Picture your perfect, peaceful holiday destination. Wild, sand-dune backed beaches, pretty houses clad in pastel weatherboards. Somewhere safe, pretty but full of personality. It turns out you’re picturing Prince Edward Island. I’d never heard of PEI, as it’s known to most, before holiday research on where to take the kids for an adventurous summer holiday. Everyone I knew who had visited Canada had said how beautiful it was, and this little corner of the world is the cherry on the cake.
You could easily spend a week in PEI, with days whiled away on beaches, cycling, horse riding or kayaking your way across its 140 miles in length. But it’s also perfectly doable to spend three days in the province, tapped onto another mini-adventure in Nova Scotia, or even further afield as part of a road trip into Massachusetts or beyond. Here’s our guide on what to do with 3 days in PEI as a family.
Morning: Spot dolphins and seals as you sail into PEI on the ferry
There are two ways to arrive on PEI – we came by boat, and I’m so glad we did. The hour-long trip served as the perfect way to get us in the mood for the pace of Island life, and while driving onto a ferry was already high on the boys’ list of exciting things to do, watching seals and dolphins swim alongside the ferry was a magical experience for all four of us.
We arrived on the island and were instantly captivated by the pretty houses and perfectly manicured lawns. We made our way to Charlottetown, the island's capital, and to our hotel – the Great George. We drove round a few one-way blocks, trying to find the carpark, marvelling at the beautiful heritage buildings with pretty verandas, reminiscent of images of Cape Cod. Little did we realise when we checked into the hotel that one of these houses would actually be our base for the next two nights.
Settling into our new heritage home
The Great George owns all the houses in the surrounding streets and they can be booked out as suites or entire homes. A perfect, luxurious home from home – complete with washing machines, gardens and fully functional kitchens.
Afternoon: Embark on a GPS treasurehunt of Charlottetown
Since our arrival had taken up most of our morning we were eager to explore in the afternoon, so after grabbing a quick bite to eat in our kitchen, we headed for Founders Hall and the information centre to pick up a GPS tour of the town. As our representative from Explore PEI explained, this was a cross between a treasure hunt and a game of geocaching. Thanks to a clever crossword and an electronic GPS device, the kids were caught up in the challenge of finding our next clue, while mum and dad managed to get a handle on the history of this very beautiful part of the world.
The kids get busy finding clues
We visited cathedrals, historic houses, a playground, and never once did we hear those famous sightseeing complaints of "I’m bored". Taking it in turns, the boys led us round Charlottetown following the GPS arrows and one by one they found the answers to the clues.
Evening: Grab a sunset meal on a lobster fishing boat
By late afternoon, we’d completed the lion's share of our treasure hunt, with just enough time to spare to allow our first taste of PEI’s legendary Cows ice cream. An institution judging by the array of fun merchandise available in their Peakes Wharf shop (we had our eye on cow onesies!). But most importantly they’re just delicious.
Then it was time to make our way to the sea front to find the 45-foot-long fishing boat, Top Notch, which would be our adventure (and dining location) for the evening. Whatever you do, if you go to PEI, do not miss this! Lobster fisherman Captain Mark Jenkins and his brother had the ultimate treat in store for us – a highly educational show-and-tell introduction to life as a fisherman on PEI’s seas, and a delicious, sunset lobster meal out in the middle of the ocean. It was sheer bliss.
Getting a marine biology lesson without even realising it
My kids, and those of the other family on board, were involved in every aspect of the lobster fishing we were introduced to – from pulling up the pots from the ocean floor, to handling the lobsters, crabs and starfish found within. Lobster fishing is strictly policed and the season very short to make sure sustainability is ensured, so our lobsters were returned to the sea – part of an education program only.
Taking a moment for photos as the sun set
And there’s nothing like a fisherman’s tale to bring an evening alive. Stories of battles with 1000lb tuna and great white shark sightings had the kids on the edge of their seats. And as the sun set, and the lobster dinners were served, complete with a glass of wine, parents were as enthralled as the children.
Morning: A spot of horse whispering and a gentle family hack
Eager to get as much action into our Canadian adventure holiday, we’d signed up for a morning's horse riding. But horse riding at Venture Stables under the tutelage of Jasime Bastarache is a different experience entirely. Talking with Horses teaches novices like us, keen to have a ride but with little previous experience, how to actually communicate with your animal and it’s magical to see and learn. From ear positions to nostril flares, you’re taught to understand your animal’s cues and it’s amazing to observe Jasmine controlling her horse with nothing but a nod of the head or a bend of the back.
Preparing to groom his horse ahead of the hack
Once actually out on our trusty steeds, of course, our ability to make them do what they were supposed to was not so impressive, but the countryside was stunning and as we passed through woods and rode across fields you could imagine what life was like here back in the time of Anne of Green Gables, when it was all horses and carts, and beautiful endless views.
Because yes, PEI is where Anne of Green Gables is set, and really to have got to day two without mentioning it is probably remiss. But while exploring Anne country is a delight to children and adults who know and love the stories, I wanted to make it clear that even if you don’t know and love the story, it’s a place you have to visit.
Afternoon: Anne of Green Gables immersion
It is now time though, to fully embrace Anne’s red-haired charms, and what better way to do it than to watch the musical (the longest playing musical in the world) back at Charlottetown’s Confederation Centre of the Arts. I am someone who has grown up with Anne, and knowing I was coming to PEI, I’d genned up with a few of Netflix’s new Anne with an E shows before my arrival.
I’d intended to get the boys up to speed but hadn’t had the time, so a fully immersive experience like this was exactly what we needed. The show is fantastic and a perfect introduction to Lucy Maud Montgomery’s story – both boys were transfixed. So when they discovered that not only were we heading to Anne’s actual home in the morning, but would be staying at a place called Kindred Spirits (if this means nothing to you, go and watch the musical too!) they were very excited.
Cruising round PEI was a lot of fun in a Dodge Charger
Evening: Sunset on the sand dunes and some wave jumping
That however was tomorrow, and for the rest of today we were to head to the beach for some fun in the sand dunes. Brackley Beach is truly stunning, and by 5pm in the evening, also pretty much deserted. There are areas where coastguards are watching until 6 and having tried both wild and guarded, I definitely recommend the latter, as wave jumping with kids, while amazing fun, is more stressful when you’re not in an observed zone, as currents especially at tide change are strong.
Playing in the waves as the sun sets
The long expanses of white sand glisten as the sun starts to set and with its wooden walkways and grass-dappled dunes it really is perfection. One quick note – and an important one if travelling between May and August – come prepared with mosquito repellent spray, or pick some up at the first drug store you pass. PEI is covered with stunning lakes, but with them, comes mosquitos. Fully sprayed up, it's fine, but don’t overlook it or you and the kids will be squirming and itching for days.
Dalway by the Sea, where Kate and William stayed in 2011
After our swim, and having changed back into our clothes, we pressed on along the coast, stopping at one of these lakes. By coincidence it was the very same lake Prince William and Kate Middleton had stayed beside for a night of their 2011 Canadian tour – so fitting for a Hello! journalist (and, I might add, what good taste they had). A stunning and peaceful spot, and as the final light disappeared from the evening we treated ourselves to a delicious dinner at Dalvay by the Sea (the Duke and Duchess' hotel, and makers of the best home-made biscuits we've ever tasted) before heading back into town for our last night at the George Inn.
Up bright and early, it was time to head north towards Anne of Green Gables country – but before making the pilgrimage many make on their journey to the island, we had a date with a kayak. North Rustico is a small fishing town and Outside Expeditions have the perfect family-friendly kayaking tour for adults and kids alike – 90 minutes on the Beginners’ Bay tour. Parents join children in double kayaks (necessary as when the wind picks up it can be slightly hard going), to weave their way past sand banks, through oyster and muscle farms, all while eagles and osprey swoop over head.
Pulling the kayaks ashore after a busy morning
It's a peaceful and stunning work out, but it's definitely a work out and we were all ready for lunch when we’d finished. Luckily, the kayak shop is just a few minutes’ walk away from one of the most popular fish restuarants on the island, the Blue Mussel Café. Its popularity means there can be a wait, but my mussels were definitely worth it.
Afternoon: Anne of Green Gables
Our afternoon was spent exploring the Green Gables Heritage Place where you can go as Anne-crazy as you want – from dressing up like her, posing with pictures with a lookalike or just wandering around her house, imagining your part in her now-world-famous story, as you peek inside her bedroom, see the stove Marilla used to slave over and go for a walk in the woods, expecting to find Matthew round every corner.
Green Gables, the inspiration
The centre is fun and has enough quirky Anne experiences to keep kids (even those not lifelong fans) amused. The area around the house has become very tourist focussed, with golf, a waterpark and a few small rollercoasters scattered around. But somehow this Anne world has resisted what must have been a huge temptation to become a big garish theme park. And when we check into Kindred Spirits Inn next door, expecting to find something a bit twee, we’re pleasantly surprised to discover its full of genuine island charm: warm cookies and iced lemonade on the counter, a house that makes you feel you’re really stepping back in time and (the kids highlight) a pool and jacuzzi!
The pretty heritage house of Kindred Spirits Inn
Evening: Back to the beach for a final dip
There are many things to do with your last evening in PEI – dining at The Mill in New Glasgow is a pleasant experience, and Victoria by the sea, with its lighthouse and storybook charm is another fabulous trip. But for us, the pull of the beach and our perfect evening wave jumping was too much to resist, so we returned – this time slightly up the coast, for a rerun. The Atlantic isn't too cold in July, you can last an hour without wetsuits. And as the sun beat down on the timber boardwalks we could hardly contain our excitement and literally ran into the waves for a final session of diving and swimming, trying as hard as we could to hang onto our holiday which was drawing to a close.
Dashing down to the beach for one last swim
When necessity required, we pulled ourselves out and headed for our final dinner – a good old fashioned PEI baked potato! With lists of things we didn’t manage to squeeze in (for my youngest the Potato Museum sits at the top for a return visit) we reminisced over our favourite moments as we chowed down on our delicious spuds from Red Island Baked Potato, smothered in all sorts of naughtiness, and sipped on root beer.
PEI is a destination on its own – you could easily spend a wonderful week’s beach holiday here, and the journey to Halifax airport isn’t too painful (about 3 hours). But it’s also the perfect second part to a road trip through parts of Nova Scotia.
Waving goodbye to a fabulous break at Confederation Bridge
West Jet and Air Canada fly to Halifax airport, which is a 3 hour drive from PEI (accessed either via the impressive Confederation Bridge – there’s a toll to pay on the exit – or by Ferry). The journey to and from the UK is an easy 6 hours making Atlantic Canada a great destination for a stress-free long haul adventure.