Magdalen Islands, Maritime Province, Canada

Les Ȋles de la Madeleine: where music, art and fine dining meet the wildness of nature in the Gulf of St. Lawrence

Story and photos by Carol Canter.

One day, I was knee-deep in a field of wild strawberries, eating tiny, luscious, sweet berries by the fistful. That same night I danced to the exuberant rhythms of an Acadian band, whose fiddles, accordion, mandolin and guitars filled an entire club with spirited gusto. Kayaking placid waters deep into sea caves, watching lobster boats return with their catch, hiking wildflower-strewn cliffs, and sipping cafes au lait at harborside were part of my introduction to Les Îles de la Madeleine, an archipelago of 12 islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Isle de la Madeleine Map location, Maritime Province, CanadaThough I’ve long been a Francophile with a passion for islands steeped in French language, culture and cuisine, I had overlooked this offshore outpost of Quebec Province until planning a visit to the Quebec Summer Festival, the annual 11-day musical extravaganza that takes place every July. A glance at the map reveals why: this sandy sliver of an island chain, shaped like a fishhook, or perhaps a croissant with one end nibbled off, is nearly invisible next to its sizable neighbors that make up Canada’s Maritime Province. Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, large and anglophone, draw the lion’s share of attention and visitors, while the Ȋles de la Madeleine’s small size and fragile ecology keep them a secret destination to all but some 65,000 annual visitors.

Those who do visit discover a destination layered with richness. Whether by air from Montreal or Quebec, or by ferry from Prince Edward Island, they come by choice, unlike the islands’ early settlers. Most of those were survivors, either of shipwrecks or of exile –“le grand dérangement” or expulsion of the Acadians from Nova Scotia by the British in 1755. Longfellow chronicles this tragic upheaval in a moving 30 page poem Evangeline, and while his protagonists find their way to the bayous of Louisiana, other Acadians settled in Les Îles de la Madeleine. The same fiercely independent spirit links both groups, along with a cultural heritage still called Acadian in Les Ȋles and “Cajun” in Louisiana.

Lighthouse on Ȋle du Havre aux Maisons, Magdalen Islands, Maritime Province, Canada
From the lighthouse on Ȋle du Havre aux Maisons, the outline of Ȋle de la Grande Entrȇe is visible across the bay.

Bertrand Déraspe, one of Les Îles’ most renowned fiddlers, has played international festivals over the years with Cajun musicians from Louisiana. “We feel like brothers,” he says, noting the music in both places shares an emotional quality (“qui vient de l’âme,” — which comes from the soul), born out of life’s hardship and pain.

Visitors can hear Acadian music at many bars, restaurants, clubs and performance venues. Déraspe says you’ll always know where the music begins, but never where it will end. “It may start in a club and end up on the beach, around a bonfire in the wee hours of morning — and often does,” he explains with a  twinkle in his eye. The Site de La Côte hosts events called “Musique au coucher du soleil” several days a week in summer, showcasing almost exclusively Madelinot musicians at sunset.

Along with their music, the Acadians have given another striking art form to Les Îles. Gabled wood houses are painted in hues as vivid as the reds of the wild strawberries, purples of lupine and wild iris, and yellows of buttercups that streak the landscape in season. The aqua, sapphire and cobalt blue homes reflect the surrounding sea in shifting light. Bolder yet are those houses where saffron trim or turquoise shutters scream out against a facade of brilliant indigo. Set off by a red wheelbarrow or a field of wildflowers, such a home is nothing short of  breathtaking, and dares you to pass by without at least a mild photo frenzy. Such vibrancy of color is expected in the intensity of the tropics, but comes as a surprise in the sandbar and dunescape subtlety  of  these islands.

Isle de la Madeleine, Maritime Province, Canada
Do the bright colors reflect the islanders’ French roots? The Acadians are colorful in many ways.

Most visitors fall in love with the houses first, their story next, though it’s a simple tale. On an island chain where fishing is still the number one industry,  tourism is second, salt mining third, the distinctive colors become a welcome beacon for the fisherman at sea. In fact, people used to roll the same weather resistant paints on their homes that they used on their boats, so a trip down to the docks is colorful in more ways than one.

My visit in early July coincided with the end of lobster season — which runs from the first Saturday of May to the first Saturday of July. One day we headed down to the fishing port of L’Étang du Nord, on the island called Île du Cap Aux Meules, to await the return of the fleet. Under overcast skies, foghorns moaned and seagulls squawked, as a few boats began tying up. It was 10 a.m. when Gérard and son Reginald took a few minutes out from unloading their crates of lobster to talk with us. They had been at sea since 4 a.m. That was a relatively “easy” morning’s work, compared to May when they return later. According to Gérard, a good haul in July is 800-1,000 pounds of lobster, in May 2,000! It’s a long hard day but, for most lobster fishermen, the two month season carries them for the rest of the year.

Lobster fishery, Magdalen Islands, Maritime Province, Canada
Ȋle de la Grande Entrȇe, the lobster capital of Quȇbec, harbors a fleet of 100 lobster fishing boats. The fleet’s catch accounts for more than half of the island’s lobster commerce.

Fiddler Déraspe, a lobster fisherman and boat captain for decades, used those long hours at sea to compose, so an influence of the sea washes over all his music. “There’s a gentleness, but also a depth to the sea,” he explained. It wasn’t until he returned home that the music actually got written down — lobster fishing is simply too demanding to allow time to write at sea. Still, his son continues to fiddle and fish. “Tradition is very strong here in Les Îles,” said Déraspe, who used to perform at large shows with his father and son, all three on fiddle, as Les Trois Generations.

A massive statue, Les Pȇcheurs. created by sculptor Roger Langevin in 1990, overlooks the port at L’Étang du Nord. It pays tribute to the fishermen, clearly a rugged independent breed, who help fuel the island economy. Lobster fishing alone, with 325 licensed boats, brings in more than more than 6.6 million pounds of lobster per year, but there’s also fishing for snow crab, scallops, blue mussels and more. While herring has seen a dramatic decline from overfishing, visitors can take a salty step back in time at Le Fumoir d’Antan. Though the herring is now imported from Europe, a tour explains traditional methods once widely in use, with black and white photos evoking the bygone era of the smokehouse. We bought some of the tasty herring and picnicked right there at the picturesque Pointe Basse Harbour on Île du Havre aux Maisons.

Magdalen Islands, Maritime Province, CanadaEach island has its own beauty and personality. Seven are inhabited, and six of these are connected by long thin sand dunes. Causeways over the sand make driving the best way to cover the 50 miles from one end of the chain to the other. Lagoons fill in the spaces between these spits of sand, providing sheltered waters for the swimming, kayaking and windsurfing that draw many active travelers.

The seventh island, Île d’Entrée, is linked by ferry or excursion boat to the other six. Both this island and Grosse Île, northernmost of the chain, have a distinctive language and culture: 600 islanders, largely of Scottish descent, are English-speaking. This anglophone community comprises only 5% of the 12,000 “Madelinots” that inhabit the archipelago. They call their home the Magdalen Islands, sometimes even “the Maggies,” and over the years, have mixed very little with the French-speaking majority. That makes an anomaly of someone like Albert Cummings, a French-speaking artist with a Scottish-sounding name. As he explained: his great great grandfather, Jim Cummings, came from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia in 1810. But unlike the other Scots, and some Irish who all settled Île d’Entree and Grosse Île, Jim married an Acadian woman and settled down with her people on Île du Havre Aubert, the chain’s southernmost isle. He never left, and nobody else in the family spoke English until recent times.

Magdalen Islands, Maritime Province, CanadaAlbert and his wife, Nicole Gregoire, opened a shop back in the 1980s on Île du Havre Aubert called Les Artisans du Sable which sold fantastic creations, from $2 souvenirs to $1,000 sculptures, all made of sand — like the islands themselves. Now the family business, run by their daughter and her partner, has been modernized and is named Atelier Côtier. Cummings and Gregoire also started the Sand Castle Contest which takes place in August. Now in its 38th year, the three-day event is wildly popular, drawing some 400 builders and 12,000 onlookers to the beach at Sandy Hook. As many as 50 castles have been built during the festival, some as tall as seven feet. And while the sea will soon reclaim these complex architectural fantasies, the joie de vivre enjoyed during the three-day event remains as palpable as the sound of the gulls and the whiff of sea air.

Atelier Côtier stands at the entrance to La Grave, a tiny art colony and designated historical site where weathered old fishing sheds ooze character amid house cafes, galleries and boutiques. A Museum of the Sea immerses you in maritime heritage, with a section devoted to the shipwrecks so key to the islands’ history. You’ll also find a summer theater and cultural center, and Cafe de la Grave, a cozy gathering place for a morning au lait and croissant, lunch or dinner amidst book-lined walls.

In just four days on Les Îles de la Madeleine, I met a host of fascinating people. I’ve always found islands draw artists, or perhaps they just enrapture ordinary souls to create, and so, galleries and ateliers abound — specializing in glass, pottery, alabaster and metal in addition to painting and of course, sand. Food, too, is an art form here, as it is in France. Seafood lovers can’t go wrong, especially in lobster season when the coveted crustacean drips with sweetness. I ate it plain, with butter and lemon, even with vanilla and olives. Blue mussels are another island delicacy. After my arrival on Île du Havre Aubert and check-in at the Auberge Chez Denis à François, I was soon eating my first island meal there:  moules marinières. These were mussels that had been harvested just the day before, and they were sweet beyond belief. With a glass of chablis, crusty baguette, and frites or French fries with garlic mayo, I listened to the gentle rain falling outside my dreamy refuge.

Magdalen Islands, Maritime Province, Canada

Magdalen Islands, Maritime Province, Canada

But the true art of the islands is that created by nature — as wind and sea take red iron-oxide-rich cliffs and sculpt them into curving arches, swirling pillars, delicate towers and mysterious sea caves. Everywhere, you’ll see rounded buttes, fragile dunes and shimmering waters formed into bays, lagoons. coves and open sea. I followed  trails along headlands of  rich red earth, covered with thick velvety green vegetation, to stark lighthouses on lonely windswept capes. I wandered some of the 200 miles of island beaches, claiming a patch of golden sand as my own — only to share with an endangered Piping Plover and some bay seals at the Dune du Sud. I didn’t get to bicycle long lonely roadways, scuba dive or sail as others did. But I joined a three-hour sea kayak excursion my last afternoon with Centre Nautique de L’lstorlet. We paddled along the shoreline, past smoothly eroded iron-red walls, arches and other striking sculptural forms. As we left the golden light behind and began to accommodate to the darkness of narrowing passageways and tunnels into grottoes, something prompted us all to gather our craft, side by side, and begin to howl — it was spontaneous and surprising, as if the wildness of these remote islands had taken hold of our spirits.

 

Magdalen Islands, Maritime Province, Canada

IF YOU GO:  The official Les Ȋles de la Madeleine website is: https://www.tourismeilesdelamadeleine.com/en/

 

 

 

 

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