Les Îles de la Madeleine

I began my travels in Québec in the place where it all began: les Îles de la Madeleine.

Before he ever arrived on mainland Québec, Jacques Cartier first landed on Brion Island (Île Brion), the northernmost speck of this isolated archipelago in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It was 1534 and France had arrived in America. So much meaning attached to such a tiny and unknown island is like a travel magnet for me.

The history nerd in me insisted that I travel and see where Jacques landed, however, traveler in me didn’t mind coming along for the ride. “Les Îles” are beautiful in the way any isolated, windswept seaside country is beautiful. Flaming red cliffs outline each island coast and long stretches of thick white sand link most of the islands together. These are some of the longest beaches in Canada; for example, La Plage de la Grande Echouerie (Old Harry’s Beach) offers 14 miles of uninterrupted sand dune. In August, the water is surprisingly warm–warm enough to swim and to kite surf, a sport that I attempted with gusto and mostly failed at doing.

Instead, I preferred exploring the islands on foot–in the dunes, along the cliffs and through the tiny fishing villages of each separate island. Although a few spots on the islands are now dressed and ready for tourists (who arrive by ship from Montreal), for the most part, Les Îles de la Madeleine are the definition of “picturesque” hills of long grass that shimmer in the wind, scattered gabled houses painted in crayon-box colors, wild coasts, fishing boats, and the French tricolor flying everywhere in the form of the Acadian flag.

Nearly 500 years ago, another French flag came to these shores, and despite the building of roads and docks and bridges, not much else has changed in this rare place. Fishing is still the mainstay of the economy and locals still use handmade lobster traps (fashioned from spruce trees) to catch lobster that they take home to feed their families. “Les Madelinots” also speak their own brand of French, one that is sing-songy and ancient, still using words that passed out of modern French more than 200 years ago. One island in particular (Havre-aux-Maisons) has eliminated the letter “R” altogether. in their speech. Outsiders (both French- and English-speaking) can sometimes have a hard time understanding.

Such quirks are common with islands, a geography that can act like a little treasure chest to hide and protect another time and lifestyle, preserving islanders against the present rush and any kind of mainstream cultural assimilation. 13,000 “Madelinots” live in these islands, but while the youth usually leave for college or to travel and work elsewhere, so many of them return when they are older and ready to establish families.

That Les Îles de la Madeleine are a good place to raise kids makes perfect sense, but there is another draw to these islands. I felt it myself as I traveled from one end of the island chain to the other. To live in the middle of the sea and so comfortably, to enjoy the eternal beaches and whatever the sea brings your way, be it lobster, a few hundred pounds of mackerel, or a morning squall.

Mine was just a brief taste of Québec’s far-flung island home, but I enjoyed that brief glimpse entirely. If this was Jacques Cartier’s first impression of Québec, no wonder he came back.