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Surprises galore in lovely Prince Edward Island

PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND – Sometimes in this job it’s easy to over-research a story.

I don’t want to invest my working time on a hotel or a destination I won’t like, so it’s important for me to check things out in advance before I take a trip on behalf of the Star. But the tourist or “normal” traveller in me doesn’t want to over-do it and analyze a million photos, many of them doubtless professional pics that make a place look better than it really is. Because if I do that I won’t be surprised or have the feeling I did when I walked into Annie’s Table the other day on this wonderful, gentle island.

The tourism folks had suggested my wife and I take a cooking lesson. The directions said it was going to be at a church not far from Cavendish, home to Anne of Green Gables. I was under the impression we were going to learn about cooking old-fashioned recipes in honour of the 150 thanniversary of Confederation.

I did almost no research at all. When I pulled up outside the former New London United Church I was expected an old lady with a bonnet to start explaining about baking salt cod or making apple pies in the back of a dusty old kitchen.

Instead, I walked into a glorious church building that’s been converted into a dazzling, light-filled room with gloriously eclectic antiques, a perfectly appointed table, a gleaming, modern kitchen and a lovely woman raised in Ontario with deeply intelligent eyes (I know that sounds weird but it’s how I felt) and a hugely entertaining chef who was born in Nicaragua and raised in Costa Rica and then moved to the frozen tundra of the Canadian prairies as a teenager before learning how to cook in countries all over the world.

Which goes to show you something about expectations, I think, and the joys of opening your eyes and trying things; especially things that a tourist board suggests a big city newspaper travel guy might just find entertaining and worth a word or two of leaden type.

We spent a couple hours learning not only about how to raise PEI mussels and how to tell a male lobster from a female (check for crossed legs), but how to pry apart lovely PEI oysters and how to make fabulous desserts and how to embrace changes in life and celebrate simple things and a whole lot more.

Annie Leroux seemingly runs the overall operations, and leaves the cooking instructions to Norman Zeledon, the Nicaragua born chef with knowledge of many of the world’s great cuisines and an unbounding enthusiasm for passing along his knowledge. He waxes eloquently about the local mussels and shows the socks where they grow in cold, clean waters and talks about the local mushrooms and the black garlic that is roasted and makes a great, mild paste you can use in chocolate cakes.

We take local mushrooms and scoop out the stems with a melon baller, then baste the mushrooms with butter and fill them with butter, garlic and herbs and placing a mussel inside the hollowed out mushroom. A cream cheese mix with more garlic and herbs is then added, as is a small slice of local bacon. It’s then roasted for a terrific appetizer made almost entirely of local ingredients.

“We’re not just selling a product,” Zeledon tells me. “We’re selling the island, we’re selling our producers.”

It helps that they’re doing it in a space that can only be described as magical. It’s a beautiful old church that’s brightly decorated with old antiques; an oyster rake, a fishing spear, a local counter taken from a French River pharmacy, an old-time portrait. In one corner there’s a spiral staircase leading to a small loft. Above the kitchen is a second floor space with chairs that are perfect for relaxing or reading a book.

It’s light and airy and filled with beauty and care. And love. For these two, Annie and Norman, are nothing if not in love with their island and their food philosophy and their producers and their clients.

We sit at a stunningly appointed table in the middle of the room and fiinish our meals, prepared in part with the help of Annie’s daughter, a chef in Calgary. We raise a glass of PEI wine and salute our hosts.

In addition to regular cooking classes, they do lessons in using lavender and can make a special Lucy Maud Montgomery meal with mock cherries. Or, if you like, they can arrange a Latino night and Norman can help with samba lessons.

I couldn’t recommend this place any more. I really couldn’t.

I was thrilled that I hadn’t over thought the church meal. I was equally happy that I hadn’t spent too much poring over our choice of accommodations for our first night on the island.

The tourist board suggested I check out an area I hadn’t seen before and suggested North Rustico. They even put forward the idea of staying in a rotating house called Around the Sea .

It sounded intriguing. And cheesy. I mean, a house that spins around like a bad restaurant on a high-rise space needle or at the top of a faceless hotel?

On the other hand, tourist boards are usually a lot smarter than travel writers. So I decided that was good enough for me and accepted their offer.

And, again, was delighted. We slid open the glass doors from the rotating patio disc (it wasn’t moving at the time) and found a slightly pie shaped unit with bright walls, modern art and colourful orange accents. There was a big screen TV and a huge kitchen area with granite countertops and dark cabinets. There was a sofa bed and chairs and table in one “corner,” plus a fold-out Murphy bed tucked into a wall near the kitchen area and a separate, good-sized bedroom. The bathroom was large and nicely equipped with a terrific shower and nice bath products; much like you’d find in an upscale hotel.

They have a couple of new gas bbq’s on the patio, and the house is built on a small bluff overlooking the ocean, with benches where you can sit and admire the view or sip your coffee or read a book.

The owner of the place, Steve Arnold, explained later how he and his wife got the idea from Australia, where they’d read about a house that rotates. They had wanted a Deltec home they could assemble, which is what they bought. But they also wanted the technology behind the rotating house so they could give all their guests an ocean view for at least part of their stay. They ended up buying the Deltec house from North Carolina and had the rotating equipment shipped from Down Under and created what they believe to be the first rotating guest house in the world.

It takes anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and 15 minutes for the structure to do a 360 degree turn, so you don’t feel it or notice it unless you intentionally look out at nearby landmarks.

It’s a brilliant concept, I think, although Steve points out you couldn’t do it on a tall building. Which means it only works in places with relatively low land values.

Still, it’s fun and functional and a great conversation piece. And it would be a fine place to stay even without the spinning function, as North Rustico is as pretty a corner of this wonderful province as any.

I’ve talked in this space before about the fabulous food in PEI and Charlottetown. It was even better this time around. At Lot 30 , I tried lovely pork belly and tremendously tender and flavourful short ribs in a sleek, slate grey room with black and white prints and a TV over the bar showing the chef at work plating our meals in the kitchen. It’s excellent food in a restaurant that feels very much like North Toronto.

At Terre Rouge , I had a wonderful sandwich with grilled cheese and also sampled some hugely inventive and flavourful salads with mushrooms and other local ingredients, as well as local chowder and beet salad and warm olives. It’s a great spot for charcuterie that’s located right in the heart of the action on Queen St. And legendary Cows ice cream is right up the street for an emergency dessert run.

On the other hand, we also dined at Fisherman’s Wharf Lobster Suppers in North Rustico. The lobster was good but the seafood was bland and boring and the salad bar looked like something from 1956, as did the sailor suits the women wait staff were wearing. Still, the service was old-time friendly and prices were more than reasonable.

The second day was beautiful outside and we spent some time wandering through lovely Charlottetown, sampling great coffee and an excellent hamburger at Kettle Black coffee and sipping a cold PEI lager at a sidewalk café.

We bedded down our second night at the Great George Hotel , a wonderful spot a block from Queen St. with a large lobby filled with furniture and photos of celebrities and a wonderful feel. My room had pale green walls and a nice, big desk and old-style dresser. The bathroom was small, which isn’t uncommon in older properties, but had nice Aveda products and a good shower. Breakfast is very nice, and included in the package, as is free Wi-Fi and cookies in the afternoon and a free happy hour in the lobby. Great touches in a warm and friendly and centrally located hotel with tons of character.

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