I had been on the fence about visiting the place from the beginning. Here’s why:
What comes to mind when you think about Canada’s maritime provinces?
I’m guessing the only provinces you’ve heard about (if you live in North America) are Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Right?
That’s why those provinces weren’t at the top of my list–because they are at the top of everyone else’s.
Plus, I was running out of time, what with all the other stuff I wanted to see, like Cape Breton Island and Newfoundland.
But I was basically driving right by the place, anyway. And it’s such a small island, I figured I could see a lot in a couple days.
So at the last minute, Julia and I turned north toward Confederation Bridge. And even then, I almost didn’t cross because I was told that the toll for the bridge was $44. Double that for the return trip, and this scion of the skinflint Scotch was ready to head back to the mainland toute suite.
Fortunately, I was wrong. Here’s how the toll system works:
You can get to Prince Edward Island by ferry or by bridge. Each accesses the island at a different point, so sometimes it makes sense to go one way and leave by another.
But however you come and however you go, you don’t pay until you leave the island. Even so, the toll isn’t cheap. Compared to a $4 one-way crossing on Michigan’s 5-mile Mackinac Bridge, the round-trip crossing over the 8-mile Confederation Bridge costs $44.25.
The ferry is even more expensive, so you don’t want to come by bridge (free) and leave by ferry (expensive). You should come by ferry (free) and leave by bridge (less expensive). Or come and go by bridge or by ferry.
Confederation Bridge is the longest span in the world “across ice-covered water.” To be clear, the water is is Northumberland Strait, which separates Prince Edward Island (PEI) from Nova Scotia, and it only freezes in winter. (Duh!) But this designation makes the bridge and its builders feel special, I’m sure. The bridge is in its infancy as these things go, having only been completed in 1997.
Impressive as driving across the bridge may be (and it is pretty impressive), I don’t think it holds a candle to the excitement of crossing by iceboat, which used to be the only way to cross that span of ice-covered water at the turn of the last century.
An iceboat was a mashup of a sled, a rowboat, and a sailboat. You could row; you could raise the sail; or you could drag the thing across the ice on runners. And everyone on board had to help unless you paid extra for the premium seats. Then you could sit back and enjoy the ride while your fellow passengers swore under their breath as they dragged your butt across the ice. When the boat reached open water, everyone jumped back in.
Not a ride for the faint of heart even in the best of times. And many crossings were made when the times were far from good.
You could be blown off-course in a storm. You could become stranded in any number of ways–slush ice, for example. If the boat ran aground on slushy ice in the middle of open water, there would be no jumping out to free it. If the boat got stranded on an ice floe, on open water, the MO was to overturn it and huddle underneath until the floe landed…somewhere. If things got desperate, you could always burn parts of the boat to keep warm.
This anonymous poet describes the misery of being stranded in the middle of the strait in a nor’easter:
Our sufferings through that bitter night no tongue can e’er explain/We hoped to see the morning light and friends at home again/We battled with the raging frost and with the blinding smoke/It was a night of horrors ’til the light of morning broke.
Give me a nice, quick drive across Confederation Bridge any day.
As soon as we pulled in to the information center on PEI, I remembered why the island wasn’t at the top of my list of places to visit. But I was also to discover why it’s such a well-loved destination.
Traveler’s tip: Don’t miss the very fine visitor’s center at Cape Jouriman on the New Brunswick side. Besides an innovative environmental program, the center has a museum, trails, a cafeteria, and a good gift shop/bookstore. It’s not a kitschy tourist stop.