VICTORIA-BY-THE-SEA, Prince Edward Island — “Must-see” destinations are usually large-scale, like the Taj Mahal, the Great Pyramid of Giza and Machu Picchu. But what about smaller, less flashy destinations? Do we need entirely new designations for such journeys, perhaps “teacup temptations” or “half-cup dreams”? Regardless of the category, the tiny village of Victoria-by-the-Sea on Prince Edward Island is at the top of my must-see recommendations.
We arrived mid-morning on a sparkling, pre-pandemic day in late September when the saturated colors of red clay sand, cloudless cerulean sky, Technicolor green grass and sparkling sea were matched with buildings painted in pink, purple, aqua, ocher, and emerald. Amidst all the color, we were drawn to a lone white and red lighthouse. Finding it locked, we started walking away until we saw a man in a cable sweater rushing towards us, keys in hand. Ben Smith, a year-round resident, had seen us looking and came to answer the door. The still-working 1879 lighthouse (opened “by chance” with admission by donation) also serves as the Victorian Seaport Museum, where a wall selection of photos and text detail the village’s maritime history.
On previous visits to Prince Edward Island – to eat lobster, oysters, chowder and mussels at the annual International Shellfish Festival – I had somehow missed this gem of a town. How small is it? I asked Smith this question.
“We are a village of 100 people. In the summer it increases by about 50,” Smith said.
Coming from a town on Cape Cod where the population swells from around 3,500 to 17,000 at the height of the summer season, I was surprised, thinking maybe I hadn’t heard correctly. But the number was confirmed by Christine Smith, Ben’s daughter, who, with her father, operates Enchanted Candles, a shop selling intricately carved sandcast candles, delicate beaded mobiles and other crafts in the Sea Nest, a one-room toy-sized cottage.
“This building was originally part of a fox farm,” she said, when asked about the room being so small I could reach and touch the rafters. “He was dragged here by the firefighters. Once you have a store in your backyard, you’re in business!
Located a 30-minute drive from the capital Charlottetown, an area on the island’s south shore called Red Sands Shore, the village then simply called Victoria was founded in 1819. By the end of that century, it was a port thriving fishing grounds with a sheltered harbor from which schooners ferried the island’s wealth to distant places. At the dawn of the 20th century, the development of roads and highways shifted modes of commercial transport away from the sea, leaving the city off the main trade network.
Looking at history through 21st century eyes, this change might be what saved the city from overdevelopment and what makes it special today. Along a grid of six square blocks, the historic architecture remains. Carefully preserved homes and public buildings have been transformed into shops selling all manner of crafts – pottery, jewelry, textiles, woodwork, carpet weaving, hand-spun yarn, stained glass, soaps – as well as antiques, chocolates made handmade, clothes, toys and gifts. The Victoria Playhouse, a former venue for community events circa 1914, presents contemporary dramas, comedies, storytelling events and musical concerts during its summer season. It all looks very turn of the last century, without feeling fake or precious.
Most visitors are day trippers who arrive to shop, dine, and stroll for all or part of the day. The tourist season runs from mid-May, weather permitting, to sometime in October, when the town hosts an early Christmas walk. (Or, as one shopkeeper put it to me, “I stay open until I have to turn on the oven.”) Those who want to linger longer can stay at a historic seven-room bed and breakfast, the Orient Hotel, or one of several one, two and three bedroom vacation homes.
The restaurants serve local island dishes in a casual setting. Overlooking the harbour, the Lobster Barn Pub & Eatery offers lobster rolls, fresh local seafood and shellfish, po’ boys, burgers, salads and other traditional pub fare as well as craft beers from the island. Also on the dock, Casa Mia by the Sea serves hearty breakfasts, lunches and dinners prepared with fresh island ingredients. On Main Street, Richard’s Fresh Seafood offers — unsurprisingly — fish shack favorites such as lobster rolls, fish and chips, and steamed mussels and clams. The menus may be simple but, this being Prince Edward Island, the quality of produce, meat and seafood shines. Further down Main Street, the Landmark Oyster House serves up French-inspired lunch and dinner on the east coast. A swoon-worthy seafood chowder, fishcakes, braised pork chops and PEI beef burgers. are some of the offerings, along with a changing selection of freshly harvested island oysters.
For experiences in the surrounding natural environment, By-the-Sea Kayaking offers a one-stop-shop for adventure opportunities. In addition to kayak tours at various times of the day and night (full moon paddle, anyone?), visitors can also rent paddle boards (with or without lessons) and hybrid bikes (with or without added picnic basket). Or sign up for a clam-fishing excursion that involves kayaking to Tyron Shoal at low tide, followed by a fresh beachside chowder on your return.
Before leaving, we stopped at Island Chocolates, a family business in what used to be a general store. Along with scrumptious chocolates of all shapes and sizes (lobsters, lighthouses, musical instruments, motorcycles, fish), visitors were treated to decadent desserts and something called “factory cafe,” a Belgian chocolate-lined glass with coffee Custom roasted fresh and whipped cream.
With delicacies like this all over the village, perhaps Victoria-by-the-Sea deserves a ‘bucket list’ designation after all.
To visit www.tourismpei.com for more information.
Necee Regis can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.