It’s been said that Prince Edward Island has more per capita road surface than any other 2,184-square mile area on the planet. The “Gentle Island” may not be big, but there’s a lot to see, including the historic lighthouse trail.
Early in the summer, while out with a few friends on the veranda of the By the River Bakery and Café in Hunter River, Prince Edward Island —one of our favourite stopover locations while riding island roads—the subject came up of the many shipwrecks surrounding Prince Edward Island. After some research I found that vessels like Annabella, a sailing barque traveling from Scotland in 1770 with approximately 200 people on board, came to grief off the coast of what is today known as Cabot Park on the north shore. Some even believe that the wreck of the World War II German submarine U-376 lies just 10 km off North Cape. There are literally thousands of sailing vessels, fishing boats, and even Irving Oil’s Irving Whale, (since raised) that have gone down in the gulf.
Glass calm can quickly translate into heavy seas while strong winds or the vestiges of hurricanes coming from the Atlantic can turn the water into a caldron of shifting sand bars, treacherous chop and dangerous currents. Hundreds have lost their lives in and around the Gulf of St. Lawrence waters surrounding Prince Edward Island. Being guys with short attention spans, we moved onto another topic but the thought of all those sinkings stuck in my mind and I decided to explore them further.
As the early fortunes of the island grew, first supporting distant European fishing fleets, later growing food for the massive French fortress of Louisburg on the southeast coast of Cape Breton, then progressing to a healthy local ship building industry, wrecks became as common as drivers not using their signal lights are today. Early in the 1800s, construction began on a series of lighthouses and light stations that would warn maritime vessels of hazards, and guide them into safe harbours.
Inspired by the conversation on that summer veranda I decided to view the remaining nine 1800s-era lighthouses that are now retired but still serve as tourist attractions and historical databases. Using different bikes from my stable—sometimes with my wife Brenda as passenger, and sometimes with friend Chris riding along on his customized Virago—I embarked on several rides around the island to visit those nine locations plus a number of abandoned structures and even a few automated replacements.
Chris and I scouted out the western half of the island one windy July day running up the coastal roads from our homes around Kensington right to North Cape. Gentle bends, bridge crossings, lonely oyster fishermen in the shallow waters of quiet salt water estuaries, tiny communities like Tyne Valley, picturesque Alberton, and finally the cape itself, gave me a pretty good idea where I wanted to spend some time later that summer.
So it was that on a sunny weekday Brenda and I left our Spring Valley home and headed the short distance to the Irishtown road aboard my newly acquired DL 650 V-Strom. On our agenda were six of the nine tourist lighthouses on the eastern shore. We ambled along at island speeds rarely exceeding the posted 90-kmh limit and seldom getting out of fourth gear. But the one over-stock gear made for a very leisurely pace that rarely called for the Strom’s top gears. This was going to be a series of lazy independent day rides, exploring not just the Trans-Canada, or All Weather Highway, but many of the back roads that I loved during my previous life on the island in the 1980s.
We passed over the Hillsborough Bridge joining Charlottetown to the amalgamated community of Stratford, my old Freedom Cycle shop visible from T-C1, bringing back distant memories of the days I had three stores in the Maritimes.
Our first stop was the Point Prim lighthouse. Unique among Prince Edward Island lighthouses, it’s built of wood-covered brick in a circular fashion, typical of what many picture as the standard design for such a building. We were surprised to learn Point Prim is one of only two such lighthouses to survive, the other apparently located on Vancouver Island. After exploring the shoreline with the rising sun behind our backs, we paid the small entrance fee and climbed to the top of the 60-foot structure. Nova Scotia was clearly visible across the Northumberland Strait as were great views of the southern PEI shoreline.
During the day we stopped in at the other lighthouses on our list: Wood Islands from where you can still connect to the mainland by ferry, then to Cape Bear, Panmure Head, Souris East and finally East Point. Motoring along the Points East Coastal Drive, our journey was relaxed—in keeping with the character of PEI, the “Gentle Island.”
Cape Bear was my favourite, being un-restored and still near its original location at the end of a short red dirt road overlooking a rugged red shore. I could picture what it would have been like for the keeper those long years ago as I stood back looking at this thing, with visions of myself writing John Steinbeck type novels while chain smoking cigarettes and drinking scotch on the rocks during the 1940s. We were told that this lighthouse will soon be moved back from its precarious perch atop the 70-foot bluff and renovated by the community association into a similar condition as the other eight structures located around Prince Edward Island.
Brenda’s favourite was the Souris lighthouse, where local interpreter, Harley riding Janet was keen to show us their unique sea glass exhibit.
Befitting our maritime home, we ran into a fierce but short rain squall after leaving Panmure Island via the narrow causeway, where we had briefly considered buying property to build our home. But we realized that pretty as it was, during a winter blizzard it would be a bleak and isolated experience we were glad we passed on.
Of course it was a gorgeous sunny day for the most part but we did get soaked during our 15-minute ride under a sky thick as dark molasses, heading to pretty little Souris. From here you can travel far into the gulf to the Magdalene Islands.
Our last stop was East Point, where the British warship HMS Phoenix was wrecked on the reef in 1882. The next land mass to the east is the highlands of Cape Breton (home of the Cabot Trail) beyond whose rugged peaks lies the North Atlantic with nary a point of land till Portugal. We had a coffee and cookie to tide us over at the Pirate’s Galley, before heading homeward to Spring Valley.
Late summer/early fall found me again on the lighthouse journey into history, once more with the DL, but this time riding west solo. Keeping to as much of the island’s 1,800-km coastline as possible, I stopped in for a coffee and sweet sticky bun at Tyne Valley’s local pub, The Landing. Sitting on the deck above the street, looking at the shining tangerine Suzuki, I reveled in the solitude of riding a fine motorcycle on my own, with no particular schedule or destination in mind.
I took the turn-off to Alaska, and crossed over another small bridge on a salt marsh. It was a beautiful day as V-Twin torque carried me past Brae Harbor, Derby, Milo, and on to West Point and Cedar Dunes Provincial Park, now devoid of tourists, RVs and golf carts. It was late September, this was my last long ride of the season.
There was only a single vehicle in the lot of the lighthouse. Being a park, West Point has walking trails, ponds, campsites and even a small hotel and restaurant in the building. So late in the season it was not open, but would make a lovely weekend honeymoon getaway for you and your sweetie even if she were simply a Suzuki!
Gingerly riding over the foot-deep sand dune leaving the parking lot, I accelerated the V-Strom rapidly up to the ton, and rode at that speed several kilometres until the next tight corner brought me back to my casual 80 kmh pace. There were few cars and fewer motorcycles on the road that late summer day and riding the western shore reminds me very much of Baja’s Trans-Peninsular or maybe even the more desolate stretches of California’s, fabled Highway One. There are the high cliffs of Seal Point, Howard’s Cove, Miminegash, and Skinner’s Pond where I paid silent tribute at the one-room school house where a very young Stompin’ Tom Connors sat on cold winter days before becoming a legend. I didn’t see another vehicle until I reached the turnoff at Christopher’s Cross, passing by one of many massive wind farms just outside of Norway, turbines loudly chopping the air.
The last few miles of the narrowing coastline I passed beautiful houses built on lobster industry revenues before finally arriving on the North Cape. Here the gulf waters split to flow in different directions over North America’s longest rock reef, clearly visible at low tide. As I stood looking out across the distance to a rocky island visible at low tide, it was clear that I could walk there if I chose to do so. But a local gent advised me I’d better not get caught out there as the tide flowed back in.
Given that the average human might last five minutes before hypothermia took hold, and that I wasn’t much of a swimmer anyway, I opted to visit Newfoundland by ferry instead of backstroke.
I rode the heavy V-Strom around the dirt road at the cape, standing on the footpegs, and considered it would take a visiting rider a couple or three days to do the lighthouse trail justice.
You have to remember as you ride the Confederation Bridge (Canada was effectively born here in 1864) that life on the island moves at a vastly different pace than Toronto, Calgary, or Vancouver. In theory I guess in a very long day you could cover the same 1,000 km of island that I did in the doing of this story, but what would be the point? Really, anyone making the journey from points west (which is pretty much the entire continent of North America) should plan on spending a week or more visiting Victoria-by-the-Sea, Charlottetown the quaint and historic capital, Montague a very picturesque hilly little burg “down east,” Wellington the heart of Acadian PEI and the tourist belt of Cavendish, although if you don’t like crowds stay away from there in July and August.
Prince Edward Island will enrich your visit with lobster dinners eaten on paper plates while lounging on sandy beaches where the water during the late summer is the warmest north of the Gulf of Mexico. There are tidy little B&Bs, cafés and restaurants with inquisitive locals who will want to know “Where you from?” When you answer Ontario, Maine or Regina, they’ll say “Oh… you’re from away…” Cold beers at the many pubs, fresh baked goodies at ‘By the River café’ and enough seafood to choke a whale shark (occasionally seen in the local waters) add to the experience.
The Gentle Island has more roads per capita than anywhere else on the continent. You can ride here with a Gold Wing, ADV bike, Gixxer, scooter, or big cruiser and I guarantee you’ll get more smiles per mile than any other 2,184-square mile land surface on the planet and depart with the dream of coming back. As for me, I came back to live here not once, but twice.
by Frank Simon Canadian Biker Issue #311