Three sidewalk-shaking horn blasts sound out across the rooftops causing a couple of pedestrians to slow in their tracks and instinctively glance back towards the bay.
The septuagenarian busker who seems to have a permanent pitch on the corner of King and Queen streets rises from his decidedly un-regal seat – a battered blue crate topped with an oily-looking cushion – and salutes the sound with gnarly-fingers. Above him, a maple has begun its fiery display; just the skinny tips of the leaves have turned so far, as if individually dipped in red and yellow paint by an omnipotent hand. Autumn is coming.
The wind has a briny bite this afternoon and there’s something oddly melancholy about the ship’s sonorous departure, as if signalling the last contact this tiny Atlantic island will have with the outside world until summer’s tourist circuit sails around again. This isn’t quite the case. Prince Edward Island (PEI) may be Canada’s smallest province but it receives a disproportionate number of visitors thanks to the wild, all-weather beauty of its red sand beaches, and its role in pioneer-era history.
It was here that the concept of Canada as a confederation of states was born – 150 years ago next year, as countless plaques around town trumpet. I’m more captivated, however, by the independent shops found among Charlottetown’s Victorian shopping district: The Green Man Vintage & Vinyl, and Young Folk & The Kettleblack, a cafe staffed by said young folk with statement haircuts and inked skin. The only notable franchise in town is one apologetic-looking Starbucks.
The indigenous Mi’kmaq nation call PEI ‘the cradle on the waves’. Seen on a map, the island does look as if it’s cradled by the topography of the mainland, maternally overlooked by the northern nub of New Brunswick. But in reality this an independent-spirited place, stuck out in the Atlantic, reliant on seasonal fishing and farming and a do-it-yourself attitude.
And when this fails them, many of PEI’s men decamp to the oil fields of Alberta. A select few, such as chef Gordon Bailey, migrate in the other direction, drawn from the prairies to the silty bays that produce Canada’s best lobsters, mussels and oysters. I meet Gordon, owner of Charlottetown’s Lot 30 restaurant, elbow deep in shellfish. He’s giving a cooking demo at a Parks Canada interpretation centre, set among the giant white sand dunes that form a shifting wall between the pounding Atlantic and PEI’s eastern tip.
My plans to tour the oyster beds have been thwarted by the fierce swell (“I wouldn’t be out there today,” warns Gordon). Instead, we shuck local bivalves with flavours as distinct as the names they’re given: Pickle Point, Colville Bay, Raspberry Point, Malpeque. Outside, a determined sun glares off the ocean, its blow and thrash booming from beyond the dunes. No ships, no fishing boats, just a lone hiker out on the grassy headland. Autumn is coming.