A Canadian island paradise

Picture a secluded island. Long golden beaches and towering dunes blend with brick-red sandstone cliffs, emerald pastures and a deep blue sky. Imagine this landscape dotted with tidy houses painted in eye-popping colours of purple, saffron, lobster-red, raspberry, blueberry, olive and lemon-lime.

Picture it right here in Canada.

This is the colourful scene that greets visitors to Îles-de-la-Madeleine, also referred to in English as the Magdalen Islands. A dozen islands, part of the province of Quebec, make up the 65-kilometre-long croissant-shaped archipelago that rises from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, 200 kilometres east of the Gaspé Peninsula and 100 kilometres northwest of Prince Edward Island. Since 1990, Hwy. 199 — the Chemin Principal — has connected six of the islands across long, narrow sandbars, but each little island has managed to retain its own personality. What they share is a sense of solitude and a Maritime flavour that captivates anyone who longs to go down to the sea again.

Fishing has been a way of life since the first settlers, the Acadians, arrived in 1755. It’s the number one industry today, contributing $55 million dollars annuallyo the local economy. Lobster is king, and the Madelinots, as the locals call themselves, will tell you that the lobsters caught off their shores are the finest in the world because of the cold water and the rocky, not sandy, gulf floor.

Finding a natural rhythm
Life here is dictated by the rhythm of the seasons and the sea. For nine weeks, starting on the first Saturday in May, fishermen like David Taker rise at 2:30 a.m. to head out to sea to empty and bait their lobster traps. Taker, who began fishing with his father and uncles 35 years ago, now works with his son six days a week. But never on Sunday, according to a long-standing unwritten fisherman’s agreement. When lobster season ends, they fish for herring, mussels, crab and mackerel. The long winter is for making nets, repairing traps and readying their boat for the next spring.

It should come as no surprise that seafood dominates the local cuisine. What does surprise many tourists is the high quality of the meals found at small, unpretentious restaurants. At lunch, the day I arrived, for example, we ate at Les Pas Perdus, a lively little bistro where the specialty is a mushroom quiche: wild mushrooms bursting with flavour topped with Pied-De-Vent, a pungent locally made cheese, and baked in a flaky pastry shell. A few days later for dinner at La Facterie, a no-frills cafeteria connected to a lobster-processing plant and a retail shop called La Poissonnière, we had lobster caught that morning. Chef Étienne Dion, who also oversees the store, moved to the islands from Gaspé 13 years ago. “I want to stay here the rest of my life,” he says. “There aren’t many places where you can prepare seafood this fresh and enjoy this kind of lifestyle.”

The lifestyle he is referring to is one where everyone seems to know everyone else. My attractive room at Auberge Chez Denis à François (translation: Denis, the son of François) looked out over a pretty garden with a picket fence to a two-storey, yellow brick building called Palais de Justice, or the local jail. The building appeared to be closed for the season. “Sometimes there is someone in there drying out after a Saturday night party,” Damien Déraspe, our guide, tells us, “but crime isn’t a problem here. We don’t lock our doors and we don’t have to worry about our children playing outdoors.”

Of the five traffic lights spread over the six islands, two simply flash. Another one is always green, unless a pedestrian presses the “walk” button to cross from the senior citizens’ residence to the church. “In 1991, when the first light was installed in the village of Cap-aux-Meules, locals came from the far corners of the island to check it out. For some, it was the first traffic light they had seen. It took some getting used to,” Déraspe says.

It doesn’t take long for visitors, especially harried city types, to get used to the rhythm of life here. A 45-minute boat ride to Île d’Entrée to birdwatch or hike along the cliffs is as good a place as any to start to unwind. A walk along the dunes on Grosse Île will do it for some. So will a bicycle tour along quiet roads followed by an extended lunch on a café verandah overlooking the water. More energetic types may choose to sea kayak. Getting my vote for a memorable, barrel-of-laughs activity is body bobbing at Club Vacances Les Îles. Five of us, all members of the 50-plus club, donned wet suits, helmets and life jackets to wade out into the ocean, lie back and let the surf whoosh us into sandstone caves and through narrow tunnels along the water’s edge.

More than the colours of these islands will stay with you – long after you have left.