Prince Edward Island - A Great Family Destination

 

Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island

Prince Edward Island.  Many have heard of it.  Few Americans could quickly identify it on a map. Fewer have ever been there.  It's worth a visit.

Overview: A wonderful spot for an outdoor-oriented family vacation.

Strengths: Reasonably priced, comfortable climate, many outdoor activities, abundant golf

Drawbacks: Getting to and from, dining (somewhat)

 

Background

My mother was a school principal for many years in upstate New York. Perhaps some 20 years ago, one of the teachers, retiring from her district, decided to visit PEI. She loved it, and bought a small retirement cottage there within a few months of her initial visit. Since that time, perhaps another dozen personnel from her district have bought property on PEI...including my mother.

Immediately after my mother’s purchase, the pressure began to come and visit. We avoided it for a few years – based on limited information about the destination – but in the summer of 2010, we bit the bullet and gave it a try. We figured it would be acceptable for a few days.  Our family of four had such a wonderful time that before we had boarded our plane back to New York, we were already planning our visit for 2011!

In late August 2011, we made our second trip to the island, which went even better than our first visit. If you are looking for a high end, uber-luxe trip, the Gentle Island (as PEI's marketing team has branded it), isn't for you. If you enjoy low/medium impact outdoor activities, Anne of Green Gables, golfing, boating or seafood, you will find PEI an enjoyable and remarkably affordable place to visit.

Getting there

Flights into PEI area bit limited.  Seasonally, Delta (IATA: DL) runs non-stop service from New York-Kennedy (IATA: JFK) to Charlottetown (IATA: YYG). This is the way we get there.  DL offers one-class RJ service on a 50 seat plane during the summer. From essentially any other city, you'll need to connect through New York, Montreal, Toronto or Halifax to make it to YYG.

Driving is an option as well. In May 1997, funded by a large Canadian pension (OMERS), the Confederation Bridge connected the island to the mainland for the first time ever.  The Bridge is 8 miles (about 13 kilometers) long, making it one of the longest in the world. The toll is C$43.25 for cars leaving the island, free going to the island. There are also a number of ferry options to consider.

Charlottetown

PEI is Canada's smallest province, both by area and by population (at 135,000 people). Its capital city is Charlottetown, a charming small city of 60,000 people (in the city and nearby areas).  The city has a number of parks, a long boardwalk along the water, many cultural and historic attractions, a horse racing track, and some surprising dining options. Within the city, you can walk pretty much anywhere within 15 minutes.

Very near the Delta and Great Jones hotels, on the water, is a lovely marina, with restaurants, bars, gift shops, outdoor seating, play areas for the kids – as well as frequent outdoor music performances.  This is a great spot to relax in the early evening, perhaps before dinner.

Getting around

It is essential to have a car to get around the island. While you can walk within Charlottetown, you will need a car for anything outside of Charlottetown. Mass transit is not available and taxis aren't a viable option. Rental cars are fairly expensive on the island (they know they've got you!), but is simply a cost of visiting.  Rental cars are the only thing, however, that felt expensive about our visit.  One unusual thing I noticed were the traffic lights.  Because many of the lights run horizontally (instead of vertically), in case someone were color blind, they have each traffic light in a different shape (as well as color).  Red, for stop, is square.  I'd never seen this before.

Note the shape of the red - it is square!

Golf

For a permanent population of 135,000, PEI has over 25 golf courses – many of them in championship layout! That's a remarkable ratio of one course for every 5,400 people!  Of course, the number of courses is principally driven by the number of seasonal tourists...but even that would be a fairly promising ratio.  The island has 10 of the top 100 ranked courses in Canada (by the Globe and Mail ratings)

The island is incredibly lush and even the less expensive golf courses that I've played are in excellent shape. I've focused my golfing time on some of the more premier courses on the island, and found what I would consider to be some very strong championship golf. Perhaps not Pebble Beach or Bandon Dunes, but very strong courses - with challenge for all handicaps - and many with breathtaking ocean views.

Many consider the top course on the island to be the Links at Crowbush Cove. This course is directly on the north shore of the island, and has probably half a dozen holes where the ocean (or its direct winds) come very much into play. From the tips, the course rates at a 148 slope which is quite challenging.  There is a small hotel at this property as well.  I didn't visit the building, though it was visible from a number of holes on the course, and is a Rodd hotel.  Golf Magazine named the Links at Crowbush Cove as the #2 open-to-the-public course in Canada.

The Links at Crowbush Cove

Set on the side of a long, sloping hill, Glasgow Hills offers a diverse set of challenges on each hole. Wind was also a significant factor on the day I played, and based on the topography, I suspect it is most of the time. This course had a nice promotion - offering unlimited free PEI mussels for golfers after the round. What this does is get you into the clubhouse for a few drinks - good business for the owners - but offered an attractive draw to stick around for a while. I had a few mussels (two dozen?) and a beer. It was a nice way to end the round.

Fox Meadow was another very pleasant course that I visited.  With wider fairways than the other two, the course is a bit more forgiving.  Its slope is a more modest 128 from the tips.  The course, however, has been in great shape each of the two years that I’ve played it.  Fox Meadow is one of the closest courses to Charlottetown.  They also have at-course lodging, also with a Rodd-flagged property.

One nice aspect of all of these courses is that while carts are allowed, so is walking. I enjoy walking any carrying, and not every high end course will let you do that. On PEI, it was no problem anywhere I went. Caddies were not available at any course that I visited.  Rounds were generally between $70 and $100 for tourists. Based on what I observed when checking in at several of the courses, there are also less expensive, unpublished rates for locals.

At the other extreme are a number of simple 9 hole loops.  These course are very reasonably priced - perhaps $15 for 9 holes - but also in decent shape (especially when considering the price point).  I took my kids (8 and 5) out to one, and we had a great time.  In fact, on the weekday that we were there, there was only one other group on the course.  This course has a mix of par 3 and par 4 holes - but was a challenge for a better golfer - in that on a number of par 3s, you didn't have a clear shot at the flag - and would need to shape a shot to reach the green. No hole was too long to tire or frustrate the kids.

A helpful resource for more golf information is http://golflinkspei.com/.

Where to stay

We've stayed both times at the Delta Prince Edward.  Delta is a chain of mid-range hotels across Canada. In general, they're a little more deluxe than a Holiday Inn, perhaps reaching the level of a Crowne Plaza hotel in the States.  The hotel offers full service dining, room service, a bar, an indoor pool and fitness center and valet parking. It also has a capable staff of bellmen who seemed genuinely interested in helping guests.  The hotel has ten stories, is directly on the water and is within walking distance of essentially every attraction in Charlottetown.  The hotel itself is a brick 1970s structure - conjure what images you may - but has been very well maintained.

Delta Prince Edward - Charlottetown

Rooms at the Delta run between $150 and $250 a night during peak season.  I've figured out some internet discount codes that seem to pretty consistently take 20% off the room rates - even in the summer. Email me and I will share them with you.

As a family of four, we prefer two connecting rooms.  The hotel has been very good about guaranteeing connecting rooms for us. This is very important for us.  They also offer residential suites - with small kitchens - which may be ideal for families as well. (We prefer not to cook during holidays)

The hotel also offers free breakfast for kids 6 and under and half price for kids 12 and under. This saves a bunch at meal time. Breakfast is a full menu or buffet.  The kids always prefer the buffet, so that is what we do.  It is not remarkable by any means, but is perfectly fine for a hotel buffet.  Once when I was at the front desk, a walk-in guest had arrived and was able to negotiate a free breakfast for two adults – this probably would only work in a walk-in situation.  I’ve not explored AAA (or CAA) rates because of the web discount codes that I’ve found, but they may offer a meal plan with an AAA/CAA card, too.

They also have a reasonable ($10) kids meal for lunch and dinner, which includes dessert (at least at dinner). While we generally eat off-property (or at grandma's), one night when we were pretty tired - and had already tired out grandma - we ate at the hotel.  The kids enjoyed their meals - and I enjoyed a full steamed lobster. For a "Holiday Inn plus" type property, it was very good.

The bar at the Delta is not lively, but there usually are people there in the evenings to strike a conversation with if you'd like. The bartender remembered my wife and me from our prior visit - and even remembered the slightly unusual drink that my wife likes. This was a nice touch.

There is no mini-bar in the rooms , but there are small refrigerators (which are chilled and empty when you arrive).  Room service will deliver drinks to your room for a not unreasonable charge.  I have made use of the provincial bottle shop, just a block or so from the hotel, to buy whatever drinks we may "need" during our stay.

The pool and fitness center are straight out of the late 1970s. While the equipment may be a bit newer, in general, it feels like a bit of a time warp going into the pool area.  It is in very good shape - not in disrepair at all - just now "vintaged." We find the pool to be a nice way to break up the day with the kids - after a bunch of hours out - we'd typically stop by the pool for an hour or so before dinner - just a nice way to break up the day. The Delta's pool is indoors - so also served as a good backup on the one or two days we've had more than a little rain.

Pool at the Delta

Probably the most negative thing about the hotel I can highlight is one of the pool/fitness area supervisors. This individual, a lady comfortably over 50 years old, is determined to have everything meet the letter of the law in her pool.  For example, they have a sign that limits towels to one per guest. Fair enough - till my daughter dropped hers in the pool and the lady would not give us a replacement!  At first I thought she was joking when she said "no," but after a few seconds she still hadn't handed me an extra towel, I knew she meant business.  (I ended up giving my daughter my towel and dried myself off with my shirt.) Also, my kids, being 8 and 5, don't always swim silently.  Perhaps that they make a bit of noise is odd, I don't know. (Joke) They're not, by any means, unduly loud, but they do talk back and forth with each other in the pool. Being in an indoor pool with all hard surfaces in the room where the pool is located, even a moderate amount of noise can get a little loud. More than once, the aged pool attendant asked us to keep it down - perhaps she was previously the town librarian? Other times at the pool there were other staff (and the older lady was not working) who noticed me "shush-ing" the kids.  One staff member even came up to me to say the kids were fine and I didn't need to worry about kids having fun and making a bit of noise.  He looked at me with a knowing look; he probably knew I was acting based on the strict guidance of his colleague the day before.   It was nice of that employee to come and tell me I could take my guard down a bit!

This hotel won’t knock your socks off by any means - but after two visits, I'll say I was quite pleased. Beyond the pool Gestapo lady, the staff members were all genuinely kind and interested in helping us.  There were no service snafus, lost orders, or anything like that.

There have been two other of these semi-deluxe hotels in Charlottetown for some time - the Rodd and the Great Jones.  We visited the lobby of the Rodd hotel with the hopes of having a drink, but were disappointed to find the bar not open.  The lobby didn’t leave the best impression in terms of being aged, though I understand rooms have been renovated in the past few years.  Think “flowers and chintz” when considering this property.

The Great Jones is the other pre-existing semi-deluxe property on the island.  It has the most charm - and is essentially a series of connected brownstones on a lovely tree-lined side street. We've not stayed here, but have walked past the property a dozen times. Though it doesn't have water views, it is by far the most charming (from the outside) of the longstanding top 3 properties in town. From speaking with staff at several restaurants, I understand that the hotel doesn't offer any sort of food service, nor does it have a pool, which makes it a tough choice for us.  Several times, I've been paired up at golf courses with guests who were staying at the Great Jones, and they were all very positive on the property.  Depending on your travel style, you might consider this property.

During summer 2011, a new hotel, the Holman Grand, opened in Charlottetown. Built in a gutted and expanded turn of the century brick building, this hotel has a lot of promise. We didn't know about it until we arrived, and I actually gave some thought to switching properties during our trip.  Though we decided to stay put at the Delta, I visited the hotel one evening after dinner. They wouldn't let me tour any rooms despite having rooms available (disappointing), but gave me a bunch of literature. I also visited the bar, and spoke with a few guests. This looks like this is the place to stay in Charlottetown going forward.  Though not directly on the water, it is high up enough on a rise in town that from the higher floors, panoramic views of the city and the harbor should be possible.  http://theholmangrand.com/

The lobby, restaurant and bar felt a bit like an average between a Westin and a W. In the bar, I spoke with a number of guests (including one lady who described herself as "from Long Island (NY) and very demanding), each of which said the hotel exceeded their expectations. The hotel is smack in the middle of town, no more than ten minute walk from any destination, and looks good.  It offers an indoor pool (a deal breaker for us), as well as a lively bar and decent looking restaurant. The top floor appears to be some sort of penthouse style setup, with a generous outdoor balcony. I suspect this is what I will book for next year.

There were also many bed and breakfast type places scattered about on the island, as well as a few in Charlottetown. These typically don't meet our needs, so I've not looked into them - but if a small b-n-b is what you're looking for, while this post won't be able to guide you, PEI is a destination that should have something for you.

Dining

Dining on the island is dominated by casual seafood-oriented restaurants. While we found some restaurants made their menu items a little too complicated (to the point of being not so good), even at those places, you could order just a plain piece of fish - and in general they would prepare it very nicely. Mussels are a seemingly compulsory menu item, as essentially every restaurant had them on offer.

Much of dining in Charlottetown falls into two categories – inexpensive Asian food or pub food.  I can count dozens of pub-style restaurants throughout the town.  Many of the Asian-themed and pub restaurants are decent for what they are, but couldn’t be considered anything close to fine dining – nor particularly unique.  One street, a continuation of Richmond Street called Victoria Row, at Queen Street.  This is a pleasant street, closed to traffic, which has a good number of restaurants and outdoor sidewalk dining.  On a pleasant night, it will be quite lively.

The two standout restaurants that we found on the island were Lot 30 and the Dunes.  I the case of Lot 30, if you told me I was eating in the most spacious restaurant in the East Village (of New York City), I probably would have believed you. (The one give away would have been the clientele - in that not everyone eating there looked the East Village part!)  The food was very good and at New York standards.  The service was also at upper-mid scale New York standards.  The menu is prepared each day based on what is fresh at the local market.  Over the bar (visible throughout the dining room) was a closed circuit tv, which showed a close up of the station where they plated food in the kitchen. You could watch each dish come together - and helped me make my menu selection. Open (or in this case, virtually open) kitchens hold chefs to higher standards - and Lot 30 did not disappoint.  Of a dozen or so restaurants I've been to on pei, this one is in a league of its own.  Lot 30 is right in town, and walking distance to each of the hotels listed earlier.

Kitchen-cam at Lot 30

The other very good place that we've gone back to is The Dunes. Up near the north shore of the island, the Dunes restaurant is about 20 minutes outside of town. It is an easy drive, and is on a road that leads directly into the heart of Charlottetown. This place is much more than a restaurant - in fact I think the restaurant was an afterthought. The Dunes dedicates most of their square feet to art, furniture and handmade household items for sale. They also have a large garden outside, with fountains and sculptures (also for sale).  The menu was pleasantly simple, and the preparation was excellent.  The waiters seemed more like owners than transient help and were very knowledgeable.

One thing we enjoyed at both restaurants was Osoyoos Larose. This is a very special Canadian wine, and not often found in the US. The famous second growth Bordeaux house Gruaud Larose is the principal backer. They purportedly searched the world for a microclimate that would be similar to their vineyards on the left bank of Bordeaux. Surprisingly, they found it in southwest British Columbia!  Their wines are still young, as production began only about eight years ago. However, in the half dozen times I've had the wine (including at the Dunes and Lot 30), I've been tremendously impressed.  Though not inexpensive on either wine list (at around C$90), we liked the vintage they were serving so much at Lot 30, we had it again the next night at the Dunes.

Osoyoos Larose

Mussels are plentiful, and are on essentially every menu on the island.  I can’t point to a particular place that had the most memorable mussels, but I suspect there’s a place known for the best.  I found them to be consistently good across the island.

Another PEI tradition is the “Lobster Supper.”  One of note is at St Anne’s.  Literally operated by an old church, it seems they’ve been having lobster dinner there for decades.  Though the balance of the food is uninspiring, you’ll be impressed with the quality and taste of their lobster.  St Anne’s in in New Glasgow, about 20 minutes from Charlottetown.  It is worth the trip.  Also not far from St Anne’s is Fisherman’s Wharf.  A traditional restaurant (with the compulsory shop, too), located in a little fishing village on the north shore of the island called North Rustico, this restaurant was mentioned to me by a few locals.  I drove by, but didn’t eat here.

Other Activities

A little past North Rustico, on the north shore of the Island is Avonlea, the Anne of Green Gables village. Though her actual home was a few kilometers away, Avonlea has been made into a charming small village.  No one in our family is a big Anne fan, but the village is a charming and enjoyable place for families.  If someone in your family is an Anne fan, they'll be in heaven – but even if they’re not, if you have young kids (under 10), you’ll enjoy this place. Among other things, Avonlea has a costume house, and kids could even dress up as Anne and walk about the village dressed like her.  At one of the musical shows, they ask people where they're from.  This year when we were there, there were visitors from Taiwan, mainland China and even New Zealand!  I spoke to the Kiwi family briefly after the show - complimenting their country (which I remain firm is the most beautiful country in the world) - and even they said they were amazed by PEI!

Though Avonlea is not particularly large, there were plenty of activities and performances (music, plays, mock classrooms, etc) to keep the kids entertained for several hours.  Food is quite expensive at Avonlea, though you could easily bring a packed picnic lunch from Charlottetown (bought at a deli or supermarket) to enjoy there. Our AAA membership saved us roughly 20% on the entry fees.  Nearby Avonlea there also is a nice miniature golf course and a water park – as well as a full golf course and other outdoor activities.

Outdoor Play at Avonlea

Main Street in Avonlea

One Room School House - Grandma in a Familiar Spot

There are some 50 lighthouses on PEI.  We've visited a few of them, and always find them charming as well.  It seems we can make a lighthouse visit (along with the accompanying time walking about the grounds) last an hour+ comfortably.  A few are precariously close to eroding edges!

Cape Tryon Lighthouse

For just less than two weeks each summer, Charlottetown is the location of a grand series of events which are called "Old Home Week." While I'm not aware of it having anything to do with old homes, there are a lot of special events that go on during this nearly two week event. Among others were competitive horse shows, a large fair with rides (think "County Fair") and horse races. One of our visits was during Old Home Week, the other not. While I wouldn't inconvenience myself to make my visit during OHW, if possible to line up your visit to OHW, it will give you even more options for things to do.  While I don't follow competitive horse breeding regularly, it was fascinating to watch the horses being shown. They were all such beautiful animals - and their owners very passionate. The kids enjoyed the show, too.  In 2012, OHW runs from August 9 through August 18.

I enjoy running, and try to run 4 or 5 miles at least a few days a week. There were great running options in and near Charlottetown - both in-city, waterside, and into suburban areas. The topography near the city center is generally level with some rolling hills and made for some very comfortable running.

There appeared to be plenty of nature trails in the woods and along the coast.  We did not check these out, but they appeared plentiful - nearly every time we drove somewhere (or golfed), the start of a nature trail was visible.  There were also  converted railroad lines, now paved, that were great for walking, running and riding.

Climate

In the summer, Charlottetown is comfortable during the days (we typically wear shorts and short sleeved shirts), though in the evening, jeans, and sometimes a light coat, can be required – even in July and August!

* * * * *

Our visits have been for five or six days, and that feels just about right - and from talking with other visitors, seemed to be a common duration to visit for.

I described PEI to a number of my Australian friends as Canada's Tasmania. While that won't mean much to some readers, it should paint a clear picture for others.  A visit to PEI is a visit to a kinder, gentler place and time. The people are exceedingly friendly - crime seems non-existent - the climate is wonderful (at least in the summer season) - and there is a nice, diverse mix of things to do for visitors of all ages.  If you're looking for a memorable family holiday with kids, if flights are workable based on where you live, I would put PEI high on the list.

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