A version of this article appears in print on August 24, 2014, in the New York Times edition with the headline: Searching for ‘Anne of Green Gables’ on Prince Edward Island, written by Ann Mah.
My first evening on Prince Edward Island, I found myself on the shore, scrambling across sun-bleached beach grass to circle an abandoned lighthouse. The Gulf of St. Lawrence crashed in moody bursts before me, the water reflecting the deepening gray of the sky. My feet sank into drifts of sand until I turned inland, down a spongy red clay road that edged a verdant meadow. In the distance, the cheerful lights of my bed-and-breakfast, a rambling 19th-century farmhouse, beckoned.
Less than an hour earlier, I had been driving past a spangly strip of tourist attractions — miniature golf courses, water theme parks — that promised “family fun” with suspicious exuberance. But on this country lane, with the roar of the gulf filling my ears, I could almost imagine myself a solitary traveler and not one of the thousands of tourists who flock every year to the green gabled house only a few miles from where I stood.
I had come to this Canadian island to follow in the footsteps of L. M. Montgomery, who made her island home famous with her novel “Anne of Green Gables.” An instant best-seller when it was published in 1908, the book tells the story of the verbose, red-haired Anne Shirley — an 11-year-old orphan who is accidentally sent to a middle-aged brother and sister instead of the boy they had requested to help with their farm. Starved for love, with a vibrant imagination and a knack for comic mishap, Anne has charmed readers for over a century, including Mark Twain, who proclaimed her “the dearest and most lovable child in fiction since the immortal Alice.”
The book, which has sold more than 50 million copies and has been translated into at least 20 languages, started Lucy Maud Montgomery’s career. Today it anchors the island’s multimillion-dollar tourist industry, with summer musical performances, gift shops, house museums, horse-drawn carriage rides, a mock village and more — all devoted to scenes and characters from the book and its seven sequels.
I have wanted to visit Prince Edward Island since my childhood, when I devoured Anne’s escapades along with Montgomery’s descriptions of the island’s beauty. The landscape of “ruby, and emerald, and sapphire” — as she described it in her copious journals — is as much a character in the book as Anne herself: a temple of woods, fields and shore, where the sunset sky shines “like a great rose window at the end of a cathedral aisle.”
I worried, though, that the onslaught of Anne fans had ruined the island’s secluded charm. But as I discovered during a trip in late May, it’s still possible to glimpse Montgomery’s island, to wander its red clay lanes and dappled woodland copses, to admire the farms fronting the silvery sea. You just have to know where to look.
Maud, as she was known, grew up in the rural community of Cavendish, on the north shore of the crescent-shaped island, a solitary child raised by her maternal grandparents on their homestead farm. Like her famous heroine, she was abandoned as a child — her mother died of tuberculosis before her second birthday, her father moved to Saskatchewan and remarried — and the girl often escaped her elderly grandparents’ strict household by “fishing in the brooks, picking gum in the spruce copses, berrying in the stumps and gypsying to the shore.” She later used this idyllic landscape for her fiction, renaming the area Avonlea, and borrowing as a setting the neighboring farmhouse of her cousins, an older brother-sister pair reminiscent of the book’s Matthew and Marilla.
In 1937, Green Gables and its surrounding area became Prince Edward Island National Park, and child- friendly attractions soon cropped up nearby. Today the house, preserved as a historic site, welcomes over 125,000 visitors each year (about 20 percent are from Japan, where the book is a cultural phenomenon). Many dress up like Anne, donning pinafores and straw hats adorned with red braids.
The house’s reconstructed rooms reflect the book with faithful accuracy, decorated in stiff Victorian furniture and scattered with details easily recognizable by fans: a black lace shawl spread across Marilla’s bed; a brown, puffed-sleeve dress hung on the closet door of Anne’s room. I stood for a long time in Anne’s doorway, gazing at the flowered wallpaper, low white bed and fluttering green muslin curtains. The east gable room — in fact, the entire house — was so exactly as I’d pictured it during my many readings of the book, I felt a pang of nostalgia for my own childhood.
Outside, the farmyard jolted me back to reality — both its depictions of 19th-century rural life, particularly grueling in the harsh Canadian Maritimes climate, as well as its incongruous surroundings, which quickly broke the spell. An 18-hole golf course now spreads over the former woods and farmland that abutted the home; the drone of a lawn mower accompanied my walk through the manicured grove of trees recreated as the book’s “Haunted Wood,” and instead of the wailing ghost of Anne’s imagination, I met club-toting golfers.
At the other end of the Haunted Wood trail, I found the remains of the author’s childhood home (now named the Site of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Cavendish Home), where she wrote “Anne of Green Gables” at the age of 31 while living with her widowed grandmother. The object of a bitter inheritance dispute, the house fell to ruin after the death of the grandmother; today, only the stone foundation remains.
I strolled the grounds — which are lovingly maintained by a branch of Montgomery’s family — admiring a fragile old apple tree (“I loved the trees around my old home with a personal love,” she wrote in her memoir, “The Alpine Path”) and pausing at the spot where her bedroom window once stood. Through a screen of spruce trees, past fields and meadows, I glimpsed Montgomery’s beloved gulf as she described it in an essay: “a tiny blue gap between distant hills.”
In fact, I often felt as if I were viewing the writer’s island as I saw that scrap of sea: slivers of beauty snatched between the carnival-style attractions peppering Cavendish. But as I ventured farther afield in my rental car, the island’s splendor opened up to me. It also felt familiar from the descriptions I’d reread so many times in Montgomery’s books — the “fringing groves of fir and maple,” the ponds, “so long and winding,” the red roads that “wound like gay satin ribbons in and among green fields.”
I turned off one highway, down a clay road edged by towering spruce trees, stopping at the edge of a field “starred with hundreds of dandelions,” as the author wrote in her journals. For as far as my eye could see, there was only farmland, interlocking patches of red plowed fields and green meadows dotted with solitary farmhouses, a view that could have been lifted straight from the books. Indeed, as I explored the area west of Cavendish — small communities like French River, Park Corner and North Granville — I realized I needed only a bit of imagination to picture Anne beside me. Any of these dirt roads could be “Lovers’ Lane,” the secluded cow path where Anne liked to “think out loud”; any of the farmhouses her Green Gables; any of the sun-splashed ponds her “Lake of Shining Waters.”
In 1911, Montgomery married a minister, Ewan Macdonald, and moved to Ontario; though she visited regularly, she never again lived on Prince Edward Island. And yet her beloved home continued to inspire her — she set 19 of her 20 novels there — remaining her refuge throughout a life darkened by depression.
She would find today’s Cavendish unrecognizable, no longer the “haunt of ancient peace,” as she described it in “Anne of Green Gables.” But elsewhere, the island’s “green seclusion” endures, with gulf inlets reaching in like slender fingers, fields of lupine flowers waiting to burst forth, groves of birch trees hiding 18th-century pioneer cemeteries — a place so rich in beauty and in Anne Shirley’s signature phrase, so much “scope for imagination.”
IF YOU GO
Getting there and around
Air Canada offers daily flights to Charlottetown from Toronto Pearson. Public transportation is limited and renting a car is highly recommended.
What to See
Green Gables Heritage Place (8619, Route 6, Cavendish; gov.pe.ca/greengables). Open daily, May 1 to Oct. 31. Adults, 7.80 Canadian dollars (about the same as American dollars); children 16 and under, 3.90 dollars.
Site of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Cavendish Home (8509 Cavendish Road;peisland.com/lmm). Open daily, mid-May to mid-October. Adults, 5 dollars; children 16 and under, 3 dollars.
Lucy Maud Montgomery Birthplace (6461 Route 20, New London; 902-886-2099). This modest cottage is open daily. Adults, 4 dollars; children 16 and under, 2 dollars.
The island has a network of scenic red clay heritage roads. Information and maps are available at the Cavendish Visitor Information Centre (7591 Cawnpore Lane;tourismpei.com/pei-scenic-heritage-roads).
Part of Prince Edward Island National Park, the Dunelands Trail edges a magnificent rock and sand shore.
Where to Stay
Beach House Inn (712 Cape Road, French River; beachhouseinn.ca; rooms from 79 dollars). In a 19th-century farmhouse, this bed-and-breakfast offers charming rooms steps away from a red sand beach and abandoned lighthouse.
Where to Eat
Blue Winds Tearoom (Route 6, New London; bluewindstearoom.blogspot.com). Terry Kamikawa, the owner, moved to the island from Japan in 1988, inspired by the Montgomery books. She prepares dainty sandwiches and a lemony New Moon pudding, using Montgomery’s recipe.
The Home Place Inn and Restaurant (21 Victoria Street, Kensington; thehomeplace.ca). Old-fashioned fare like potato and salt cod cakes served with house-made pickled chowchow, or succulent pan-fried oysters.