Shannon Courtney, one of our Local Food Advocates, recently took a self-guided culinary tour of Western Prince Edward Island and toured parts of the North Cape Coastal Drive. Check out her blog post for highlights from her trip ‘Up West’.
I must start with a confession. I used to discount Western PEI. I used to think there wasn’t much past Summerside, save for some windmills at North Cape and lots of potato fields. I could count on one hand the number of times I’d been ‘Up West’, but figured I wasn’t missing much.
Boy was I wrong. So completely off base, that I’m embarrassed by my own cluelessness. Over the last two days of August, my good friend and Saskatchewan-farm-girl-turned-PEI shepherdess, Jolene, and I toured the North Cape Coastal region. That’s when I came to appreciate the magic of taking a staycation. It can turn your assumptions about your own backyard upside down.
I mean, really, I should have known. Us Islanders have a knack for keeping our best gems to ourselves (think Thunder Cove until recently!), but I had no idea that Western PEI was filled with SO many amazing places to eat, drink, and be merry. Not to mention loads of friendly folk and cute animals to boot.
Instead of the usual chronological recap of our itinerary, I want to share a few themes that really stood out to me as we traversed the western region of the Island.
Alpacas AND goats? Say no more, I’m IN! Our very first stop on our trip ‘Up West’ was to Green Gables Alpacas, just a few short minutes outside of Tyne Valley on the North Shore. We were welcomed by ‘The Alpaca Lady’, Janet, and her herd of 39 alpacas, 1 llama, and 1 ginger cat.
Janet led us on an extremely informative tour of her farm, sharing her wealth of knowledge about this unique South American animal while letting us watch her female and baby alpacas enjoy farm life. She advised us at the outset of the tour that she does not run a petting zoo and asked us not to get too close to the alpacas for their well-being and our safety, which made me really appreciate her respect for her animals.
I learned a LOT about alpacas. Too much to share in this blog post (you’ll have to take the tour yourself if you’re alpaca curious!). You can count on being surprised by much of what Janet shares about these fascinating animals, including the reason the males have to be separated from the females (it’s not exactly what you might think…).
Janet finished her tour at her on-farm fiber shop. If you’re looking for the very softest sweater or warmest socks, Green Gables Alpacas has got you covered! She gave us samples of different fleeces to feel and we quickly came to understand why alpacas have been bred for natural fibers. Their fleece is SO soft in comparison to sheep’s fleece. Even between different alpacas from her own farm, you could feel a difference in softness.
On our second day, we had a chance to visit Beach Goats in Richmond on the South Shore. We were welcomed to the farm by Devon, who runs the outfit, and her mom, Lynn. Both exuded a wonderful, welcoming energy and were full of smiles the whole visit.
It was a sunny, albeit slightly windy afternoon when we arrived at the strip of South Shore where beach goats do roam. Beach Goats is very much a hands-on, petting farm experience, except that you’re on the beach rather at the farm!
We quickly became acquainted with Devon’s friendly Nigerian dwarf goats. There were two baby goats in the group and they were getting oodles of attention, especially from the families with young children that were part of our group.
The rest of the goats seemed very content wandering the seashore, chomping on dry and wet seaweed, which is packed full of nutrients. As I watched the goats graze the beach for food and come running when Devon called out with a promise of treats (dried pasta, yum!), I felt a kinship with these funny little ruminators, who seem to love food as much as I do.
We spent some time soaking up the salty sea air and hanging out with the goats. It was equal parts relaxing and entertaining. I would definitely come back here with my niece and nephew – the kids in our group were having the time of their life interacting with their new goat pals!
THE FOOD & DRINK
In my opinion, the best way to discover the true DNA of a place you’re visiting is to find out where the locals eat and drink, then make your way there. Sidle up to the bar if you’re traveling solo or make friends with your server and you’ll soon find yourself in the know about what makes the place tick.
Our first stop on our self-guided culinary staycation was Backwoods Burger in Tyne Valley. I love it when a restaurant embraces its locale and weaves it into their identity. The interior was cozy and filled with quirky decor, including a bicycle hanging from the ceiling and frying pan wall art. This was my first time in Tyne Valley and Backwoods Burger served up a mighty fine first impression. It didn’t hurt that our lunch was oh-so-good.
Scott, our friendly server, gave the nod of approval at our choice of Bar Clam Poutine, The J Burger, and an Onion Ring Tower. Now you’d think that I’d be familiar with bar clams, given PEI is renowned for its seafood, but I’m not. I reckon that bar clams are more of an ‘Up West’ thing, though I haven’t researched to confirm my assumption. In any case, Scott advised us the bar clams were from Annand’s which was ‘just up the road’. Jolene and I were equally smitten with the unique poutine creation AND our burger, which featured a generous amount of goat’s cheese and a perfectly cooked, thick patty of PEI beef.
Next up on our tour of Tyne Valley’s culinary scene, we visited Tyne Valley Teas. We were still full from our burger lunch, so weren’t able to take advantage of their tempting lunch offerings. We were, however, delighted to get some tea for the road and a couple of decadent treats to takeaway for evening dessert!
Back on the road, we set our GPS to ‘Moth Lane Brewery’ and headed northwest to Ellerslie for a pint of craft beer at PEI’s western-most brewery. Moth Lane did not disappoint. The road signage directing folks down the red dirt lane it’s located on was the first indicator of the fun, laid-back vibes we’d find at the brewery.
When I walked in the brewery, I immediately felt at home. Well, if my home was filled with large brewing tanks and had a bar. But you know what I mean. It’s like the Cheers song – a place where everybody knows your name! We were greeted by Sass, the friendly bartender, who immediately recognized Jolene as they’d both worked at Blue Mussel Cafe last summer.
Sass gave us the run-down of the beers available on tap, which had brilliant names like ‘Shits & Giggles’ and ‘Weizen Up Bye’. Jolene and I both opted for a flight of beers and enjoyed them while soaking up the views of the North Shore from their lovely deck. We left with a growler and grunt of the Red Dirt Road, a delicious red ale. I lamented the fact that I didn’t have a second stomach, as their menu of the day beckoned with offerings such as Pork Belly Sandwich, Pulled Pork Nachos and Walkin’ Tacos.
Our dinner at The Catch Kitchen & Bar in West Point was similarly cozy, approachable and focused on celebrating local ingredients. Annand’s bar clams were on the menu and the craft beer on tap was from Moth Lane Brewing. I loved the sea-themed artwork and the views overlooking the West Point harbour were about as PEI picturesque as they come. We ordered up the mussels of the day and fish tacos for our mains. Both were yummy and filling!
Our second day on the road started with an early lunch at Callaghan’s Restaurant, located at Mill River Resort. Their menu offered a diversity of local and international flavours, including Pad Thai, Butter Chicken, Fish & Chips, and Smoked Salmon. I opted for the Butter Chicken, which featured a cilantro and curry creme fraiche. Flavourful and filling, it was just what I needed to carry me through our afternoon adventures.
As we headed back east towards Summerside, we stocked up on local vegetables, freshly baked goods, and PEI seafood. Just outside of O’Leary we stopped at Webb’s Vegetable farm stand for fresh corn on the cob, new PEI potatoes, crunchy carrots, and more.
After our Beach Goat visit, we popped into La Galette Blanche Bakery in Wellington for some authentic Acadian goodies, including a package of galette blanche buns (similar to dinner rolls, but without any milk) and an Acadian meat pie, which I plan to enjoy on a cool and cozy autumn evening. Last but not least, we paid a visit to Waddell’s Fishmart in Summerside to get fresh, local seafood. I couldn’t resist getting a cooked lobster and a couple of giant fillets of haddock, my favourite white fish.
Back at home at the end of our two-day staycation, I got to work in the kitchen preparing a simple local feast. I impressed myself with how quickly everything came together. When you have the freshest and best ingredients to work with, it’s easy to showcase their flavours with some easy roasting, boiling, steaming and a few seasonings!
THE PEOPLE & PLACES
The final theme of our staycation is the one that truly endeared me to Western PEI. If it weren’t for the people we met along the way, our trip wouldn’t have been nearly as fantastic as it was. And, of course, it never hurts when you find yourself soaking up breathtaking vistas of the ocean from atop a lighthouse, or heading down a red dirt farm road with blue skies and even bluer waters in your sight.
One of the experiences that both Jolene and I were looking forward to the most was staying overnight at West Point Lighthouse. Neither of us had even been to West Point before, let alone stayed at a lighthouse. So I suppose it’s no surprise that we were both smitten at first sight with the lighthouse and the red sandy beachfront stretching out in both directions, From our private deck, we soaked up the sights and sounds of the waves lapping at the shore, while sipping on wine from Grand Pre.
Later in the evening, as we were coming back from dinner, we met Jimmy Stewart, the GM and night keeper of the West Point Lighthouse. He regaled us with local lore and legend, including several accounts of ghosts in the lighthouse and inn, sea serpent sightings, and a local connection to Jesse James.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Jimmy made our stay at West Point more spectacular than I ever could have expected. I was bowled over by his passion for the history of the lighthouse and area. He has been involved with restoring and developing the West Point Lighthouse and area for over thirty years. If it weren’t for the efforts of him and the many other volunteers that run the non-profit, West Point Development Corp., much of its fascinating history would surely have been lost over the past few decades. Instead, visitors from around the world can enjoy a unique experience, learn about the history of the area, and contribute to keeping the local economy going.
By the way, if you do decide to book a stay at West Point Lighthouse, consider staying on a Friday and/or Saturday night, as that’s when local storytellers, including ‘Old Fred’ come by to share their stories and memories from way back when.
I’ve already mentioned a few of the other friendly folks we met along the way, but they deserve another shout-out. Their hospitality was what made our trip oh-so-memorable.
Scott, our server at Backwoods Burger made us feel welcome from the minute we stepped in the restaurant, gave us the low-down on bar clams, and made sure we had everything we needed for a delicious lunch experience.
Sass, our bartender at Moth Lane Brewery, was a ball of friendly energy and smiles. A newly-minted summer resident of the area, her enthusiasm for Western PEI and its people was palpable. I left the bar feeling like I’d made a new friend and when that’s how you feel, you know the person behind the bar has found their calling.
We had an amazing time at Green Gables Alpacas and were touched that Janet shared the very personal and emotional story of her journey from career-obsessed city dweller to PEI alpaca farmer. On the other shore, we were buoyed over by the warm welcome that Lynn and Devon gave us and all their Beach Goats guests. The goats were pretty friendly too!
In fact, everywhere we went, we were greeted with smiles and warm welcomes. Plus, the scenery was stunning. Get off the main highway – that’s the secret! Take the North Cape Coastal Drive or explore the backroads as you please. You’ll find beauty at every turn.
Friendly folks, gorgeous scenery, loads of history, delicious food and drink, and adorable animals – that about sums up our staycation in Western PEI. What more could you ask for? I can’t wait to head back Up West – there are places we missed that I want to check out and places I *must* visit again!