After 18 months of being cooped up in my apartment, this August I got to travel. It was a little trip- short, small in scope, largely uneventful- but it was big to me. This was my re-entry into the world outside of my East Toronto neighbourhood. It was my first time on a plane since February 2020. The last time I had travelled solo, I was a single 30-year-old with no commitments; now I was 32, engaged, and hadn’t spent more than one night on my own in over a year.
Last spring, Toronto was still in the middle of the world’s longest lockdown (literally), and I was desperate to get away. I live in a 770 square foot box on the 28th floor of a downtown high rise. I work from home. I don’t drive. So, with the exception of walking the dog around the block, I’d basically been travelling from the bedroom to my desk to the couch and nowhere else. Once it was clear that we’d both be vaccinated soon, my fiancé and I decided to book a few trips for the fall/early winter. But once we got on Expedia and booked up all his vacation days, I had a hard time stopping.
I saw an article about Prince Edward Island’s reopening plan- a multi-step process that planned to welcome visitors from Canada outside of the maritimes starting Aug 8- and booked an AirBnB without a second thought. Raised like every Canadian girl on Anne of Green Gables, I’d always had the mandatory fascination with our smallest province but my in-country travelogue was sorely lacking, mostly dictated by where family lives and where my best friend went to school (she’s at least credited with getting my Ontario-stuck self out to Halifax and Vancouver). Though it was at the top of my must-see list for Canadian destinations, I’d somehow never made it out to PEI. I’ve always wanted to take the bus to Cavendish to see the beaches of the fictional Avonlea and take in the iconic Anne musical at the Confederation Centre of the Arts.
So of course I finally got myself to PEI the one summer when the bus isn’t running and the musical is dark.
But I made the best of it, reintroducing myself to the art of solo travel (and travel in general) by exploring the city on my own and with tours, treating myself to some non-GTA-priced luxuries, and eating all the seafood while staying within the confines of the city of Charlottetown. The legendary scenery of the rest of the island will have to wait for my inevitable return trip (and a car; to do PEI right you definitely need a car). Plus I was trying to travel on a budget so boat charters and jet ski adventures will also have to be a next time thing; I settled for dangling my toes in the ocean.
My trip began with a very early morning flight. I’m looking for the best bang for my buck when I travel and accommodations are always the biggest expense so I tend to take the first flight in and the last flight out. Of course there aren’t a ton of flights available right now so I had to compromise on my way back and stay until mid-morning Monday but the price decrease flying on weekdays versus the weekend was so notable that I ended up saving money despite having to pay for an extra night in my AirBnB. The whole roundtrip on Flair Air was less than $150 which is the stuff spontaneous travel dreams are made on. But it meant that I was flying at 6:30am on Friday morning. I’m always nervous about missing my flight either because I overslept or because of airport delays (and I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into at Pearson) so, instead of going to bed early and having to wake up at 3am, I just toughed it out. I Ubered to the airport at 4am only to find basically none of the lines that had been foretold in Google headlines (I expect this is not the case for American travellers but it’s not so bad early morning at the domestic terminal). I’m still a little uncomfortable with the whole indoors-in-a-crowd thing so rather than take a seat at my gate I basically just paced up and down the airport halls until it was time to board. On the plane, my Covid anxiety and extreme lack of sleep battled it out to very unpleasant effect as I tried to distract myself with the 5-hour Screen Drafts episode I’d saved for the trip.
A note about Flair Air: they’re super cheap without compromising on safety, comfort, or service, which is basically unheard of in the airline industry. My flights were on time and well-managed despite the extra regulations and pressure of a sold-out plane in a socially distanced world. The landing in Charlottetown was pretty rough but I never felt the “we could drop out of the sky at any moment” insecurity I usually feel on a particularly small or cheap flight and, as a fat woman who carries most of my weight around my belly and hips, I was thrilled to have not only enough but plenty of extra room in my seat belt (*glares at Air Canada Rouge*). For the price, I was bowled over by the overall decency of Flair Air. The one drawback is that they’re extremely stingy with baggage allowance, allowing only one personal item per person. Yes, that means you pay for your carry-on. But here’s the thing- I think that’s completely acceptable. Too many people saw that George Clooney movie where he lectured Anna Kendrick about bringing checked baggage and now they try to cram full-sized suitcases into the overhead compartment. For a four-day trip like my jaunt to PEI, I can easily make it work with one bag that fits beneath the seat in front of me (what they mean by “personal item”). If I’m going a whole week, a reasonable carry-on-sized duffle fits the bill. I basically never travel with a wheelie bag but this is me telling you that your wheelie bag should be checked out of respect for the cabin crew and your fellow passengers and Flair Air has every right to charge you if you insist on carrying it on. Be better packers. Ok, rant over.
Upon landing at the truly tiny Charlottetown airport, I waited in the one and only super long line of my post-Covid travel experience. Here’s where you can call me on my insistence on calling it “post-Covid” because this line was for Covid testing on account of Covid very much still being a thing, but my anxious-but-fully-vaccinated brain has made the decision to approach life with a no-more-room-for-fear mentality and am therefore following all regulations but in terms of how much space I’m allowing the virus to take up in my consciousness, I’m just moving on as best I can. So I waited in a post-Covid Covid testing line to get my nose swab as I entered the erstwhile “Atlantic Bubble”.
Then I hopped in an extremely crabby $12 cab after realizing with horror that PEI doesn’t have Uber (I think resisting ride share is a backwards, honestly unsafe policy so, though I was unsurprised by this development, I was not impressed) and I took off to my “Bright & Cozy Private One-Bedroom Suite” ($99 a night, which is a steal for a large, private AirBnB less than a 30 minute walk to downtown). At this point, knowing I had a walking tour booked for 3pm and couldn’t possibly sleep the whole day away, I risked a much-needed nap.
I always pick a place to stay that’s walking distance from the area of town most densely populated with activities on my itinerary. Charlottetown’s incredibly small and most of what’s worth seeing is tightly packed along the water so I chose an affordable place not too far but a little ways inland so I would be forced to walk through town at least twice a day. And here’s where I learned a valuable lesson- just because GoogleMaps sends you on a dud route your first time, don’t just stick to the same road every time (more on this when we get to Sunday). My AirBnB was a straight shot down a central street to get to Charlottetown’s landmark water-adjacent area. So, naturally, GoogleMaps sent me down that street. Nervous about making it in time for the Great George Heritage Walk I had booked, I took the shortest route and was quickly grumbling about the brutal heat on the shade-less sidewalk and the dull scenery of standard small town strip malls. Once you’re out of sight of the ocean, Charlottetown just looks like any old place. I guess I wasn’t quite prepared for that.
When travelling alone, I always like to go in with a pretty set itinerary. I have no problem opting out or cancelling if something doesn’t feel right or I’m short on time but I like to have lots of options planned so I’m never left wondering what to do or, worse, unable to get a ticket/reservation last minute. I went into my PEI trip with three dinner reservations (all of which I ended up moving up by an hour when I found myself without much to do by 7pm each night), and tickets to two walking tours. I had a general sketch of other areas to explore and restaurants/shops to visit with the rest of my free time though I admit my schedule wasn’t as set as it normally would be because I held out hope for far too long that the bus to Cavendish would miraculously start running. I’m also just plain out of practice with making travel itineraries. I made a few boneheaded mistakes, including a timing misread that resulted in me ducking out of my first walking tour less than halfway through because I had a friend in town and I’d stupidly told her I’d be free 45 minutes before I was actually free. The Great George Heritage Walk was only $24 and I mostly booked it out of a sense of obligation to my grade 10 history teacher who had tried extremely hard and failed just as hard to make me understand and/or care about the story of Canada’s Confederation. Get on my feet, find my bearings, knock out the “look at old stuff” part of the visit, and maybe learn a thing or two on behalf of Ms. Gravina- excellent plan. Though my spirited tour guide Cameron made a strong show of pointing at the water and saying “that’s where the Acadians came from”, when I realized I had to duck out early in order to make my wrongly scheduled coffee date, I’ll admit to feeling relief.
The next day’s tour was a far bigger hit. A local food tour is my go-to to anchor any travel itinerary, especially one where Trip Advisor’s user-voted “top things to do” list is a little too sparse for the amount of time I’m in a place (especially Especially if half of everything is closed on account of global catastrophe and a resulting dearth of cruise ships). Experience PEI is clearly the MVP of, well, experiencing PEI. They had quite a few listings that made me wish I was in town on different dates, had access to a car, or was prepared to spend more money. I went with the Taste the Town Food Tour , which was a great value at $69 for 3.5 hours and really generous portions. Our guide Paul was very enthusiastic even if he wasn’t quite as good as Cameron at remembering historical details. He was better at the “this is what’s it like to live on PEI” element of the tour, which is more what I’m after anyway. He talked a lot about his wife and their favourite places in town. He maybe couldn’t remember the backstory of the statues we passed but he knew the whole story of how his favourite local cafe expanded their patio (they incorporated the trees!) and started featuring local art on their walls. He was thrilled to introduce us all to Confederation Centre of the Arts artistic director Adam Brazier when he walked in for his morning coffee (this is the kind of tour guide I’d be- “that’s so & so, they directed such & such starring so & so back in 2012!”).
Paul took us to four local haunts where we ate everything from a small serving of fries to a giant plate of mussels and locally brewed beer (I’ll write about the whole weekend’s food separately but for now I’ll tell you that the mussels and beer came from Gahan House, the clear winner of the unspoken Taste the Town Food Tour competition). Paul tried very hard to keep the tour on time and make sure we absorbed as many factoids as possible so he would be visibly upset every time he suspected we weren’t paying enough attention. In our defence, I hit the jackpot with my fellow tour-goers this time around and the instant love we fell into resulted in perhaps more quipping and off-topic banter than Paul would have preferred. But, for me, that made all the difference. I usually take the solo part of solo travel very seriously and enjoy keeping to myself but I’m also a firm believer that your personal kindred spirits are scattered across the whole globe and one of the great thrills of travel is the unforgettable experience of stumbling across one (or a few) where you least expect them. So, yeah, Experience PEI is the way to go if you’re looking to add some structure to your tourism, and the mussels were certainly worth writing home about, but it was lucky chemistry that made Taste the Town the highlight of my trip.
Saturday afternoon, my itinerary let me down a bit. Certain sights like St. Dunstan’s Basilica and Beaconsfield Historic House turned out to be “oh, that’s pretty” walk-bys more than actual activities and I’d already been to Peake’s Wharf like three times by the time my second tour was over. I’d put a lot of Country Days events on the itinerary (socially distanced festivities meant to replace the city’s usual Old Home Week) but they left a lot to be desired. One embarrassing highlight of itinerary failure included my mistaking an event labelled “Music Man” to be a concert version of The Music Man when in fact it was A Music Man, meaning a man playing music. I couldn’t possibly eat another thing, the underwhelming shops seemed mostly to be run by overwhelmed teenagers on summer break, and to my great disappointment I found there’s no good place to swim without driving 30 minutes out of town. Mostly out of habit, I also ducked into a theatre lobby or two to see if there were any tickets available to, well, anything. Confederation Centre had a few expensive tickets left to something that had recently toured to Toronto but a lot was sold out. I found this, combined with the competition for dinner reservations, surprising considering how few tourists were in town compared to a regular summer season (the city usually accommodates thousands of cruise ship passengers a day).
The scarcity extended to spa appointments, which is what I decided to do with my spare afternoon. After calling every place in town, I finally landed at Dove Spa & Nail, which turned out to be the perfect option for a budget-conscious spa-goer looking for substance over style. The hyper-practical business is the kind of place where the towels are scratchy, the AC isn’t strong enough, and they accept so many walk-ins that logistics are always being worked out in loud, fast arguments in a language you don’t understand. But the prices were incredibly fair (especially if you’re used to the highway robbery in Toronto) and the services, though rushed and unfussy, were excellently executed.
Refreshed but still aimless until my dinner reservation, I meandered along the water and sat in the Muskoka chairs outside the convention centre. Forcing myself to stop and just watch the sun glint off the water was a key reminder that it’s not actually Charlottetown’s job to entertain me, it’s my job to enjoy what’s in front of me. So I sat and, at least for a little while, that was enough.
I ended up back at my AirBnB really early on Saturday night, which isn’t ideal but is actually a reality that pops up a lot when I’m travelling alone. When I’m navigating on my own in Uber-less territory, I’m more likely than not going to walk straight home after dinner. It’s times like this that I think about my hyper-social brother and the friends he would have made staying out at the bar until the wee hours of the morning. Then I think about the paragraph I just wrote about my tour group and finding kindred spirits. But ultimately you have to travel like you, not like your big brother, so I took my non-drinking, introverted self home after my surf & turf dinner at The Pilot House and sat on the couch watching Netflix until it was time to sleep. I also stopped for ice cream at the legendary Cows Creamery because I can be nothing more or less than myself and skipping dessert so I can get ice cream on my walk home three nights in a row is a trademark move.
I told you earlier that I would return to the issue of my walking route when we got to Sunday and, here we are- Sunday. GoogleMaps’ insistence that I walk the straight line of University Avenue both ways for the whole weekend grew tiresome after my very first walk (I hate to trudge along a hot sidewalk in a straight line if it can ever be helped) so I’d vary the route as much as my directionally challenged brain would allow for the first couple of days- still mostly a straight shot but I’d try it a block east (Prince Street) or a block west (Queen Street), applying my city-learned logic that some roads are just cuter than others. They weren’t. Rundown homes, fast food, big box stores- this seemed to be the name of the game, like pretty much any small city you’re likely to find pretty much anywhere. Then on Sunday I decided to grab a coffee before my dull, sunny walk. Good ole’ GoogleMaps told me there was a Starbucks only a little out of my way so I walked north east from my AirBnB instead of my usual straight south. The Starbucks, of course, was a kiosk in a grocery story because small places all have their Starbucks in either a grocery store or an Indigo. But this story is not about my Frappuccino.
Having already travelled a bit north out of my way in the name of a Frappuccino, I thought maybe there’d be some nice grounds around the University that would be worth exploring, so I travelled a bit further out of my way. Nope; easily one of the least attractive campuses I’ve ever seen. So then I noticed there’s something marked “Charlottetown Farmer’s Market” nearby, so I wandered over there. But it’s just an empty building. And now I’m stranded in a sidewalk-less highway-like zone having seen nothing new except the Starbucks in the grocery store. With nothing visible but fields directly south of me, I made the decision to brave the pedestrian-unfriendly road east rather than double back so at least my straight shot south will be on a road I’ve yet to travel. About halfway to Mt. Edward Road, I noticed a biker turning down a trail, seemingly straight into a field. Uncharacteristically, I followed. And that’s how I found the path I’d been looking for this entire time. On my 5th journey from my AirBnB to the water, I finally found the road worth taking: a quiet but well-maintained path through grand yellow fields a smarter person would be able to identify. It was sunny but it was spectacular and I happily meandered my way to my destination: Water Prince Corner Shop, which I’d heard was the place to go for the lobster I knew I couldn’t leave the island without eating.
After lunch, I walked along Peake’s Wharf for what felt like the thousandth time on my way to Victoria Park. I was hoping for more trails without leaving the city limits and it seemed like my best bet. When I reached the edge of the park, I couldn’t find a natural place to enter so I walked around the outside on a boardwalk by the ocean. Away from the touristy marina, the coast line more closely resembled the timeless postcard I’d been picturing. I wandered the boardwalk until its end, admiring PEI’s famous red sand rocks and the lighthouse at Brighton Beach. I stopped at a small floating dock and dangled my feet in the water, the only chance I got to touch the ocean all weekend.
At the end of the boardwalk, I saw my way into Victoria Park around the side of the kid-crowded public pool. Spurred on by the morning’s succesful venture onto an unmarked path, I wandered into the woods on what could barely be called a trail. This was my kind of hidden gem- empty, completely enclosed with trees, quiet as sin… but if you wandered 10 feet to the right, you’d find kids playing baseball. So I wandered in the woods until the mosquitos ate more than I was willing to part with then I sat on the bleachers and, for the first time since I was a kid, I watched a little league game. It was just about the nicest way to kill an afternoon as I could imagine.
At this point, my shoes were falling apart and my sunburn was starting to sting so I took myself to Sims Corner for dinner, Cows for dessert, and home to bed. Just to conclude the story, I took University Avenue.
If I’m being completely honest, Charlottetown didn’t live up to my expectations. My romantic brain had written all sorts of false hope over what is ultimately just a small town that happens to be ocean-adjacent. Considering the place’s joint historical and literary legacy, I’ll admit to expecting more of the quaint frozen-in-time feeling that Niagara-on-the-Lake has perfected and I love despite its obvious touristy pandering. In my head, I’d conflated Charlottetown’s small & by-the-sea vibe with Halifax’s quirky colours and, if I’m being totally honest, Capeside‘s picturesque piers (this is very unfair, Capeside is not real). And while I acknowledge that the locals could probably use a lot less Anne in their lives, I could have used a bit more in mine.
Even if I’d been able to go to Cavendish and see more of the island’s scenery outside of the city, I think PEI is probably best experienced as part of a larger trip out east. Combined with short visits to the rest of the maritimes, crossing Confederation Bridge into PEI for a chowder-filled detour seems about right. Though I was able to find enough lovely diversions to fill my 3 and a half days nicely, much more and I would have started to go a little crazy.
But this trip wasn’t really about being bowled over by a new place. I wanted to go Somewhere and remind myself that I thrive in solitude. I wanted to be far away where I knew no one and recognized nothing, a feeling I hadn’t been allowed to feel in such a long time. There’s a world outside of my home and I can go into that world with nothing but myself and one bag small enough to not even count as a carry-on. PEI gave me back my travel legs so I can put one foot in front of the other and see how far I can go.