Updated: Jan 12
At the end of the last post, I had arrived at the point of apogee of my journey and was preparing to commence the return trek back across Canada -- all the way back to my starting point in Vancouver. The subject of this blog will feature two very special places that I highly recommend to you, my dear readers, as must-not-pass-up stops if you ever put Canada on your list of countries to explore. They are nothing less than jewels in the crown of Canadian locales, unique in their own right, sublime in their undeniable beauty, and guaranteed to leave you with a lifetime of wonderful memories and stories to share with friends and family.
July 12, 1990 - Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island
My Air Canada flight out of St. John's, Newfoundland was later in the afternoon. My ultimate destination that day was Charlottetown, the capital city of Prince Edward Island. (Note that I will abbreviate to "PEI" as that is how Canadians familiarly refer to it.) Since there was no direct flight from St. John's, I had to return to Halifax and switch planes. What I remember of that flight back to Halifax was that it was, up to that point in my young life, the most terrifying experience of air travel I had ever known. We must have flown through a pocket of tremendous meteorological disturbance because the plane pitched violently left and right, up and down for most of the flight. There were a few times when we experienced absolute free fall and people could be heard screaming just before the plane caught the air again and righted itself. I was never so happy to disembark an airplane before as I was that afternoon in Halifax. Fortunately, the short flight to Charlottetown was completely uneventful.
My plan was to spend four days on the island. I reserved a modest room in a touring home just a mile or so outside of downtown Charlottetown. I never asked what a "touring home" exactly was, but to the best of my powers of observation, I am guessing it is a B&B without one of the Bs -- no breakfast. To be sure, it was cheap. My room rate was a mere $20/night. I was given a room in the basement, across the hallway from a group of shy Japanese girls who probably came to the island to experience everything Anne of Green Gables. It was a popular story in Japan at the time, particularly among teenage girls. Because I had studied Japanese language at the University of Washington from 1984 through 1989, I was able to converse with them in their native tongue, but only in the simple rudiments of communication: "My name is ...,""I speak a little Japanese, and not so well," etc. (My university education did not stress verbal communication -- I was put through the dry academic discipline of translating the text of Japanese literature instead.)
I had just a few hours of daylight left when I landed. The first order of business was to check into the touring home and deposit my bags. Thus unburdened, I wandered on foot into town and visited Victoria Park where I got this photo right as the sun was setting.
July 13, 1990
My first official full day on the island would prove to be one of the hottest days of the summer, and one that would leave me in great pain by nightfall.
That morning, I decided to explore downtown Charlottetown on foot. The city is quite small, and very park-like but has the cultural amenities of a much bigger city, including theaters, great restaurants, grand public spaces and art galleries. It occupies a small, triangular wedge of land that points south into Charlottetown Harbor, and is bounded by the Hillsborough River to the east and the North River to the west. The city is peppered with gingerbread-clad homes, striking churches, and monumental government buildings. Here's a photo of the Charlottetown City Hall building on the corner of Queen and Kent.
And here is the George Coles Building located next to Province House in Queen's Square.
And this is Province House itself. This building played a significant role in the origins of the very idea of Canada.
Charlottetown is considered to be the Birthplace of the Confederation where, in 1864, at Province House pictured above, Canadian and Maritime statesmen gathered to discuss the proposed Maritime Union. The result of the conference led not to a Maritime Union, but instead to the union of British North American colonies in 1867, which was the beginning of the Canadian confederation.
One of the things I regretted most about my visit to PEI was that I never rented a car. There was so much to see and explore on the island. I deferred instead to my frugal nature and decided to rent a bicycle to tour the countryside immediately surrounding Charlottetown. Later that morning, I walked out to Capitol Drive along the Trans-Canada Highway and found a bike rental shop. I had nothing with me except for a fanny pack and a camera which traveled nicely on the bike. I headed west along the highway until I came to a road that went south toward the southern shore of the island. The ride that day, though the sun was hot and beating down on me, was most pleasant. PEI is an island of gently rolling hills of red earth and green pastures. The bike ride was never too vigorous or challenging because of the mostly flat landscape and empty, paved rural roads. For me, it was the perfect reflection of bucolic splendor. Once out of the city, you are immediately immersed in a world of lush green farmland woven around a network of waterways, lakes, ponds and streams. The experience could not have been more complete, unless I had packed a picnic lunch for the occasion.
I biked as far as Rocky Point, which separates Charlottetown Harbor from the Northumberland Strait. From Rocky Point, where there is a small lighthouse, you get an amazing view of the city of Charlottetown from a short distance away, rising up out of the terrestrial greenery and set against the sparkling gray-blue waters surrounding it.
I turned around at Rocky Point and headed back to the bike rental shop. By the time I got there, I realized my huge mistake. I was wearing a tank top that day and never applied any sunscreen. My skin was already lobster red and on fire. I knew it was a bad case of sunburn and that I would pay dearly for the mistake that night and the next day. The proprietors of the touring home provided me with some aloe, which did cool the fire somewhat and allow me to fall asleep.
July 14, 1990 - Cavendish, PEI
This was the day I had set aside to go out and see the literary "Avonlea" and take part in the touristy parade surrounding the popular Lucy Maud Montgomery story, Anne of Green Gables. Avonlea was the fictitious place name given to the real-life village of Cavendish, located on the north shore of PEI, about 35 minutes north from Charlottetown. I had also arranged, for a fee, for my hosts to drive me out there. The Japanese girls who were also guests of the house joined me for the ride. Even though I was smarting from the severe sunburn I got the day before, and found movement of nearly every kind extremely painful, I put on a long-sleeved shirt and brought a light jacket to help provide some protection from the sun. The weather turned out to be a carbon copy of the day before -- hot and sunny, barely a cloud in the sky.
Once deposited in Cavendish, I made my way to Green Gables to tour the house. It was much smaller than I had pictured in my head, but worth every penny. I had enjoyed the play in a Charlottetown theater the day before, and had seen all of the made-for-television movies prior to my arrival. I had to admit I had something in common with those Japanese girls across the hall of my room -- I was a huge fan.
Like a vampire, I spent much of the day trying to avoid direct sunlight. Each time the sun struck my skin, it was like pressing a searing iron rod directly onto my flesh. Though I was in great pain, I shambled down to Cavendish Beach, a very popular summer getaway for locals and very crowded in July on days like this one. I found a small cliff overhang where there was ample shade along the beach. It was a place from where I could enjoy the view of the open water and the beach without the scorching, stinging rays of the sun.
When I had reached the limit of my tolerance being out in the open under the blazing sun, I managed to find someone who was heading back to Charlottetown and hitched a ride with them, a perfect stranger. They dropped me off at the touring home where I tucked in for the remainder of the day.
July 15, 1990
That next day, my sunburn was much improved and I had greater mobility. I wandered back into the city where I window shopped, had al fresco meals and quietly enjoyed the peacefulness of Victoria Park.
July 16, 1990 - Halifax, Nova Scotia
Sadly, in the early morning hours of the 16th, my visit to PEI came to an end. I had officially been to all ten provinces of Canada. To get to my next destination, I had to fly back to Halifax where I would catch the train heading west. In those days, the only way off the island was by air or by boat. Just seven years later, in 1997, the Confederation Bridge was opened to vehicular traffic, connecting PEI with New Brunswick. In 1998, I would have another opportunity to visit the island and, on this return trip, cross the bridge by car.
I got on the train in Halifax and arrived in Moncton, New Brunswick several hours later. Originally, I had planned to get off the train and spend a day or two there exploring the city. However, I made an impromptu decision to skip Moncton just before my arrival. I really wanted to spend more time in Toronto on the way back, so I changed my ticket at the Moncton train station to continue on to Montreal, passing through the top of Maine once again, and then catch an eastbound train to Quebec City. There was a layover in Montreal of a few hours. I had met some people on the train that day who I had become fast friends with. Their names were Bobbi, Romeo and Jacinda. We all agreed to get on a horse-drawn carriage tour of downtown Montreal, which was a wonderful experience and a lovely way to see the city. Shortly after the tour, it was time to catch the eastbound train for Quebec City. The entire trip, starting at the Charlottetown airport, took me about 24 hours to complete.
July 17, 1990 - Quebec City
I knew very little about Quebec City before I arrived, which I now celebrate as a happy circumstance. It served as the foundation for my utter astonishment and squealing delight as I marveled at what was revealed to me -- an enchanting and magical city on a hill overlooking the St. Lawrence River. I arrived at the station late in the afternoon. It was raining, so I skipped the foot tour and took a cab directly to the youth hostel (or auberge), in the old part of the city known as Vieux-Québec.
A little about the city itself. It is the only fortified, walled city in North America, excluding Mexico. St. Augustine, Florida was once surrounded by a wall, but none of it exists today. The wall around Quebec City, however, is complete and intact and an amazing remnant of this colonial French settlement. It was here where the English defeated the French in 1759 at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham during the French and Indian War. In fact, the city is steeped in history. There are plaques posted everywhere telling stories of important events that occurred at or near those places.
July 18, 1990
The streets of Vieux-Québec are mostly cobblestoned and narrow, giving you the impression that you are winding through an old European city, and no longer part of North America. The old city sits up high above the river and has an impressive skyline of towers and patinaed buildings that are simply breathtaking to behold.
This is Rue Couillard, very close to the auberge where I was staying:
The first full day in Quebec City was a wet one. It was still raining, but I didn't let that stop me from exploring the streets and sights along the way. I picked up an umbrella at a local shop that kept me mostly dry. I gravitated to the imposing and majestic Château Frontenac -- a hotel that was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway and serves as part of a dynasty of similarly grand hotels scattered across the country. The iconic Banff Springs Hotel in Alberta is one of a series of such hotels that was built along the rail line.
When you arrive at the Château Frontenac, you can stroll along the broad wood-planked promenade that skirts the ramparts overlooking the city. Even in the gloomy and gray drizzle, I thought Quebec City was the most beautiful city I had ever seen in my life. Mother nature provided some captivating entertainment as the sky lit up with flashes of lightning.
As I was strolling along the promenade, I ran into my roommate from the youth hostel, Gerhard Steiner from Vienna, Austria. He and I spent some time exploring the old city together, stopping along the Rue de St. Jean for cheese, ham and mushroom crêpes. We made our way down to Place Royale where some of the oldest buildings, dating back to the early 17th century, are still standing and lovingly preserved. Place Royale sits far below the Château Frontenac and is nearly level with the banks of the St. Lawrence River. This was Gerhard in Place Royale.
You can ride the funicular from the top of the hill down to the oldest part of the city and explore the shops and enjoy the many restaurants and outdoor cafes. That afternoon, when the rain began to let up, I decided to take one of the boats that cross the river to Lévis on the other side. From the boat itself, I got some great snapshots of the old city.
That day, I wandered just about everywhere within the walled city. I visited the Citadelle and the Plains of Abraham on the backside of the grand hotel.
I don't think I had a single idle moment that day. I remember my feet hurt that night from all of the walking I did in and around Vieux-Québec.
July 19, 1990
The day was a continuation of the day before with more sightseeing, trying to pick up the places I had missed the day before. I strolled outside the walled city to the see the seat of Quebec government and snapped this photo of the Parliament Building.
I then walked over to the wall surrounding the city itself and got a few photos of it.
Around lunch time, I found an inviting restaurant and had poutine with chicken for the first time. I struck up a conversation with a man who grew up in Chicoutimi, two hours north of Quebec City. He struggled with his English. Embarrassingly, I knew very little French and was incapable of indulging him in a fluid conversation. It was simply nice to make a connection with a Quebecois and express my deep admiration of this city he called his home. For the most part, people in the service industry there speak English well enough to adequately communicate with the tourists.
Later on, I met up with Gerhard again. We went back to the Château Frontenac around dusk and walked alongside the string of benches and glowing park lamps that line the promenade, and then decided to grab some beer at a dépanneur (or épicerie) not far from the hotel. It was the perfect cap on a perfect day in this perfect city.
I stayed in Quebec City for three and a half days, departing for Montreal on July 20th. The experiences I had during that time were some of the greatest souvenirs of my travels across Canada. I have not been back to this grand city, but I would love to revisit and walk the old streets again and hang out at the Château Frontenac and create new memories of this old city.
In the next post, I'll wrap up my travels across Canada with stories from Toronto and a minor brush with fame, a years-long friendship I established during my stay in Saskatoon and the culmination of this grand experience upon arriving at the train station in Vancouver. Until next time, dear travelers, may all your journeys be safe and rich in experience!