Magdalen Islands lure visitors

Ever since I met Tony, he’s talked about visiting the Magdalen Islands in the St. Lawrence, not only because of their natural beauty, but because of his personal connection to the island archipelago.

Tony’s grandfather, Louis Leopold D’Amour, left his home in France at age 14 and joined the French navy. Seven years later, his ship, La Zénobie, arrived at the Islands. When it returned to France, Louis stayed behind. As a deserter in the eyes of France, he never dared to return — not even for a visit — and he never saw his home or his mother again.

Islanders rescue sailors
Louis eventually became captain of a sailing schooner called the Alice Mae. In 1887 he was shipwrecked by a fierce winter gale on Sandyhook, a sandbar off the Magdalen Islands.

He and his crew lashed themselves to the mast while the islanders tried in vain to reach them. After two days, the storm died down, and the islanders were able to cut them free. The men were frozen like blocks of ice and taken to thaw out by kitchen stoves. Amazingly, every man survived.

In June, Tony – now my husband – and I finally got the chance to take what would a sentimental journey to the Islands. We went with Tony’s brother, Ludger, and his wife, Henriette, to see for ourselves what had captivated grandfather Louis and countless other visitors over time.

Archipelago of 12 islands
The Magdalen Islands, or Iles de la Madeleine, are located in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and are part of Quebec, although they are in the Atlantic time zone, one hour ahead of the rest of the province. There are 12 islands in all. Seven are connected by long, thin sand dunes, which are covered in gravel so vehicles can drive from one island to the next.

As our ferry neared Île d’Entrée at the southern entrance to the archipelago, the wind was cold but the sun shone brightly. The terrain of this tiny island rises and falls so dramatically it looks as if its hills have been sculpted by hand. Only 115 people live here and because it isn’t linked to the other islands, residents must take a plane or boat to reach the other islands.

We opt for a boat to Cap-aux-Meules. It’s near sunset and we climb the many steps to the lookout. It’s the golden hour. A warm light covers the harbour and the houses dotting the coast.

From here, we drive north to Île du Havre-aux-Maisons, about midpoint on the chain of the Maggie Islands. It takes less than an hour to drive from Havre-Aubert at the southern tip to Grosse-Île and Grande-Entrée on the north — if you don’t stop to admire the view.

Our rented house in Cap Rouge on the north shore of Île du Havre-aux-Maisons sits atop red cliffs sheltering nesting swallows.

Exploring the Maggies
The next morning we set out to explore. There are dunes everywhere, but the effect is far from monotonous. The colours are breathtaking. Red cliffs carved by wind and waves; tall pillars of red sandstone on white sandy beaches that stretch on forever; lush green hillsides dotted with houses of brilliant purple, orange, scarlet and electric blue.

Our exploration of the islands is aided by Frank Delaney, a longtime family friend. He takes us to see my in-laws’ first home. The house is painted a soft peach with blue trim and has a full veranda. A young mother answers our knock on the door and tells us her baby is sleeping, but we’re welcome to take pictures.

We continue north to the island called Grande-Entrée. The harbour is jammed with fishing boats-not surprising, as fishing is an integral part of the Maggie Island economy.

At the island burial grounds, Tony is moved by the sight of Louis Leopold’s grave. He reflects on his grandfather as a young boy, as a sea captain, as an islander. He and Ludger spend quiet time there.

Sand sculptures, shops
On to Havre-Aubert and a stop at les Artisans du Sable, where artists add a secret resin developed on the island to solidify the sand. Then they sculpt the blocks into beautiful creations, ranging in colour from cream to charcoal, all the natural colours of the island’s sand.

La Grave is a stretch of small shops and studios on the island of Havre-Aubert. Here, local painters, sculptors and woodcarvers create their art before your eyes.

The Café de la Grave has an ambiance never forgotten-plus the best meat pie I’ve ever tasted. In the old beamed building, the owner is playing the piano. Other diners take turns at the keys while a group of young people plays chess.

We also visit the Musée de la Mer (Museum of the Sea) and pick up a map recording the hundreds of shipwrecks that have occurred off the Maggies.

Finding family history
Later, we meet Octave Turbide, 90, who knew grandfather as Uncle Louis. He tells us more about this man he was so close to. He says that Louis used phrases and sang songs from France that were new to the islanders.

Octave tells us about Louis’ first wife who died when Tony’s father was just five years old. He remarried a strange woman, according to Octave. When Louis was assisting at a funeral, one of the ropes lowering the coffin into the grave became entangled and Louis jumped into the grave to free it.

When he told his wife what had happened, she was horrified. She told him he was sure to be the next one in the grave on the islands. And he was. At 63, he took sick and, with no doctor to diagnose or treat him, he died.

On our final evening, Tony’s cousin takes us for a boat tour of Île d’Entrée. As we head west to Havre-Aubert, he points out Sandyhook, the spot where Louis and his men clung to their boat and fought to stay alive against the vicious gale winds. On this calm warm evening, it’s almost impossible to imagine what Louis and his crew must have endured, but it’s clear to all of us why he chose to stay.