The Magdalen Islands are a remote series of colorful wind-swept sand dunes in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a beautiful under-the-radar destination visited by few Canadians and fewer Americans each year.
So when the heat of the summer arrives in your part of the world, you’ll be looking for a cool place to escape the heat and the crowds.
That’s when you’ll be glad you know about les Îles-de-la-Madeleine.
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Where are the Magdalen Islands of Quebec?
It was a perfect blue sky day, but as the pilot announced our approach to Havre-aux-Maisons, I saw nothing but the vastness of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Then finally, a thin sliver of sand appeared just before we landed.
I was ridiculously giddy. Just when I think my career has taken me to all of the fabulous parts of the world, some place like the Magdalen Islands comes to my attention — some place new and fresh with such interesting people.
The little archipelago is made up of 12 islands. Eight are inhabited and six are connected by bridges. They are closer to Prince Edward Island than to Quebec City, yet the islands’ 12,000 year round residents are citizens of Quebec.
Years ago, we visited Prince Edward Island and fell in love with the rich colors of the red sandstone and the contrast of the Atlantic Ocean. The physical similarities between Prince Edward Island and the Magdalen Islands are remarkable.
What to do on Quebec’s Magdalen Islands
If you prefer a vacation where you can walk for miles on the beach and feel the cool wind in your hair blowing the cobwebs from your brain, this is the place. This is your spot if all you want to do is curl up in a beach house and read a mountain of books with nothing but the ocean in sight.
A good book you might consider is by Peter May. He lived a season on Entry Island, one of the least inhabited of the eight. The result is a murder mystery named for this remote destination, but it also includes a fair amount of historical fiction in flashbacks to Scotland of the 1850s. Many of the inhabitants of Entry Island are Scottish descendants. I loved it.
But that’s not to say there isn’t plenty to do on the Magdalen Islands. And don’t worry about the language. Everyone speaks French and English.
I learned about Canadienne cows while on the Magdalen Islands. “La vache Canadienne” are the oldest breed of cows in North America, brought as breeding stock with the original French settlers in the 16th century. They are smaller than most dairy cows and the locals are very proud of les vaches.
There’s a small herd at Pied-de-Vent, a local fromagerie and cheese shop. As you taste the cheese, look for the influence of the ocean spray and salt on the grasses, thus the flavor of milk and cheese. I loved the cheese.
Ship Graveyard on the Gulf of St. Lawrence
Because of its remote location in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a major trade route for North America, the water surrounding the Magdalen Islands have claimed their share of ships. This area is said to be the second largest ship graveyard in North America.
So what do you do when a ship crashes on your shores? Well, you salvage. Everything. Wood is particularly difficult to come by on the islands, so the wood from ships themselves helped build the beautiful St. Peters Church. It’s open for the public and wow, it’s just beautiful. Look carefully at the altar. Where else will you find a lobster trap on the altar?
Craft Artisans on Quebec’s Magdalen Islands
The residents of the Magdalen Islands are called Madelinot. Many of the Madelinot are talented artists, so take time stick your head into every little artist’s studio you find. You’ll not be disappointed and you’ll surely find some fabulous souvenirs here.
I was particularly intrigued by a little shop called Atelier Cōtier in Havre-Aubert. Pauline Gregoire is a sand artist, which makes sense given her surroundings She has a big sand pile on the side of her shop where she will teach you to build a better sandcastle. And Atelier Cōtier hosts a sandcastle building festival each August.
Inside the shop, she has an amazing collection of little vials of sand from around the world and a microscope where you can observe the tiniest details about sand. Pauline is nuts about sand, but don’t think she is some local yokel in a remote part of the world who knows nothing about art. She is represented in galleries and art museums throughout North America.
Of course, a vacation to the Magdalen Islands includes many of the things you would expect from an island vacation. Kayaking, fishing, stand up paddle boarding. Bicycling the length of the islands would be a wonderful undertaking. And it’s a great place to fly a kite and kite board. Kite shops are everywhere!
Plan Ahead to Visit the Magdalen Islands
The Magdalen Islands are not a place you visit on a whim, a last minute weekend getaway you decide on Thursday afternoon for a long weekend. In the summer months, ferries run on a daily basis from Prince Edward Island. But a local I talked to said she was planning for a medical procedure and booked her ferry seat nearly a year in advance. Yikes!
The little airport receives only two or three commercial flights a day in the summer months and they are small planes that fill quickly.
There are only two or three hotels on the island. Most people choose B&B’s or a vacation rental home. And guess what — these are booked well in advance.
It’s not as busy in the winter months, of course, when ferry and air traffic is but a couple of times a week and frequently interrupted by weather. But beginning mid-February scientists and nature lovers come to observe the birth of harp seals on the ice flow. I think that would be a marvelous experience.
So begin your planning NOW. You will love your vacation to these beautiful islands!