Out in the cold clear water of the St. Lawrence can be found the Magdalen Islands, blessed with sublime beauty and the best lobster in the world. They are a little known gem and a must visit for anyone with an artistic eye and a taste for great seafood.
Les Iles Magique
It was floating in the surf that gave me my best view of Les Iles de la Madeleine.
I had just finished “L’excursion dans les Grottes”, body surfing through the caves along the cliffs. Before we began, our group instructor, Claude Boudrias, had us hold hands in a ring while he demonstrated how to right ourselves if tipped by the waves, and had outlined a zen-like game plan for enjoying the cave surfing expedition.
“Always let the sea take you,” Claude had said. “If a big wave comes, don’t fight it. Submit to the sea and she will protect you.” He had been right.
With a full wet suit to protect against the cold June water temperatures, all that had been required of me was to wait for the right wave. The crest then propelled me through the seven caves like a cork, sometimes to a sandy grotto, sometimes back out again through an exit channel.
Then, after having passed through the caves, I paddled around until I faced the coast, and there it was – a perfect view of the iles at their best.
To the right were the red cliffs of the bluff, topped with green marram grass, and ringed with caves and blue and white surf. To the left, in a small bay, was a white sand beach, totally deserted. Straight ahead were gently rolling green hills with one citron yellow clapboard house glowing in the centre.
And overhead, a big windswept sky.
It was a scene that could have been coloured with a child’s crayons. It is that brilliant light and pure colour that has made the islands a Mecca for photographers and painters. But there is more to the islands than beauty. The water sports, the food, the artisans and the friendliness of the islanders, have also wooed visitors.
Walking the twenty minutes to the caving excursion had given me time to question our instructor, Claude, about how he came to the islands.
“About five years ago, I fell in love with a girl from the islands and moved here to be with her. I’m still here. Lost the girl. Kept the islands.”
And then he added, “There’s magic here.”
Les Iles de la Madeleine, the Magdelan Islands in English, are a crescent shaped group of islands belonging to Quebec and located in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The archipelago is made up of a dozen islands, seven of which are inhabited, and the six largest of which are connected by sixty five kilometres of bridges and causeways. Ile d’Entrée, the only inhabited island not connected by road, is accessible by boat or daily ferry.
The archipelago is in fact the visible part of mountains of salt rising from the seabed on which the red sandstone of the islands rests. Iron oxide gives the cliffs their warm red tone, and the constant wind has carved the soft stone into fantastic shapes. There is great variety in the topography, surprising in such a small area. There are quite hilly areas, and black spruce forests, stunted by the wind, as well as marshlands and lagoons. And then there are over 300 kilometres of white sand beaches, sea caves and dunes.
The caves and the long smooth beaches are what make the ‘Maggies’ an ideal destination for the sporting traveller. In addition to body surfing in the caves at La Bluff on Grande Entrée Island, there is sea kayaking, windsurfing, horseback riding on the beaches and cycling. For a different twist, there is a company called Aerosport run by Eric Marchand, a world champion in snow sailing. Eric takes advantage of the island winds, that blow between nine and twenty-two knots, to teach something called traction kiting. The kites are attached to dune buggies, kayaks, or surfboards to provide an exhilarating ride along the shore or water.
Exertion creates an appetite, and the food on these islands is a delightful surprise. Because the islands are so isolated, I expected good but simple fare. What I got was something that reminded me of meals I had enjoyed in fine restaurants in France. Who expected three perfect slices of foie gras served with wild cranberries and Muscat gelee for a starter, followed by scallops and veal sweatbreads in a port wine sauce, accompanied by lobster ravioli and mushrooms, and finished with a perfect lemon soufle? That was dinner at La Table des Roy in La Verniere.
Or eight different versions of mussels, including moules au bleu - mussels in a blue cheese wine sauce- and moules aux deux moutards- mussels in a sauce that included two different mustards- which were the specialty of Le Mouliere au Vieux Couvent? Or a perfect lobster risotto, or, amazingly delicious, vanilla lobster prepared by Dijon-trained Patrick Mathey at La Maree Haute in Havre-Aubert?
Breakfast was unexpectedly generous. The island is dotted with auberges, intimate inns with a few rooms on the upper floor and a dining room on the main. They are generally charming, usually brightly painted in the traditional style of the island and immaculately clean. For $115 a night for a double room in high season, I had expected a simple breakfast. But at Chez Denis a Francois, an auberge built originally from wood reclaimed from a ship wrecked on the Sandy Hook in 1874, my morning started with eggs Benedict, fresh fruit, roasted potatoes, meat pie, baked beans, orange juice, and a huge bowl of café au lait. There were purple pansies on the plate, too. Another morning it was feather light crepes filled with yoghurt and fresh fruit, napped with an apricot sauce.
It is at the table that the Madelinot spirit becomes most obvious. They are fiercely proud of their island and its authentic products. The sauce for my eggs Benedict was made from a local cheese, the unpasturized and aromatic Pied-de-Vent. This rich soft cheese is made by Vincent Lalonde from milk produced by a heritage breed of cheese-milk cows, the Canadienne, and it appears on almost every menu on the island. It was central to the flavourful quiche served at Le Pas Perdus. It was the main event for the raclette served at La P’Tite Baie, and it was the special flavour, along with the local wild cranberries and honey, in the spring roll served at Chez Diane. It even appeared in a sauce for one of the mussel dishes at the Vieux Couvent.
Central to the islands’ cuisine is, of course, the seafood. I was lucky enough to visit at the height of the lobster season, which lasts from early May to early July. On every menu was lobster salad, lobster club, lobster rolls, and just plain fresh cooked lobster with melted butter. The islands claim to have the best lobster in the world, due to the cold water and rocky seabed. You can watch the fishermen unload their boats at the docks on Grand d’Entrée, and then stroll a few feet away to the little restaurant, Delice de la Mer, and have a lobster lunch with the same men who caught the tasty crustaceans.
One of the least pretentious seafood sources, and a favourite of locals, is Les Pecherie Gros-Cap, a lobster processing plant, in L’Etang-du-Nord. The ground floor store is an eyefull, stocked with platters of lobster tails and bowls of fresh scallops. They will box and ship the lobsters for you, either live or cooked. But the real secret lies upstairs. There you will find La Factrie, a basic cafeteria, no different in appearance from what you might discover in a hospital or a school, except for the large window that looks out over the processing plant. But the menu! Seafood chowder, imperial lobster rolls, fried calamari, smoked salmon, lobster crepes, sushi, and ‘pot en pot’, the island specialty, a seafood pie filled with several different kinds of seafood and fish, topped with a flaky crust. Prices are modest, and the fish couldn’t be fresher.
In addition to lobster, the island also produces scallops, snow crab, mussels, several varieties of local fish, and seal meat.
Another local product that appears on many menus is the result of the resurrection of a once doomed industry. The fishing and smoking of herring flourished on the islands until the mid 1960’s when herring stocks declined and the smokehouses closed. But in the 1990’s the herring returned and the Arseneau family rebuilt and restored the Fumoir D’Anton, both as a herring smokehouse and an economuseum. It showcases the heritage and history of the smokehouse industry, and provides tastings and products for sale in a small boutique.
The Madelinots celebrate their unique identity, not only in their food, but in the high value they place on their Acadian heritage. The Acadian flag, blue white and red with a yellow star, appears frequently. The colourful houses on the island are a holdover from the days when the fishers used them as ways to locate their traps and nets. Now it is a style that is preserved with pride, though it also helps to brighten the foggy grey months of winter.
The Madelinot identity is prominent in the art of the islands as well. La Grave is a small artists community in Havre-Aubert. It sits on the rocky beach which was the landing place for the Acadians who were expelled from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island by the English in 1755.
Painters, sculptors and jewellery makers work here in small studios, many using indigenous products in their crafts. One of the most authentic is the Artisans Du Sable, another economuseum founded in 1981 by two artists, Niclole Gregoire and Albert Cummings. The products are made from local sand mixed with epoxy, and the designs are simple and beautiful. Graceful urns, large platters and classic hourglasses are just some of the objects formed from the sand. There is one wall covered with samples of sand from all over the world.
The cafés in La Grave are a good place to meet locals, especially the Café de la Grave, converted from a general store to a bistro in 1980.
For a different slice of island life, take the daily ferry, or hire one of the zodiacs available in Cap-au-Meules, formerly Grindstone, to Ile d’Entrée. This island, a one hour boat ride, is home to about 130 English speaking inhabitants. It has the look and feel of the Scottish countryside, with green rolling hills and scattered cottages. It is a good place for hiking, and Big Hill is the highest point in the archipelago, where you can get one of the best views of Havre-Aubert and Sandy Hook. There is one small restaurant, a shop and a seasonal B&B, but few other amenities on the island.
Back on the main islands, another English enclave can be found on Ile de Grand- Entrée, the lobster capital of Quebec. Here also is Club Vacances Les Iles, a nonprofit organization developed to introduce travelers to the islands. It includes a hotel, a Seal Interpretive Centre and sporting activities. It’s where you can arrange sea kayaking or the cave expeditions, or book packages, like their Totally Lobster package, or the Secrets of September, that include sporting activities and tours of the islands as well as accommodation and meals. One of their activities is a hike along Boudreau Island where, for a sybaritic treat, you can enjoy a mud bath, or if it’s chilly, just a mud mask, with the fine red mud dug on the island. If you allow the mud to dry in the sun, it washes off leaving your skin smooth and tingling.
Also on Grand-Entrée it is possible to visit some of the prettiest beaches on the islands, Old Harry, and La Grande-Echouerie, as well as the old port and the historic Anglican church.
Before the islands were joined by Route 199, completed in 1956, the easiest way that the Madelinots could visit each other was by walking along the beaches from one community to the next. The visits, however, were dependant on the tides. It is an old island saying, in reply to “When will we see you again?” to answer –“ une bonne maree” – when there is a good tide. It has become a euphemism for something that translates into “with luck, I’ll see you soon.”
Hopefully, ‘une bonne maree” will bring you to the Iles de la Madeleine.
If You Go:
For general information about the islands, visit http://www.tourismeilesdelamadeleine.com/, or call 1-877-624-4437. While the majority of the islanders speak French as their first language, most are bilingual.
When To Visit: July and August are busy months on the islands. Best times to visit are in June, when the weather is mild and the lobster is in season, or September, when the temperatures remain pleasant and the rhythm of the islands is more sedate. In winter, there are also helicopter excursions onto the ice to observe the seals. Shoulder season and off season prices are very reasonable.
By Air: Partners of the major national airlines make several daily flights to the islands. Air Canada runs flights from Toronto to Quebec City, with a connecting flight which stops briefly in Gaspe before continuing on to the Iles de la Madeleine.
By Sea and Car: Ferry services run between the Iles de la Madeleine and Sourie, Prince Edward Island. It’s a five hour trip, and several crossings take place every day during the summer. Reservations are recommended for the months of July and August.
Ferry Cruise on the St. Lawrence: From mid-May until mid-October, the ferry M.V. CTMA Vacancier sails from Montreal to the Iles de la Madeleine, with stops in Quebec City, and Matane. Part car ferry, part cruise ship, the rooms are basic, but the dining room is attractive and there is nightly entertainment, a work out room, and wonderful views of the Gaspe and the St. Lawrence. For details, visit: http://www.cyma.ca/
Where To Stay: Accomodation ranges from hotels, inns, resorts and cottages to campgrounds and single rooms. The little auberges are attractive, authentically Madelinot in style, and very affordable.
Auberge Denis a Francois, Havre-Aubert, tel:(418)937-2371 or http://www.aubergechezdenis.ca/
La Maree Haute, Havre-Aubert, tel:(418)937-2492 or www.ilesdelamadeleine.com/mareehaute
Club Vacances Les Iles, Grande-Entrée, tel:toll free: 1-888-537-4537 or http://www.clubiles.qc.ca/
Where to Eat: Food on the island is exceptional, ranging from the ‘resto-bars’ to sophisticated dining rooms.
La Table des Roy, La Verniere, tel: (418)986-3004, or email Johanne Vigneault, the chef/proprietor at email@example.com
Le Pas Perdus, Cap-Aux-Meules, tel: (418)986-5151 or http://www.pasperdus.com/
La P’tite Baie,Havre-aux-Maisons, telL418)969-4073 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Chez Diane, Ile du Cap-aux-Meules; tel:((418)986-4686
La Maree Haute, Havre-Aubert, tel:(418) 937-2492
Le Mouliere Au Vieux Couvent, Havre_aux-Maisons, tel:(418)969-2233
Helpful Reading: The Adventurers Guide to the Magdalen Islands. By George Fischer and published by Nimbus, is a paperback that gives you an intimate and detailed tour of the islands.
Another book by George Fischer, The Magdalens – Islands of Sand, is a coffee table book filled with gorgeous photographic images of the islands.
For the history of the islands, try Frederuc Kandry’s Captains of the Shoals, published by La Boussole in both English and French.
© Barbara Ramsay Orr