QUEBEC’S ILES DE LA MADELEINE
It is the middle of the night. I am bundled up against the cold and damp and down at the main wharf on Grande Entrée watching the lobster boats slip from the harbour in an organized procession. Their bright guiding lights illuminate the dark and rippled sea, as they churn out past the breakwater. I give the departing boats a jaunty wave and they blow their fog horns, likely wondering what brings a sane man out at this ungodly hour.
For those residents of the Iles de la Madeleine who make their living from the bountiful sea it is simply the business, a race to reach the fishing grounds by dawn where they will empty their traps, then re-bait and re-set. Some 125 colourful fishing boats all with fanciful names set out from the wharf on this morning. Fishing sustains the 13,000 year-round islanders; lobster, snow crab, scallops and mussels.
Flying into the Madeleines one gets a bird’s eye view of a slender chain of islands in the shape of a fishhook set out in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Six of its seven populated islands are linked by causeways and sand dunes, some 88 kilometres in length, while the seventh, Entry Island, is accessible only by boat. For centuries the islands were a seasonal destination for Mi’kmaqs in search of walrus meat. They named the archipelago “Menagoesenog,” meaning islands brushed by the waves. Indeed, it is impossible to escape the salty winds and constant crash of the sea.
These are breezy islands of fishing villages, pounding surf, dunes and lagoons, and miles of sandy beaches. Lush, rolling green hills contrast sharply with the rusty red, sea-sculpted, sandstone cliffs that jut precipitously up from an aqua sea. It is a treeless landscape, with winding roads hedged by lopsided telephone poles and scattered houses. Lobster creels are piled high beside the brightly coloured wooden homes painted vibrantly in purples, yellows and reds, giving the place an ethereal charm.
Equally as colorful and enchanting are the locals, the Madelinots. Nothing captures the distinctive character of each of the islands like a trip from one end of the archipelago to the other. The island’s remoteness has preserved its history and charm. Even though they are part of Quebec, the islands are closer geographically to Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and, in practical terms, they are an amalgam of all their neighbours. Everyone is welcoming and friendly, and everybody seems to make something, be it cheese, beer, art, pottery, or amazing culinary experiences.
At the Gourmande de Nature cooking school, I enjoyed a hands-on lobster lesson under the tutelage of chef and owner Johanne Vigneau – and, although my wife certainly finds this humorous, I believe I’ve earned this sea-to-table experience after my nighttime escapades with the boats. We are taught by our efficient and patient experts how to get every ounce of the lobster meat out of the shell and several delicious recipes are the result, including lobster salad bruschetta, Thai flavoured lobster bisque and lobster risotto. Vigneau also owns one of the top restaurants on the island, the Table des Roy.
On the island of Havreaux-Maisons a traditional smokehouse, Fumoir d’Antan, has been smoking herring for three generations. Once an important export industry with many family-owned smokehouses, because of the decline of the herring fishery, this is the last of its kind. Brothers Benoit and Daniel Arseneau smoke 30,000 pounds of herring a year in the traditional way, brined and hung high over smouldering piles of birch and maple.
Also worth a taste are the delectable, award winning cheeses at Fromagerie Pied-de-Vent. If the cheese and smoked fish make you thirsty, hop south to Havre-Aubert for a beer at the Madeleine’s lone microbrewery, and try the Corps Mort, (Dead Body), made from barley that spends time in the herring smoke house. The brewery, À l’abri de la Tempête, housed in a former fish factory, uses local ingredients as much as possible in their beers: wildflowers, algae and fresh herbs.
Also on this southernmost island, tourists flock to La Grave, one of Québec’s most picturesque seaside villages. The strip of historic shingled buildings on the water is home to local artisans, jewellers, and art galleries, as well as a first class maritime museum, a local-species aquarium and, a variety of cafes and restaurants. At Café de la Grave, while being entertained by traditional Acadian music, I bravely order seal meat poutine topped with Pied-de-Vent curds – interesting but fishy.
The most intriguing shop on the strip is Les Artisans du Sable, where a unique moulding process allows the gallery to create sculptural objects out of natural sand from the islands. Where I usually bring home a small vial of sand from the beachy places I visit, this time I carry the souvenir of a sand-sculptured clock. After-all, the locals have a saying on the Iles de la Madeleine, “On these islands we don’t have the hour, but we have the time.” Indeed, when visiting you will want to take your time – and it is time well spent.
IF YOU GO:
Getting there: The Iles de la Madeleines are not particularly easy or cheap to get to, which means they are not on the radar of many travellers. They are also remote. Until the 20th century, they were completely cut-off from the mainland during winter. Today you can fly there from Quebec City or Montreal, or travel via a five-hour ferry ride from Prince Edward Island. In the summer months, CTMA offers a unique seven day St. Lawrence River and Gaspé coast cruise from Montreal, which includes a three night stay on the Islands. Plan your trip between late June and mid-September to catch the best weather. www.cruisesctma.ca
Accommodations: For families or those seeking adventures, the best bet is Auberge La Salicorne in Grande-Entrée. The 26 comfortable rooms have private bathrooms, and rooms facing the sea have a view of the fishing boats heading out in the early morning. (Who knew I could have just watched them from my bed!) A number of packages are offered that include island tours, kayaking, and nature hikes. A Seal Interpretive Center is on site.
The historic Domaine du Vieux Couvent in Havre-aux-Maisons has a spectacular view of the sea and is one of the island’s only stone buildings. There are newly renovated rooms in the old convent and rental apartments in the presbytery. www.domaineduvieuxcouvent.com
The highly rated La Butte Ronde, in a former schoolhouse in Havre-aux-Maisons, is at the foot of the Round Mound for which it is named. Hike to the top for a stunning view of the island archipelago.
Information: www.quebecmaritime.ca or www.tourismeilesdelamadeleine.com
PHOTOS by Jamie Ross
1. Fishing Boats at Grande Entrée.
2. The rusty red sandstone cliffs sculpted by the sea.
3. An Island Lighthouse.
4. Cliffs eroded by the pounding sea.
5. Smoking herring at the Fumoir d’Antan. 6. Glass BlowingTravel Writers' Tales is an independent travel article syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers. To check out more, visit www.TravelWritersTales.com
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