I’ve never thought of a place I’ve traveled as “pastoral” until now. But now I know what “pastoral” looks like. It looks like Prince Edward Island – the smallest Provence of Canada and an island just north of Nova Scotia.
I am on a three week bike trip with a friend from Seattle. We flew into Charlottetown, PEI with vague but unscheduled plans of cycling much of the perimeter of the island before moving on to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
Reality quickly set in about how much distance we could cover without killing ourselves. And after a couple of loop rides out of Charlottetown, the capital, to break-in and adjust the bikes while seeing the surrounding area, we decided to travel PEI for quality rather than distance. So we are choosing the routes and locations that interest us most, with plenty of detours and stops in between to explore.
And, as usual, choosing to travel with the quality of the experience in mind rather than “Doing PEI” has meant we have found ourselves with the freedom to explore some beautiful countryside and in the company of incredibly kind local people. It’s such a change from when I started to ride a decade ago when goals were about completing a hundred miles, or riding faster or climbing higher or riding “EFI” … Every F… Inch of a long tour. Now the beauty of a self-supported bike tour is the freedom to go where you want and stay as long as you like.
And No, you can’t see everything. And No, you can’t say you cycled the grand distance. And Yes, we are figuring out where we are going next the night before and then finding a place to stay last minute. And Yes, we are learning that this rural island shuts down after the summer tourist season and our new mantra is “if you see a place with food that’s open, stop and eat.”
But that’s OK. Because instead of getting up every morning early, stuffing down breakfast, and riding till dusk to make the distance before stuffing down dinner and collapsing into bed, we are ambling through beautiful rolling golden and green hills. Past shake-covered gabled homes painted white with green trim. And stopping for photos and to roam the trails along the red sandstone beaches and cliffs that drop into the ocean.
There are wildflowers everywhere. Everywhere. Waterways are lined with fishing shacks and neat white boats. Harbors are full of buoys marking oyster and blue mussel cultivation, and locals roam the beaches digging clams from the red mud.
And while the Eastern provinces of Canada have struggled economically, and many young people from PEI and Nova Scotia must leave the island to find jobs because the fishing and agriculture economy can’t afford a living if they stay … it’s impossible to tell this region has struggled while riding through. The island looks pristine and storybook beautiful.
And the people who still live here are very careful to preserve their heritage homes and make their gardens colorful with petunias, impatiens and begonias. And treat their guests with a courtesy and generosity that I hope I can match when I meet travelers passing through my home. Here they embrace the traditions of the land while still pragmatically moving forward. There is friendliness and genuineness and openness in the people I’ve met here that we often never seem to allow ourselves to display back home.
So once again the bicycle becomes the means to experience the best of a place and the people who call it home. To begin to recognize the stories and character that shape the beautiful pastoral landscapes.
But mostly, travel by bike opens doors that can remind a traveller how much there is to learn from others and the places they call home.