While the music of Mullins may be more in sync with current trends, the island’s traditional tunes are kept relevant by people like 38-year-old Richard Wood, a self-taught, P.E.I.-raised fiddler whom I’ve watched grow up on stage; he has performed every summer here since he was a teen. Handsome and witty in addition to being extraordinarily talented, Wood is something of a local celebrity. But his summer shows are as down-at-heel as can be, held at a community center with strawberry shortcake, raspberry cordial, and lottery tickets for sale. Wood now has a full backup band of musicians who are accomplished in their own right, but every show still ends as they always have, with him going all-in on an upbeat jig, breaking into an Irish step dance, jumping and twirling around the stage, his curly locks flying. And he never misses a single note.
Nearly 300 years since the French founded the island’s first European settlement near what is now Charlottetown, the population of P.E.I. still lingers just below 150,000. As such, islanders are a close-knit bunch, linked either by blood or longstanding relationships. Proof of this is found at the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market, a shingled wooden hall where local farmers, butchers, bakers, knitters, artists, and the like have brought their goods every Wednesday and Saturday morning since 1983.
When I was growing up, visiting the market was a calm way to start a weekend. These days though, thanks to the farm-to-table movement, it’s a bit of a madhouse, with crowded aisles flanked by piles of beets, potatoes, pea-shoot microgreens, sheep’s-milk cheeses, and oysters shucked to order. Nevertheless, the same vendors are there, year after year—Isobel Forrester, the “flower lady” whose wonderland of a flower farm is just up the road from my family’s summerhouse; Brett Bunston, the island’s first high-end coffee roaster; Junellen Claushide, the baker who sold spelt bread decades before it was cool.
This web of connections has recently stretched out to the northeastern shores of the island at the Inn at St. Peters, a gorgeous country hotel that overlooks its namesake bay. The inn can host about 30 guests in its clapboard cottages, but the dining room draws in visitors just for dinner, thanks to the legacy left by its chef of the past four years, Forrester’s daughter, Sarah Wendt.
“My mom is a really great cook,” Wendt told me one afternoon before beginning her dinner duties. “But I’m one of 10 kids, mind you, and as the oldest girl, I took over that responsibility when I was 12. It saved me from changing diapers and doing housework if I cooked supper.” Like the guys at Upstreet, Wendt is self-taught. In her early 20s, she spent time living in both Mexico and Italy, where she would go to the markets and ask locals how they made their food. “I call it the picking-old-ladies’-brains method.”
Wendt recently left the Inn at St. Peters to open a vegan café of her own in Charlottetown, but its menu and new head chef continue to follow her abiding muse: local availability. More than half of the restaurant’s produce comes from Weedy Gardens farm, meat and seafood from butchers and fishermen, and flourishes like spruce tips and sea asparagus from a forager friend. The inn also has a small garden, and golden-yellow chanterelles pop up all over the grounds every night, ready to be collected by morning.
Menus change thrice weekly and are developed by the kitchen team while sitting on the back porch by their homemade smoker. “Someone would say, ‘I’ll smoke the duck,’ and I’d say, ‘Okay, I’ll make blackberry marmalade,’ and someone else would offer potatoes, and that’s how we’d do it. It’s a big discussion.” I try this exact dish a couple of nights later, in between courses of smoked trout, curried tomato soup, and an airy but flavor-packed lemon mousse. The duck, which arrives from an organic farmer with its feathers still on, is served two ways—breast, seared until pink, and an extra-tender confit. Its warm savory juice is offset by the marmalade in some bites and enriches the earthy potatoes in others. If Richard Woods sounds like the island, the inn’s food tastes like it.
Meanwhile, a 20-minute drive away, Michael Smith, one of Canada’s best-known chefs, is taking a more independent approach to dining at the Inn at Bay Fortune. Originally built in 1913 as a summer residence for Broadway playwright Elmer Harris, the 17-room country inn is where Smith cut his teeth in the 1990s before going on to work in numerous Michelin-starred restaurants, write and publish cookbooks, and host five major TV cooking shows.
“When opportunity knocked a couple years ago, my wife and I bought this business and immediately embarked on a complete overhaul,” Smith said as he walked me through his herb garden one evening. Two meters tall and with a grin so wide it could probably be seen from across the water, he epitomizes the charisma it takes not only to become a celebrity chef, but also to change the status quo on the island by becoming as close to self-sufficient as possible. With his wife focused on hotel operations and him on the food, the Inn at Bay Fortune is now the top place to stay in P.E.I., filled with contemporary art and a sunny palette of finely upholstered furniture. And the restaurant, FireWorks, has been acclaimed as one of Canada’s finest since it opened in 2015.
Every night from May through October, Smith runs The Feast, a multi-act dining extravaganza that begins with various hors d’oeuvres and cocktail stations set around the waterfront grounds followed by a five-course dinner, with everyone seated around communal tables and served the same thing at the same time. With the exception of wine, almost everything consumed is grown on the property, supplemented by a few ingredients from elsewhere on P.E.I. And it’s all cooked with live fire in outdoor pits, over an open hearth, on the grill, or in the wood oven—a concept that inspired the restaurant’s name. “We’re not trying to be big city, elaborate, touchy-feely, pins and needles and tweezers,” Smith told me. “It’s just good old-fashioned farmhouse cooking.”
As the chef darted off to the kitchen to begin shucking oysters, I began the hors d’oeuvres circuit with homemade sausage and beer mustard in the herb garden, then duck on toast and a botanical gin and tonic on the front lawn, all the while eyeing my fellow diners for the night, many dressed for the occasion and jittery with excitement. Between the sheer beauty of the property and the novelty of its ambition, it felt like we were embarking on an adventure together.
After we found our place cards at a wooden banquet table on the porch, Smith gave welcoming remarks before the five courses began. One by one they arrived, perfectly paced: seafood chowder presented in a mason jar; colorful spicy greens in vinaigrette; butter-basted halibut with tomato confit and charred broccoli; and a prodigious plate of short ribs and flank steak served with potatoes, squash, beans, grilled radicchio, and foraged mushrooms drizzled in garlic thyme jus.
By the time dessert rolled around some four hours after we’d started, the sky was black, and we were deep in conversation with the Swiss family seated beside us, together finishing our last sips of wine under the warm glow of Edison bulbs, unhurried by the staff, and blissfully oblivious to anything happening beyond that porch. The awe of it all had long since mellowed, and we had collectively relaxed into the arms of what dining, at its best, can be: excellent food bringing people together to share an experience that is, in a word, transcendent.
The Inn at Bay Fortune is not only Smith’s latest venture, but it also sounds to be his last. “I did my first cooking show here in 1998, my first cookbook. Flash-forward all these years later, I’m back at Fortune. My kids are growing up down the road. I’ve got my Michelin three-starred background, all that sort of thing, but ultimately, when I came back here, it felt like coming home.”
On nights when I can’t sleep, I envision exactly what I’d see with every pedal-stroke it takes to ride my bike to that hair wisp beach—the green and white cottages of the small resort next to the Point, the ramshackle mini-golf course at the nearby campground, the Clover Farm general store, the seagulls floating atop clouds’ reflections on an inlet, the old church, the red dirt road, the marram grass dancing in the wind—and I too feel at home, in myself and in the world. It’s better than a dream.
While P.E.I. is connected by bridge to mainland New Brunswick and by ferry to Nova Scotia, most overseas travelers will arrive by air via Toronto or Halifax.
Where to Stay
1668 Greenwich Rd., St. Peters Bay; 1-902/961-2135; doubles from US$196.
Rte. 310, Bay Fortune; 1-902/687-3745; doubles from US$212.
A new option in Charlottetown, set in a former 19th-century convent. 55 Weymouth St.; 1-902/367-5888; doubles from US$230.
Where to Go
41 Allen St., Charlottetown; 1-902/894-0543.
Rte. 225, Rose Valley; 1-902/394-6897.
Charlottetown Farmers’ Market
100 Belvedere Ave.
This article originally appeared in the August/September 2017 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Maritime Magic”).