon arrival on the island. You need to have your driver’s license and health card with you for proof of residency. Unlike Nova Scotia there is currently no requirement to wear masks in public places, but that might change.
The reason I chose to visit western PEI first and drive the North Cape Coastal Trail was that, despite many, many previous visits, I had never been to North Cape and the extreme western part of the island.
Mill River Resort
Golf was going to be an important part of our visit and we chose Mill River Resort which has a renowned golf course as the place to stay on this part of PEI. While the resort dates back to the 1970’s it has been recently refurbished and provides a high level of comfort at reasonable prices. We did see license plates from all four Atlantic provinces in the parking lot which is a good sign.
The fact is that western PEI doesn’t get near the visitors that the Cavendish, Charlottetown and eastern PEI areas do, which means everything is less crowded and the pace of life less frenetic. The main attraction of course is the Mill River golf course which I was sufficiently impressed with to write an entire post on it which you can find here.
We had several meals at the resort’s restaurant, Callaghan’s which were quite tasty, but I think the lobster pogo is a one time only order. I had the first of what I hope will be many oysters on this island famous for its shellfish.
Exploring North Cape Coastal Drive
Our round of golf at Mill River started at 7:10 and we were finished by 10:30 which meant we had the rest of the day to explore the North Cape Coastal Drive, but first we were looking for something to eat as we hadn’t had breakfast. I wanted to try the Pig’s Ass sandwich at Moth Lane Brewery in Ellerslie just because it sounded so interesting. Could it really be a pig’s ass? I figured we’d get there around opening time and we did, except that they were not serving food on Monday’s. As much as I like beer, I thought it best to have some food with it so we needed another choice. The owner was very friendly and asked if we liked Vietnamese food. We do and he gave us directions to Freeland Dining and Gas Stop not far away.
Inside there was a Vietnamese lady who said she prepared all the Vietnamese food from scratch including her own wontons. While there was an extensive selection of Canadian dishes we opted for a few fried wontons followed by deluxe wonton soup for me and chicken pho noodles for Alison. Both were delicious and who knew you could get this type of specialty food in seemingly the middle of nowhere? These are the kind of unexpected surprises that I love about travel.
After our early lunch we headed out on the North Cape Coastal Drive in a counterclockwise direction heading for Cape North. Unfortunately the weather was not too cooperative so the photos are not as enticing as they would be on a bright sunny day. Our first stop was the town of Alberton from whence my late law partner Weldon Matthews hailed. Nearby was the fishing village of Northport where there was a surprisingly large number of Cape Islander fishing boats moored. It was the perfect place to get that shot of a fishing fleet with the hulls reflected in the water that are so popular on calendars.
While most people associate Prince Edward Island with agriculture, i.e. The Garden of the Gulf and there were plenty of potato fields in full bloom, the province is also a huge producer of seafood. In fact almost any type of seafood that you can think of that can be found in this part of the world is either harvested or grown by way of aquaculture on PEI. Here’s just a small list – lobster, scallops, mussels, oysters, clams, halibut, haddock, tuna, mackerel, herring, snow crab etc. etc. If you are a seafood aficionado then you owe it to yourself to visit here just to indulge in some of the freshest and best seafood on the planet.
The northwest tip of Prince Edward Island has a large Acadian population and starting around Tignish Shore almost every house has an Acadian flag or some other symbol indicating the owner’s French ancestry with one notable exception, the intriguingly named Anglo Tignish. It’s not the only strange name on the North Cape Coastal Drive. How about Seacow Pond which is the last community before North Cape? Today the words sea cow generally refer to manatees or their Asian relatives the dugongs, but at one time walruses were also called sea cows. It’s hard to believe today, but walruses once thrived in the Gulf of St. Lawrence until they were extirpated by hunters in the 18th century. Walrus tusks are often found after storms that expose long buried sands, especially on Sable Island. There’s something magical and very sad that at one time you might go down to the shore in this part of PEI and actually see walruses on the shoreline.
The one thing that, even in the thick fog that enshrouds North Cape this day, that is inescapable. These are the gigantic windmills that make up the North Cape wind farm. Now a common feature in every province, these were among the first in Canada to produce green electricity from the steady winds that blow in off the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This is also the home of the Wind Energy Interpretive Centre which was not open during our visit, but has reopened on August 1 and is definitely a must visit on the North Cape Coastal Drive. We did take a short stroll along the Black Marsh Nature Trail which features twenty-five interpretive panels detailing the natural and human history of North Cape including the hunt for a German U-Boat off the coast during WWII. The trail also gives you the opportunity to walk under one of these gigantic windmills.
North Cape is famous for more than its winds. PEI doesn’t just end at the tip of Cape North. It extends for several more kilometres in what is the longest rock reef in North America. The photo below clearly shows the reef extending out into what is the meeting of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Northumberland Strait. At low tide much of the reef is exposed and you can walk out quite a distance.
While the rock reef is a tourist attraction in its own right, it was not a friend to mariners. That is the reason the North Cape Lighthouse was built in 1865 and other than being moved back once due to shore erosion, a common occurrence all over the Maritimes, it stands today largely as it was originally designed. Sadly, the lighthouse, although still operational with an automated light, is in a very poor state of repair. This is not the fault of PEI as lighthouses fall under federal jurisdiction, but as I have written in many posts, it just doesn’t seem right to let these once majestic structures that saved so many lives, be treated with such disrespect and neglect.
Stompin’ Tom Centre, North Cape Coastal Drive
Our next stop was a complete and pleasant surprise. After finding the North Cape Centre closed I was not expecting a full parking lot at the Stompin’ Tom Centre in tiny Skinner’s Pond. The Centre is of course dedicated to Stompin’ Tom Connors, a Canadian icon who, despite being born in New Brunswick and spending time in Nova Scotia regarded the five years he spent in Skinner’s Pond as his formative years. Thereafter he always considered himself as an islander.
Entering I heard Tom’s recording of The Hockey Game playing or at least I thought I did until I realized it was a live performer doing a great imitation – at least it fooled me.
I learned that every day from one to two in the afternoon there is live music and it draws as large a crowd as is permitted with Covid restrictions. During our tour of the small exhibit area we were regaled with many of Tom’s greatest hits including Bud the Spud and Ketchup Loves Potatoes, two songs intrinsically connected with PEI.
Tom Connors had an incredibly difficult childhood that makes Oliver Twist sound like a spoiled brat. The only stability that he had at all was the time he spent with the Aylwards in Skinner’s Pond before hitting the road at age thirteen and never turning back. Despite his woes he wrote over 300 songs and sold four million records and CDs.
While every Canadian knows who Stompin’ Tom was, I was surprised to learn that he is virtually unknown outside of Canada, never having played a single gig in the United States and only six in Europe. He is truly one of our country’s most beloved figures, a complete oner who carved his own path and the like of which we will never see again.
Outside the centre you’ll find the oldest one room schoolhouse still in place in PEI and one that Tom attended while living with the Aylwards.
Alison attended a one room schoolhouse in Pine Tree, Nova Scotia like this one and she was always anxious to be the first one to answer the teacher’s questions.
From Skinner’s Pond we continued south through Miminegash to West Point where there is another large wind farm and a lighthouse that is in much better shape than the one at North Cape. While still operational, the West Point lighthouse doubles as an inn and offers the opportunity stay overnight in a room within the lighthouse. Built in 1875, it is the tallest lighthouse in the province and has a unique tapered shape with pleasing black and white stripes. As you can see, it was still pretty foggy on the day we visited.
The Canadian Potato Museum
Our last stop on this busy day was at the Canadian Potato Museum in O’Leary. Potatoes and PEI are synonymous and here you can learn everything about potatoes from their origin in South America to their world dominance as a food staple. However, there is also a very interesting portion of the museum dedicated to the history of this area of PEI. I was really surprised to see this item on display.
With the strains of Stompin’ Tom’s “Good old hockey game” still in my head I recognized this as also a good, old hockey game in the material sense of those words. This was the first miniature hockey game that featured all six original NHL teams and you could change the players to any one of these teams. I had this exact game and my friends and I had a league with six players and we played every single game of the schedule for the mid 1960’s. We even kept stats on scoring. This game brought back very pleasant memories for me.
Less so a visit to the doctor’s office which often involved needles, stitches and stinging mercurochrome. This replica of Dr. George Dewar’s office was exactly like the doctor’s offices I recall being dragged to after any one of a number of childhood injuries.
On the potato side of things you can learn about every possible disease and pest that can inflict the tuber and how to combat them including this 19th century horse drawn duster.
There is also a very large selection of early agricultural machinery used on the island. This is one of the oldest tractors in existence.
After touring both sides of the museum you might want to actually try some of those potatoes you’ve been learning about for the past hour or so. The Country Kitchen offers potatoes many ways, but the item that intrigued me was the seaweed pie. It is a recipe that is unique to this area of PEI and according to this article the Potato Museum is the only place still serving what was once a traditional recipe made from Irish moss, a type of seaweed once abundant along this coast, but now rare. Frankly, I didn’t notice it on the menu until I edited this photo so I didn’t get to try it which gives me a reason to return.
It had been a long and very interesting day when we returned to Mill River Resort after touring the North Cape Coastal Drive. I highly recommend following in our footsteps if you want to see a side of PEI that most visitors don’t know exists.