By MERLE ROSENSTEIN
On the Islands, rolling hills are carpeted with emerald fields and peppered with tiny wooden homes in hues of orange, yellow, purple, red and blue. Rust coloured cliffs yield caves chiseled out of limestone leading down to windswept white-sand beaches. Blissfully free of high rises, billboards and freeways, the Madgalen Islands (Les Îles de la Madeleine in French) invite quiet contemplation and outdoor adventure such as kite surfing, kayaking and cycling.
The alluring archipelago rests in the Gulf of St. Lawrence 105 km by sea Prince Edward Island. Linked by long, narrow sand dunes, the six main islands stretch 65 km from end to end in the form of a fish hook.
Cycling trails connect the islands and biking is an excellent way to witness the day-to-day of fisherman hauling fresh lobster from the sea and local Acadian culture. Along the way, you can pick up smoked mackerel and homemade bread for picnics on the beach.
Here are just some of the delights of these tiny islands off Quebec’s Maritime coast.
In Pointe de la Grande Entrée, the largest fishing wharf in Quebec and the province’s lobster capital, stroll along rows of boats to see fresh lobster being crated by friendly fisherman.
Salt of the Earth
On Grosse Île, Mines Seleine (56 chemin Principal; 418-985-2318) produces rock salt sold for use on Quebec’s icy winter roads. Mined 400 metres below the surface of the islands, the salt comes from huge domes forming the base of the islands. A visitor centre explains the process used to secure the salt.
For a trip back in time, visit La Grave, the site of the original settlement on the Magdalen Islands and the beginning of the fishing industry. Here you will find historic buildings, restaurants and shops and the Musée de la Mer maritime museum and an aquarium. Stop by Artisans de Sable in nearby Havre-Aubert to peruse or purchase sand sculptures or to register for the international castle-building competition held each August.
On the Magdalen Islands you can cycle across all six main islands with the guidance of Vert et Mer, an ecotourism outfitter. Vert et Mer provides daily briefings on where to stop along the route, a detailed map, snacks and transportation back to your accommodation.
Fish fans will want to take the tour offered by Fumoir D’Antan to learn how herring was smoked at the beginning of the last century. Across the archipelago smokehouses employed hundreds of workers. Fumoir D’Antan preserves this proud heritage.
Where to Eat
Watch the sun set over the Gulf of St.Lawrence from the elegant dining room of Domain du Vieux Couvent, a bistro-style restaurant offering dishes made with Island specialties such as herring, mackerel, lobster and clams (try a bit of everything in the rich bouillabaisse) and locally made cheeses from the Fromagerie du Pied-de-Vent (49 chemin Pointe-Basse, Havre-aux-Maisons; 418-969-9292).
Where to Stay
Built between 1914 and 1918, Domaine du Vieux Couvent was a school for young teachers trained by the nuns of the Notre Dame Congregation. The hotel offers ten cozy comfortable rooms with a breathtaking view on the sea.
How to Visit
Flights to the Islands are via Air Canada from Montreal or via Quebec-based Pascan Aviation from Quebec City, Montreal and other Quebec locations. You can also take your car via a ferry from Souris, Prince Edward Island.
CTMA Cruises offers a seven-day cruise from Montreal with three days on the Magdalen Islands, a Madelinot crew and Acadian entertainment.