A little bit of France in an archipelago called the Isles de la Madeleine off Gaspe
By Walter & Patricia Brooks
here are a dozen tiny French Canadian islands 135 miles out in the Atlantic, about halfway between the Gaspe Peninsula and Newfoundland, called the Isles de la Madeleine. The archipelago is 40 miles long and connected by thin sandy strips. It has a year-round population of 13,000, of which less than 5% speak English.
If you want to escape the maddening crowd, this is the place for you. From the minute you board the ferry until you return a week later you won't be able to get online or use your cell phone. Your spouse will love it.
The Acadian French fled here when they were driven out of mainland Canada by the victorious English in the Spring of 1755, twenty years before our own war of independence. Other Acadians fled to Louisiana, at that time the only other French possession in North America. A few managed to get to Saint Pierre and Miquelon, two tiny islands off the southern shores of Newfoundland which are still part of the territory of the French Republic. It is from these two islands the French Cable Company imported workers to man their headquarters in Orleans on Cape Cod in the last century.
If you can imagine a half-dozen Gallic Truros linked by sand dunes, you have an approximation of this forgotten summer playground where folks are friendly and the food is fabulous. Save the cost of a jet plane to Paris and the drive to the French countryside--this is a salty piece of France right in your own backyard.
Getting there is half the fun
The Canadian ferry line, CTMA Group, has ocean-going ferries which service the islands and they offer a weeklong round-trip from Montreal for about $710 U.S. pp, which buys you a reasonably-sized cabin with bunk beds and a sink. The shared bath is across the hall. For another $100 you can have a double or twin bed with a private bath, and remember, the fare includes an ocean voyage, a room for seven nights and three exceptional meals daily, except for the 2-1/2 days you are ashore when you only have breakfast onboard.
You can also fly in or take a five-hour ferry from Prince Edward Island, but we recommend the voyage from Montreal which sails the St. Lawrence River into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This remarkable body of water makes for a picturesque cruise as you wend your way through dozens of islands, and you are near enough to the shore to have a continuing passing scene as you go around the Gaspe peninsula.
The ship is both a traditional ferry (yes, you can bring your car but we brought our bikes with no surcharge) and a typical cruise ship, with wonderful provincial French cuisine, daily lectures and free movies. In fact you have all the amenities of any cruise lines despite its wonderfully small size. The Vacancier carries 450 passengers in 225 cabins.
Some travelers opt to drive their cars to Prince Edward Island and take that auto-ferry to the islands for a few days or longer, then take the Vacancier to Montreal and home from there through Vermont and New Hampshire. Either way, this trip is highly recommended if you hunger to see the way Cape Cod looked in a simpler time.
On the archipelago
The weather on these islands is cooler in summer and warmer in winter compared with the mainland. Their 40 mile length is deceptive since it's a series of very narrow strips of sand, mostly a few yards wide, with the six larger islets inked by highway 199, which runs past 200 miles of sandy beaches and six working lighthouses.
After boarding at 1pm Friday, we left Montreal a few hours later and arrived at the Isles des Meulles (Isle of Mules) at 10am on Sunday. About half the passenger elected to move to a local B&B for the two nights and three days ashore, but we found our cabin so cozy we stayed on the ship, since the port was in the middle of the island chain and made sightseeing easy.
Many passengers brought their bikes and cycled the island chain each day. We gave in to our lazy gene and rented a car from Hertz and managed to travel every road during our stay. And the scenery is really spectacular, as the photos on the right indicate. You may click on any to see them full-sized (they pop up in a separate screen).
The landscape here is unlike any in our region, from rolling green valleys to deep red cliffs and miles of virgin sandy beaches.
The primary industry of the Islands is its fisheries. In order of importance, commercial fishing comprises: lobster, snow crab, mackerel, herring, scallops, cod, ocean perch, flounder and halibut, plus other species such as mussels, whelks, spiny dogfish, and surf clams. The fishing industry leaves its mark all over the Islands. You will enjoy walking on the wharves and in the ports, fishing trips, chatting with the fishermen, regional cooking, and listening to the local dialect.
Route 199 runs up the center of the 40 mile long chain like a macadam backbone. Tourists usually stay around Cap-aux-Meules and la Grave (Havre-Aubert), which are about 25 miles apart. Weather can be cold even in August, so bring a sweater and a windbreaker. The strong winds can make long bicycle rides difficult. We brought our bike, and had several good runs despite the wild winds last week.
Side trip and supper
If you decide to concentrate your visit on the islands of Cap-aux-Meules and Havre-aux-Maisons (the two islets nearest the ferry dock) with a side trip to the small Anglophobe community of Entry Island then a bike would be recommended.
Up here the three meals are called breakfast, dinner, and supper, in that order. As we've already mentioned the "suppers" aboard the ferry are superb, and we assumed the islanders would be hard pressed to match them.
They survived the challenge. A lunch at Cafe La Cote on Cap-aux-Meules was memorable, as was supper at La Pas du Perdus which was a new high in white clam pasta, due to the huge ocean clams they used along with a surfet of garlic and red pepper. This bistro is a few yards from the ship and has a very cosmopolitan atmosphere. One night they had the very cool sextet DobaCaracol playing with no cover.
We had our anniversary dinner at La Table des Roy on Cap-aux-Meules which was as good or better than any food we've ever eaten. Our lunch that day was a special surprise. We stopped at Cafe de l'Est on Isle de Grosse-Isle in the north end of the chain where we were served the best clam chowder we've slurpped since Cape Cod chefs started destroying this simple, peasant gruel by adding thickeners to impress the tourists.
Scallops and blue mussels are also cultivated in this windswept, exotic archipelago in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. These shellfish enhance the range of marine foods that Islanders have long relied on as the basis for traditional dishes. The most famous of these is pot-en-pot, a medley of fish and potatoes nestled between two pieces of pastry dough, and the Magdalen Islands lobster is among the world's finest.
What to do on the way up and on the way back
It's 410 miles from Cape Cod to Montreal and an eight-hour drive under the best conditions (we ran into several construction delays). You must be at the boat by 1pm, so unless you want to be exhausted on your first day at sea we urge you to leave the morning before and spend an afternoon and following morning in the beautiful, cosmopolitan seaport of Montreal.
This city was reborn as the vibrant urban scene it is today by the 1967 Montreal Expo. This most elegant of all world fairs exposed what was a once a provincial city to the rest of the world.
Overnight in Montreal Intercontinental Hotel, Rue St. Antoine. The rates at even a top grade hotel like this are a bargain with the present exchange rate for the American dollar. You get almost a 20% discount on everything you buy, and this hotel is worth the price. Not only is it five or ten minutes from your ship, the food and setting is superb.
As we dined on grilled tiger shrimp with peanut sauce, smoked salmon creme brulee, caesar salad, semi-cooked tuna and lamb chops on granny apple, honey walnut greens, we looked out at a park where on the half hour a hundred jets spewed vapor until the large fountain at the end of the park erupted in a ring of fire.
Overnight in East Burke, VT;On your return, we suggest you discover the only indigenous farm animal sanctuary in New England at the Inn at Mountain View, East Burke Vermont an hour or so southeast of Montreal and directly on your route home. Run by Marilyn and Dr. John Pastore, the inn is one of the best in the state, and the 440 acre farm is part of a network of hiking and biking trails which Marilyn helped create.
The food here is fabulous as well, and a full breakfast is included in the room price. If you click on the image at the left you'll meet Marilyn, her Chef and Grower. This wonderfully warm, small resort is worth several days, and is a great spot for your daugher's wedding.
Intercontinental Hotel, Montreal, or (800) 361-3600
The ship - CTMA, or (888) 986-3278
Isles de la Madeleine tourism, or (877) 624-4437
Excursions from the islands, or (418) 986-4745
Inn at Mountain View Farm, or (800) 572-4509