Par for the Province
Published: June 2009
By James Deacon
Neither busloads of tourists nor scorecards full of hockey sticks can spoil the profound serenity of Canada's Prince Edward Island
Prince Edward Island, midsummer, early morning. The clerk at the Crowbush pro shop politely repeats the price of a green fee. "It's sixty-five dollars," she says to the southern visitor with PGA WEST on his golf shirt and disbelief on his face. He signs his receipt, says thanks and walks over by one of the clubhouse doors that looks out on the fifteenth hole. It's brilliantly sunny, and there's a shine on the crosshatched cut of the fairway. Beyond the green, past tufted dunes, is the steely, whitecapped Gulf of St. Lawrence. The man stands gazing, then looks down at his receipt. You can see his mind working — sixty-five Canadian dollars will translate to maybe forty-five U.S. when the credit card statement arrives back home. He smiles. It's the height of the summer season, at a course rated among the best places to play in North America. Forty-five bucks.
Later that day. Two dads are standing shin-deep in high tide. Their kids, though perfect strangers minutes before, are playing like old pals, swimming, salvaging driftwood, collecting shells. The surf is light and the water is shallow, ideal for playing children and anxious parents alike. "Just look," one says, gazing down the beach. There isn't anyone for a half mile in either direction, yet the island's finest resort is only minutes by foot. "I grew up in San Diego," he continues, "and I went to the University of Miami. But this is, without question, the best beach I have ever seen."
Late evening. Sitting on a cabin porch, nursing a glass of wine and listening to the crickets, a wife leans close to her husband and whispers, "You can't write about this place. If people find out, it'll get crowded and ruin everything."
What's a fella to do?I saw the first-timer do the Crowbush double-take. I was the other dad on the beach. And that was my wife whose pleas I now am not heeding.
Prince Edward Island (PEI) is hardly a secret — the smallest Canadian province has been a summer-holiday favorite for generations. And as my father used to say, good fortune should be shared, and my family and I had had nothing but great fortune. A comfortable, rustic cabin at the historic Dalvay By The Sea resort, on the island's north shore. Fresh local lobsters, mussels and oysters. Miles and miles of national park-protected dunes and uncrowded beach right in front of our resort. And the restorative, salty breeze off the sea — soft, moist and soothing — that took the sting out of the hot summer sun.
Then there was the golf. Crowbush, about thirty minutes east of Dalvay By The Sea, opens with a nice run of mixed-length par fours and rollicking par fives, the second of which turns back toward the sea and to the holes that earn the course its fame. The narrow green at the par-three sixth, for instance, sits across a saltwater pond from a swath of beach where kids skip stones. You can see practically the entire central coastline from the back tee box at eleven. The most memorable image, especially in the amber glow of evening, is the one looking back down sixteen, its fairway bordered by golden fescue, to the beach and the reddish brown cliffs in the distance. It's a wonder people stop sightseeing long enough to complete their rounds. The course plays tough, though, especially in the three-club wind my playing partners and I faced that day. Over pints at the clubhouse, we all agreed we had to play Crowbush again.
PEI is largely compatible with a compact disc world, but there are things about it that still spin at 33 1/3. At the main airport in Charlottetown, the capital, stairs are wheeled out to bring passengers down to the tarmac. There's an unhurried pace on the main highway, all two lanes of it, as it bisects a rumpled quilt of bright green and pale yellow farm fields on the route east from the airport. The picturesque seascape is unblemished by condominiums. Don't be surprised if perfect strangers say hi as they pass by. In all, the island promotes exactly what harried holidayers are looking for — relaxation.
Although close to most cities in the northeast, the island was accessible only by air or ferry until 1998, when it was finally joined to the mainland by the eight-mile Confederation Bridge across Northumberland Strait. Twice the size of Rhode Island, PEI has a population of 138,000 when the tourists go home, and in the accents of residents, such as LPGA star Lorie Kane, you can hear hints of their origins — a little Irish, or Scots or even Acadian French. The same industries — fishing and farming — have driven the local economies for nearly three hundred years.
The third major part of the economy is tourism, mostly families staying in rental cabins and old-time resorts on the spectacular north-shore beaches. The island also attracts fans of Anne of Green Gables, many of them from Japan, where the book is on most primary schools' curricula.
Then there's the food — the island's famous lobsters, oysters and potatoes. A tradition in many communities is the church-hall lobster supper, which began as a once-a-week fund-raising effort staged by volunteers to benefit local projects. Most of these operations have been converted into enterprises that are open seven nights a week in season. At one of the biggest, in New Glasgow, we gorged on buckets of steamed mussels, platters of vegetables, made-to-order lobsters and waves of home-baked cakes and pies.
Golf was a secondary tourist attraction until Canadian designer Tom McBroom was commissioned to transform an underused provincial-park campground into the Links at Crowbush Cove. But McBroom's fine use of the dramatic beachside setting quickly gained notoriety. Golf Digest proclaimed it not only Canada's best new course in 1994 but also one of the ten best places to play in North America. The provincial government, handed an unlooked-for opportunity, began to upgrade its golf properties. It spent millions sprucing up its course at Mill River, to the west, and Brudenell, on the east side of the island near Montague, and okayed the private development of a new Michael Hurdzan-Dana Fry design called Dundarave on provincial parkland next to Brudenell.
Brudenell is a longtime stop on the Canadian Tour, a pro circuit from which left-hander Mike Weir, among others, graduated to the PGA Tour. Mature, with thick rough and slick, smallish greens, it tests all aspects of your game. Brudenell can be long, such as at the 472-yard par-four second, or dangerously tight, such as at the short par-five sixth, which cuts through a forest. It is also beautiful, particularly down by the river at the 163-yard fifth, called Ink Pot, and at the tenth, a trouble-filled 143-yard par three called Simmering Waters.
Dundarave, opened just last summer, is a stunning design that climbs up and down hills, winds through forests and shoots across gullies down by the Brudenell River. It is Crowbush's match for memorable holes — among them the fifth, a riverside par three; the dogleg-left eighth across a ravine to a small, hard-to-hold green; and the descending par-three seventeenth, with its fabulous hilltop view. And the layout incorporates the island's famed red soil in its bunker-strewn design.
The drive to Mill River, a course less than two hours west of Charlottetown, passes through rolling grain country and small communities with freshly painted churches. The layout is well maintained, with some delightful eccentricities — at number seven, a par four, a stream runs up the middle of the fairway. But I recall the round more for the company of my playing partner, Matt, a twelve-year-old from "down O'Leary way." Asked what got him interested in golf, he said, "Toiger Woods."
At Crowbush for a second round, I found the wind light and the scoring easier. But the mosquitoes were brutal. To protect the environment, the grounds crew wasn't spraying insecticides. But they did install bat houses on the course. Don't count on the insectivores. Pack plenty of bug spray.
Through the week, we sought out family adventures: a glorious horse ride to the beach, walks through Charlottetown to see where Canada's fathers of confederation first met and go-carting near Montague. We also hiked a sandy trail into the new section of PEI National Park, on the Greenwich Peninsula, by St. Peters Bay. The site was formally included in the park in 1998 to protect a vast acreage of towering sand hills. Birds were everywhere, including rare piping plovers and a pileated woodpecker. It is difficult to imagine how an area so fragile could stand up to the fierce northeasters off the gulf, let alone the dirt bikes that used to tear it up before the park shut them out.
Belvedere Golf Club, in Charlottetown, the last stop on my golf tour, is a more traditional parkland design overlooking the Hillsborough River. Having just finished hosting the island's amateur championship, the course was in excellent condition, the greens pure. I played with Jamie Kelly, a member with a distinctive brogue. I told him it seemed that PEI enjoyed the best of all worlds, that islanders embraced only those new technologies and ideas that suited them. Kelly, a veterinarian who lives and practices in nearby Stratford, pointed out that everything looks idyllic when you're on holiday. But he added, "My family's been in Stratford since 1810, and my siblings and I still all live within three miles of one another. That happens a lot here. Folks like to stay close to home." After a week of discovery on his gentle island, I could easily see why.
WHERE TO PLAY
Belvedere Golf Club, Charlottetown, 902-566-5542
Brudenell River Golf Course, Montague, 902-652-8965
Dundarave Golf Course, Montague, 902-652-8965
Green Gables Golf Course, Cavendish, 902-963-2488
Links at Crowbush Cove, Lakeside, 902-961-7300
Mill River Golf Club, Woodstock, 902-859-8873
WHERE TO STAY
Dalvay By The Sea, PEI National Park, 902-672-2048
Rodd Brudenell River Resort, Hwy. 3, Roseneath, 800-565-7633
WHERE TO DINE
The Inn at Bay Fortune, Bay Fortune, 902-687-3745
New Glasgow Lobster Suppers, New Glasgow, 902-964-2870
Seasons in Thyme, Summerside, 902-888-3463
ON THE WEB
The official website of Prince Edward Island: www.gov.pe.ca