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Par for the Province

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.


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