Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 6, 2021

© M. Bonato

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La grande séduction

Quebec's Magdalen Islands lure visitors with their small-town welcome and desolate beauty

The Vacancier ferry rounded the barren hump of Île-d’Entrée and from its forward deck my wife, Suzanne, and I saw the rest of the Îles-de-la-Madeleine archipelago curve hazily to the northeast — narrow threads of dunes stitching together the grassy hills and red sandstone cliffs of the other six major islands in the 65-kilometre-long chain.

It was our first sight of what is one of the most exotic destinations on Canada’s East Coast — a fragile and isolated sprinkling of land shaped like an elongated fish hook in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It is a place little known in English Canada. Of the 13,000 Madelinots who call the islands home, more than 90 percent are francophone with Acadian roots and the rest mostly Scottish descendants of sailors who survived more than 400 shipwrecks on the islands and decided to stay.

The majority of the 50,300 visitors last year, including about 1000 vacation-home owners, were Quebecers. Even though they are closer to Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island than they are to mainland Quebec, the islands are administratively part of that province’s Gaspé region and get little or no mention in popular English-language guides to the Maritimes.

Specks on the sea

The Îles-de-la-Madeleine (Magdalen Islands in English) had long been on our must-see list. We were intrigued by descriptions of their 300 kilometres of beaches as some of the finest in Canada and their international reputation as a mecca for kite- and sail-boarders.

But there was also something appealingly romantic about the archipelago’s isolation, its pastel-coloured houses on windswept slopes and the ever-present views of the sea. While most visitors arrive by ferry from Souris on Prince Edward Island or from Chandler on the Gaspé Peninsula, we decided to combine an August ferry cruise down the St. Lawrence from Montreal with a two-night stay on the islands, where we would celebrate our wedding anniversary at a fine inn overlooking the gulf.

We began our trip on a Friday in Montreal, where we boarded the CTMA Group’s 450-passenger MV Vacancier. After a brief stop at Chandler to take on more cars and passengers, we reached the Îles-de-la-Madeleine on Sunday morning. After rounding Île-d’Entrée, Vacancier made for the main port of Cap-aux-Meules on the island of the same name. The other major islands of the archipelago are Havre-Aubert to the south and Havre-aux-Maisons, Pointe-aux-Loups and the combined Grosse-Île and Grande-Entrée to the northeast.

Most passengers continued to eat and sleep aboard the Vacancier for the two nights it was in port, making day trips for shopping, bicycle touring, kite-surfing, kayaking or other adventure options on shore. Instead, we spent two nights at the Domaine du Vieux Couvent, an elegantly restored stone building on Havre-aux-Maison that began life as a convent early in the last century.

With just 10 rooms, the inn is as famous for the cuisine served in the Réfectoire, its bistro-style restaurant, as it is for the views it offers over the gulf toward Île-d’Entrée. Since we didn’t have a car, we had also booked three days of touring with Autobus Les Sillons to sample the islands’ main attractions.

The smokehouse rules

Until we returned to the Vacancier for its departure Tuesday evening, our days were spent in the capable, bilingual care of guide and driver André LaFlamme, a rare transplant from the mainland who had embraced the beauty of the Magdalens with the ardour of a new lover. For three days, he regaled our small group of passengers with facts and anecdotes about the islands as he took us to magnificent beaches, historic sites and artisan outlets.

On Cap-aux-Meules and Havre-Aubert, we visited Boutique d’art Tendance, Artisans du Sable and France Painchaud Bijoux d’art, boutiques where artists created and sold treasures made from alabaster, sand, wood and glass. Also on the island of Havre-aux-Maisons, we found treasures of a different sort at the Fromagerie du Pied-de-Vent, makers of artisanal raw-milk cheeses, and Le Barbocheux, where we bought a bottle of Bagosse de l'Île, a fortified wine made from berries and dandelions which we enjoyed in our room at the inn that evening.

One of the most interesting stops was at Le Fumoir d’Antan, the last of the island smokehouses that once supplied the Caribbean with cured herring. In the middle of the last century, smokehouses on the islands employed hundreds of workers and produced between 150,000 and 200,000 eight-kilogram boxes of smoked herring annually.

In the 1960s, Fumoir d’Antan alone produced up to 20,000 boxes of smoked herring yearly, burning 60 to 80 cords of wood. By the late 1970s, bad management and overfishing led to the near-disappearance of the fish. Le Fumoir d’Antan, owned by the Arseneau family, still smokes small quantities of herring for local consumption (it was on the appetizer menu at Le Vieux Couvent), but is mostly a museum where a genial Daniel Arseneau tells tales of past glories and sells samples of the fish and marinated seal meat.

Fish and faith

On the west coast of Cap-aux-Meules, we visited the picturesque lighthouse at Cap du Phare, which offers magnificent views of the island’s red cliffs lashed by waves along La Belle Anse. LaFlamme told us shoreline erosion here averages about three metres a year and houses occasionally have to be moved farther inland from the crumbling coast.

Just south of the cape, we stopped at L’Étang-du-Nord, a sheltered harbour that is home anchorage for most of the Madelinot lobster and crab boats. At the head of the harbour, a white sculpture of men pulling a rope is a monument to the fishing heritage of the islanders.

Another, also on Cap-aux-Meules, is the remarkable Our Lady of Fatima Church, built in the shape of a shell and filled with nets and other elements of a fisherman’s everyday life. Fatima’s is one of five Catholic churches on the islands, including the massive white La Vernière, one of the largest wooden churches in North America and a listed Quebec historical monument since 1992.

“Religion is still important here. About 70 percent of Madelinots attend church regularly as opposed to less than five percent in Montreal,” LaFlamme told us. “Life here is like it used to be in the 1960s in big Quebec cities. There is no major crime and family life, not material possessions, is most important.” Even the islands’ tiny Anglophone community is served by three Anglican churches and two ministers.

Land of dunes

One of our favourite outings was to the historic site of La Grave at the southeast tip of Havre-Aubert, a sheltered cove in the curve of a narrow, pebbly spit of land that was once a busy fishing community. The small cluster of old buildings has been carefully preserved and today house boutiques and cafés festooned with Acadian flags.

Everywhere we drove across the islands were long views of arching strips of flat lands punctuated by treeless hills rising from sandy beaches. And the beaches and strips of dunes are truly magnificent. Dune-du-Sud, for example, reaching north from Havre-aux-Maisons, and Dune-du-Nord, stretching from Cap-aux-Meules, are both kilometres long and frame a shallow, protected expanse of water favoured by wind-sport enthusiasts and kayakers.

But our trip to the islands was also about enjoying the hospitality of a fine inn while celebrating our wedding anniversary in style. Completely renovated five years ago, the main building of Le Vieux Couvent was once a convent of teaching nuns. It now houses a collection of 10 luxurious rooms with grand views of a rising headland and Île-d’Entrée. On the ceiling of each of the rooms, above the bed, is a pale calligraphy of romantic poetry. Ours read:

Sur une mer calme / On a calm sea J’ai pris de mes mains dans l’eau / I took from my hands in the water Le visage de la lune / The face of the moon

It was beautifully appropriate to the setting and a fine image to contemplate after our evenings of feasting in the Réfectoire on the creations of head chef and co-owner Évangeline Gaudet. Her signature dishes the month we were there included squid with Parmesan cheese, salmon tartare with lobster oil, shark marinated in olive oil with pears, and our personal favourite, a small mountain of steamed, in-shell mussels served in a light cheese sauce.

Leaving the Vieux Couvent and the Îles-de-la-Madeleine Tuesday evening was like leaving new friends you can hardly wait to revisit. Next time, we promised ourselves, our stay will be longer.

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