On PEI, the locals refer to this area as 'Up West'. West Prince is certainly less developed than the centre of the province. While this is a cause of regret to some year-round residents, it can also be a source of pleasure to the visitor looking for something different.
It’s quieter, slower-paced, less touristy and that means less traffic, uncrowded beaches and fewer kitschy attractions; more time for quiet reflection and long walks on the beach or meandering drives with views of pastoral farmland or striking red sandstone cliffs. Even if you get lost, you're never far from somewhere.
West Prince is still mostly farms and fishing villages. The land is flat or gently rolling and the eastern coastline is deeply indented by river systems, which give a gentle beauty to the landscape.
Alberton (with Northport as its harbour) is one of the three principal communities of West Prince and is made up of both farming and fishing families. It has a genuine claim to modest fame, because it was here that the silver fox industry began in the late 19th century. Robert Oulton and Charles Dalton succeeded in raising (in captivity) the black foxes with white-tipped tails and fur. Demand for their pelts created the equivalent of a gold rush on PEI in the early 20th century.
The Cold Comfort Farm house was built in 1918 with the proceeds of this boom. It is an example of what are known locally as 'fox houses', of which there are perhaps a dozen in West Prince.
The North Cape Coastal Drive will lead you on a picturesque tour of the West Prince coastline. About 15 minutes from Alberton, there is a little white Anglican church that has been the marker for the beach at Kildare Capes our family has been going to for well over 60 years. A short walk through the churchyard, the cemetery and along a sun-dappled path in the woods (watch for chanterelles and wild blueberries) brings you to magnificent red sandstone cliffs overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
The beach runs north as far as the eye can see and often it may be entirely empty. At low tide you can wade to tiny 'private' beaches sheltered on either side by the cliffs and into caves cut in the soft stone by the waves. Whether you choose to turn into our favourite family beach or continue to drive this road, you will see any number of unpaved clay roads that run down to the beach at intervals along this route.
Tignish, the second of the area's three important villages, was settled by Acadian and Irish Catholic families as they tried to escape persecution by, predominantly, Scottish and English Protestants on the rest of PEI. The fish shop at Tignish harbour sells an excellent selection of local shellfish. In the centre of the village you'll see the soaring spire of a brick church, with its beautifully restored interior and a magnificent tracker pipe organ.
North Cape, at the very tip of the Island, is like the prow of a ship, which divides the waters of the Gulf and creates different tide tables from both coasts of PEI that meet at the end. As you stand on the windswept cliffs running out from the Cape, you can see, at low tide, one of the longest natural rock reefs in the world. Also at North Cape is the official wind test site and interpretative centre that explains the many windmills you will see along the coast.
Along this very northern part of the coastline you may also see splendid draft horses in the fields or wading along the beach, hauling rakes that scoop up the Irish Moss seaweed that collects along the shore. The moss is then dried and shipped away for the extraction of carrageenen, a natural fixative used in a wide range of products, including ice cream and cosmetics. It's a time-honoured profession in the area, which has come upon hard times as synthetic versions have changed the market, but there are still a few families that keep it alive.
En route be sure to stop into small fishing harbours like Sea Cow Pond, Miminegash, Skinner's Pond (Home of Stompin' Tom Connors) or Howard's Cove. Although somewhat modernized (fishing boats are gas-powered now), you'll still have a sense of the history of fishing in the area. The fishermen you’ll see on the wharf are from families that have fished the area for many generations.
The third important village in the area is O'Leary, a farming community that is also home to the Potato Museum. Although this sounds like a bit of a joke, it does an excellent job of displaying and interpreting the history of potato farming on PEI.
Just a few minutes drive from O'Leary is Mill River, an 18-hole golf course.
Not far from there is another favourite of our family, MacAusland's Woolen Mills. Dating back to the 1930's, you can go in and watch the wool being carded, spun and woven on the original machines. The wool is for sale and their colourful blankets are loved by many, including our family. We have been giving them as wedding presents for generations.