Bicycling is one of my favorite activities for intimately connecting with the land. And Prince Edward Island (PEI) makes for an ideal cycling destination, one that’s laden with a sense of serenity, with scenic treasures awaiting around many a curve in the road. Pedaling along the coast and the pastoral interior allows you to slowly soak up the best that PEI has to offer, whether it’s pristine beaches backed by red sandstone cliffs; wide swaths of sweet-smelling purple and sometimes pink lupines that bloom each June; solitary white and red lighthouses that presided over a windswept landscape; or quaint coastal villages where you’ll want to stop a while to dig into freshly caught fish and shellfish.
Snuggled in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, this island is just about 170 miles long from tip-to-tip, yet it’s blessed with almost 700 miles of coastline that makes for a pleasurable cycling experience, especially when biking through PEI’s National Park on the north coast. There you’ll often find dedicated bike paths with to-die-for views of rolling surf, grand expanses of white (and red) sands and, of course, those dramatic crimson-hued cliffs.
Cycling on PEI is all about relishing in the journey, not simply clicking off miles as you speed to your final destination each day. I often pedaled leisurely, making sure to look up, down and all around, because some sights, such as the viewpoint overlooking the charming French River village, are easy to miss. Along Route 20 East on the north coast, I spotted an overlook with a perfectly placed picnic table and a bench offering picturesque views of this village far below. There, I spied yellow fishing boats anchored, and the coast lined with turquoise, red, black, and sapphire blue wooden fishing sheds. Elsewhere, I spotted a young boy and his grandfather hauling buckets of clams behind Sou’West, an informal waterfront restaurant with a spacious patio and a tasty baked crab dip. Later in my cycling adventure, I noticed several lobster traps for sale on the side of the road, and a tiny ice cream shop serving scrumptious mint chocolate chip ice cream where I enjoyed a cone while lounging on one of many chairs set on the lawn.
Even when a thick fog moves in, this makes cycling the coast that much more atmospheric. I could barely discern the pine forests, or the Gulf of St. Lawrence. But I easily detected the fragrant aroma of the conifers, and I deeply inhaled the fresh scents carried on the salty breezes. I bonded with locals at Elliot’s General Store — a grocery, deli and gas station — who endlessly chatted about the weather conditions. “Fog looks like it’s gonna burn off,” claimed one of many fishermen I met there.
Side roads are almost always worth following, like the one to Naufrage Harbour where a lighthouse sits on private property, and a wood-shingled building — the Naufrage Snack Shack — is set on an ideal beachfront location with a wide deck that’s great for enjoying, what else, but, more ice cream. One of many curiosities awaited around the bend: Bailey Bridge, a wood plank structure that clatters, shutters and shifts when cars (and my bicycle) traveled over it. (It was developed by the British during World War II.)
Undulating routes can still be delightful even when the headwinds are fierce — and, aptly, the wind turbines are plentiful. That’s because, in one instance, for example, I noticed the North Lake Boathouse Eatery where a patron (despite the steady breeze) was enjoying a glass of wine on the deck, a relaxing spot that I intended to visit later in the day. (Interestingly, the fishermen who were dining inside assured me that the blustery winds would die down for my ride the next day — it turned out they were right.)
PEI is a destination that’s easy to love, especially from the seat of a bicycle. These are six treasures that I found especially enchanting.
North Cape/Black Marsh Nature Trail
Where the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Northumberland Strait meet is one of the most blustery parts of PEI. I knew I wasn’t far from my goal — the Black Marsh Nature Trail — when a series of giant, almost 300-foot-high, wind turbines appeared. I walked my bike along this windswept trail where I was pretty much by myself, and felt like I was wandering through a lovely dreamscape with gnarled trees dotting the landscape, butterflies flitting about, petite orchids growing near my feet, the occasional eagle flying overhead, and the turbulent sea crashing far below. The sandstone sea cliffs are dramatic, bearing their signature crimson hue, like much of the land of PEI, because of iron oxide in the soil. (A signature sight in this area is a red colored monolith — Elephant Rock.) This trail is a birdwatcher’s paradise, where you may also see ring-billed gulls, great black gulls, eiders and harlequin ducks, and many others. When the dirt trail becomes a boardwalk, it crosses an expansive bog where carnivorous plants grow.
Trails at Green Gables Heritage Place
Canada’s most lauded fictional character, Anne of Green Gables, and the author Lucy Maud Montgomery, a PEI native, are celebrated at this vast national historic site. But fans of the outdoors, like myself, will want to park their bike outside the visitor’s center and take time exploring the pair of short walking trails that illustrate where Montgomery took inspiration. The Haunted Wood Trail winds through shaded groves of white spruce and Scots pines where you’ll hear the creaking of the branches in the breeze and observe the ever shifting shadows. (No wonder Anne and her friend Diana were frightened of this forest in the novel.) There’s a sense of magic, as you look up to the tops of the soaring trees, breathing in the scent of pine in this dense woodland. The second path, Lover’s Lane (Balsam Hollow Trail), was a frequent source of tranquility for Montgomery. And, of course, it figures prominently in her novel. The gurgling of water from a nearby brook is soothing as are the frequent bird sounds. Here, you’ll notice flowers and trees Montgomery would see on her strolls, such as red maple and red spruce, wild lily of the valley, and common blue violet.
North Rustico Beach
Once I reached the attractive village of St. Peters Bay, I headed to St. Peter’s Landing, a charming waterfront mall where the facades of each of the wood paneled businesses are painted with playful colors, from baby blue to lime green to canary yellow. One of these, the Black and White Cafe and Bistro, is hung with boldly hued paintings in the sunny space that’s worth hanging out for a while, munching on one of their delicacies such as the coconut lime vegan muffins.
By far, the most atmospheric place to lay your head is the Points East Coastal Inn, where a wide, inviting porch offers picture-perfect sunsets, and the owners readily cater to the needs of their guests, including cyclists and walkers. (You’ll find a new bike shed complete with tools, an air pump, hand wipes, and much more.) Choose the second-floor St. Peters Suite where you can soak your sore muscles in the clawfoot tub with epsom salts. All the amenities make it difficult to leave this inn, including the exceptional breakfasts. (And if you can’t finish the homemade raspberry muffins, they’ll encourage you to pack it up to take on the road along with their just made trail mix.)
If you only have the opportunity to walk one trail in PEI, this should be the one. Located within the National Park, it’s most noted for its crescent-shaped, parabolic dunes; floating boardwalk; and white sand beaches. I pedaled to the trailhead, where I parked my bike because they are not permitted on the trail. The half-mile-some trail first winds through a conifer forest laden with ferns, and bayberry and bunchberry bushes. Then the dirt path leads to the sinuous floating boardwalk that bounces as you walk above Bowley Pond that’s ringed with tall cattails. Ahead, the sand dunes — the tallest on PEI — are captivating, as you amble through deep sand and up sand-covered steps over their undulating topography. A surprise awaits on the other side: a wide, pristine, undeveloped beach.
Basin Head Provincial Park
The long, white sand beach known as “the Singing Sands” certainly is what gets most of the tourist attention at Basin Head Provincial Park. Not so surprising, given that the hot, dry sands elicit a bit of a creaking sound when you walk across them. (It’s attributed to the sand’s high silica content.) But, far less tourist attention can be found just a few minutes away at the Basin Head Interpretive Park that fronts a lagoon. The location is placid, ideal for enjoying a snack in the picnic pavilion, and the interpretive signage is fascinating, providing insights into the area’s history and ecology. You’ll learn that stone tools were found here, dating back some 12,000 years. And Basin Head is one of the only places to find giant irish moss, an algae that anchors the blue mussels, keeping them from floating out to sea.
While most of the facilities at the Provincial Park down the road are thronged with tourists, the Basin Head Fisheries Museum, where I left my bike, is crowd free. It’s easy to spend hours exploring and inspecting the artifacts and displays that trace the history of fishing in PEI. The whole family will find plenty to pique their interests such as tools used for eel fishing, antique fisherman ice shoes, an actual circa 1910 sailboat, and dioramas explaining the differences between scallop and oyster fishing.