A moveable feast on the Magdalens

Dune sunrise

A feast for all of the senses! Warning: this post contains a lot of photos.

It was a quick decision. ‘What about les Îles de la Madeleine?’ Our primary goal in deciding upon a summer destination in Canada is that it needed to be a place we had not yet travelled. Plus we’ve wanted to explore these islands for a while. We immediately started looking at ferry crossings and were surprised to find there were relatively few still available for July and none for August. We were lucky to find a passage from Souris to Cap aux Meules on July 13th (our wedding anniversary) and a return crossing on the 28th. That meant we needed to finish proofs for a design job, pack the van, clean the apartment and prepare to leave within five days. Departing Amherstburg on July 8th would allow us five days to drive almost 1,800km to Souris, Prince Edward Island. That might sound like plenty of time for most people but don’t forget we like to travel sloooooooooow. Luckily we had five hours to rest on the ship deck between PEI and the Magdalens! 

 ‘The Magdalen Islands,’ if you’re an Anglo, or, ‘les Îles de la Madeleine’ is a fish hook-shaped archipelago made up of seven inhabited islands and six linked by road in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It’s part of the province of Québec but accessible by ferry from PEI. And to get to PEI from Nova Scotia, you have the choice of crossing the Northumberland Strait via the Confederation Bridge or by the Wood Island Ferry. Travelling to the Magdalens is not for the time-deprived traveller. 

We were asked many times how long we planned to stay on the Magdalens. There were two standard responses. The first was, ‘Wow, that’s a long time. What will you do for so long?’ The second was, ‘Good. You need that much time to appreciate the Magdalens fully. It’s so sad when people visit for just a weekend.’ Having wandered these islands for two weeks, we can say it was neither too short nor too long.

We camped on three different islands: Île du Cap aux Meules at Gros Cap and Fatima, Île du Havre aux Maisons, Plage de la Dune du Nord (close to Île de la Pointe aux Loups). We explored all of the islands except Entry Island, which is an hour ferry from the archipelago. We’ll save that for next time.

The food of the Magdalens was outstanding. We tried a wide variety of the islands’ specialties including cheese, seafood, smoked fish, oysters, bread, locally grown greens, charcuterie, sushi, island-made beer and cider, ice cream, and mouthwateringly delicious patisseries.

Here are some of our favourites: Cow’s milk cheeses from Fromagerie du Pied-du-Vent; goat cheeses from Fromagerie Les Biquettes à l’Air (we especially loved the smoked herring goat cheese); smoked herring, scallops and mackerel from Le Fumoir d’Anton; three boxes of oysters from Les Cultures du large may have been too few; lobster and mackerel sushi from La Poissonnière; halibut and lobster from Les Fruits de Mer Madeleine; lobster poutine and lobster tempura from LA Renaissance des Îles; the lobster rolls at Cap Dauphin Fisherman’s Cooperative on Grosse-Île; fantastic sourdough bread and madeleines from L’Arbre à Pains only available Thursday to Saturday; though we tend not to eat meat while we travel we did buy steak from Boucherie spécialisée Côte à Côte and we’d be content not to eat steak again until we revisit the Magdalens – it was that good; the white bread roll from Grandma’s Bakery on Grosse-Île if only so we can visit with Candy again; the sparkling cider at Le Verger Poméloi! We wish we’d bought a case; the island roasted coffee beans from La Brûlerie de Café were a pleasure to wake up to each morning; the incredible variety of lettuce, kale, chard, herbs available at the Saturday Farmer’s Market in Cap aux Meules; literally every baked good at Hélène des Île but the standouts were crème Anglais raspberry tarts, eclairs, cannells, cinnamon buns with chocolate and pecans, muffins, house-made granola. The selection changed every day throughout the day, so you were always in for a delicious surprise no matter when you chose to drop by. We did our best to try all of the beers at À l’abri de la Tempête, craft beer maker extraordinaire. We might only have tried half of them in two weeks! And shopping for food at the IGA Coops was as good as it gets shopping in a grocery store. Emphasis is on local! Helpful staff. Great selection. Awesome pricing. 

We only ate at a restaurant three times in two weeks. Each time we were able to eat outdoors in the company of MacDuff and one of those times, we ate our lobster rolls in the van. That’s the beauty of travelling with a kitchen and dining suite. Cooking in this van couldn’t be easier. Our travelling pantry is about the same size as our stationary pantry. The only thing we can’t do on the road is bake. But that’s where Hélène des Île steps in.

And you’re probably wondering how on earth did they consume so much delicious food and not blow up like a couple of balloons?! Well, we walked — a lot. We climbed hills, walked the endless miles of beaches and hiked over hill and dale.

We did not swim. It was pretty chilly while we were there. And windy. The best swimming weather is in late August and September. While we did wade in the water, our MacDuff swam. Every single day. In all kinds of weather. Rain or shine. He spent a good deal of time off leash too and loved every minute of it. He ate an undetermined number of crab shells from every beach and also drank a healthy amount of saltwater neither of which seemed to cause any harm.

We loved the hikes up the Buttes on Île du Havre aux Maisons, traipsing around Cap à Isaac and Île Boudreau over on Île de la Grande Entrée and the National Reserve at Pointe-de-l’Est. We loved the cliffs and vistas on Île du Havre aux Maisons. We found La Grave, which is a single street lined with lovely shops and restaurants on Île du Havre Aubert to be the most touristy area on the islands. Beaches, so many, so long, so beautiful. The islands are mostly dunes and roughly 133 km of beaches. The beaches are what connects these islands.

We visited a few museums. The CAMI Historical Heritage Site consists of two museums located in Old Harry, which is an English community on Grosse Isle. The first was the Little Red School House, and the second was the Veteran’s Museum. We received incredibly engaging tours by two local women. Each woman shared passionate and personal historical accounts, insights and stories from the community of which they are members. We experienced many emotions over two hours.

We also visited Le Site d’Autrefois on Île du Havre Aubert, an outdoor museum complete with replicas of a fishing village, farm buildings and houses from the last century. We were able to see how the Madelinot lived.

One of the craziest experiences in our two weeks was on Île du Havre Aubert. We’d decided to drive to the goat cheese operation on the other side of the island. Siri offered us two routes. The first route which was 10 minutes we had followed to Le Site d’Autrefois so we decided to follow her second option, which was 11 minutes so we would see another part of the island. The road didn’t have a sign probably because it wasn’t a road per se. It was a one lane dirt path leading straight up a mountain. We realized fairly quickly we’d be unable to around or back down the steep incline onto the highway. We hoped that this path would be consistently smooth up, over and down to the other side. Wrong. The potholes got bigger and bigger as did the rocks and boulders. Some of the potholes were also like small ponds. We realized that we missed a turn into a vast grassy field with a stop sign at the edge. Imagine tall grasses and no real path!

After about 30 minutes, we started to worry that the van wouldn’t make it off of the mountain at all. We were sure we’d lose our fresh and gray water tanks. We knew the likelihood of a tow truck making it up here to retrieve our van was unlikely. We were on a trail meant for off-road 4x4s, not a 9,000 lb motorhome. As we were beginning to freak out, two teenage boys drove up along the side of the van on appropriate off-road 4x4s and asked (in French) how on earth we had made it onto this path in this vehicle. They looked very worried as they guided us towards the most likely route off of the mountain and stayed with us until they thought we’d make it out in one piece. We did make it out eventually, more or less unscathed, but covered in red mud thanks to the kindness of two angels disguised as teenage boys. No thanks to Siri!

We loved our time on the Magdalens more than we could have imagined. As we made the slow journey back to Ontario, we continued to enjoy the foods of those magical, remote islands thanks to our bulging pantry and refrigerator. Another reason to love travelling in a home on wheels.