Perhaps the Creator said, "Let us take some MicMacs, some French and Acadians, some Basques and some Bretons, and some English for good measure. Let them number around 30,000. And let us place them on a few windswept sand bars in the mouth of a great river where the winters are harsh. And let us see how they fare." Well, they seem to fare very well on those windswept sand bars that are Québec's and Canada's Îles de la Madeleine in the mouth of the St. Lawrence. The sea and the land provide in abundance: fish and seafood, rich cream and cheese. Most of the residents are bilingual and - it seems - all welcome visitors with open arms. There are wonderful small places to stay, delicious food, arts and crafts galore, music everywhere and spectacular walks. And then there are the colours: the azure sea and sky, the deep red cliffs, the green valleys and fields, the abundant wild flowers and those houses ... all seemingly painted in different colour combinations. It really is unique and magical.
It's hard to count the many islands of the Magdalen Archipelago as some are tentatively linked by narrow sand dunes, but there are seven main islands, from south to north: Île du Havre Aubert (the largest), Île du Cap Aux Meules (where the ferries and cruise ships arrive), Île du Havre aux Maisons (home to the airport), Île de la Pointe aux Loups, Île de Grosse Île and Île de la Grande Entrée. All are linked by the main 88 km-long highway 199. It's a great drive with almost constant ocean and beach views. In fact, the archipelago offers hundreds of kilometres of fine, sandy beaches, but don't leave the islands on your wish list for too long: about two feet of coastline are being lost to erosion and rising sea levels each season.
I sampled three different properties, visited several others, and enjoyed lunch and dinner in a different location - from casual to fancy - each day. The food is a highlight with offerings from the sea and land, augmented by other fine gourmet delights from the mainland.
On the southern-most island, Île du Havre Aubert, Havre Aubert is a charming harbour-side town in the south that you should not miss, especially if you like to browse some shops and galleries. Here you can find trendy clothes and unique locally-made sweaters and offerings from artisans from around the islands. I bought my husband a rustic and charming boat model made from driftwood for $20 and it was wrapped as though it came from Tiffanys!
Do visit the Musée de la Mer nearby, a great place to start your visit, as the museum is full of local interest. Here you'll learn about the aboriginals, conquerors, pioneers, fisher-folk and shipwrecked men who made the islands their home. There are models of lighthouses, model boats, navigational instruments, artifacts from shipwrecks, fishing facts and stories, tales of survival and tragedy, a geological display showing the local salt industry and fascinating old photographs, all with excellent bilingual signage. I enjoyed Jacques Cartier's early account, which led so many adventurers to the islands to hunt walrus for their oil and tusks: "Around this island there are many large animals like oxen, from whose snouts project two large teeth like elephant tusks, and who go into the sea."
More local knowledge can be gleaned at the Aquarium des Îles de la Madeleine where visitors can touch and wonder. I've intrigued my friends ever since my visit with a great photograph of a bright blue lobster ... apparently one in a million! Local seafarers bring live exhibits to the little aquarium throughout the spring and summer and then, before
the facility closes for winter, the creatures are released back into the wild.
For my first night's sleep, I remained in Havre-Aubert at the charming Auberge Chez Denis à François near renowned Sandy Hook beach. This beach has not always been a welcoming one: in 1874 a fierce storm caused a ship to be washed ashore here and it was lumber from that ship's cargo that was used to build the solid house that is now the inn above. Today, its sunny yellow colour welcomes visitors, as do its rooms and dining room, where I enjoyed my first island dinner: a hearty seafood stew, made all the more welcome because rain had enveloped this cozy inn.
My hosts pointed me in the direction of another unique attraction in this area: the one-of-a-kind Artisans du Sable studio where sand from the islands is transformed into unusual sand sculptures. Visitors can see the sand collection from around the world, watch the sculpting process and, of course, browse in the extensive, modern gift shop.
Cap-aux-Meules, the largest of the islands, is the next one north. Here, I'd heard of a company (located in Fatima
in the north of the island) called Vert et Mer that arranges unusual programs. How about a small group (2 - 6 people) sunset sea kayak excursion to appreciate the red cliffs from the sea and to enjoy a crab supper? Or a day or
two-night trip respectively over to Île d'Entrée or Brion Island (home to an Ecological Reserve) for guided nature walks, lunch, visits to the historical sites and time to explore or relax on your own and, on Brion Island, to camp. I was especially intrigued to hear about the
company's yurt campsite in the nearby Arsènes Valley.
Company hosts Fanny and Sébastien were up for a short hike and offered to show me the site and share lunch with me in a yurt. What a great experience.
As we walked through the lush valley they explained how their company follows a 'leave no
trace' principal in all its activities. Soon we reached the yurt, set on a platform beside a pond and stream. This site can be booked by couples, families and groups of up to four; there are beds and mattresses (sleeping bags can be rented), compost toilets, wood stove and propane cooking, outdoor barbecue and a campfire site. There's even parking nearby for those who have ambitious meal plans. Sébastien seemed to have brought a rather large back-pack for a short excursion, but I was soon to find out why. He lit the stove, fiddled with a large pot and some seasonings and soon was opening his pack to reveal an enormous bag of mussels! With local cheese to follow it was a memorable meal indeed.
My next two nights were spent in my favourite island accommodation: La Butte Ronde on Île du Havre aux
Maisons (the airport island, so an excellent first choice for visitors). I'd met my hosts - Ghislain and Guy before so I
was delighted to be welcomed by them into their charming
home, a converted school house. The five beautiful, en
suite rooms open onto the large
reception and breakfast room, which gives the property a
wonderful home-away-from-home atmosphere.
Cows grazed on the hill behind my bedroom window, while from
the reception room we could see the sea in the distance and the colourful neighbouring
homes. We set out to the nearby Domaine du Vieux Couvent, a hotel
with a fine dining room. Ask for a table on the windowed terrace overlooking the sea.
Food was on my mind the next day, too, as I set out on this island to visit the Fumoir d'Antan, a traditional smokehouse where the Arseneau family has been smoking herring for three generations. The group taking the tour all gasped when shown the fires smoldering on the ground floor of the massive wooden smokehouse. Apparently, maple and birch is imported from the Maritime Provinces. There's an orientation centre and museum here, where I learned that the facility employs 100 workers who smoke one million pounds of herring, salmon, mackerel and eel per annum. We were told about dwindling and increasing fish stocks, new fishing regulations and their impact and had the opportunity to buy some of the highly-flavoured products. Then it was off to see the small factory producing one of the island's most renowned offerings - the Pied de Vent cheese, made with unpasteurized milk from cows that graze on the salty-wind-swept grass of the islands. Visitors can watch the process through the large windows of the little store and, of course, make purchases not only of the cheese but of baguettes and terrines, perfect for a picnic on the nearby cliffs or beach.
The northernmost islands were beckoning near trip's end. If travelling with children, there's no better place to stay than the large, relaxed Auberge la Salicorne, formerly known as Club Vacances "Les Îles." My previous nights had been quiet and intimate. La Salicorne is the opposite. It's a relaxed resort offering 26 rooms and 23 campsites and a large cafeteria-style dining room. They offer an extensive program of activities for all ages: bicycles and boats are available for rent, including canoes, pedal boats, kayaks, rabaskas and sailboards and there are interpretive nature walks as well as an adjoining Seal Interpretation Centre. From late May to the end of June, lobster is served every evening and breakfast and dinner are included in the packages. Young people used the computers and games in the public areas and enjoyed the live music after dinner.
It is said that sailors painted their fishing boats in different colours so they could easily be recognized, and then used any left-over paint on their homes. To add to the colour, wild iris were blooming on the cliffs and white daisies were abundant in the gardens.
There are regular Air Canada Jazz flights (aboard Dash 8's) from Gaspé, Montreal and Québec City. Or take a five-hour ferry ride from PEI, or cruise from Montreal (mid June - end September).
There are two car rental companies located at the airport: Hertz and Nadine Leblanc Location d'Autos,
www.hertz.ca, tel: 418 969 4229 and
www.tourismeilesdelamadeleine.com/magdalen-islands/, tel: 418 969 9001. There is also Cap-aux-Meules Honda
www.capauxmeuleshonda.com, tel: 418 986 4085, who are not located at the airport but they go anywhere to pick up including the airport or at the ferry/cruise area in Cap-aux-Meules. It is important to reserve in advance, especially during the summer months, as obviously there are a limited amount of cars. If you wish to take you own car, you can do so via the car ferry from PEI.
Food everywhere is wonderful with abundant local seafood, fish, smoked seal and herring pâtés, fish cakes, local cheeses as well as every delicacy under the sun imported from the Québec mainland. Try the Auberge les Pas Perdus opposite the ferry docks in Cap-aux-Meules, an informal café popular with locals as well as visitors. Lunch at La Maison d'Eva-Anne on Havre-aux-Maisons was excellent, as was lunch in Café la Côte in the charming Etang-du-Nord fishing harbour. And then there was a very posh dinner at La Table des Roy also in Etang-du-Nord. And for another special treat, don't forget the Domaine du Vieux Couvent mentioned in the article. All restaurants are listed in the Official Tourist Guide.
Where to stay
Auberge Chez Denis à François, B&B from $65 single and $85 double. tel: 418 937 2371,
La Butte Ronde, B&B from $100, tel: 418 969 2047, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org,
Domaine du Vieux Couvent, tel: 418 969 2233,
www.domaineduvieuxcouvent.com, rates from $125.
I'd like to recommend another property on Havre Aubert Island. I drove past Havre sur Mer and popped in. I was given a warm welcome and a tour by owner Thérèse Bergeron. There are lovely rooms and studios in an adjoining building; every corner is light and airy with lovely views. If you wish to self cater here you may do so in a tiny well-equipped communal kitchen. Many guests do, I was told, all of which results in lots of shared cooking and food! High season rates from $99 which includes a 'multi-course gourmet breakfast. Tel: 418 937 5675, and take a peek at
Auberge la Salicorne, $312 - $314 double for a three-night stay, breakfast and dinner included.
There are many houses available for rent in the summer months, not because the islanders leave their island home, but because many have trailers and camper vans which they take to the beach for their family vacation.
Some attractions and tours
Musée de la Mer, Havre-Aubert, tel: 418 937 5711, daily from 24 June until Labour Day, admission $5.
Aquarium des Îles de la Madeleine, Havre Aubert, tel: 418 937 2277,
www.aquariumdesiles.net/, daily, beginning of June - end of August, admission $6.50.
Artisans du Sable: route 199, tel: 418 937 2917,
www.quebecmaritime.ca/artisanssable, open daily, free.
Vert et Mer is located at 633 chemin des Caps, Fatima, tel: 418 986 3555, e-mail: email@example.com,
Fumoir d'Antan and the Pied-de-Vent cheese factory are located on Île du Havre aux Maisons. They can easily be found using the map in the Tourist Guide.
Those in search of an adrenalin rush may like to find Aerosport in Etang-du-Nord, the centre for kiting, snow kiting, buggies, tours and all equipment rentals. Tel: 1 866 986 6677,
If you do not wish to drive, Damien Deraspe of Autobus Les Sillons is an island expert. He and his team are very knowledgeable and he speaks excellent English. His company offers all kinds of island tours as well as vehicle rentals. Give him a call at 418 986 3886 or visit
When to go
My trip was during early July, but the Madelinots welcome visitors in all seasons. There's a special treat in winter, when the nomadic harp seals begin their southward migration and pause on the islands to calve on the vast ice fields. For winter adventurers, there's also sea kayaking, Zodiac tours, dog-sled tours and all the gliding/sliding ice sports you can imagine. Spring and fall also bring special delights: wild flowers in the former and bright days and cooler temperatures in the latter, ideal for photography, hiking etc.
For more information
Tourisme Îles de la Madeleine, tel: 1 877 624 4437, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit:
www.quebecmaritime.ca. For information on the islands, the office is located at 128 Chemin Principal in Cap aux Meules. The excellent tourism people produce an Official Tourist Guide and many brochures, including Cycling Circuits and Hiking Trails, The Lighthouse Trail, A Sea of Culture brochure and an excellent map that shows camp grounds, bird-watching areas, hiking and cycling trails, lighthouse locations and so on.
It's March. So why am I standing on an ice floe in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence while everyone else is heading south to bask in the sun? Am I insane? No, inspired, because I'm surrounded by les bebes phoques (baby seals), protected - or sometimes not - by their powerful mothers. (An adult harp seal weighs 286 lbs or more). By late February, hundreds and thousands of harp seals, and some hooded seals, have migrated from Greenland to give birth on the ice floes off les Iles de la Madeleine.
This is the only place in the world where people can hobnob with the button-eyed white-coats. ( Harp seals also give birth off the coast of Labrador, but they're not set up for tourists.) Last year 34% of the visitors were from Japan. "They have two reasons to visit Canada," said Anne Bourgeois of Tourisme Iles de la Madeleine: "Anne of Green Gables and the seals. It's almost a religious experience for them."
The Chateau Madelinot offers Seal Observation packages. Their guestbook was filled with ecstatic comments in Japanese, many with charming sketches and photos. "Europeans and Americans visit too, but very few Canadians."
"Why not?" I asked.
"They want to go where it's warm."
There are three visits a day to the ice floes, lasting for three hours, although a few intrepid souls may go for six. I wasn't ready to take the early morning flight, but was at the window admiring the pink rays of dawn. Black figures, stark against the snow, trekked down to jolly little helicopters, red, blue, white, like children's whirligigs, and flew away. Then a sudden blaze of light , a splash of gold over "the living lunar landscape."
Over breakfast I read the brochure of safety instructions. How to behave around helicopters and irritated mother seals, what to wear. I had wondered if I might need two sets of long johns, but we were outfitted with bright yellow Mustang 'survival suits' heavy boots and crampons. Orange balaclavas were on offer if we had forgotten hats, and we were told to bring sunscreen and sun-glasses because of the glare from the ice.
Suitably clad, we waddled down from the hotel, like yellow penguins and clambered up into the helicopter, then flew over a panorama of sky, snow and ice everywhere, while the pilot searched for a nursery. They use computers, experience, satellite imaging - and the weather report - as a guide. The ice fields move constantly, so every day different pups are visited, which prevents stress.
We were lucky. Within fifteen minutes, our helicopter descended .The black dots and mounds of ice turned into large sleek mothers and their fat snowy babies. There was a chorus of sound: mewling like indignant kittens or howling like wolves. No wonder the Madelinots call seals loups-marins (wolves of the sea). The pack seemed agitated by the helicopter noise, but soon settled down.
With their doleful eyes and frisky frost-fringed whiskers, the white-coats are unbearably cute. One mother was off fishing, so our guide, Leonard Chevrier, soothed a friendly cub, turning it into a living fur pillow. It lay absolutely still, even when placed on top of a blissful Montrealer. "I'm in love," she cried, while her friend took many many pictures.
"The mothers don't reject them if they are handled by humans," Leonard told us. "But don't get between a mother and her baby. She's fast and can give a nasty bite." He also warned us to watch for thin ice in case of falling through for an unexpected cold bath.
What I did find difficult is the life of a baby seal, born into a howling wind, "frantically shivering until it grows its layers of fat." An irresponsible mother doesn't teach it survival skills and boots it out when approximately ten days old to fend for itself. Hooded seal parents are even worse, and only hang around for four days.
The small yellowish scraps are 24 lbs when first born. By four days, they turn to that dazzling white. Their mother's milk is so rich that they gain 5 pounds a day, mostly stored as blubber. By two weeks, when weaned, they weigh 80 pounds.
Most do survive. With almost no predators such as killer whales, polar bears or sharks in the region - except man - they seem to have a fine time when adults. One carefree mum, baby dozing like a giant powder puff nearby, spent half an hour popping in and out of a hole in the ice, gurgling, slithering along the floe like a living toboggan.
There was another hole nearby. "There's something down there," said Leonard. "It's a male, waiting to see if she's interested." There were a few angry swirls, but he never appeared.
It was time to struggle back into the helicopter. Back at the hotel, we shed our gear and headed to warm up in the bar in the basement, beside a swimming pool, There was a Jacuzzi and sauna for those who wanted to imitate seals.
Many guests went on the ice several times. According to the hotel guestbook, several people had made 3, 5, 10 trips from Japan! But I wanted to re-explore the rest of the island which I had visited six years ago - in summer.
Even in winter there is still plenty to do. Le Musee de la Mer offers "Four Centuries of Adventure" a stirring record of shipwrecks, naval battles and navigation. On the first afternoon, we drove by half a dozen carioles behind horses - a living eighteenth-century engraving. Tiny ice-fishing huts decorated the harbour, miniature versions of the rainbow-coloured houses.
And then there was ice-kayaking. "What do you think of my office?" asked Sebastien Cote. We were floating around the harbour past ships docked for the winter.
"Not bad," I answered. Once again, I'd struggled into a survival suit and boots with a strange rubber skirt added to cover the space above my seat in the kayak. I was lowered in to the kayak - back to being Michelin Woman - and then we were off, gliding past fishing boats at rest, red sandstone cliffs outlined by white snow. Nature's sculpture was everywhere, small icebergs piled into fantastic crystal shapes with hints of blue.
Sebastien Cote and his partner Fanny Arsenau are both naturalists and guides, Now they run an ecological company called Vert et Mer. You can go kayaking, winter and summer, ice-fishing, kite-skiing or snowshoe in to "the Mound of the Wind" and sleep in a Mongolian yurt!
I was tempted, but preferred to stay at the hotel, watching the silent figures trudging bravely out in the Arctic dawn. Like the Madelinot saying: I was Heureux comme un chien dans une boite de truck. ( Happy as a dog in the front of a truck) .
Mary Alice Downie writes for Kingston Life Magazine and contributes to Fifty-five Plus, Good Times, Forever Young and many other magazines as well as a food blog, 'Edible Souvenirs' on the website
kingstonlife.ca. She is the author of 28 books for children and adults.