|QUEBEC'S MAGICAL MAGDALENE ISLANDS
Sept 17th. I wrestle with a tiny packet of Air Canada pretzels and open The Globe & Mail. It’s all bad news. Another serious bank has just bitten the dust. The stock market is heading to hell in a hand basket. My generous inheritance from Aunt Nellie, that once ran to a modest down payment on a broom closet, might just cover an outhouse on E-Bay!
Suddenly, the little Dash 8 is being thrown around like a thong in a dryer. Must be the tail end of Hurricane Ike. My fellow passengers nervously strangle their armrests. Silence reigns. Only the pretty flight attendant remains calm. I search her eyes for signs of well-disguised terror. There are none!
Miraculously, we flatten out for a flawless landing.
Iles de la Madeleine, (The Magdalene Islands), is a remote, magical, archipelago of a dozen islands near the mouth of The Gulf of St Lawrence.
Six are joined by an umbilical cord of paved roads perched precariously on narrow sand dunes. Dune du Nord; Dune du Sud; Dune de l’Ouest etc. Perhaps the use of such unromantic names reflects the temporary nature with which they are viewed? (Don’t name your pig “Arthur” if you intend to slaughter him for dinner. “Pig One” will do nicely!)
Here, erosion is a hot topic that has more to do with roads and threatened waterfront homes than Aunt Nellie’s nest egg.
Shaped curiously like a barbed fish hook and stretching around 80 kms end to end, these low lying islands have lured over 500 unfortunate ships to an early grave. Wrecks have been recycled into colourful, seaweed insulated, homes by the first white settlers - Acadians fleeing forced expulsion in 1755. (Le Grand Derangement).
I am soon to discover why an astonishing 53,000 tourists visit here annually. The daily ferry from PEI takes 5 hours to travel 134 km’s. A weekly “cruise ship” brings passengers from Montreal via Gaspe. Of course you can always fly.
“There’s a traffic jam on the highway.” apologises the car rental lady. “Good grief! In a place like this I expected to be the only car on the road,” I expostulated. Finding Hertz at the tiny airport seems incongruous enough.
I carefully open the door of my Hyundai Kia to avoid being flattened by the wind! This is not a good place for hairdressers or umbrella stores!
I drive south, leaving Ile Du Havre Aux Maisons. Little houses are plonked haphazardly along the hillside. Purple; Orange; Turquoise; Bilious green. Madelinots love wild colours. Long lines of lobster traps are neatly stacked in gardens, along the roadside, up lanes and across fields. 325 lobster fishermen will spend the winter readying 97,500 traps for spring!
The bridge is under repair. A traffic control lady has one hand clenched around her stop/go sign, while keeping the other firmly planted on her hard hat to avoid lift-off!
Curiously the waves on my left are pounding the shores in a wind-driven rage, while the lagoon to my right can only muster a ripple.
I head through the largest island, Ile du Cap Aux Merles. There must have been a few mutterings when a modest Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall was built cheekily under the shadow of the vast Catholic Church of Saint Andre. But hey, with 13000 full time residents on the islands there is room enough for all faiths.
The road opens up past a row of holiday cottages.
Plage de La Martinique combined with Plage du Cap runs a cool 8 kilometres and it becomes obvious why windsurfers and kitesurfers flock here in droves.
The inner lagoon is mirror flat, lying just below the reach of the howling gale slamming the beach on the other side of the dune - Yet it is just the right height to allow a flotilla of windsurfers and kite surfers to experience the wind without the waves. A perfect combo!
The Auberge Chez Denis a Francois is a big comfortable rambling place built out of old ships timbers in 1874. “Is your partner’s name Francois?” I naively ask Denis at check-in. “No no Francois was my father. My wife is Francine. We have this name thing here.”
“With a history going back 250 years, long winter nights and a strong Catholic church to encourage big families, we are too many people with too few surnames. Tell people you met Denis Pelletier and they will say: Denis the crabber? Denis the chef? Even Denis the priest? Ah, but say Denis by Francois and they will immediately know.”
I met 5 Arseneaus, countless Poiriers, and more than a handful of Bourgeois!!
To stand still is to starve on these islands Unless you are a rich lobsterman or a snow crabber. An entrepreneurial spirit is mandatory.
Sebastien Cote, and his partner, purchased a “Quonset hut” One of those semicircular army-style buildings, in L’Etang du Nord. The floor sloped as befits its past life as a movie theatre. “What in the h… are you going to do with that?” asked his friends.
In winter they build yurts for export. In summer they lead kayaking expeditions and run kids camps. “Why do you have a shelf full of ski boots?” “Kite skiing man. When the sea freezes over you put on your skis, harness up a kite and fly Wow what a high!!”
Together we hike up a dirt road to the highest point on Ile Du Cap Aux Merle for an overview of the islands. We hear music. A lone rapper plays to an imaginary audience. He is as surprised to see us as we are to find him! Must have been thrown out of his mother’s basement!
Madelinots pull together. Lamps, made entirely from sand mixed with acrylic by The Artisans du Sable at La Grave, can be found in restaurants and inns. Wondrous raw milk cheeses from the Pied-de-Mont cheese factory, (courtesy of 55 contented cows just up the hill a piece), are on every menu. Exquisite glassware, from the blowers and shapers at Verriere La Meduse, is sold in boutiques around the islands.
Why would you go? To read that novel on a deserted beach that stretches as far as the eye can see. To hike or bike the miles of trails. To be spoilt rotten by the island’s chefs at Denis a Francois or the Domaine du Vieux Couvent a converted stone convent.
Maybe to sing a song or dance up a storm at Café Le Grave or Pas Perdu on a Thursday night.
Perhaps, to meet English speaking descendants of Scottish families who were once washed up on these shores and now live in enclaves in Ile d’entrée, Old Harry or Grosse Ile. You will find them on streets named Red Head or Post Office or Goodwin.
A honeymoon? An amour to forget or one to entice? The invigorating air, wind and sheer bleak beauty of these islands will gladden your heart and cleanse your mind.
Funny, but I didn’t give a toss about Auntie Nellie’s inheritance Until I got back on the plane. Now I once met a miner in Cape Breton who built a fine home from old outhouse timbers. Said it smelt a bit odd, but with 10 fine grandchildren bearing his name…………………….!!