With few concessions to modern life, like free Wi-Fi at inns, there’s a land-that-time-forgot vibe to Quebec's Les Îles de la Madeleine. On this archipelago in the middle of the massive Gulf of St. Lawrence, Madelinots speak their own singsong version of Acadian French. Catherine Chevrier-Turbide says the remote islands’ geography defines them. "We’re an open window to the Gulf of St. Lawrence," says Chevrier-Turbide, who works at La Méduse glassware studio and shop. "The winds shape our inhabitants, landscape, and its culture." Red sandstone cliffs jut out of the sea on the northern coasts of the 12 main islands. Sand dunes creating lagoons, adjacent wetlands, and miles of windswept beaches link most islands. While the islands' locals welcome travelers, it’s fishing—lobster, rock crab, scallops, mussels, and groundfish—that sustains the 13,000 year-round residents. In summer, brightly painted red, blue, and white commercial fishing boats line the docks at Port du Millerand. And when winter snow blankets the cliffs and dunes, tiny ice-fishing huts in a kaleidoscope of colors dot the frozen lagoons.
When to Go: July through August has the best weather, although plenty of cultural events take place May to October. Early August is the annual Acadian festival in Havre-Aubert, celebrating the region’s marine history. Expect fewer crowds in spring and fall.
How to Get Around: The islands are accessible via a five-hour scenic ferry from Souris on Prince Edward Island. There are also daily flights from Montreal, Quebec City, and Gaspé. Various companies offer car, bicycle, and motorbike rentals. Route 199 is the main artery connecting the inhabited islands. "Even though there's only one main road, I tell visitors they should try and get lost," says fifth-generation islander Lola Burke. "Take the side roads or go on walks and you'll discover your own beach and your own incredible views." Cycle along the coast on the Route Verte (Greenbelt), which runs about 60 miles from Havre-Aubert to Grande-Entrée. Boat and guided sea kayak tours get you around the archipelago’s uninhabited islands.
Where to Stay: At the east end of the islands in the village of Grande-Entrée, the 26-room La Salicorne Auberge’s packages include breakfast and a four-course dinner. The inn also offers boating, hiking, and caving excursions. Alternatively, look into the simple Château Madelinot, with a water view and free Wi-Fi, and its sister property, Auberge Madeli, where rooms have refrigerators and beds with hypoallergenic comforters. For something a little cozier, Auberge Chez Denis à François has ten rooms close to the beach in Havre-Aubert. Ask for a room with a water view at the ten-room, century-old convent turned hotel Domaine du Vieux Couvent in Hauvre aux Maisons.
What to Eat or Drink: La Table des Roy is a high-end, award-winning restaurant where the menu favors seafood and classic French. Less pricey Le Sablier is a seafront restaurant on Havre-aux-Maisons serving up traditional Québécois coastal fare such as lobster pots. If you’re self-catering, pick up Magdelan Islands lobster for bargain prices at the local wharves. Fromagerie du Pied-de-Vent’s herd of Canadiennes, a dairy breed developed in French Canada and the only dairy cow native to North America, supplies the raw whole milk for the supple and semisoft Pied-de-Vent cheese. Burke recommends stopping at Le Fumoir D'Antan to buy herring smoked there.
What to Buy: Located at the entrance of the La Grave tourist area on Havre-Aubert, Artisans du Sable is a celebration of sand and its many creative uses. You can buy sand-carved plates, bowls, lamps, and sculptures. Shop the nautical antiques, hand-painted dishes, and other Québécois knickknacks at nearby Vent du Large.
What to Read Before You Go: Îles de la Madeleine is the setting for the murder mystery Entry Island (Quercus, January 2014) by award-winning Scottish crime writer Peter May.
Fun Fact: The Îles de la Madeleine, or Magdalen Islands, are among the world's most accessible places in the world to see baby seals on ice floes. During the short three-week season in March, helicopters drop off visitors on ice floes for up-close wildlife encounters.
Vancouver-based Robin Esrock is author of The Great Canadian Bucket List and was the host of the Nat Geo Adventure TV series Word Travels.