Much to discover and enjoy, in any weather.
Text and Photos by Julia Bayly
“Would you like some dried herring with that?”
There’s an offer you don’t get in too many pubs. Unless of course you find yourself on Iles de la Madeleine where the briny morsel is considered a must-have accompaniment with a tall, cold one.
Located 65 miles east of Prince Edward Island, Iles de la Madeleine is a 40-mile long strip of five islands connected by bridges and causeways. A sixth island sits alone and accessible by boat 10 miles off shore.
Given it is an island, there are two ways in and out: by air or by sea. For our trip, we opted for an ocean-going vessel and hopped the ferry from Chandler, Québec, near the tip of the Gaspe Peninsula and a seven-hour drive from northern Maine.
Sort of a “red-eye” ferry, the ship was enroute from Montreal to Iles de la Madeleine as part of a weeklong cruise. The brief late-night stopover in Chandler was to allow passengers like us to board with our cars for the nine-hour crossing set to leave around midnight.
We fell asleep in Chandler and woke up the next morning just in time to enjoy a cup of coffee and see the first of the Madeleines peeking through the fog.
Once we were reunited with our car, the first stop was the island’s visitors’ center located a block or so from the terminal.
There, helpful bilingual staff is ready to point you in whatever direction you want to go depending on taste, mood and weather.
Food is always a safe place to begin, so after the visitors’ center, we headed straight to nearby Les Pas Perdus, a funky bistro Internet cafe with a menu as eclectic as the décor.
Determined to immerse ourselves as much and as soon as possible in all things regional, we ordered the first local delicacy we saw: a sampler of seal meat featuring smoked and pâté versions.
Okay, I admit it, as a supporter of several environmental groups, the idea of noshing on seal meat did give me a bit of a twinge. Until I tasted it.
And the economic fact of the matter is, the annual seal hunt remains a viable and important part of island life in the Madeleines. No longer hunted for the fur, baby harp seals are now a major attraction with scheduled helicopter flights taking tourists to the ice floes in March to get up and close and personal with the fuzzy critters.
Adult seals, however, still provide a major food and natural resource and I learned early on in our visit to Isle de la Madeleine to avoid any mention of Greenpeace or Bridget Bardoux.
Seals aside, fresh seafood abounds in every restaurant on the islands. I mean really fresh—as in straight-from-the-sea-to-your-plate-with-a-brief-stopover-in-the-kitchen fresh.
As luck would have it, our arrival on the island coincided with the start of the June festival celebrating Le Bon Gout Frais. At the seaside event, dozens of local food producers, bakers and vintners were under one tent offering samples of a wide range of goodies.
A promotional map handed out by festival organizers clearly delineated where on the islands more fresh food, including bakeries, farms, cheese makers, and fish houses could be found.
With that map in hand, we embarked upon a culinary tour with grail quest intensity.
But why stop there? Iles de la Madeleine is also home to a vibrant and varied arts community. Winters are long on the island and many of those artists spend those mostly tourist-free months producing to meet the summer demand.
At La Maison du Potier, for example, potter Geraldine Cyr throws, turns, glazes and fires enough Raku-style pottery items in her basement studio to keep her two full-time assistants busy hand-painting whimsical and island inspired designs—clothes drying on the line figure prominently—on everything from large casseroles to delectate vases.
Images from the islands also figure prominently on works by Valerie Arseneau and Martin Bouchard at Bleu Mer where every customer entering the small gallery is invited to select one of Arseneau’s hand painted glass beads from a jar on the counter.
“They are for luck,” she will tell you with a smile.
Bleu Mer is one of a dozen or so small wooden buildings housing galleries, bakeries or restaurants huddled together along Rt. 199 on Iles Havre Aubert.
Nearby, La Fille de la Mer is one of those places you smell before entering. Inside, Ariane Arsenault has shelves, cases, tables and even a clawfoot bathtub heaped with specialty soaps, lotions and bath products all of her own design and making.
An artist by training, Arsenault learned soap making from her great aunt. Tapping into her family’s tradition, she offers soaps and other natural products using materials from the islands like blueberries, honey, oats, red clay, sand, alabaster, cranberries, wildflowers, herbs and goats’ milk.
Anchoring one end and towering over those smaller galleries is Artisans du Sable where humble beach sand is transformed into decorative and useful objects.
The artist colony on that stretch of 199 is a treasure. Not only did we discover unique items in the individual galleries, we experienced first-hand the islanders’ philosophy of, “We may not always know the time, but we always take the time.”
Artist, baker, historian, shopkeeper—virtually everyone we met was more than happy to chat with us about their particular craft and recommend others for us to check out.
That’s why, thanks to Arsensault, we found ourselves at Espace Bleu on Iles Cap aux Meules where local painters, photographers, potters, fiber artists and glass blowers have a place to display and sell in the old Gros Cap school.
Speaking of art and old schools, there are some pretty exciting things going on at the glass blowing studios of Verrerie la Meduse on Iles Havre aux Maisons, which is also set up in a renovated schoolhouse and where the public is invited to come and watch the artists at work.
There, Francois Turbide and Sophie Bourgois work over a 2,250-degree oven to produce stunning blown glasswork including pots, plates, ornaments and their signature medusa (or jellyfish) which seem to swim effortlessly encased in a glass orb.
Settled by Acadians fleeing British deportation in the mid 1700s, Iles de la Madeleine is also a place that has given rise to a people fiercely proud of their heritage and with a strong connection to their islands.
All summer long a dedicated troupe of actors plays out that history in Mes Iles, Mon Pays at the Centre Culturel de Havre Aubert.
There, six nights a week at the height of the season, a cast of 50 act out 2,000-years of history of the Madeleines right up to the start of the current year’s lobster season.
Though the action takes place in French, English translations are available thanks to wireless headsets. It’s worth noting these translations are far from real-time with the English version running about four to five minutes ahead of the action. However, I found myself listening first in English, watching it in French and getting a darn good language lesson out of the deal.
Not to mention a different perspective on history. Having grown up learning about “Sir Francis Drake the Explorer,” imagine my surprise seeing him depicted as “Drake, the pirate.”
He’s not the only non-Acadian who fares poorly. Other English historical figures are depicted in near-burlesque manner. Of course, since the ancestors of today’s Madelinites were treated pretty badly by the English, I can’t say that I blame them.
At the same time, the play contains a musical tribute to those several hundred Madelenites of English descent who populate the exclusively Anglican Great Island and Ile de Pointe-aux-Loups.
Produced and directed by Yolande Painchaud, this is the 10th year for Mes Iles, Mon Pays and the actors are just as into it now as they were a decade ago. It’s a great way to learn some history.
Bringing part of that history into the here and now is the Arseneau family who have been smoking herring caught in the waters off Isles de la Madeleine for three generations.
The practice nearly came to a halt in the late ’70s when the fishing stocks plummeted. In 1996 with the resurgence of the fishery, the family re-lit the fires and now operates the only smoke house left on the islands.
It’s the same smoked herring that’s served up with the pint of local craft beer at L’abrie de la Tempete. It was fitting the day we visited the brewery that a Tempete (or storm) was blowing hard outside.
Then again, it was blowing good and hard for most of our time on the island. Weather changes are fast and furious on Iles de la Madeleines and went from dead calm upon our arrival to near-gale force the next day.
On our last night there the sun finally broke through the clouds just in time for a picture-perfect sunset against the red rock cliffs of Le Belle Anse on Cap aux Meules.
Of course, had the weather been more cooperative, our cultural and gourmet pursuits would have competed with bicycling, beach combing, swimming, hiking, kite sailing and a host of other outdoor activities available on miles of sand dunes and paved roads with wide shoulders.
The way I see it, that’s all the more reason for a return trip. That, and to satisfy a craving for a herring and a pint.
Getting There: Regularly scheduled flights in and out of Iles de la Madeleine Islands Airport are available with Air Canada from Montreal, Quebec City or Gaspe. Pascan Aviation, Inc. also has flights in originating from Montreal, Quebec City, Mont Joly and Bonaventure.
Ferry service is available daily from Prince Edward Island or on the ferry-cruise originating in Montreal. Reservations are required for both.
Most of the inns and other lodging establishments on the island offer complimentary shuttle service to and from the airport and ferry terminal.
If You Go: Be prepared for the weather and brush up on your French. While most everyone on Iles de la Madeleine within the tourism sector speaks some English, there are areas where it’s French only. Besides, it’s their home and their language, so why not make the effort?
Read the companion story: Domaine du Vieux Couvent
Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion.