I enjoy travelling, be it camping, hoteling, or a combination of the two. What I don’t enjoy is spontaneity, which is why I spend an embarrassing amount of time planning each trip well in advance. I employ multiple spreadsheets and calendars specifying where we go, travel time getting there, lodging, and what we plan to do at each location. Seriously, I have spreadsheets looking ahead to our travel plans in 2024. I’m just not the type of person who enjoys scrambling around trying to find a charming place with vacancies an hour after I would have liked to already be lying in bed. I’m not what you’d call a carefree traveler.
Yet despite this anal attention to detail, there are times when the slightest piece of knowledge slips past my hawk-eyed gaze and causes me instantaneous panic when I discover it, too late, typically as we’re checking in. In the case of Prince Edward Island National Park – Cavendish, it happened as I stood between our SUV and the registration window. It was only then that I learned there was a four day pop music festival happening and all four of us would need to wear wristbands to prove we were registered in the park and not wayward partiers. I felt as if a stranger had just dumped a pail of ice cubs down the back of my shirt.
When we finally arrived at our site and setup, I quickly grabbed my wife’s phone to do some research on what this music festival was all about and perhaps determine how I’d missed seeing or knowing about it ten months earlier. Sure enough, the Cavendish Beach Music Festival was in full swing until Monday and we would be camping pretty much right beside it for two nights. And it was no niche event. With many big name music stars entertaining throngs of young fans many of whom were tenting in the park campground, this was a major festival.
My heart sank. I was not looking forward to this one bit. I had flashbacks to my own youth and sleepless nights at the Merritt Mountain Music Festival. Those were fun nights, sure, but they were well on two decades ago. Nowadays, I’m in full grumpy, old, dad mode and I need my sleep. And I sure didn’t need my young kids getting impromptu human sexuality lessons from amorous twenty-somethings who couldn’t wait to get into their tent. Trust me, I’ve seen firsthand what goes on at these music festivals. Notice I said “seen” not “experienced,” but I digress.
Thankfully, despite my flustered nerves, the impact of the music festival was quite limited during our stay, much to my relief. We could hear the music a bit each night, especially the pounding base, but it was distant and muted. The wind, more on that later, undoubtedly helped damper the music and our location at the furthest end of the campground from town helped too. We managed uninterrupted sleep both nights. The added security and precautions implemented by the national park kept wild parties and drunken revelers from our view and when all was said and done, aside from the obvious tent city in the campground and the shuttle service operating from the parking lot, we would never have known this big music festival was even happening had they not made us wear those annoying wristbands.
In fact, the only detrimental impact we noticed during our stay was the increased traffic, though having never been to PEI NP before we really don’t know if it was any different than normal during the busy summer tourist season. We were in Cavendish, after all, and between the beach lovers and the Green Gables groupies, this is a hot spot during the summer. It’s quite possible traffic is always like this on weekends.
Now, before I start telling you about the Cavendish Campground inside Prince Edward Island National Park, where we stayed, I need to put the upcoming review in some context. PEI NP is without question the most confusing and bizarre national park in the country. We certainly have never visited nor stayed in anything quite like it.
For starters, there are three separate, non-contiguous parts to Prince Edward Island National Park, all along the north shore of the tiny province; Cavendish, Brackley-Dalvay, and Greenwich. Travel from one part to the others requires circuitous travel around inlets and bays and definitely requires a vehicle of some sort.
Oh, but there is more confusion awaiting the first time visitor. Even within each part of the park, the boundaries are as random as if a preschooler were tossed a crayon and told to draw shapes on a road map. Scenic roadways take you in and out of the park and private land with alarming regularity. Even some walking trails do likewise. There are pieces of private land completely encapsulated by the park and there are portions of the park extending into the actual town of Cavendish.
As a result, there are multiple entry points into the park and I suspect it must have the highest staff to square footage ratio of all national parks. I still don’t fully comprehend which things we saw were part of the park and which things we saw were not part of the park. And we only visited the Cavendish portion. I might still be there circling in confusion had we attempted all three parts.
Okay, now that that is off my chest, let me start by saying that Prince Edward Island National Park – Cavendish is really a lovely park, despite its confusing layout. We spent two nights at Cavendish Campground inside the westernmost part of the park and really enjoyed our stay. Once again, we left wishing we had been able to stay longer but also grateful that we had extended our stay to two nights rather than the single night of an earlier, rejected itinerary.
Cavendish Campground is a big campground that has everything you could possibly want in a campground. There are over 200 sites of every size and configuration imaginable. There are inland un-serviced sites, un-serviced sites along the ocean, sites with water/electricity, sites with water/electricity/sewer, back-in sites, pull-through sites, plus a handful of oTENTik sites. The majority of the campground is forested but the sites along the oceanfront are wide open, as you might suspect. These open sites are all un-serviced and by and large only suitable for tents or very modest trailers.
Each site has a level, finely graveled area for your unit surrounded by a green area and the woods. It isn’t really a lawn, per se, but the forest isn’t dense either so there is grass growing as well as some low shrubbery. I wouldn’t say the sites are private, but ours was spacious and nicely treed with tall white spruce offering both sunny and shady spots throughout the day. You definitely do not feel congested here.
The dominance of spruce in the park isn’t natural, as I learned from the literature available at the entrance office. This was all deforested farmland at one time but has since regrown with white spruce coming to dominate the area. It looks remarkably like a mountain park out here in Alberta or BC. The original forest prior to settlement was far more mixed and the park is attempting to promote a greater diversity of tree cover by planting native deciduous trees all over the place. You quickly notice them as you explore your campsite. Dozens of tiny 12” tall saplings protected by snowfence dot the entire campground. It’s a wonderful program, as I love deciduous trees, but I find the use of such tiny ones confusing. Many were already dead and I can’t help but wonder why they wouldn’t choose older, more robust saplings.
Each site has a picnic table and a traditional truck rim fireplace. These are somewhat old-school fire pits and do not have an attached grill of any kind, so if you hope to cook over the fire you will need to bring your own grill and/or equipment.
If one thing stood out at Cavendish it was the number of fully serviced bathrooms/showers located all over the campground. It really was impressive. There was no single, central bathroom facility and then myriad pit toilets elsewhere. Lovely white with green trimmed (I wonder where that idea came from) cottage like buildings with wooden, screen doors containing flush toilets, sinks, showers, and plenty of space for changing/moving around are conveniently placed in multiple spots around the campground. The showers are large, fiberglass inserts you might put in your own home and have fully functioning and adjustable handles so you get just the temperature of water you want. And they’re free. We’ve yet to encounter another campground with such a preponderance of grooming facilities.
Outside of each bathroom is a stainless steel dishwashing station as well as a potable water tap. Water is also available at the dump station to fill your trailer. Our site had water and power, so we were set. You can camp as luxuriously or as rustic as you wish here.
And if that wasn’t enough, there is even a stand-alone laundromat in the campground. It too is a white with green trim cottage style building located next to the un-serviced tent sites. I suppose that’s a sensible place for it. This facility makes longer stays at the campground and park far more appealing without the need to search for a laundromat in neighbouring towns.
You are able to purchase travel-sized laundry detergent and dryer sheets at the check-in office. They have a small gift shop there which also sells a few amenities and snacks. It’s quite limited, mind you, so I suggest you either bring your own or head into Cavendish proper to get items. This is not a “store” by any means and you simply pay for your purchases at the check-in desk.
Firewood is also purchased at this office and it’s a bit different than anywhere else as well. You pay $7 (2018 prices) for a burlap bag which you then fill yourself from a shed filled with cut wood next door. This is a pretty good deal and if you’re patient and skilled in the ways of Tetris, you can walk away with a plentiful amount of firewood. It is, however, entirely spruce so will most likely burn fairly, a predicament I am all too familiar with out here in the West.
Picnic shelters look similar to the other buildings in the campground, I think they’re going for a theme here. The ones in the forested area are fully enclosed buildings. The ones in the open area by the ocean/beach are three-sided and have plexiglass windows enabling an ocean view while remaining sheltered from the wind. It’s a handy setup especially for groups of family or friends tenting.
A reasonably sized, newer playground is similarly located in the open area of the campground. There are swings and a climbing/sliding apparatus. Our children enjoyed this playground and there were always plenty of kids there playing “the ground is lava” and other group games. This playground is enjoyable, but it isn’t in a convenient centralized location, so some campers will have a fair walk getting to it. A second playground is shown on maps, but it appears to have been removed. There’s even a sign still present indicating that it was meant for young children only, but all that remains is a patch of dirt. It wasn’t far from the existing one.
This open area appears to be the easiest place to erect entertainment facilities because there is also a run-down, old, outdoor theatre near the tent sites. The park offers performances here on certain nights and we briefly witnessed a First Nations song and storytelling event on the Monday night. Not exactly up to the music festival standards, but it peaked our interest enough that my daughter and I walked over to see the show.
It was okay though admittedly a little peculiar. We arrived late and missed introductions so I’m unclear as to the background of the six folks providing the entertainment. A man and a woman and four children of various ages entertained the crowds well enough. The whole show seemed much more confidently delivered and polished than the one we watched in Kouchibouguac National Park. Still, half the troop didn’t even appear to be indigenous. I agree that may be a racist thing to say and exposes ignorance on my part, but the performers truly looked no different than me. Perhaps this is a function of a longer history of interaction between Indigenous and European peoples. I’m just used to seeing identifiably First Nations people doing these sorts of performances. I was left confused and hoping this wasn’t a case of white people playing “Indian” for show.
Other evening performances include singing and storytelling around group campfires as well as informative tours and presentations during the day. Had we stayed longer, I would have loved to participate in more of these. As it was, we didn’t take in any other programs so I can’t comment as to their quality but they’re a wonderful addition to all our National Parks.
“What about the beach?”
Uh, pardon me?
“The beach! What about the beach?!”
Oh right, the beach!
Odds are you’ve made your way to PEI to take in the views, namely the red soil and rock and the ocean, fictional character junkies, notwithstanding. You won’t be disappointed. The beach running along the northern side of Cavendish Campground is gorgeous. Well, the entire north shore in this area is, to be honest.
Our site was located a few steps from a short trail taking you directly to the reddish tinged, white sandy beach. Far off to your left and to your right you will see fantastic cliffs curving out into the ocean, topped with green grass, trees, and the odd building or even a lighthouse. It’s quite pretty. Behind you are dunes and more modest cliffs in which swallows nest. These are endangered swallows. Signs warning again disturbing the nests and a roped off area prevent all but the most ignorant people from doing so.
You can walk for miles in either direction in the soft sand or through the soothing, albeit chilly, water. Jellyfish speckle the ocean near shore, snails roost on outcropping rocks exposed at low tide, the odd crab can be found in small tidal pools, and terns swoop and dive over the water. If you’re lucky, you may even see an osprey hunting. We enjoyed a couple leisurely walks along this beach, exploring the critters and taking in the view. You can only imagine how glorious sunsets would be here. And I would have evidence to support that assertion had I not been too daft to get down to the beach on time!
If you walk to the east, you will pass by much of the campground, including those un-serviced tent sites some of which are all but falling off the cliffs in this area. Great view, but you better baton down your tent well or the winds will take them away from you. More on the winds in a moment.
You can continue this walk all the way to Cavendish Beach, which is about a kilometre east of the campground. There is a trail inland that does likewise and we used the trail when we scoped out Cavendish Beach. This is the official beach and while it is within the park boundaries, all sorts of visitors in town use it as for day visits. There is nothing especially different about this portion of the coastline other than it has an official name and some lifeguards on duty watching carefully over a roped area of water reserved for swimmers. The beach has greater depth here than alongside the campground, so there is more room for more people and not surprisingly this is also where we found actual people using the beach.
There is a small boardwalk from the beach to a suite of buildings including washrooms and changerooms, an outdoor rinse station to clean your feet, and a small cantina that sells grilled items like burgers and fries as well as hard ice cream and slushies. A few beach toys and towels can also be purchased there, but it is still a smallish store so don’t come in here expecting Walmart selection.
We walked to Cavendish Beach on our second day in PEI fully intending to enjoy the beach and maybe take a swim, but Mother Nature had other plans. The wind was strong that day. So much so, that it was literally sandblasting our bare skin. We attempted to endure it but it really just hurt too much. And the water, never very warm to begin with, was churned up pretty good and colder still which made swimming a nonstarter. Oh, some brave souls ventured in and yet others boldly lay in their bikinis catching some rays, but we are too wimpy … or smart … and soon packed up and had an ice cream cone.
Inland from the water, protected by some dunes, the wind was less unpleasant and after our cones we went for a short hike further east on a trail through a small wetland. We didn’t continue too much further, stopping at an expansive day use picnic area. At least, we think that’s what it was. There was a large shelter and a couple tables but no signage nor people.
There are several other trails winding through the park on either side of the campground. These trails are well-groomed and accommodate bicycles. The longest of these actually follows the scenic roadway along the ocean several kilometres to the east. Other trails circle around the forest to the west inside the park, and still another will eventually take you to town. There you can visit Anne of Green Gables Heritage Place, which is the farmhouse that inspired the books. We stopped in briefly while out on a drive but the building is under extensive renovations and was being closed early due to the music festival. Cursed music festival!
The park also has its own golf course. It too is located in town on another of the discontiguous blocks of land that are actually part of the park. We obviously didn’t golf, but I imagine it’s an attractive outing so long as your slice doesn’t multiply with the wind. We saw a portion of the golf course as we hiked through the wetlands.
Cavendish isn’t the most appealing town. Half national park and half tourist trap, it’s quite the bizarre mix of heritage and party. There are amusement parks, a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museum, and several souvenir shops selling all sorts of overpriced garbage. These places are not part of the park and the contrast is intriguing. I have no doubt Cavendish is popular with the younger crowd or those with kids who enjoy exciting rides. That’s not us, at least not this trip, so we avoided it all preferring to make snarky comments as we drove past.
And it is worthwhile going for a drive, or a longer hike or bike ride. The ocean side road and trail that takes you all the way to North Rustico is beautiful with several pullouts worth stopping at to explore. We particularly liked MacKenzie Brook and spent some time there beachcombing. Looking to the east from here, you’ll even see a natural arch in a rocky prominence. All these red rock formations with the blue ocean lapping beneath will quickly fill your cameras with gorgeous shots.
I suppose I should mention that birds aren’t the only flying lifeforms you’ll encounter here. Not mosquitoes, mind you, but black flies. Wee little things that didn’t bit you so much as constantly annoy you. When the breeze was strong they left you alone, but if the wind was calm they were a pest. Which isn’t to say there aren’t mosquitoes, we just lucked out in the time of year we were visiting and didn’t notice many.
Poison Ivy, a blast from my youth in Ontario, is also present in the park and signs are found everywhere warning you not to venture off trails or take shortcuts between sites in the campground. I didn’t specifically see any myself, but it was a concern I haven’t had to deal with in many years. My children, born Westerners, hadn’t a clue about Poison Ivy and were equal parts fascinated and freaked by the possibility of “poisonous” plants looming wherever we walked.
So what’s my verdict? Prince Edward Island National Park is a beautiful park. A confusing one, but a beautiful one none the less. I would have liked to see the other two parts of the park but that will have to wait for another trip. As far as the Cavendish portion goes, I loved it despite the tackiness of the town that giveth its name. The campground is fantastic though the evening programming was a little suspect. It’s the shoreline, though, that is the true star here. The views are poster-worthy in all directions and the simply pleasure of walking that beach cannot be underestimated. I happily give Cavendish Campground at PEI NP 4.5 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5 and encourage you to visit. I know I’ll be back again.