“How far did you get today, girls?” asks Val Flannery, owner of the North Lake Boathouse Eatery, who gave us breakfast, made us a packed lunch, and is about to serve us dinner on day one of our attempt to circumnavigate Prince Edward Island on foot.
“18-and-a-half kilometres on a woodland trail – and it rained for the last six of them,” I reply with a grimace.
“Oh, my,” Flannery says, setting a steaming plate of lobster and three-cheese dip in front of us. “That’s more than I could have walked.”
We’re in North Lake, on the eastern tip of PEI, to do part of the Island Walk, a new signposted trail system inspired by Spain’s famous Camino de Santiago that leads travellers on a 32-day, 700-kilometre walk around the entirety of the province. The idea is that you walk 21(ish) kilometres a day – before we made the trip, my friend Viola and I thought that was entirely doable; fun, even.
I shouldn’t say that it wasn’t fun. It was – especially the next day, when we started out walking on the singing sands of Basin Head Provincial Park then strolled past fields of sunflowers and tender sugar snap peas, grabbing sour apples from roadside trees, laughing and joking. With no distractions and nothing to do but put one foot in front of the other, Viola and I connected in a way we haven’t been able to since before the pandemic. We only managed 12.5 kilometres that second leg, but it was a gorgeous fall day and we celebrated what we had been able to accomplish.
The Island Walk is broken up into 32 sections and can be started at any point. Lodging should be booked ahead of time, and partner hotels along or close to the route that offer transfers are listed on the Island Walk website. The signposted trails are user-friendly and not terribly challenging, save for a few rolling hills here and there. The route mostly follows the coastline, and goes through the island’s cities and towns while also venturing onto parts of the existing Confederation Trail that runs across PEI and has long been popular with cyclists.
Part of the appeal of a walk like this, says Island Walk creator Bryson Guptill, is that it brings travellers back to a pace that we no longer operate at – which becomes very addictive. “It’s about walking and thinking and the people you run into and chatting with them,” Guptill says. “And part of what’s so special about PEI is the people you meet here.”
Guptill was inspired to create the Island Walk after walking the Camino de Santiago – a network of pilgrimages leading to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain that attracts thousands of global travellers each year – and writing a guidebook about it. Both walks are about the same distance and should take roughly the same amount of time to complete – around 32 days – with the major difference being that PEI is mostly flat, and therefore not particularly challenging terrain. You don’t have to be especially fit to tackle the route – you just need the stamina to walk for five or six hours a day and be kitted out in comfortable footwear. (Guptill recommends runners, not hiking boots, and multiple pairs of fresh socks per day to help avoid blisters.) Guptill has also written a guide to the Island Walk, which is available for purchase via Etsy (etsy.com/ca/shop/IslandStuffStore) and details each leg of the trail.
Aside from being easy for travellers to undertake, the Island Walk also takes visitors to parts of PEI they likely may never have found otherwise. I ended up in North Lake, which in the 1970s was thriving as the Tuna Capital of the World. Singer Johnny Cash even fished there. We were shown around the Basinhead Fisheries Museum by Vera Chaisson, who held the title of Tuna Queen in 1971. The biggest tuna ever caught was reeled in by local fisherman Ken Fraser in 1979. But in the eighties, the tuna all but disappeared – and so did most of the businesses in the area. The tuna are back though, as are the fishermen – though the fishing is all catch-and-release now – and savvy businesswomen breathing new life into the tiny community.
Friends Liz Hubert and Sandy Baker decided to buy the old motel in North Lake last year and transformed it into the adorable Siren’s Beach Motel. They’ve partnered with the Island Walk to provide transfers for visitors who use the place as a base to walk the eastern tip of the island. For a small fee included with each walker’s booking, Hubert or Baker will drop you off at the start of each part of the trail, then pick you up at the end (or however far you manage to get). Then you can relax by the motel’s nightly beach fire, just a few steps away from the rooms.
At the time of writing, more than 600 beds had been booked by visitors coming to do the Island Walk – impressive, given that organizers were still putting up the trail signs just a few weeks ago. Ideally, you’d be able to walk from one hotel to the next, as with other long-trail destinations. “Unfortunately, on PEI there aren’t enough hotels – and they aren’t in the right places,” Guptill says. The transfers work handily though, and in no way diminish the experience. In addition to dropoff and pickup on the trail, hotels that have partnered with the Island Walk also transfer you to the next participating hotel once you’ve walked all the nearby sections of the trail. Any belongings stay behind at the hotels, so you can travel light as you walk.
After trying out the Island Walk experience, I know that I can’t walk the full 21 kilometres a day – but I was able to manage 10, even 15. I want to go back and do other parts of the Island Walk – and maybe complete the whole thing eventually, getting the chance to see even more of PEI along the way.
For more information on the Island Walk, visit theislandwalk.ca.
The writer was a guest of Tourism Prince Edward Island. The organization did not review or approve the story before publication.
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