The Magdalen Islands, or the Maggies, Remote and rural off Quebec’s coast
By Cindy Bigras
As a child, I heard few details about the islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence where my grandmother had grown up.
Nobody knew much about what my family called the St. Madeleine Islands, a literal translation from French. I was too young to inquire about her early life and now the stories are gone.
I know my grandmother left a hundred years ago, married, and moved to the US where she raised her children and ran a rooming house.
Armed with this limited information, and the name of the city where she was born, I set off to Bella Nadeau’s homeland, with a desire to know something more. My first discovery was important: they are the Magdalen Islands in English, or “the Maggies”, by the locals.
The fish-shaped archipelago, part of the Quebec Maritime Province, has fewer than fifteen thousand residents.
Route 199 runs north-south, about 55 miles from end to end, as the islands seamlessly merge together.
Wind and the Sea
Wind and the sea are constant companions in this remote spot. They can be calm one day, wild and unforgiving the next.
“You get used to it, so make peace with the wind” was the advice of a local woman who has lived here all her life.
It’s remote and rural, but is not lost in time; tourism and the arts are thriving. Many people from Montreal have chosen to relocate in search of a simpler life. Instead of skyscrapers, traffic jams, and five-star hotel chains, I was welcomed by communities living close to the land.
Herb gardens, organic produce, and excellent cuisine, especially seafood, are the norm. Inns are decorated with contemporary works of local artists and wifi is easily available. The locals are friendly and laugh easily, eager to chat with visitors who have ventured to their lovely corner of the world.
The Musee de la Mer is a good place to experience how the climate has shaped the lives of Madelinots. The small museum is packed with artifacts of days gone by.
It was clearly a life of isolation and struggle, especially in the winters, so I imagine only the resourceful and determined survived. The treacherous waters and winter storms are responsible for more than 400 shipwrecks off these shores.
Fromagerie du Pied-de-Vent
Traditions are being revived. Fromagerie du Pied-De-Vent produces artisanal cheeses at the working dairy farm in Havre aux Maisons. No chemicals or pesticides are used and the 1000 daily liters of milk produce a wonderful selection of cheeses not available elsewhere.
Le Fumoir d’Antan, also in Havre aux Maisons, has revived the traditional methods of producing smoked herring. After processing and brining the fish for two days, they are skewered and hung to dry in a barn where wood fires simmer steadily for two to three months.
One hundred percent of the herring produced here is consumed in the islands. This tour was so interesting that I would definitely recommend it as well as the samples that followed.
The Great Outdoors
There’s no limit to the types of outdoor activities suited to this landscape and climate — cycling, hiking, and of course every water sport imaginable.
Aerosport Activity Centre in Étang-du-Nord is our stop for kitebuggying. We head to a wide, deserted beach where an instructor demonstrates the techniques to control and maneuver the enormous kites.
After a couple of hours proving that I could swoop and loop without being lifted off the ground (yes, I weigh more than 80 lbs, the minimum weight for kiting), I’m assigned a buggy – a funny-looking frame to which four wheels are mounted. There’s no steering wheel and I can understand the importance of wearing sturdy shoes because my feet are doing the steering; when the wind grabs the kite I go zipping down the beach. I’m a fan!
Sea kayaking is another wonderful way to experience the islands. Parc de Gros-Cap in Étang-du-Nord outfits us in kayaks and off we go to explore Pleasure Bay and the tunnels formed by the pounding waves.
The dramatic red sandstone cliff walls are more fragile than they appear due to constant battering by the surf and wind. What is visible today will be reshaped or gone next spring after the intense winter’s wrath.
We glide up and down the coast, around rocks, into caves, and stop to rest in the bay’s shallow waters. It’s a beautiful sunny day with a gentle breeze, just perfect for kayaking.
The sea at dusk – it’s irresistible, and a good time for cave swimming in Grande Entrée Island where we’re visiting La Salicorne eco-resort. We squeeze into wetsuits and follow the twenty-something guide across the sand dunes to the beach.
Seals watch from a distance as we are tossed to and fro by strong waves; we carefully climb onto a large rock jutting up from the water take turns diving in. The tunnels and caves are terrific hiding places. Behind us is the setting sun – we turn to witness a postcard from nature, bidding us good night.
La Mer – The Sea
It’s not surprising that the waters of the St. Lawrence figure in every aspect of life, from cuisine to the arts. Throughout the year there are fishing festivals, boat launch events, seafood tastings, boat building and sandcastle contests – not to mention the 300 miles of beautiful beaches.
The colorful houses seem to be arbitrarily dropped from the sky, each facing a different direction, all with spectacular sea views.
Art galleries and craft shops offer unique items made with sand, seal fur, driftwood, island stones, seashells, and other local products.
Fishing is the most important industry in the Magdalens. Lobster, mackerel, herring, scallops, and seal figure prominently on restaurant menus and you can bet it’s the freshest possible. Two hundred years ago there were four hundred thousand walruses in the gulf but overfishing eliminated them.
Seal Interpretation Center
Four species of seals call these waters home and if you follow Route 199 north to Grand Entrée Island you‘ll visit the Seal Interpretation Center where the passionate director is committed to sustainable tourism and seal education.
The best time to see baby seals on the ice is in late winter, but if you want until summer you might even get to swim with them, weather permitting, of course.
I’ve fallen for the lively Acadian music that I hear from local musician Gilles La Pierre who sings of the sea and his native islands.
I know enough French to understand the lyrics of the beautiful sea, fishing boats, the Gulf of St Lawrence, the beach, and the sun. There’s one beautiful ode called Madelinot that describes the nostalgia and ritual of summertime return to the Iles de la Madeleine.
Before I leave the islands, I enter Saint-Pierre de La Verniere, the Catholic church in Étang-du-Nord where my grandmother was born. The wooden building was erected in the 1880s with lumber retrieved from the sea, the residue of one of the many shipwrecks.
It was surely a life of hardship and little opportunity when Bella Nadeau lived in these islands.
That may be why she left but I’ll never be sure. I say a silent prayer and feel goosebumps as I wander around the church, imagining her here long before I was born, sensing the link between us.
I want to grasp the reasons why she left, and I want her to appreciate that I’ve come here, not just as a curious traveler, but as a granddaughter who barely knew her.
How to Get to the Magdalen Islands
Air Canada flies regularly from Montreal to Ile du Havre aux Maisons; locally run CTMA Ferry departs Montreal weekly fora St. Lawrence River cruise with stops at Quebec, Gaspe, and three days in the Isles de la Madeleine.
Bed & Breakfasts
Auberge Havre-sur Mer
Domaine du Vieux-Couvent
Auberge chez Denis a Francois
Restaurante Le Sablier
La Table des Roy
Magdalen Island Culture
Nature & Outdoor Activities
Parc de Gros-Cap