P.E.I. is gearing up for its first post-Fiona tourism season. A lot has changed

Prince Edward Island’s tourism operators have worked hard to get their shops, restaurants, accommodations and attractions ready for the 2023 season, but visitors will see a landscape marked by post-tropical storm Fiona.

'The fact that it’s still standing, we can handle anything else after that'

An aerial photo shows two buildings surrounded by a thinned-out forest and downed trees.
The Site of Lucy Maud Montgomery's Cavendish Home was hit hard by post-tropical storms Dorian and Fiona. The MacNeill family says few of the original trees still remain (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

This is part three in the CBC P.E.I. series Changed by Fiona, exploring the impact the post-tropical storm will have on the Island's people and industries moving forward. Links to the other three pieces appear at the bottom of this story. 

Prince Edward Island's tourism operators have worked hard to get their shops, restaurants, accommodations and attractions ready for the 2023 season, but visitors will see a changed landscape compared to years past. 

It's been eight months since post-tropical storm Fiona tore across P.E.I.'s North Shore, where tourists flock by the hundreds of thousands in the summer months to take in sandy beaches, lush coastal landscapes and quaint seaside attractions. 

But the impact from the storm — including nearly bare fields where trees once stood and all-but-eradicated dune systems — cannot be hidden from visitors or fixed with a coat of paint. 

"They will see the devastation and hopefully understand that, you know, we're doing our best to try and get it cleaned up, but it's going to take some time," said David MacNeill, an descendent of Lucy Maud Montgomery, whose novels set on the North Shore have helped turn the area into a tourism destination.

MacNeill now runs The Site of L.M. Montgomery's Cavendish Home on the grounds where the famed author grew up.

But the MacNeill's thicket, where Montgomery herself once walked and drew inspiration for her work, has been reduced to a few mighty trees.

An apple tree stands in a recently cleared area. There are two visible stumps where neighboring trees once stood, as well as limbs scattering the ground.
David MacNeill says he is happy to see that this old apple tree survived the storm, even though many around it have dropped. (Nicola MacLeod/CBC)

"It's like losing a piece of history," MacNeill said.

"We've lost a lot of the old balm-of-Gilead trees. It's a type of poplar trees, they're quite old, quite large, and [Fiona] really opened up the whole property, basically clearing that property of the trees."

MacNeill said what was once 20 poplars has been reduced to just two, due to the destruction caused by both Fiona and post-tropical storm Dorian, which hit the area in 2019.

A plaque with a quote from Lucy Maud Montgomery reads "I am grateful that my childhood was spent in a spot where there were many trees... When I have lived with a tree for many years, it seems to me like a beloved human companion".
MacNeill says the loss of the trees on this particular plot of land is particularly solemn. (Nicola MacLeod/CBC)

"I knew I was going to walk into the same situation, so it wasn't quite as shocking as the first time," he said. "But still, devastating."

MacNeill cleared the trees himself and repaired the roof of a building damaged in the storm because he couldn't find a contractor.

The site is ready and open for the year.

DIY post-storm renovations

A building boom in recent years meant there was a shortage of skilled labour across the province, even before Fiona caused more than $279 million in damages.

Seven tables sit in the restaurant's dining room. The floors have a fresh coat of paint and much of the furniture has also been repainted with no sign of damage.
The owners say visitors to the Blue Mussel Cafe will not see anything different. The dining area has been completely restored. (Nicola MacLeod/CBC)

When Fiona caused largescale destruction at the Blue Mussel Cafe in the North Rustico Harbour, owners Christine McQuaid and Steve Murphy couldn't find a contractor to gut the building. 

Luckily, their prep cook and maintenance worker had contracting experience, so they were able to do most of the work themselves.

Two employees paint bar stools in the gravel parking lot.
The Blue Mussel Cafe had to be almost entirely gutted after a storm surge overtook the North Rustico Harbour. The owners say everyone from their servers to their cooks have been instrumental in the renovations. (Nicola MacLeod/CBC)

"We got to work right away and it's been six months and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars through insurance to get to this point," Murphy said.

The couple initially thought they could clean and salvage some of their building and equipment, but later learned the salt water which inundated the restaurant meant almost everything had to go.

The Blue Mussel sits on posts about four feet off the ground, but it still took on about three feet of water in a storm surge event that completely flooded the small community.

A plant of wood runs vertically up a plastic beam. It is stained wood and stands out against the rest of the white, plastic kitchen.
One of the only remaining pieces of the rebuilt restaurant is a board that marked employees' heights over the years. That was salvaged and now sits in the plastic-lined kitchen. (Nicola MacLeod/CBC)

"That was the most shocking part of the whole thing," McQuaid said. "To hear, like, everything's gotta go."

"The sad part is, as a guest, when you come in, you won't see. It won't look any different to you. It's going to look exactly the same as it used to," Murphy said.

The restaurant has opened for the season and the owners are optimistic for a strong year, saying they feel fortunate even though the damage to their business was extreme.

You gotta take the good with the bad... we're on one of the most beautiful spots on the Island.— Steve Murphy, Blue Mussel Cafe

"We had some neighbours in the harbour that their buildings aren't usable anymore. Their buildings weren't there, so I think that just we were relieved to see that it was here," McQuaid said.

"The fact that it's still standing, we can handle anything else after that," Murphy added.

Losing the magic

Unlike the restaurant, visitors at the Brackley Drive-in down the coast will notice a stark difference.

The site has two screens, which used to be separated from each other — and the road — by trees.

"Before it was a little magical, almost storybook-like. That you could turn the corner and come into a different place to be entertained. Now that has changed," said owner Bob Boyle.

An aerial photo shows the Brackley Drive-in from above. There are two large screens in a field and only two small, skinny trees between them.
Rows of trees used to divide the two screens at the Brackley Drive-In to keep the viewing experiences separate. Now that those trees are gone, they've put in tractor trailers to test them out as an alternative. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

"But we're working through some solutions. We're doing landscaping up front, some new lighting."

Fiona took down hundreds of trees on the site, meaning those screens are no longer tucked away.

The drive-in plans to use buses or tractor trailers to shelter the screens from one another and keep the viewing experiences separate.

"The joy was seeing that the screens were still standing, so the structural side of things were OK, but structures can be rebuilt and can be rebuilt fairly quickly," Boyle said. 

"The trees … not in my lifetime."

Changed by Fiona: The tourism industry

4 months ago
Duration 3:57
Visitors are returning to a changed Island after post-tropical storm Fiona. CBC's Nicola MacLeod explored some tourism spots to learn about the difficult recovery and preparations for the future in the third part of the series "Changed by Fiona."

Many trees were taken out by Fiona itself, while others weakened by the storm came down in another high-wind event weeks later.

"I think most people will understand this is a rebuild year for a lot of the Island," Boyle said. 

Growing an environmentally-aware sector

The P.E.I. Tourism Industry Association said climate and environmental awareness will become a big topic for the sector going forward.

"We've talked a lot about regenerative tourism and sustainability and best practices from an environmental standpoint," said CEO Corryn Clements.

"This has brought that to the forefront again, to say, 'We do need to start talking about this more,' and we do need to be more active when it comes to sustainable measures.

"We can do a better job in taking care of the places that we promote and we're proud to live in."

When Boyle looks to the future, he's thinking about what trees he'll plant at the drive-in, even looking at some species that thrive in hurricane-prone areas like Bermuda.

The large screen stands in an empty field with very few trees in sight.
Drive-in owner Bob Boyle says he is already researching replacement trees and is looking beyond the east coast of Canada. He's done some research in to wind-resistant varieties that withstand hurricanes in Bermuda. (Nicola MacLeod/CBC)

The Anne author's relatives know their trees can't really be replaced, but MacNeill is also thinking about the next storm.

"I don't think it's if, it's when," he said. "A couple more storms and there won't be any trees left here. None of the old trees left anyway, so I'm pretty much prepared for that at this point."

Over on the harbour, the restaurateurs are also thinking about their proximity to the very force that wrecked their building.

An aerial photo shows the North Rustico Harbour two days after the storm. Parking lots are flooded.
The owners of the Blue Mussel Cafe were not in the community when the storm surge occurred, but they believe they likely had seven feet of water on their property (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

"You gotta take the good with the bad, so we're on one of the most beautiful spots on the Island. We're right on the water. We're facing the sunset. We've had 30 years where we've enjoyed that view," Murphy said. 

"Being this close to the water, it's real. The ocean's real. It's living and breathing and it can happen."

The newly rebuilt restaurant also has taken some flood-protection measures: plastic-coated floors and walls that can be removed in horizontal strips — only going up as far as the water does. 

"We've had 30 years, so far, with that one storm," Murphy said. 

"I think we're going to be OK for another 30 years."

Other stories in this series: 


Nicola is a graduate of St. Thomas University's journalism program and grew up on P.E.I., where she is happy to be a reporter and producer online, on radio and on television. Got a story? Email