Ahhh, les iles.
The Magdalene Islands –les îles de la Madeleine in French-are Quebec’s best beach destination. A Shangri-la style archipelago made up of 5 small islands separated by long dunes with shallow, warmer lagoons on one side and the giant Gulf of Saint-Lawrence on the other. Far from anywhere in the province, they are the dream vacation destination for many city dwelling Quebecers. The islands are closer to Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia than they are to Quebec but they belong to the French province. Except for one of the islands where English is predominantly spoken, very few on les iles de la Madeleine speak much of the Queen’s tongue. This made things interesting for Bryan and made me feel totally at home since, for those who don’t know, I am a French Canadian from Montréal, a frog, a pepsi to the core. First noted by Jacques Cartier in 1534, the Magdalene Islands have been inhabited since the middle of the 18th century when, interestingly, some Acadians –those that were shipped from the Maritimes to Louisiana to become the Cajuns- escaped deportation and established there.
Being flank in the middle of the Gulf of Saint-Lawrence, these islands are remote and so remain fairly quiet as tourist destinations go. The archipelago boasts many quaint towns, each with nightly events in the summer time, colorful houses and funky restaurants as well as great outdoor opportunities.
A person could fly to the Magdalenes from Quebec City, but that’s way too expensive –and too easy- for us. So we drove across the new bridge on to Prince Edward Island and across it to Souris, on the Eastern tip. At 21 km long the Confederation Bridge is one of the longest in North America and it makes the trip to the Magdalenes, easier than it used to be, cutting things down to one ferry instead of two. A quick day’s drive from Nova Scotia, after dropping Paul off in Moncton and Chuya at the boarding vet –Yuk! – We walked on to the 5-hour ferry to the Magdalene Islands with our kayaks for a three-day, three night stay. Yes, I know. WAY too short! We were hoping to circumnavigate the archipelago but had to revise our plan since we weren’t left with much time. Hey, some is better than none, right?
Chuya had a great trip but she couldn’t come to the islands since we were going overnight.
Visited mostly for the winds that blow predictably during summer months and the endless sandy beaches that separate the small islands –not to mention the summertime cultural festivities- we found them to be a great kayaking destination and saw some of the most beautiful shorelines of our trip with cliffs, arches, and tunnels we could safely paddle through.
Remember how we walked on to the ferry carrying our kayaks? We didn’t have any other means of transportation. Neither the ferry staff nor the folks in town or at the tourism information center had ever seen this. We’d ask for directions and they would tell us to "turn right at ze stop and zen…" "No, we ONLY have kayaks. We’re on the water." "Ah bon?" Thankfully kayaking is a growing sport on the Magdalenes and the tourism bureau www.tourismeilesdelamadeleine.
The water trail map was very useful. A great new tool for paddlers coming to the area
The ferry lands on Ile du Cap aux Meules (Cape of the Mill Island), in the town of the same name. We walked into town to get a few groceries and then pushed off at dusk. We only had about three nautical miles to travel to Gros Cap (big cape) where our first stop was, and we had no problem finding the beach adjacent to the campground. They were quite surprised to see us show up in the dark, in our wet kayaking gear, asking if they had a site for us! We got our first taste of the wind that night and, since we left without tent pegs for our great MSR tent, we rigged up what was to become the set up from now on; attaching the fly to our kayaks, one on either side. Works great! Gros Cap is THE spot for kayakers on the Islands. With gorgeous grassy camping sites on top of the limestone cliffs, a launch area within walking distance, and great kayaking with tunnels and arches, we could have stayed there a few days! Tall, red, thin, precarious arches… No kidding, right there out of the campsite: Safe, long, loud, exciting tunnels. Some even have a little skylight at the end, a whole in the ceiling with a stream of sunlight coming in. Like in the movies when there’s a secret scroll sitting there with a map to a treasure or something! Absolutely magical. No kidding, this cape alone was worth the trip!
Since Gros Cap is THE kayaking spot, we met THE local kayaker, Frédéric Côté , and he was gracious enough to help us with our itinerary. We had planned on going around the whole thing but needed to shorten things, time oblige, so he avoided us a portage and drove us across Ile du Cape aux Meules -15 minutes- to the starting point of THE shoreline. We were lucky, the wind was right. La Belle Anse (the beautiful cove) was exactly that: 11 km of non-stop incredible limestone cliffs. Fairly exposed to any winds in the West to North quadrants, shallow, clear water, sandy bottom, tall, convoluted cliffs… IN-credible! We had a light southwesterly wind at our backs… what a paddle! We did a lot of filming that day and I really hope we captured it to make it justice. Unfortunately, we didn’t take many photographs, so you’ll just have to wait for the film to see that in detail!
We made camp at the end of Belle Anse, and at the beginning of the Dune du Nord out of the town of Fatima, in a little beachy cove tucked behind the Cap de l’Hôpital, in preparation for the forecast overnight winds. I should admit here that we “commando” camped, since we should have gotten permits from the municipality to camp on the beach. We didn’t know. Sorry. We didn’t have a car to drive to the municipality when we found out. We would’ve missed half our trip if we spent the night at Cap aux Meules to go get one in the morning… Some locals told us it should be fine… Enough excuses? So we didn’t set up the tent until dark, just looked like a couple on a romantic kayaking-dinner-on-the-beach date and put the tent up last minute. That night again, the wind picked up. Wow. If you need anything sandblasted, leave it out on the beach in the Magdalenes! We were glad we had payed attention to wind direction, sought some shelter and packed everything inside!
WHo needs pegs when you have such a good tent !
We walked in to the little town of Fatima in the morning for breakfast. We ordered the local morning fare: beignets des Iles. Twisted fried dough served with homemade caramel for dipping… oh lala, attention! Good thing we had a solid day ahead, with a paddle AND a portage to burn that off! Yes, a portage. Canoe style. Did I mention we weren’t there long enough and we had to shorten things a little? On the map, it’s a little tiny piece of land. We figured it couldn’t be that bad. Well, to be honest… it wasn’t. We paddled down the beach some to where a guy off the street fixing his washer had said he thought it would be the thinnest across the dune, and we went for it. We shouldered one kayak at a time over the sandy part, and then dragged it over the tall SOFT grasses to the lagoon. About half a mile. A bit buggy maybe and definitely heavy, but not bad, really.
The wind was actually quite strong inside the lagoon. I was surprised at first. Then I remembered that this is actually where the kiters and the windsurfers go! The lagoons are surrounded by dunes, not much height for shelter! It was raining that day and our hands were quite full so we don’t have many pictures to share. We paddled around the southern end of the lagoon and then to lunch in a great little restaurant on the shores of the next island, Ile du Havre aux Maisons (Harbour of the Houses Island). We were both hungry, I was cold and tired from paddling against the wind and current so the pit stop was welcome and the soup was great! That’s one of the best things about traveling in la Belle Province of Quebec: the food! We weren’t sure how far to commit up the coast of this Island since the winds were predicted to be quite strong against us the next day and we needed to catch our ferry out-a-there so… We stopped a few miles later in Pointe Basse (low Point). This was a great little beach beside a busy harbor covered in colorful boats.
The old smoke house is still active, with up to thirty layers of herring fish drying in the giant barn. Both the barn and the drying techniques are centuries old. Tasty lunch !
We did our commando camp thing again, but this time with a little more luxury: we stopped in the century old B&B called la Maison d’Eva-Anne up the road –actually hoping for a room!- but instead walked away with a nice bottle of red and a couple of glasses, to celebrate our last night on the islands and, really, the culmination of a wonderful 2 month kayaking trip. Another great sleep during a windy night. We had amazing crepes at the B&B in the morning with the same homemade caramel recipe from the beignets, we walked around on the island amongst the colorful houses, visited an old herring smoke house and then got on the water for our last paddle.
More gorgeous cliffs and arches and a little more wind. It was against us close to 15 knots this time, which I find quite a workout so I was a little concerned about making the ferry. Bryan wasn’t worried at all –of course, 15 knots to him is peanuts and he has this thing about being too early for ferries ! Anyhow, he humored me and we left with plenty of time. We got there with enough time to walk up to a lookout, have a beer and then sort ourselves out for our carry-on adventure.
I had heard of this place all my life and have a deer friend from there and I have to say it was quite an event for me to finally go. So it was with a twinge of I-wish-I-could-stay that I got on the ferry that night for home. Of course I want to go back. For the places we didn’t see, for the ones we did, for the many cultural activities we didn’t have time to explore –outdoor shows, spas, painting workshops, galleries, the lobster season, you name it- and because the rhythm of life and the area just emanate the sea. We LOVED it.
Paddling around the Magdalene Islands means paddling in the wind to some degree and the water is cold. We didn’t find there to be much current and tide issues. There are many options both for accommodation and paddling. The outer coastlines are sometimes better protected than the lagoons since the shores are higher and all are interesting to explore. There are many B&Bs and other accommodations from hotels to Gites (rooming houses). A paddler should simply create their itinerary according to what the winds are doing, with some thought to reserving a few key rooms or campsites since the summer season is busy. The Islands are very small and covered with many things to do, weather outdoor sporting activities or cultural. This place is a must for any one in the Northeast and to add to the list for any one further!