Dalvay by the Sea

This entry is part 24 of 25 in the series Cruising With the Mothers

First, an admission—shopping is pretty far down on my must-do list of vacation activities. It seems to me that the retail world has become very generic—same stuff as the local mall in a different place. It is a small pleasure to find a unique store in exception to this trend, but vacations are meant for big pleasures—hence, shopping on vacation is reserved for those situations where it is all but inescapable. Such was the circumstance now.

Although the building housing The Dunes appeared fairly low and compact from the outside, inside was a different story. A profusion of stairs and mezzanines filled an open space soaring three, and in places, four stories high, all lit by a wall of windows along the back. At first sight, it was very confusing. On paper, the floor plan must have looked like a work by M.C. Escher.

“Where should we go?” asked a bewildered-looking Kris.

I scanned the scene, peering over a railing at a café below. “Back outside,” I said. “Maybe there’s a door down there. It probably beats the parking lot.”

We moved further into the building looking for the right staircase to lead us down to the café and back to the great outdoors. Kris soon spotted something that stopped her progress, so I went on ahead. I found a door leading to a second-story deck, and stepped out for a look. Immediately, I did an about-face and went in to find Kris. We like gardens, and I had just the thing for her.

“Come and see something,” I said. The stairs down to the café beckoned from nearby, and we climbed down. As we passed through the eatery, workers were preparing for the lunch crowd. The fare looked quite enticing.

“Mmmm. That smells so good,” said Kris. “Too bad we’re not eating here.”

We found the door and stepped out onto a patio.

“How would you like to have this for a back yard?” I asked.

“Ohhh, this is beautiful,” said Kris.

Indeed, it was. Lush gardens filled with flowers and statuary spread out in all directions, bisected by pathways and bridged waterways. We wandered around for a good twenty minutes, rarely seeing another person—it was our own little paradise. The gardens were spectacular, and must have required a great deal of labor to maintain. Even the woodwork in the bridges and boardwalks was artistically executed.

The sprawling extent of the building became apparent only from some distance, and it really was quite striking. This was certainly a place not to be judged by a quick drive-by.

The gardens were in fact an extension of the store, and all of the statuary was for sale. There were some striking pieces, and discreet signage told us that shipping worldwide was a painless process well practiced by the proprietors. I have to admit I was tempted by a couple of the fountains.

By my watch, it was soon time to return to the bus. We stepped back inside, and found our guide. “Nobody seems to be in a hurry to leave,” she said. “Take your time.”

We explored the interior for a few minutes, stumbling upon a working pottery studio, a not-for-sale collection of world art and furniture, and a fourth floor lookout that revealed distant dunes and bays—I’d wondered where the name came from. There were so many nooks and crannies that I’m sure we missed much of the place. The retail sections held a lot of interesting wares, much from local artists and, to my liking, unique. I doubt that anything displayed at The Dunes is available at the Mall of New Hampshire.

Kris picked up a few trinkets before we departed, but I passed on the fountains. If we’d had a car or another ten minutes there, it might have been a different story. We’ll just have to go back some day.

Back on the road, the feel of the landscape quickly changed from farmland to seaside. The plant growth became stunted and gnarled as it tends to do in the constant salt-laden wind. I felt we could have been on Cape Cod but for the slightly reddish color of the sand. The bus stopped at a booth marking the entry to PEI National Park, and the driver paid an entry fee in cold, hard cash.

PEI National Park was established in 1937, preserving beaches, dunes and marshland along a 25-mile stretch of the island’s north coast. This is a fragile area—since the park was established, 10% or more of the original land area has been lost to erosion. About 800,000 people visit during the short 2-month summer season, but what immediately struck me was the emptiness of the place. It was by now a delightful summer’s day, but the word hadn’t gotten out, apparently. Seaside parking lots were virtually empty, and except for a few bicyclists, there was no traffic on the Gulf Shore Parkway as we paralleled the coast.

The guide pointed out a small fishing village fronting a large bay, quiet now but a hub of activity during the spring and fall lobster seasons. Actually, I hadn’t known that lobsters were seasonal at all, since I can buy them at the grocery store year-round. They’ll even cook ‘em up while I fetch the wine, salad, bread and butter. For all I know, my New Year’s Maine lobster treat is grown in a hot house somewhere in Mexico.

We continued down the empty road for a few miles, low dunes and beaches on our left and nothing much at all on our right, before the bus turned onto a short road leading to the 120 acre estate known as Dalvay by the Sea. By the standards of seaside cottages built during the gilded age, the house is somewhat modest in appearance—Queen Anne Revival (no relation to the princess of Green Gables) meets Tudor. The house was built with local materials and decorated to blend somewhat with the natural surroundings. It sits at the head of a broad lawn, overlooking the sea and a good-sized lake.

We were ushered off the bus and directed onto a broad porch lined with rockers. Once we’d regrouped, a member of the house staff appeared and led us into the entry hall for a brief pre-lunch history lesson. At the head of the hall, a grand staircase led up to the 26 bedrooms (each with a private bath)—I should say guestrooms, as Dalvay now operates a hotel under a lease arrangement between the operator and the Canadian government.

Alexander McDonald, one-time president of Standard Oil Company and buddy of John D. Rockefeller, built the house in 1895 for the then-grand sum of $50,000. Originally from Scotland, McDonald made his fortune in Cincinnati. There he built one of the finest homes in Ohio, also known as Dalvay (minus the sea part) and a trifle less modest than his vacation home. Just how he found his way to this particular spot on PEI is not entirely clear to me—whatever the circumstance, McDonald declared it the perfect spot for his vacation cottage and Dalvay by the Sea was born.

Dalvay, Cincinnati

I have to imagine that McDonald liked PEI very much, as the 1500-mile trip from Cincinnati must have been something of an ordeal in the late 1800s. Our three-day sail on Maasdam and forty-minute bus ride was a luxury he never got to experience, and in that time we covered less than half the distance McDonald had to travel. Nevertheless, McDonald made the trip every year, sometimes more than once, for the next 15 years.

The McDonald’s daughter, then their only surviving child, died in the same year that Dalvay was completed. Her two daughters, Laura and Helena, were taken in by their grandparents and spent their summers at the idyllic estate. When Alexander McDonald died in 1910, he left his $15,000,000 estate, including Dalvay by the Sea, to the girls. At just 16 and 17 years old, they became two of the richest women in the world. As if to complete the fairy tale, they both became princesses, literally. Helena eventually married Prince Murat of France, a nobleman and nephew of one of Napoleon’s Marshals, while Laura married Prince Rosspiglioisi of Italy.
Unfortunately, neither prince was good at managing their personal finances—perhaps being a little too carefree with the knowledge that their wives had plenty of money to fall back on. The couples’ financial situation worsened, however, when both girls realized that the inheritance had been badly managed by their father, Edmund Stallo. Stallo, playing the role of trustee, invested in several bad schemes and managed to reduce Alexander’s fortune to almost nothing.

Meanwhile, back on PEI, William Hughes had been the caretaker at the largely forgotten Dalvay by the Sea for the entire period since Alexander’s death. When it became clear that the heirs were no longer able to afford to keep the house, he contacted Princess Laura and asked for instructions. In what must have been a pleasant surprise to Hughes, Princess Laura offered to give him the house—provided he pay the back taxes. Hughes went to Charlottetown, got hold of the bill, and plunked down $86.57 to take possession of Dalvay. Hughes had no interest in keeping up the huge mansion, and in today’s terminology, he flipped the house to the first in a series of owners—none of whom could quite figure out what to do with it. In 1938, a year after the designation of the national park, Dalvay’s then-owner, George DeBlois, sold the house and land to the federal government with the caveat that he would retain a small piece parcel on the property. The DeBlois Family Cottage sits to this day across Dalvay Lake from the main house.

We heard most of these stories while seated in a parlor located off the main hallway, waiting for lunch to be served in the dining room. The parlor was outfitted with an eclectic assortment of furnishings surrounding a grand fireplace—the only original item in the room. The McDonald’s furniture and art, a remarkable collection by the guide’s description, was sold piecemeal during the hard times in the 20s and 30s. I just hope it wasn’t used as firewood

“OK, everyone. Lunch is served,” said the guide. “The dining room is right across the hall.”

Kris and I followed the crowd and entered the dining room, a curving structure overlooking the lake. The room is not original to the house, but in 50 years or so, the wood will age and it will be difficult to tell that it was assembled 104 years after the fact. The room is huge, with seating for more than a hundred, I’d say. It is open to the public, and is one of the most highly regarded restaurants on the island.

We were directed to a series of long tables, each set family style for about a dozen people. I took a seat at the end of one of the tables, and Kris sat next to me.

“Oh good, we get to meet some more people,” said Kris.

Our fellow travelers continued to file into the room, choosing to leave the two seats opposite ours empty in favor of other options. I was beginning to get a complex when some stragglers, a couple about our age faced with dwindling choices, marched up.

“Are these seats taken?” asked the man.

“We were saving them for you,” I said, gesturing. “Please…”

I used my superb people skills to size them up. The man was wearing selections from Michael Moore’s new line of fashions, including the hat. His companion, on the other hand, was stylishly adorned and bejeweled, and had possibly enjoyed a morning session in the ship’s salon. I decided that he was a farmer from Nebraska, and that she was his sister from New York City.

The man introduced himself. “How do you do,” he said. “I’m Winston (real name) and this is my wife, Adeline (close, but not real).”

I’d never met anyone named Winston before. In fact, I can only think of a couple of other Winstons now or formerly among the living—one in music and one in politics. It turns out that the Winston across the table from us is a principal technologist at a leading computer company, and author of books on computer science that would be a challenge for me, a devoted techno-geek, to understand. I may have guessed his profession incorrectly, but I was right about the wardrobe. Definitely Michael Moore. I felt right at home.

Winston and Adeline are from Texas, and he hadn’t had a vacation in a while. Work kept him kind of busy, and I could certainly relate to that. I observed that neither of them had a Texas drawl, and discovered that their roots were actually in Massachusetts. Deep roots at that—Winston is a direct descendant of the Mayflower Pilgrims.

We carried on through wine and lunch, delivered by a teen-aged girl who was energetic and efficient. First we had buckets full of the local blue mussels, and it changed my opinion about this dish altogether. Fantastic. Our lobster lunch was a work of art. Served cold, the lobsters were pre-split with surgical precision and surrounded by a colorful slaw of some sort. Lobster sure disappears fast then all the labor is removed from the process. For desert, we had the famed Dalvay by the Sea Sticky Date Pudding with Toffee Sauce. This is one recipe worth making at home:

Click image below for a printable recipe

Over coffee, an ideal accompaniment to the date pudding, our foursome decided to walk together across the street to the beach. It took some effort to get up to speed, but within 5 minutes we abandoned our shoes by ramp leading over a small dune.

It was time for the big test, and my foresight to wear shorts paid off. I marched straight into the water, and by golly, it was warm. Really warm. Warmest north of the Carolinas, according to the guide. It didn’t seem logical or possible, but I no longer doubt the claim. Kris and I get our annual beach time on Cape Cod, and the water there is so cold it hurts—at least for the few minutes before the body goes numb with shock. The rest of the gang struggled to roll up their pants legs before joining me in a chorus of delight, and we frolicked like children in the gentle waves. A co-worker who grew up on PEI has since informed me that the really warm water is on the south shore. Hard to imagine…

I could have stayed there all day—or all week, for that matter—but half an hour later it was time to go. We all walked back to the bus barefoot, and paused at the loading point to brush the remaining sand off our feet before climbing aboard.

“Well that was a very nice way to spend the day,” said Kris once we were settled in to our seats.

“Would you like to come up here and stay at Dalvay some summer?” I asked.

“Absolutely!” said Kris. “It’d be kinda like being on a cruise ship that doesn’t go anywhere except the beach.”

“A guy at work comes up here every year. He told me that you can buy an oceanfront house for less than a hundred grand.”

“Would you want to do that?” asked Kris.

“Heck no,” I said. “We could probably stay at Dalvay and eat like kings two weeks a year for the rest of our lives for less than that. And I’d never have to fix or paint anything…”

The bus had traveled about a foot when the driver applied the brakes, opened the door and disappeared. A moment later, he appeared at the head of the aisle holding something aloft.

“Whose camera is this?” he asked.

I squinted to see it. “Boy, that looks like a nice…” I said to Kris, my voice trailing off as a chill shot through my body. I jumped from my seat and walked up to claim the digital camera I’d borrowed for the trip. I’d hung it on a signpost when I put my sandals on, and forgotten to retrieve it. I was humbled and extremely grateful.

On the way back to town, we heard a bit about the Confederation Bridge. When PEI entered the Confederation in 1873, part of the deal was a constitutional requirement for the Canadian government to provide “efficient steam service for the conveyance of mails and passengers to be established and maintained between the Island and the mainland of the Dominion, winter and summer, thus placing the Island in continuous communication with the Intercolonial Railway and the railway system of the Dominion…” This proved to be no small matter, as the passage between the island and the mainland freezes solid in the winter. A series of ferries, some capable of breaking ice and others not, provided service that was both expensive and unreliable. Various proposals for a “fixed link” were made over the years, including an idea for a tunnel and another for a causeway. Finally, in the 1980s, the possibility of a bridge came under serious discussion.

Opposition to the bridge started immediately, and in some circles it continues today. Many people objected based on environmental concerns, while others felt that the bridge would ruin the peaceful quality of island life. However, a 1988 plebiscite found that nearly 60% of voters were in favor of the bridge, and construction started in 1995. In a hair less than 2 years, the 9-mile, 2-lane span was completed. Today, it is possible to drive from the mainland to PEI in about ten minutes at no cost. It does, however, cost $40.50 to get back. Life on the island has indeed changed, though it is not entirely clear if the bridge was responsible or if it would have happened anyway. Wal*Mart and Home Depot have overcome greater obstacles than lack of a bridge…

We ended our tour back in the parking lot on the dock, and I made sure to over-tip the driver and charming hostess. We had plenty of time before Maasdam was due to sail.

“Wanna walk with me?” I asked Kris.

“Where are you going?”

“To the Friendly Pharmacy—I told you before.”

Kris glanced at the building housing the pharmacy, a few thousand feet away along a desolate and windswept waterfront, and then she looked at Maasdam, rising majestically a couple of hundred feet away. I could see the wheels turning in her head.

“Nah. I already did my shopping for the day. I think I’ll just go find the moms and see how they made out,” she said.

I made the long walk myself, only because the destination was named Friendly. I simply wouldn’t have made such an effort to get to a hostile pharmacy. I approached the building from the front and entered through the main doors, only to find a staircase leading to the second floor and no access to the pharmacy. I finally located the right entrance on the other side of the building.

Inside, I scanned the aisle of pain relievers. I had a recollection that one could still buy aspirin with codeine in Canada—handy stuff forced off the American market by abusers. I didn’t see any, so I picked up a fresh supply of Ibuprofen. I found the nasal sprays in front of the pharmacist’s counter, and picked up a pair of cheap reading glasses off a nearby display so that I could read the labels.

I told him my wretched tale and he listened intently, asking questions at a level I’d normally expect from a doctor. If this guy was representative of the norm, pharmacists in Canada do a bit more in the way of diagnosis than their American counterparts. When I’d laid out all the symptoms and answered his probing questions, he strongly suggested that self-help was unlikely to work and that I see a doctor. “There’s one right upstairs, and we could get you in to see him in a few minutes,” he said.

“I think I’ll just see the doctor on the ship,” I said. “I just thought I’d get some things on shore that they might not have on the ship.”

The pharmacist suggested a particular nasal spray, and warned against misusing it. “It can make things worse if you’re not careful. You will see the doctor, right?”

I nodded, paid for my purchases, walked back to the ship and, good to my word, made a beeline for the infirmary. Entering, I observed a woman in the waiting room who looked like she’d taken a nasty spill from a bicycle. She was bandaged from head to toe, but some of her wounds were open to the air—scrapes that must have collected lots of road debris and been extremely painful to clean out. Memories from childhood came rushing back and sent a shiver through my body. The injured woman and the receptionist were carrying on like old friends. I assumed that the disaster struck the previous day in Bar Harbor, giving them plenty of time to become pals. As I stood there waiting to butt in, another woman—similarly wounded but with the added insult of having one arm immobilized in a sling—came in, and the three of them had a cheery reunion. I smiled at their laughter and waited patiently to be recognized. Misery loves company…

The receptionist finally turned her attention my way and said, “May I help you, sir?”

I took a deep breath and let it out. “I’d like to see the doctor, please.” There. I did it.

The receptionist’s response wasn’t quite what I was expecting. She shook her head…

Comments are closed.

43 queries. 0.270 seconds.