Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
BOUGHTON ISLAND, PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND — Jeff Jacobs says he and his daughter wanted a summer vacation experience that was “real and authentic.” On his first morning on Prince Edward Island, he found just that, thanks to Perry Gotell’s fascinating and utterly wonderful clamming expedition to Boughton Island, a 1,000-acre, mostly deserted strip of land that you really should come to see.
Jacobs is from New Jersey and travelled to Atlantic Canada for the first time to offer his daughter, Sasha, a travel experience that wasn’t filled with commercials. “She likes that too,” he says of places like Disneyland, “but it’s good to do both. You really get a sense of a place when you do something like this.”
Tranquility Cove Adventures has been operating for more than six years and was one of the Canadian Tourism Commission’s first Signature Experiences — offerings that provide high-quality and authentic opportunities for travellers to get to know Canada. Gotell is one of the finest tour operators I’ve encountered anywhere. There is an earnestness about him that makes you realize that what he is showing you is his Prince Edward Island as honestly and unvarnished as can be. Yet, he maintains sharp business sensibilities — complimentary soft drinks, coffee, and cookies on board; on-the-minute departures (a rule that I, um, didn’t pay close enough attention to); a variety of tours to entice repeat business. It makes for an outing that is smooth, comfortable, and easy.
The Giant Bar Clam Dig Adventure is as soft-core adventure as you can get and that, to me, makes it hugely appealing to a vast number of people who don’t ever want to find themselves attached to a zipline or scuba tank. Starting from Georgetown on the east side of PEI, Gotell and his crew ferry passengers on a 15-minute crossing of the Georgetown Harbour. Guests receive a quick instruction on clam digging, don wetsuits that keep them buoyant, rubber shoes to avoid cuts, and snorkelling masks. The fishing boat stops about 100 metres from shore and passengers go overboard, dropping into the surprisingly warm waters of PEI. The water temperature was 20 Celsius degrees when I went in late last month and that felt cool compared to what it was earlier in the summer, as the ocean currents provide amazing swimming opportunities for beachgoers to this part of Atlantic Canada.
The water is so shallow anyone taller than five feet can stand on the sandbar, mingling with the crustaceans and bivalves buried in the water (hence, the rubber clamming shoes). Each passenger receives a clam rake and then sets about digging for lunch. Sometimes rock crabs will come up, too, along with the clams, making for an Atlantic feast.
Family Fun on a PEI Clam Dig
An experienced clam digger can pull up 200 in a work shift. Amateurs are thrilled when they nab their first one. Bar clams are large, easily filling your palm, and rare to find anywhere outside the province.
“The market collapsed about 25 years ago,” Gotell says, noting that companies started trawling for shellfish and in doing so inundated the clams with so much sand it was difficult to sell them. “Restaurants would say there was too much sand and that it wasn’t worth the labour time it took to get it all out. Once the restaurants stopped buying, the industry died. But they’re the best-tasting clams you’ll find.”
He’s right. These giant sweet clams taste like scallops. While his crew boils them in a pot on the beach, Gotell tours visitors around the shore of Boughton Island, where he spent much of his childhood, fishing and digging up clams and enjoying sunsets and the ocean. It’s a slice of PEI life that he gladly shares with tourists — just like the priceless bivalves his guests dig up. To eat the cooked clams, you plate them on the shell, remove the guts and then dunk them in water, to clear out the sand. Then you eat them on the beach, staring out to the water and the lolling fishing boat, the endless sky and the island across the way that all of a sudden seems bigger and more populated than you remembered it before the trip.
Gotell’s adventure will change your perspective just so fast. As Jacobs, the visitor from New Jersey, says, “You can’t find something like this where we come from.”
More About Tranquility Cove Adventures
Location: Tours depart from the dock in Georgetown, about 50 kilometres (30 miles) east of the provincial capital of Charlottetown. Tranquility Cove Adventures is at 1 Kent Street, Georgetown, PE.
Cost: The Giant Bar Clam Dig Adventure is $98 per adult ($78 per child 12 years old or younger) and includes use of clam-digging tools and snorkelling gear. Other tours include deep-sea fishing and yoga. See the website for details.