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Les Iles de la Madeleine

  • Submitted by: Olaf Janzen
  • Submission Date: 04th Feb 2005

The Magdalen Islands are a delightful place to visit. They are a small string of islands belonging to Quebec and located in the Gulf of St. Lawrence north of PEI. The islands are of red sandstone, which is soft enough to be sculpted into fantastic shapes on many parts of the coast. They are also surprisingly hilly and covered in stunted spruce forest and boggy meadows, much like Newfoundland. However, most of the islands are also connected by roads; these take you over huge sand dunes that have formed out of sand bars and which give the islands most of their 140 miles of sand beaches. Together with Quebec's mildest climate, these beaches make the islands a popular destination with Quebec vacationers. Very few people from other provinces seem to have discovered these islands; when we were there in late June 1991, we counted only about a dozen license-plates belonging to non-Quebecois cars. Of course, the season was not yet at its height, and the weather again was cool, so that we never actually did more than get our knees wet. Two years ago, it was 103øF at this same time of the year!

We crossed over to the islands by car ferry from Souris, PEI. In 1990, the M/V "Lucy Maud Montgomery" charges $26 per adult one way plus $50 for the vehicle. You should reserve passage (you pay once you're on board; they take major credit cards); for ferry information (schedule, reservation) contact Traversier CTMA Ferry, C.P./P.O. Box 245, Cap-aux-Meules, Iles-de-la-Madeleine, Quebec, G0B 1B0 (tel: 418-986-3278 for reservations). To fly there is not so easy; Air Intair had a flight out of Montreal that stopped in Charlottetown (call 514-636-3890 in Montreal) and I think there was once an air connection with Halifax, but it may now be cancelled. Try Air Alliance for information (1-800-361- 8620). And, of course, for information about the islands themselves, contact the Association touristique des Iles-de-laMadeleine, C.P. 1028, Cap-aux-Meules, Iles-de-la-Madeleine, PQ, G0B 1B0 (tel: 418-986-2245; FAX: 418-986-2327). Tilden and Budget both have rental agencies on the islands, and Cap-aux-Meules Honda will rent mopeds and motorcycles as well. "Le Pedalier" is a shop that will rent (and repair) bicycles.

We spent most of our time on these islands driving about, exploring each of those that were accessible by road. The roads can be hilly on the islands themselves, but very flat on the sand bars connecting the islands. As a result, bicycles seem a logical way to travel about if you are not in a hurry. There are campgrounds, cabins, and B&Bs, but we stayed in the Auberge Madeli, a modern motel (no pool) on the main road in Cap-auxMeules. It's saving grace for us was that it had a pizzeria attached, where we had breakfasts. There are a number of restaurants, good, bad and indifferent, but the tourist office near the ferry terminal had the good sense to collect copies of the menus of the major restaurants, so you can get a good sense of prices and cuisine, if not necessarily reputation. Two or three of the restaurants are truly excellent, and one was world class. We never had time to sample them all. We like the Alexandre in Cap-aux-Meules, found La Mouliere (in an austerelooking inn called Au Vieux Couvent) a bit pretentious, though famed for its mussels, but the best (and most expensive) was "Les Tables des Roys", to which I took my wife on our 20th wedding anniversary; we left the kids at the motel with a pizza and cable television. The restaurant offered superb food in a style best described as "nouvelle cuisine de la mer". There were several courses, each with modest portions of food exquisitely prepared to be a delight to the taste buds and to the eye. I won't go into details, except to say that the food was exquisite, the wine list extremely generous in its choices, and the waiter outstanding. He was attentive and helpful when appropriate but never obtrusive. What really impressed me was that he was the only waiter, attending every table (there must have been about a dozen tables), yet he never appeared rushed, and we never felt that he was neglecting any single one of the tables. It was a most impressive performance, matching the quality of the meal. Possibly none of this sounds exceptional to you, if you've had Big City dining opportunities, but service like this, in an outof -the-way place like these islands, is astonishing when you consider what passes for restaurants and service here in Newfoundland.

We spent some time on the beach despite the cool weather, and one afternoon we took a two-hour trail ride on horse-back. None of us had ever ridden much before, so it was quite an experience. But a thoroughly enjoyable one, and the fellow in charge of our group (the four of us plus two other tourists) was very patient and good-natured about our abilities. The trail took us through the woods, over fields, then down to the beach, across the dunes, and back along the marsh on the other side of the dunes. In all, we must have ridden six or seven kilometres, usually at a walk, but occasionally trotting and once on the beach, even galloping.

By and large, we found the people friendly and helpful. French is the dominant language, and fortunately we had enough to get by, but the tourist industry clearly caters to Quebecois visitors, so don't be surprised or irritated by language difficulties. There's a fine maritime museum at Havre-Aubert, a salt mine you can visit (we didn't) at the northern end of the islands, wildlife reserves with trails, and lots of crafts and artisaneries (glassware, pottery, sweaters, and other stuff; "Les Artisans du sable" has an incredible range of very good quality crafts using sand as a theme). You can arrange fishing trips, visit an aquarium, try your luck at bird-watching, or go wind-surfing. The average water temperatures are fairly warm by Canadian standards: 17 degrees Celsius, as warm as 18 to 24 degrees in the shallower lagoons. If you're there in mid-August, there's an annual sandcastle contest on the beach in Havre-Aubert that sees some impressive creations.