Îsles de la Madeleine: The Canada You Probably Don’t Know (But Should)

If the notion of getting away from it all without going terribly far away, of escaping to a small group of islands strewn with sandy white beaches, rugged cliffs, gently rolling mountains and bustling fishing ports without having to suffer the expense or overcrowding of Cape Cod or Martha’s Vineyard, you might wish to advise your clients to head up to Canada’s Magdalen Islands, known in their native language as les Îsles de la Madeleine, located a few hours north of Quebec City.

Getting to this small archipelago in the Gulf of St. Lawrence requires a bit of patience and a few short plane rides—the bulk of which don’t even require deplaning—but the payoff is a big one. Stepping off the plane at the Îsles de la Madeleine airport is a little akin to Dorothy first arriving in Oz: it leaves the first-time visitor feeling as if they’ve left behind a world of black and white, suddenly embraced by brisk but gentle breezes, abundant sunshine, crystal-clear skies, and a landscape dotted with houses ranging from the simple to the very grand, many of which have been painted in an eye-popping variety of colors, the likes of which you may never have seen before. Driving around the island or simply standing on a bluff overlooking one of its lovely bays, it’s tempting to think that the colors of the houses might have been part of some grand plan, but the truth is far less complicated: the color scheme of many of the homes scattered across the islands are the by-product of the colors of the boats belonging to the fishermen who live in them, having used the same paint for their homes as they do for their boats. The result is unpretentious, visually ravishing, and—for those in search of it—flooded with romance.

The Magdalen Islands actually comprise nine small islands, as well as a smattering of islets that can also be explored. With a land area of less than 80 square miles, the islands are easily navigated by car, motor scooter, or even bicycle. Centuries ago, native Americans visited the islands to harvest its abundant walrus population; now long gone, the walruses have been replaced by seals, and the islands are also home to more than 250 different species of birds, including the endangered Piping Plover and Roseate Tern. Some of the islands’ populations of approximately 13,000 people are direct descendants of the survivors of more than 400 shipwrecks, but numerous lighthouses have since been built, although many old hulks still survive on the beaches and under the waters.

A Wealth of Activities

Although fishing—especially for lobsters and mussels—is the primary industry on the islands, tourism comes in a close second, and in this regard, there are more activities available to tourists than one can count, among them hiking, bicycle camping, sea kayaking, windsurfing and kite surfing. Even during a one-week stay on the islands, it would be difficult to fit them all in—a pity, since they are all fun, challenging, and rewarding, no matter one’s degree of experience. At Aerosport, for example, 2001 world snow kiting champion Eric Marchand, who opened the first kite surfing school in Canada in 1998, offers multi-level classes in kite surfing—a combination of surfing in the water and using a kite to sweep you along—as well as in kite buggying, in which the use of a large kite is used to power a buggy around the beach, and sea kayaking, in which the visitor is allowed to explore the shore and the cliffs that border it without the use of motors, engines, or fuels, typical of nearly all the islands’ activities, which focus on exploring the environment while also protecting and respecting it. Aerosport, 866-986-6677, www.aerosport.ca

For an activity of a really different sort, a visit to Vert et Mer (Green and Sea) won’t be easily forgotten. Located in the Arsènes valley on the island of Cap-aux-Meules, sheltered from the wind, and reachable only by a gentle hike up an unpaved road into the pine-scented woods, this outfit offers one of the more unusual places to stay: a group of yurts—tentlike dwellings consisting of a cylindrical wall of poles in a lattice arrangement with a conical roof of poles, both covered by felt or skins. Vert et Mer offers beds and mattresses, sanitary services and solar showers, wood stoves (including wood), kitchens with propane cookers, sink and cook kits, an outdoor barbecue and campfire site, drinking water, and propane lanterns (BYOB, please). Prices range from $95 a day to $400 for six nights. Vert et Mer offers a unique combination of nature and cuisine through its trip by sea kayak at sunset (accompanied by professional guides), followed by a sumptuous dinner of crab and fresh local products. Among other activities, Vert et Mer also offers day-long expeditions with exclusive access to the Brion Island Ecological Reserve, which hosts less than 100 visitors a year. All in all, a very cool and unforgettable way to be at one with nature. Vert et Mer, www.vertetmer.com

For those on a budget, the wonderful Parc du Gros Cap offers an incredibly economical place to stay both for young people in search of a youth hostel and for couples needing a bedroom (complete with double bed) without the added cost of luxurious surroundings—which is not to say that the accommodations at this auberge aren’t both immaculate and sparklingly clean. In addition to offering indoor accommodations, the park is also a campground with 100 places for people to stay. Immediately adjacent to a sandy beach, the site offers wireless Internet, free shower and laundry, and a grocery, restaurant and fish market nearby. Director Frédéric Côté is also a friendly, highly experienced instructor in sea kayaking, offering tours ranging from one-on-one to groups to three-hour tours and two-day expeditions. The 27 private and shared rooms at the auberge include a self-service kitchen and range from $27 to $50 a night for couples occupying one room—a bargain by anyone’s standards. Parc du Gros Cap, 800-986-4505, www.parcdegroscap.ca

La Salicorne is a lovely resort with beautiful rooms overlooking two different bays. It has a wonderful restaurant (reservations necessary) serving fresh fish—in particular beautiful, large lobsters caught that morning—and local produce. Under the direction of Robert St-Onge, La Salicorne is also a campsite, with 23 spots, seven of which come equipped with toilets and electricity. Most important, it is also home to a wonderful variety of day activities that include—depending on one’s age (minimum 14) and experience—cave explorations, mud baths, bird watching and geological expeditions, shell fishing (and making what you’ve caught for dinner!), and many different forms of kayaking under the expert direction of 23-year-old Emmanuel Longuépée Arseneau (and don’t worry about his youth; he’s been at it since the age of 17).

Unusual Places to Visit

Lest you might think the Magdalen Islands are little more than a hub of physical activity, it’s also a fun place to shop, with many quaint and fascinating stores that contain locally made jewelry, mementos, and clothing (the fishermen’s shirts are particularly beguiling). One of the more unusual shops to visit is Artisans du Sable, which features many different toys, sculptures, and articles made entirely of local sand. Enjoyable for adults, the shop is particularly welcoming to children, allowing them to touch, wriggle their feet in, and look at sand in a completely new way. Artisans du Sable, www.artisansdusable.com

For those in search of a treat for the taste buds, several destinations are essential to visitors to the Magdalen Islands. The Fromagerie du Pied-De-Vent, owned by Jérémie and Lucie Arseneau, is a local cheese making factory—the only one on the islands, in fact—and their specialties, two raw-milk cheeses called Piet-De-Vent and La Tomme des Demoiselles, are scrumptious (and not easily carried out of the country, so treat yourself on the spot and enjoy them here). And whether you’re a connoisseur or just in search of something new, a visit to Le Fumoir D’Antan, a herring smoking factory, is also great fun. A family tradition of the Arseneau family since the 1940s, the factory was renovated in 1996 with the reappearance of the herring shoals around the archipelago. Following the start of the herring season in April, the fish are taken to the plant for washing, brining, stringing, smoking over a fire of hardwood and sawdust, and finally packing—a painstaking and complex process that also yields fabulous amounts of smoked salmon and mackerel, all of which are incredibly delicious (and all transportable out of the country). Workshops are also available for those wishing to view the process from start to finish. Le Fumoir D’Antan, www.fumoirdantan.com

And if these visits have sufficiently whetted your taste buds, you might wish to head on over to the local micro-brewery, À l’abri de la Tempête (In the Shelter of the Storm), located immediately adjacent to the stunning Dune de l’Ouest on Cap aux Meulnes island. Manufacturing eight different kinds (and strengths) of beer, guides lead the visitor through every stage of the brewing process in the plant, allowing him to taste the beers at each phase, from grain to finished product. There’s a warm and congenial pub upstairs from the plant where visitors can relax and unwind while savoring one of the delicious variety of microbrews they manufacture. There’s also a boutique where the visitor can purchase any of the beers, as well as a range of souvenirs—T-shirts and sweatshirts, for example—emblazoned with the brewery’s logo, making for a cool souvenir.
Where to Eat, Where to Stay:

The Choices Couldn’t be Tougher

With so many places to visit, so many activities to partake in, and so many samples of regional specialties available to the visitor, one’s mind naturally turns to where to stay, and where to have a “real meal.” Not to worry—the islands are dotted with literally dozens of fabulous places to eat and beautiful places to stay. Stopping for lunch at La Maisonée des Îles is a great place to start. Don’t let its somewhat diner-like façade fool you: inside this cozy family restaurant can be found a scrumptious array of lobster sandwiches, juicy hamburgers, and seafood dishes that will make your mouth water.

For a truly memorable occasion (and a genuine splurge), no visit to the islands would be complete without a dinner at La Table des Roy. Run by chef-owner Johanne Vigneault, this ultra-high-end restaurant offers an incredible menu that rivals any restaurant a jaded New Yorker might be used to. Offering two two-person tasting menus, La Table des Roy then proceeds to unfold an à la carte menu featuring lobster, sweetbreads, risotto, pork, and a truly amazing bouillabaisse—the best this reporter has ever had. A dessert specialty is a maple syrup soufflé that lingers on the tongue long after the meal has concluded. Reservations strongly recommended. La Table des Roy, www.latabledesroy.com

Another superb meal is to be found at l’Auberge Chez Denis à François, which doubles as a charming place to stay, with eight smoke-free rooms, each with their own bathroom, shower, phone and cable TV. Using lumber from an 1874 shipwreck, Edmond Brasset built himself this charming house, preserved more than 125 years later as an inn that won the Grands Prix du Tourisme in 2004. The food’s the thing here. The restaurant at Chez Denis à François is intimate, with a sophisticated menu that features mostly seafood products, highlighting regional dishes, as well as a carefully chosen list of fine wines.

More Places to Stay

One of the Magdalen Islands’ most charming qualities is its preservation of the past by having converted historical buildings into contemporary places to stay. Open all year round, La Butte Ronde, a converted former schoolhouse run by life partners and co-hosts Ghislain and Guy, is a charming bed and breakfast containing five non-smoking bedrooms ranging from $100 to $145 a night, all with ocean views, wireless Internet, aromatherapy products, and hair dryer. Two free bikes are also available for clients. There’s a large living room, veranda and patio overlooking stunning sunsets each evening. It’s a lovely and quiet place to stay, with gourmet breakfasts personally served each morning by Ghislain and Guy.

La Butte Ronde, info@labutteronde.com, www.labutteronde.com

Another superb place to stay is Havre-sur-Mer, located 100 feet from the water and perched on a stunning bluff. It contains nine rooms and three studios. The rooms are flooded with light and offer dazzling views of the ocean or the bay and fishermen’s wharf. Some have patio doors that open onto balconies directly facing the water and range from $99 for a small room with double-sized bed and bathroom to $225 a month for a two-floor apartment, suitable for a family. It’s a dream-like place run by owner Thérèse Bergeron. Havre-sur-Mer, auberge@havresurmer.com, www.havresurmer.com
Last but not least, attention must be paid to the Domaine du Vieux Couvent (The Old Convent), a stunning renovation of a building that took four years to build, from 1914 to 1918, and the only building made of stone on the islands. Over the course of the past century, the building has gone through numerous owners, until the present one, Réginald Poirier, took over in 1987. In the ensuing years, the number of employees at the Vieux Couvent has increased from nine to more than 40. The luxurious rooms, all facing the water, range from $150 to $275 a night. Its location, just a stone’s throw away from the beach, with its rugged cliffs and crashing waves, is a visual treat and a stunning way to remember the rugged paradise that is Les Îsles de la Madeleine. Domaine du Vieux Couvent, www.domaineduvieuxcouvent.com How to Get There

Air Canada offers flights from New York to Montreal, proceeding onward, with a few stops (but no deplaning), to Les Îsles de la Madeleine.

Air Canada,(888-247-2262, www.aircanada.com; Quebec Tourism, Vicky Taylor, vicki.taylor@tourisme.gouv.qc.ca; Suzie Loiselle, suzie.loiselle@quebecmaritime.ca

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