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Exotic Quebec: The Medium Trip



By Vanessa Farquharson

Bracing myself against a fierce wind on a deserted beach called Old Harry — an anglicization of its original French name, Grande Échouerie (“Big Haul”) — I come to realize just how unusual this place is. Old Harry forms part of an English-speaking island, which sits at the top of a French-speaking Acadian archipelago in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which despite being located in the predominantly English-speaking maritimes is technically a part of Quebec.

This culture within a culture (within the first culture) is what Îles de la Madeleine is all about. For those torn between a fishing trip to Canada’s east coast and a culinary tour of la belle province, it’s the perfect amalgamation of the two — the aesthetic is much like Nova Scotia, with brightly coloured clapboard houses dotting a rugged coastline, but the infrastructure and personality is all French-Canadian.

Gastronomically, it’s a mixed bag, with restaurants serving everything from lobster bisque to poutine.

On paper, it sounds utterly appealing, which of course means there’s a catch. Indeed, getting to this remote 65-km-long chain of islands requires determination and patience, in the form of a flight to Charlottetown, P.E.I., a two-hour drive to Souris and then a five-hour ferry ride to Cap aux Meules, the entry point of Îles de la Madeleine. The misleadingly named Entry Island, another Anglo- inhabited part of the chain, is only accessible by a further plane or boat ride from here. Air Canada does operate a daily flight from Montreal to Cap aux Meules in the summer, but a return ticket will cost more than $1,000 with taxes.

As soon as my friends and I dock at the port and begin a half-hour drive down Route 199 to our lemon-yellow rental house on the southernmost tip of L’Île du Havre Aubert, we’re confronted with a unique geography — the layout of this archipelago is such that getting from island to island involves coasting at 90 km/hour along a two-lane highway built atop a series of elongated sand dunes that feel about as safe as bits of stretched-out chewing gum floating in, well, the Atlantic ocean.

Evidently, however, the 13,000 Madelinots who live here year-round aren’t threatened by the surrounding expanse of frigid water — instead, they thrive on it, whether as a source of food (seafood festivals happen year-round), income (a massive salt mine is located beneath the Grande Entrée lagoon, which is near a large-scale mussel farm) or simply recreation (kitesurfing is a popular activity for both locals and tourists).

And so we attempt to do the same, stumbling into the choppy, leg-numbing waves whenever we find a quiet beach on a sunny day; consuming fish at nearly ever meal, including clam bread, which is pretty much what it sounds like and pretty odd-tasting; and enjoying leisurely walks and bicycle rides into seaside towns, inhaling the wet air and letting it whip at our faces with abandon.

Other than outdoorsy activities, there isn’t much to do here. We attempt to penetrate the Îles de la Madeleine nightlife, but most bars close early and the one that doesn’t, called La Cuesta, appears not to be very receptive to a bunch of Anglo tourists workshopping some new-age Lindy Hop moves on the dance floor. About 20 people show up to a Patere Rose concert on another night, but the crowd is subdued and there’s an awkward moment when the lead singer makes an aboriginal slur.

On a rainy day, we seek cover at the quaint Café de la Grave but end up in the middle of a laughing workshop, which two of us find unbearable. Then we try a shopping excursion in a few nearby towns, but merchandise consists by and large of tacky souvenirs — think lamps made out of hardened sand or seal-fur keychains. So we end up strapping on hardhats and taking a supposedly “not to miss” (according to its website) tour of the Hydro Quebec plant, the largest diesel-fired generating station in the province. Let’s just say, it could easily be missed without much regret.

The key, evidently, to experiencing the real heart of Îles de la Madeleine, is to remain firmly outside regardless of the weather. The spring and summer months are glorious, with hours upon hours of pure sunlight hitting the eroding cliffs as the wind tickles the long grasses on surrounding hillsides. The fall offers the benefit of fewer tourists, and the winter is without a doubt for animal lovers, who can watch dozens of arctic harp seals give birth to newborn pups on the ice surface, and even play with them (visitors in other seasons can go to the Centre d’Interprétation du Phoque to see what this involves).

It helps to adopt a mindset of “the journey is the destination” while trying to reach Îles de la Madeleine, but in truth, the destination is far more impressive than, say, the Charlottetown airport and will not disappoint even seasoned travellers of Quebec and the Maritimes. It also helps to speak French, but this isn’t totally necessary — remember, there are a handful of friendly English- speaking communities tucked away in this archipelago; just look for oddly named beaches like Old Harry.



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