Cavendish is a national park, so it cost $15 to get in to. Though that sounds pretty pricey, if you plan to spend the day at the beach it's worth it to pay to go here. The beach is guarded, has fresh-water showers to rinse off in, and bathrooms and change rooms across the road from the beach area. The sand is soft and beautiful, and the water was warm. This beach is about a 40 minute drive to the north of Charlottetown. The surf conditions at the guarded beaches we went to were always posted so that swimmers know in advance what the water will be like, and because of the shoals at Cavendish most of the bigger waves break before reaching the area you would swim in. Pack a lunch and your sunscreen, and settle in for the day - beach volleyball and frisbees are the order of the day.
Basinhead is an awesome, free, guarded beach in a provincial park, with yellow sand and red rock cliffs - completely beautiful.
We went to this beach twice on this trip because it's really great. At the eastern tip of PEI, it's still only about an hour and a half's drive from Charlottetown. It's well worth the drive. This is a free guarded beach, with showers, change rooms, and a gift shop and snack bar (that has awesome sweet potato fries). There is a steep drop-off into the ocean, which makes for good swimming, but the water temperature can change pretty quickly with the currents. The first day we were there, the water was cold but pleasant, especially since August is hot in PEI. Two days later, the water had dropped a few degrees, and was so cold that it made our ankle-bones hurt and it was kind of hard to breathe if your chest was under. It was so hot that lots of people were braving the cold, but it was more like a polar-dip than a leisurely-swim situation. A unique feature of Basinhead is that there is a low bridge to jump off of that connects an inner lagoon to the ocean, and people can line up along the sides of a small canal and the bridge to jump in. There are ladders every ten feet or so, and a guard watches the bridge and canal at all times. The especially fun part about this is that the current from the ocean into the lagoon is super fast, so that you can swim in front of the canal on the ocean-side and float into the canal. We caught on to ladders and climbed up to jump off, and then floated into the slightly-warmer (but not by much) lagoon.
Brackley is not far from Cavendish beach and is part of the national park, so this one also cost $15 to go to. It's also really great and worth it if you go for a day. We were only there for an afternoon and we still felt that the cost was worth it. This beach has showers and change rooms and a snack bar, and is just a half hour's drive from Charlottetown.
There are some really cool things to do on the way to Brackley (and depending on which roads you take to Cavendish, you can get to them too). One thing is a restaurant and gift shop called The Dunes. It's owned by a couple who travel in the winter and bring back awesome things to sell in the store. They also have a variety of wares by PEI artists and artisans, including pottery made on-site, glassware, carved wood kitchen implements, paintings and jewelry. The building is a conglomeration of additions made from glass and wood, with a sprawling beautiful garden in the back full of ponds and gobs of blooming flowers. Another cool place to stop at is the Goat Soap Place. It's called something slightly different, but we were directed to it by someone who called it the goat soap place, and I am sure that if one was lost and asked directions to the GSP, the person being asked would know what one meant.
John Cabot Provincial Park (Malpeque Bay)
Because of the famous oysters that bear the name of the bay they're pulled from, I really wanted to check out Malpeque, and because it was hot and the water is everywhere, Drew and I decided to try to find a good beach while we were there. We stumbled upon John Cabot Provincial Park, and it turned out to be a great little gem. It isn't as popular as Basinhead or Cavendish, so it was far less busy. The provincial park beaches are free and they also provide the same services as national parks, so there were bathrooms and showers here and the beach was guarded. The beach was fairly small but lovely. The bottom of the beach was rocky in places, but sandy in the central guarded area. The water was pretty warm, probably due to the fact that it's in a bay and is a little sheltered from the ocean currents. Malpeque is to the west of Charlottetown and was about an hour's drive away. We stopped on the way in Oyster Cove to check it out, and waded around in the soft sand and warm water and watched all the snails working their way through the mud.
We also found a hermit crab at John Cabot:
While this is technically not a beach, it's still a great place to check out. There is a bridge that people jump off of into a salt-water river that flows in from the ocean. The water was warm, and the fall is not too far. When Drew and I stopped there were a bunch of kids being watched by their parents (who sat in lawn chairs on the dock to the side) jumping off too. Cars drive on the bridge and there is a sidewalk with a railing on the river-side, along which the row of kids (and sometimes adults) line up to jump off.
Tracadie is also near the Cavendish national park area, but there are great beaches that you can reach outside of the national park area. Drew and I decided that we didn't want to pay for any more beach time, so we followed the map to a little side-road that looked like it headed to the water. After a false-turn that took us on a grass road into thick underbrush (and back out the way we went in), we found Watts Road, which lead to a very small (say 6 or 7 cars max) parking area in the trees, and a long boardwalk through some marshy forest. We then crossed a grassy area over the dunes to a beautiful long beach right at the mouth of Tracadie Bay. The waves were breaking over a huge red-sand shoal some distance out from the shore, and so Drew and I changed into our bathing suits on the beach (behind towels) and dove out to wave-jump. The waves were huge - many of them swelling up over our heads - and the water was warm. We played in the waves until we decided to make the long walk back in to the shore. The currents were too strong to swim in, and actually it was really hard to walk straight. There were cross-currents pulling around our legs so that each step was a careful balance. I shouldn't make it sound dangerous because there was no rip-tide or undercurrent enough to stop a swimmer, but it was strong enough to be noticeable and fun. If you can find this beach, you should be sure to go to it.
**** Update, July 2013: Basinhead beach has been listed as the best beach in Canada by a travel website. As a result, be prepared for way more people! It's packed, but still worth a visit.