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Local artist Maruice Bernard helps park visitors create outstanding sandcastles on PEI's red beaches. (John Sylvester Photography/John Sylvester Photography)
Local artist Maruice Bernard helps park visitors create outstanding sandcastles on PEI's red beaches. (John Sylvester Photography/John Sylvester Photography)

PEI's island park -- fit for a prince (and his bride) Add to ...

Huddled on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean, near a shuttered row of picturesque, pastel fishing huts, Maurice Bernard discusses the possibility of constructing the Gothic architecture of Westminster Abbey from a pile of bright red island sand.

As Parks Canada's local sandcastle expert, he has had his fair share of construction challenges, via requests from visiting tourists. He has built a young boy a replica of the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars, and fashioned the grainy likeness of tween sensation Justin Bieber for a 13-year-old girl's birthday treat, all part of his summer services along the dramatic beaches of Prince Edward Island National Park.

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He has been studying the intricate design of the iconic British cathedral in anticipation of next week's visit by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

The royal couple will arrive on PEI and spend slightly less than 24 hours touring the island, just two weeks after a similar visit by a decidedly unregal young family.

If Bernard really wants to work some magic for their stay, he could try constructing a castle with a fireplace, heating system and indoor pool.

Kate has announced that she will not be bringing a dresser on her trip to Canada, but hopefully she will bring a coat. Because while most of the country sweats through an early heat wave, PEI has been suffering a cold snap, one that has been accompanied by record amounts of rain.

Our morning with Bernard, on Brackley Beach on the island's north shore, was spent shivering in freshly purchased coats while the artist gamely moulded sand in single-digit temperatures and gale-force winds.

While the royal couple will be quickly shuttled around the island, visiting Province House and participating in search and rescue missions, the usual holiday in PEI is a cottage vacation taken to its extreme - beautiful beaches, endless sunsets and relaxing vistas, all of which can be ruined by inclement weather.

Thankfully, there is perhaps no better way to convince a 2½-year-old girl to participate in five days of cold-weather sightseeing excursions than to tell her she is going where a real-life princess will be. (We know. We know. She's a Duchess, but to a little girl...)

We packed our daughter snugly into her chariot, a bike trailer provided by MacQueen's Bicycle Shop, and rode through the newly constructed bike paths that run through the Stanhope section of the national park. Smooth and flat, the paths are bordered on either side by windblown trees, which part occasionally to reveal dramatic red sand dunes and wide (empty) beaches.

Our little princess disembarked at Dalvay-by-the-Sea, a storied island hotel that was once the private cottage of a Scottish expat turned U.S. oil magnate.

"Is this where the princess is?" she asked, running through the darkened hallways.

Kate will spend much of her time in PEI at Dalvay, watching a dragon-boat race and meeting the cast of Anne of Green Gables - The Musical. But during our visit the hotel had only a few guests in its 25 rooms and eight spacious cottages. We had considered a stay there, the closest brush with royalty we are likely to ever have, but had opted against it because the hotel's restaurant was not yet open for the season. Vacationing in the off-season in PEI requires an early trip to the grocery store, because the nearest place to eat on the north shore (other than the odd roadside diner) is Charlottetown, a half-hour drive away.

Our own lodgings were at Dalvay's sister inn, the Stanhope Beach Resort, just a 15-minute bike ride away. The Stanhope also offers cottages and two- and three-bedroom suites, and it's best to choose these over a standard hotel room.

Enjoying yourself in PEI requires a serious dedication to relaxation, and it's best to compare it to a week in the country, where lounging on your porch or in front of a roaring fire is part of your daily routine. The island is dotted with cottage rentals, ranging from the palatial to tiny rows of brightly painted sheds. Do your research before you pick a spot, because many of the cottages up for grabs are located in farmer's fields, far from the beach and lacking an ocean view.

Parks Canada is promoting cycling on the island, and the bike paths are lovely and easy to navigate. But each of the park's three separate sections is separated by about 50 kilometres of highway, so don't get the idea that you can ride to all of them from your hotel or cottage, especially if you have young kids in tow.

William's new bride reportedly asked to visit PEI because she grew up loving Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery's classic tale of the rambunctious redhead. The royal itinerary doesn't include a visit to Green Gables in Cavendish, where the charming home that inspired the story still stands. But the destination hardly needs the buzz: More than 140,000 people make the trip there each year.

Duffers who visit the house will be tempted by the sight of the golf course that borders the property.

There are more than 30 courses in the province, including 10 of the top 100 in the country, as rated by this newspaper.

The Links at Crowbush Cove is consistently rated as one of the best courses on the continent, but Green Gables, a Stanley Thompson-designed masterpiece that's actually inside the national park, is a more than adequate alternative. On the par 4 11th hole, the scorecard informs you that Anne of Green Gables House is your target off the tee.

While emerald greens and fresh fairways may lure some to the island, golf pales in comparison to the allure of lobster, a must-try for any visitor.

Our daughter loved the site of our waitress tying plastic bibs around her parents' necks at Lobster on the Wharf, a restaurant in Charlottetown.

There's no shortage of great seafood in PEI, whether it's mussels in lime broth or flaky halibut, but the best way to get to get to know the island is through a plate of oysters.

At Sims Corner Steakhouse and Oyster Bar, one of Charlottetown's best restaurants, a plate of oysters represented every cove and corner of the island: Cooks Cove, Shiny Seas, Gooseberry Bay, Pickle Point, Lucky Limes, Carrs - each with their subtle differences and all of them delicious. And while it might be heresy to say this of a seafood destination, the steak, from island-raised cattle, was the best part of the meal.

Enjoy the food in Charlottetown because at this time of year the farther away you get from PEI's main centre the fewer choices you'll have, even in Summerside, the second-largest city in the province. The royals will go there for a search and rescue demonstration. We could have used a helicopter to help us spot a place to eat.

There's no doubt the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will be well fed during their time in PEI. But here's hoping the sandcastle built in their honour sees a little more sunshine than ours.

IF YOU GO

Prince Edward Island National Park: 902-672-6350; pc.gc.ca/pei.

MacQueen's Bike Shop: 430 Queen St., Charlottetown; 1-800-969-2822; macqueens.com.

Stanhope Beach Resort: 3445 Bayshore Rd., Stanhope; 902-672-2701; stanhopebeachresort.com.

Follow us on Twitter: @Dave_McGinn, @SiriAgrell

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