Prince Edward Island: See, savor, pedal end-to-end

Email|Print| Text size + By Marty Basch
Globe Correspondent / May 9, 2004

TRACADIE, Prince Edward Island -- The day my pedal fell off my bicycle was a Sunday so the bike shop was closed. I walked the mile back to the campground in Tracadie where I spent the night, and on Monday, the owner drove me to Charlottetown for a new pedal.

When I got a flat tire in O'Leary, a man looked from his house window, came outside, and offered to help. Though I didn't need his assistance, when I had finished, he invited me inside to wash the grime from my hands, meet the family, and tour his grist mill.

And when a fierce storm pelted the island, I sought shelter under a school overhang to escape the rain. The rain lasted into the night and so did I at the school, snug in my sleeping bag. No one bothered me.

Prince Edward Island is the smallest of Canada's 10 provinces and it's crowded with friendly people. Cyclists touring the Confederation Trail, a piece of pedaling paradise, may get to know a few islanders before they're done.

The 170-mile crushed stone pathway crosses the island on a former railroad bed between the town of Tignish in the northwest and Elmira in the east. In between are hardy islanders, yellow warblers, blooming lupines, fields of potatoes, iron-rich red soil, beaches, small towns, and the ever-changing colors of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

When the railroad was abandoned in 1989, islanders saw an opportunity for a recreation path that showcased PEI's gentle terrain. Now used by bikers, hikers, and walkers, the Confederation Trail is part of the country's Trans Canada Trail. It's wide enough to cycle side by side, and the surface is versatile enough for fat-tired mountain bikes and thin-tired road bikes. Accommodations along the way range from bed-and-breakfasts to campsites. Shelters over the miles offer shade from the sun and benches to rest. Interpretive signs tell tales of flora, fauna, and history.

About 50 miles of branch trails off the main route lead to the provincial capital of Charlottetown and small, eastern seaside towns of Montague, Souris, and Georgetown. A link also connects the Confederation Bridge in Borden-Carleton for those who cross the Northumberland Strait from New Brunswick (a shuttle service transports bikes over the 8-mile bridge).

The beauty of the trail is that it is nearly flat. Chalk that up to history. The original contractor wasn't paid a flat fee for the entire project, but by the mile. So the trail winds a bit to avoid the hills.

That makes the path ideal for those looking for a relatively easy tour. If there is one complaint about the Confederation Trail, it's those plum-colored gates. They are trail-access points, and cyclists must maneuver between them. They can be a maddening zigzag to navigate as there is barely room for bike, biker, and gear. The best advice is to dismount, walk, and hop back on until you master the gates.

Tip-to-tip was my plan in cycling the crescent-shaped island. With a week to explore in summer, I cycled PEI from the cliffs of North Cape and its glorious sunset and lighthouse, to the eastern edge at East Point and the lighthouse there.

The green steeple of the St. Simon and St. Jude Church was left behind in Tignish, the site in 1932 of the island's worst train wreck (four people were killed). The trail begins, or ends, in the small village. In the early morning, rabbits scooted out of the way along the path, which wound by small towns and from forest to potato farms. PEI even has a potato museum in O'Leary, with a giant spud outside the entrance.

I enjoyed the free outdoor concert at Spinnaker's Landing in the bustling Bedeque Bay city of Summerside, also home to the College of Piping and Celtic Performing Arts of Canada and free concerts. At a campground, I met Barney Ghim and Paula Jampsa from Texas, with their dogs Tasha and Taffy. The retired couple was traveling by RV and had a tandem bicycle with baskets for the dogs. The two pedaled parts of the Confederation Trail and I always seemed to find them at a campsite around 4 p.m. when they were making smoothies.

One of the most scenic portions of the trail is along the Hillsborough River by Mount Stewart and into St. Peters. A long bridge crosses into Morrell before hugging St. Peters Bay. Cycle alongside the nets fishermen use for harvesting mussels, then sample the sea's bounty. You can't go wrong with fish and chips or mussels on PEI.

Off the trail, west of St. Peters, is the short drive to Prince Edward Island National Park in Greenwich. Who was I to turn down a ride with Ghim and Jampsa? Together, we walked the long boardwalk by the windswept and grassy sand dunes.

Elmira is trail's end, a place to grab an ice cream cone and wander into a railway museum. But there were more miles to do. It was just a few miles by road to the lighthouse at East Point, where once again I met up with Ghim and Jampsa. It was there I remembered one of the first islanders I had met.

''May all your days be good," he said.

On a place like Prince Edward Island, if they aren't, it's probably your own fault.

Marty Basch is a writer based in New Hampshire.

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