Charlottetown

This entry is part 23 of 25 in the series Cruising With the Mothers

Kris quickly realized that I was not being impish. She had yet to witness one of my episodes, and it must have been obvious that I was in extreme discomfort.

“What can I do for you?” she asked.

“Hot towel,” I managed to croak.

Kris ran a hand towel under the faucet and brought it to me steaming hot. I hid my face beneath it. “Your left eye is swollen shut.”

“I know that,” I said.

“Should we go to the infirmary?” asked Kris.

“Now?”

“Yes, now.”

“They’re all asleep,” I said. “This will be over in two hours. I’m getting used to it.”

“You have to see a doctor tomorrow. Promise me…”

I promised.

By the time the hot cloth had cooled, Kris was sound asleep. I couldn’t bear to stay in bed, so I reheated the cloth, put on a robe and headed for the verandah. I reached through the heavy curtains, found the door handle by feel and braced myself for the cool misty darkness.

I slipped through the curtains and the open door and found my one functioning eye blinded by an intense white light. Thoughts raced through my compromised mind. Aircraft landing lights? No—no sound. Searchlight? Maybe—but why? Alien Abduction? That could explain a lot of things…

I felt my way to a chair and sat, shading my eyes with my right hand. A broad band of light danced on the water’s surface, stretching all the way to a distant shoreline marked by a smattering of lights. High above it all hung a brilliant moon and swarms of stars in a crystal clear sky. After two full days wrapped in fog, the sight was stunning and more than welcome. Struggling to think clearly, I concluded that I was seeing the north coast of Nova Scotia from our path through the Northumberland Strait.

After a quick trip inside to get my hat (I considered sunglasses) and reheat the towel, I spent the remaining hour and a half of agony on the verandah, working on my moontan. It was as close to nirvana as I could get under the circumstances. Right on time at 4:30 a.m., the pain vanished.

I tried climbing back into bed but felt much too agitated to sleep, so I resettled on the couch with my book. I was still there when the alarm went off. Kris prepped for the day, and kindly offered to go upstairs and fill our travel mugs with coffee. When she returned, she dialed the mothers’ cabin.

“Huh, no answer,” Kris said. “Do you think they found their way to breakfast alright?”

“I feel pretty good about their chances,” I replied. “They didn’t get this far in life without being able to find food.”

The moms’ tour to the Anne of Green Gable’s house left early, and they needed to be among the first to disembark once we reached Charlottetown.

“I hope my mother remembers to bring all the right things,” said Kris.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You know—the ship ID card and a photo ID…and the excursion ticket. What if she forgets her ticket? Do they need passports, or just a license?”

“Relax.”

“I think I should go find them. Don’t you think I should?”

“No,” I said in a tone meant to end the conversation.

“Why not?”

“Because we’re the children, and they’re the parents,” I said. “I’ve got to take a shower…”

Twenty minutes later, refreshed as week-old bread warmed in a microwave oven, I joined Kris on the verandah. Maasdam was maneuvering toward the dock in a moderate fog.

“I can’t believe it. It was clear as a bell out here two hours ago,” I said. Kris looked at me with considerable skepticism. “It really was. Moon, stars…everything.”

“You must be thinking of some other cruise,” said Kris.

It must have been an alien abduction after all. As I stood there doubting myself, the sun made a showy appearance through a hole in the clouds. There was still hope.

We had a quick breakfast in the Lido and headed for the dock just before 10:00 to find our tour bus. I was still struggling with guilt about not accompanying my mother to the Anne of Green Gables house, the site which inspired the setting for L.M. Montgomery’s much loved series of books. In mom’s description, she told me of a place where young Japanese girls on tour with their parents show up with their hair dyed red and tied in pigtails. The Japanese hold Anne in particularly high reverence—the little girls often break down in tears at the sight of the house. The book is known in Japan as Akage No An, or “Anne of the Red Hair.” It has been a best-selling novel there for 50 years, and required reading for public school students since 1952. Some of the most prized houses in Japan are replicas of Green Gables—there’s a Green Gables B&B in Osaka, the School of Green Gables in Okayama where young women are taught how to behave like the fictional Anne, and an institution nicknamed “The Green Gables School of Nursing.” For an amusing news video of Japan’s obsession, clck here.

Maasdam at Charlottetown pier

I didn’t think I could control my emotions at the Green Gables house, so Kris and I were headed for a day at Dalvay-By-The-Sea, the Victorian estate of a pre-income tax American magnate. I was still hopeful that a beach would be accessible there, and wore shorts and sandals. Kris was dressed for ice skating, so I’m not quite sure what she was envisioning.

We scanned the dockside parking lot, looking for befuddled mothers. Finding none, we located our bus and hovered nearby to pass the time before departure. I compared the scene before us to a map of the port.

“The Friendly Pharmacy,” I said.

“What?” said Kris.

“The map…it lists The Friendly Pharmacy, within easy walking distance of the dock. When we get back, I’m going to go get some nasal spray. That must be it, way over there.”

“You promised you’d see a doctor today.”

“I will. I’ll see the ship’s doctor this afternoon. I just want to be prepared.”

“Whatever,” said Kris. “But you know those sprays can just make things worse.”

“If misused,” I said. “Trust me.”

The doors to the bus opened, and passengers started streaming in the direction of a smiling woman who stepped out onto the pavement. “All aboard for Dalvay!” she called out.

“Ready?” asked Kris.

“Yup,” I replied. “Got your ticket?”

Kris’s panicked expression lasted for just a few seconds, long enough for me to pull a pair of ticket from my bag and hand one to her. She’s used to it…

Charlottetown is the capital of and most populous city in Canada’s least populated province. Prince Edward Island is home to about 138,000 souls, and nearly a quarter of them have a Charlottetown address. Despite these diminutive statistics, PEI is the most densely populated province in the country with 24.5 inhabitants per square kilometer. Charlottetown barely disrupts the tree line, an indication of how vast and empty much of Canada remains.

I know it’s silly, but I’m always amazed when I see signs of life north of New Hampshire. A trip through the state’s harsh White Mountains in winter would support an argument that it is, literally and figuratively, all downhill from there as far as inhabitability is concerned. But once the land flattens out, there are hundreds more miles of verdant land where millions of people survive without undue discomfort. As a point of reference, Charlottetown, 600 miles northeast of Boston, lies at the same latitude as central regions of France well south of Paris (it is also south of Seattle and everywhere in the UK).

Our guide was a gregarious and friendly sort, born and raised on PEI. As the bus crawled through downtown Charlottetown, she regaled us with tales of the island’s history. When the Mi’kmaq Indians first stumbled upon the Island many thousands of years ago they named it Abegweit, meaning “land cradled by the waves.” PEI is essentially a continuous, roughly oval beach, corralling gently rolling farmland and wooded hills.
As part of the French colony of Acadia, the island was called Île Saint-Jean. Acadian settlers were deported in 1758 when the British seized the island during the Seven Years’ War, leaving virtually no one to inhabit the hastily rechristened St. John’s Island. Things pretty much stayed that way until the British formally took control of the island under terms of the Treaty of Paris in 1763. A formal survey of the land was conducted between 1764-1766, establishing a system of counties and county seats. Land parcels were auctioned in an effort to encourage settlement.

The Charlottetown plot, by virtue of its favorably configured harbor, was tagged as the capital of the island province, though it was years before the town was actually laid out and settled. In 1798, Great Britain got around to changing the colony’s name from St. John’s Island to Prince Edward Island, and the town of Charlottetown was finally incorporated in 1855. Our guide assured us that the pace hasn’t picked up appreciably since that time—the island is a leisurely place and the residents like it that way.
Charlottetown’s claim to fame is its designation as the “Birthplace of Confederation.” In 1864 the city hosted the Charlottetown Conference, the first in a series of meetings which led to the creation of Canada in 1867. It seems that most of the town’s residents were unaware of the import of this event at the time, as they were preoccupied with the first local appearance of a traveling circus in more than two decades. Curiously, PEI initially balked at the prospect of joining the new union, and instead flirted with the idea of joining the United States or declaring independence. The wayward mother of the Confederation finally joined the family in 1873.

Province House, Charlottetown, PEI

Today, the Confederation theme is prominent in Charlottetown and PEI, with attractions like Confederation Land Park, the Confederation Centre of the Arts, Confederation Art Gallery and Museum, Confederation Court, Confederation Bridge and the Confederation Trail. No doubt as a showing of their patriotism, businesses have climbed on the bandwagon, too— Confederation Propane Appliances, Confederation Cove Mussel Co., Confederation GMAC Real Estate, Confederation Inn and Suites, and, of course, the Confederation Court Mall. The latter received prominent billing in the ship’s literature, and our guide assured us that we’d see it on our tour of the city—just as soon as we rounded the corner after briefly glimpsing the historic Province House, PEI’s legislative center and site of the famed meeting.


I had spoken with several acquaintances at work about PEI. They all raved about the place—great beaches, remarkably warm water, peaceful countryside and little towns oozing charm. All of them, however, expressed disenchantment with Charlottetown. “Not an ounce of charm,” said one coworker. “A big disappointment,” said another. I’ll have to withhold judgment pending a more compete examination. We did see some nice Victorian houses and civic buildings, and Province house is a plain but classic structure. Unfortunately, it is flanked by some unremarkable modern buildings—the worst being the mall, which dates from 1959.

Within five minutes we exited the urban area, and a couple of minutes later passed from suburban neighborhoods into the rolling countryside. There is a striking difference between rural America and similar areas in every part of Canada I’ve seen. In America, houses in the sticks are very often surrounded by junk of all varieties, usually intermixed with an incredible variety of noxious weeds. In Canada, the properties are immaculate, and nearly every homeowner seems to be expert at decorative gardening. Meticulously tended flowers, in gardens or boxes, are everywhere. It really is a striking feature of the landscape, and PEI was no exception.

A series of long, straight roads eventually took us past the airport—either that, or the jet that passed directly overhead landed shortly thereafter in a potato field. The guide got on the horn and addressed us in her charming accent.

“Ladies and gentlemen, before we get ta Dalvay, we thought we’d take ya to do a little shoppin’. We don’t know why, but too-wrists from the ships always want ta go shoppin’. We know a nice little place down da road here, run by some very nice people. Everybody here’s nice, but these are ‘specially nice ones, ya know. Always glad to have us. We’ll stop for maybe twenty, terty minutes, and then get on to Davay for lunch—a nice lobster lunch, verrry special. And wait ‘til ya have the mussels and the sticky date puddin’. Oh, tis heaven on earth, I tell ya. Heaven on earth…”

I sighed at the prospect of a shopping stop, and glanced at Kris. “I’d rather just go to Dalvay,” I said.

She nodded agreement, not being much of a shopper herself. “I know. We can just wait outside. The sun seems to be trying to break through.”

The Dunes, PEI

It was another ten minutes before the bus slowed and pulled off the road into a small parking lot and stopped beside a sign that read “The Dunes.” On our right was a modern hodgepodge of a building, covered with weathered cedar shingles and scripted signage that hinted at the contents—Café, Gallery, Pottery. We got off the bus and moseyed over to the edge of the lot to look at an attractive flower bed. The sky had cleared almost miraculously to a brilliant blue, and the temperature was perfect for my shorts and sandals.

“It’s hot,” said the over-dressed Kris.

“No,” I said. “It’s a perfect summer’s day.”

“Do you think we should go in?”

“Why?” I asked.

“Maybe it’s air-conditioned.”

I looked at my watch. We had at least 18 minutes to kill. “Sure,” I said. “Might as well.”

Waiting inside was a wholly unexpected delight.

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