It’s an Island Thing…
Tonging for oysters, building a dreamy sand castle, digging for clams – this is the stuff PEI vacation memories are made of. Yet not so long ago it was rare for a visitor to leave with such a unique Island experience under their belt, because, let’s face it, figuring out how to go about tonging for oysters isn’t exactly as easy as walking down to the dock and finding a fisher to show you the ropes (or tongs, as it may be). In fact, for a long time it was mainly by luck that a visitor would be privy to experiencing many of the unique activities that have shaped PEI’s character, whether through an ‘Island connection’ or unplanned run-in with a friendly Islander keen to share their time and knowledge. But, as we all know, it’s impossible to plan your vacation around luck or happenstance.
Eat, Play, Make
Enter Experience PEI, an experiential tourism outfit run by Bill and Mary Kendrick, with help from their daughter, Ainsley, and her partner, Dian Miguel, of To The T Media. Established in 2006, Experience PEI now offers more than 30 unique experiences, divided into three broad categories — Eat, Play, and Make. The company employs 7 tour guides and works with 34 experience providers to offer a myriad of interactive experiences on land or water. There’s truly something for everyone – from the foodie to the history buff to the nature lover to the outdoor adventurer.
“The key thing is interactivity, that there has to be some hands-on component to experience,” explains Bill Kendrick. “There also has to be a connection with a local person…the most impact Islanders have on visitors is when they give them some of their time.”
Up Close and Personal
Truly, what Experience PEI does (and does SO well) is bring you up close and personal with incredibly talented and knowledgeable locals that are passionate about sharing their piece of PEI with you first-hand, whether that be their love for falcons, their penchant for exploring out-of-the-way salt marshes or their obsession with the Island’s rich history.
“In 2017, our top three tours/experiences for the independent travel market were Beachcomber’s Clam Boil, Taste the Town, and Fun With Falcons,” shares Ainsley Kendrick. “With our experiences, people rave about connecting with the locals and their extensive knowledge […] Many are happy with the small group sizes and the fact they get to connect more deeply with the provider[…]Most leave surprised they have learned so much in such a short period of time. They also feel like they leave our experiences as friends, not just another visitor.”
Tasting the Town
For those visiting Charlottetown and craving a deep dive into the city’s food culture and history in one deliciously tidy slice of a morning, Experience PEI has got you covered. Their 3.5 hour Taste The Town tour is one of the company’s most popular, quite likely because it includes chowing down on seafood, freshly-cut fries (made with PEI potatoes, of course) and sampling local brews, while exploring the city’s historic downtown. I had the opportunity to Taste the Town in late May and had an absolutely wonderful time. Read on to get this local’s perspective on the tour!
Exploring the Capital of Canada’s Food Island
It was a sunny, mildly chilly morning in late May when I arrived at the Charlottetown seaport to meet up with the tour group and our guide. There were 10 of us on the tour, including myself and my partner-in-foodie-indulgences, Ashley, who would be capturing the experience with her mad photography skills. Not surprisingly, we were the only locals – the rest were from various parts of the US and Canada. Paul, our guide, introduced himself to the group and committed everyone’s name to memory – a skill he surely learned in his former life as a teacher.
Paul gave the group an overview of the Island, highlighting various aspects of Island life, including popular Island terminology, population stats, and more. And then we were off to our first of seven culinary stops!
Oyster Love and the Birth of Confederation
MacKinnon’s Lobster Pound is located on the waterfront, just a few hundred feet from the seaport and the Visitor Information Centre in Founders Hall, making it a convenient spot for visitors to place their to-go lobster orders or take in a classic PEI lobster dinner in the adjacent restaurant (protip: snag a seat on the waterfront deck if you can!).
The first order of business once we were inside the pound was a taste of one of PEI’s other renowned shellfish, the oyster. Served raw, with optional lemon slices and hot sauce, most members of the group opted to slurp up a sample after Paul provided instructions on how to best enjoy this PEI delicacy (slurp it into your mouth, give it 2 or 3 chews to release the sweet flavours, then swallow).
We spent about 10 or 15 minutes at MacKinnon’s learning all about the Island’s most famous crustacean – the lobster. Paul showed off his skills in gender identification and answered questions from the group about various aspects of the fishery and the life of a lobster.
Next, we headed towards Water St. via Confederation Landing Park, a gorgeous expanse of manicured green space that stretches along the waterfront and hugs Peake’s Wharf. Paul shared insights into the birth of the park during the 1980’s and the conversion of the waterfront from industrial storage space to a recreational respite for residents and visitors. And then it happened – I learned something I didn’t know! Paul pointed to a bell that was on display in the park and explained its significance to the city and a ‘Maine’ connection that I’d been completely unaware of. I won’t spoil it with the details, but suffice to say I was pleased to find myself learning something new about my beloved city’s history.
Paul also used this time on the tour to fill us in on the important role Charlottetown played in the birth of Canada as a nation as the host of the Charlottetown Conference in 1864, where the Fathers of Confederation first discussed the idea of creating a sovereign country. Oh my heart!
A Gaelic Tune and Liquid Gold
The history lesson continued on Water St., where red brick buildings are aplenty and hint at the city’s storied past, which includes the Great Fire of 1866 and a temperance movement.
We stepped into a colourfully adorned shop along the street named Brigh Music & Tea where we were greeted by Mary MacGillivary, one of the shops owners. She served us up a delicious mint green tea from the PEI Tea Company and a classic Scottish treat, oatcakes. The shop is an homage to the Island’s rich Irish and Scottish culture, with an emphasis on the musical instruments that have shaped our Island’s traditional music culture, including, of course, the fiddle. Mary then treated us to an absolutely gorgeous acapella version of a traditional Gaelic song that gave me the tingles. What a gift she has and looking around I could tell that everyone felt the same way.
Around the corner and just a couple of blocks up Queen St., we found our way into Liquid Gold, purveyor of fine olive oils and balsamic vinegars. Paul pointed out the shop’s important role in the local culinary scene, noting that Liquid Gold is THE one-stop shop for the teaching chefs from the city’s Culinary Institute of Canada as well as many restaurants on the Island. Inside, we were greeted by the sight of row upon row of small silver-coloured canisters with spigots inviting us to sample the shop’s impressive collection of high-end oils and vinegars. After an introduction to the world of olive oils and two samples chosen by the shop’s in-house experts (yum!), we were given some time to taste our way around the shop. My favourite tastes ended up being the Madagascar vanilla balsamic, the fig balsamic paired with the butter olive oil (it’s dairy free!), and the cranberry pear balsamic. Truth be told, though, I would happily leave with a sample of every oil and vinegar if I could – you simply can’t go wrong.
Mussels, Brews and Spires
Next up we headed to one of my favourite side streets in Charlottetown, Sydney St., where we climbed our way up to the third story of an inviting brick building that houses the Olde Dublin Pub. Once settled in, we were served a sampling of beautifully plump blue PEI mussels cooked in white wine and butter. Paul shared some of the ins and outs of the Island’s strong mussel industry and took an unofficial poll of the tour-goers familiarity with PEI mussels. It turns out most had seen PEI mussels on menus in their hometowns, speaking to their world-renowned reputation.
What better way to wash down PEI seafood than with PEI craft beer? A short walk across the street lands us at The Gahan House, where we’re led down the stairs to a private dining area that offers up-close views of the in-house brewing facilities. It was our lucky day – Trent Hayes, the Gahan’s brewmaster, was in the house (brewroom) that day, providing us with a rare chance to watch part of the process unfold before us. Paul offered us further insights into beer brewing as we sipped on Gahan Blueberry Ale and Iron Bridge Brown Ale. He spoke to the connection between the Gahan and PEI’s largest brewery, the PEI Brewing Company, which are both owned by Murphy Hospitality Group, along with several other restaurants in the city and beyond.
Time for another lesson in Charlottetown history as we walked up Sydney St., turned right on Great George Street and stopped in front of the breathtaking St. Dunstan’s Basilica. Even as a local that walks this street often, the sight of this towering Gothic-inspired church never grows old for me. Paul shared details about the cathedral’s history, including its destruction by fire in 1913 just six years after being built and the generous donations that followed from Islanders, both within the Roman Catholic community and beyond to rebuild. A poignant example of the enduring Island tradition of neighbour-helping-neighbour regardless of differences, be they politics, religion or opinion.
It Doesn’t Get Any More PEI Than This…
Our tour was coming to a close. Experience PEI had saved the most famed tastes of PEI for last – potatoes and lobster. First up, we paid a visit to The Chip Shack beside Founders Hall. Owned and operated by one of PEI’s friendliest ambassadors, Caron Prins (aka the Queen of Fries), this little food spot pumps out mouthwatering french fries and several other takeaway dishes from May to October. Caron greeted our group with her signature smile and enthusiasm and shared some pro tips on how to make the perfect french fry that is crispy on the outside and moist on the inside. Then it was time to taste her spud masterpieces – they did not disappoint (they never do, trust me I’ve tried them many times).
Our final stop was back at MacKinnon’s, but this time we made our way into the restaurant side for the final piece de la resistance of the tour – the lobster roll. If there’s one thing you have to try while on PEI, it’s our lobster. I may be biased (along with every other Islander), but I truly think it’s the best lobster anywhere and when it’s infused with love and creativity of our local chefs and cooks, you can bet your bottom dollar the resulting dish is going to be memorable. Aside from the classic lobster dinner, the lobster roll is probably the most popular lobster dish you’ll find on PEI menus. There’s plenty of debate as to what makes for a good roll – from the bun to the herbs and other accompaniments, but at the end of the day everyone would agree that a generous portion of lobster meat is essential. And I must say, MacKinnon’s lobster roll was spot on for my preference, which is for a minimalist approach that lets the lobster meat shine through. It was the perfect end to a lovely tour that gave me a taste of the city’s history and its culinary scene and left me wanting more of both!
Experience PEI Your Way
There’s no doubt about it, today’s travellers are in search of authentic, memorable experiences that bring them into the heart of the city or region they are visiting. Experience PEI offers precisely that opportunity to those visiting PEI – with experiences that span almost the entire Island and are suited to a plethora of interests and budgets. You can even get custom tours so if a family or group wants to combine experiences into a day-long or week-long event , Experience PEI can make that happen.
And to ensure you make the most of your experience, be sure to follow Ainsley’s advice: When you book your experience definitely read the instructions on the ticket. We provide all the information visitors need to prepare for their exciting adventure! Most importantly, enjoy yourself!
Words by Shannon Courtney, self-proclaimed foodie and staff writer with Discover Charlottetown.