Updated: Mar 9
Folks who visit Montreal or Quebec City rave about the ‘European’ experience accessible to North
Americans. Often forgotten is another Quebec French immersion, Les îles de la Madeleine, more widely known by its English name, the Magdalen Islands. This archipelago of eight isles is strung out in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence like gems on blue velvet. Not so easy to get to, mind you, but both a Canadian Maritime and a Europe-like destination that features an otherworldly embrace of sea and land.
Magdalen Islands Ferry
The quickest option for travel is to catch a flight from Montreal. However, the Magdalens are closer to Prince Edward Island than Quebec making the islands accessible by an enchanting five-hour ferry ride from Souris, PEI aboard The Madeleine. Be sure to make a ferry reservation, especially in the summer as it is very busy. You can find the schedule here. Passengers can also book cabins for the crossing and rest up for the array of activities that await them.
Your island experience truly starts with The Madeleine, a beautifully-kept behemoth run by CTMA Traversier. It is a microcosm of the islands, rich in fresh Gulf of St. Lawrence air, hearty food and music from a small band set up by the bar in the stern.
With the double-sided bar serving inside and out via a large outdoor deck, dancing broke out on our crossing as the band ran through some traditional Magdalen tunes and old reliables like Wagon Wheel. By the time you’ve docked you’re ready for some Magdalen Islands tours.
For these small islands, the Madeleine ferry is a vital lifeline. Much of local business and culture, particularly in the summer months, hums to its rhythm. In the days before Hurricane Fiona roared past them in October 2022, residents and visitors alike fretted over ferry delays and postponements.
Experiencing The Islands
The unique paddling, French culture and local food which attracted Bluejellyfish SUP Adventures’ leader, Pam Martin, is an everyday thing. The visit resulted in the development of an eight-day maritime tour.
“With the support of our local guide, Cindy Poirer, we’ll be immersed in all the Isles de la Madeleine has to offer,” explains Pam. “That’s French-inspired seafood dishes, marine life and secluded inlets and beaches.”
This adventure will be centred on Cap aux Meules, the main island in the group. And while it’s more populous and commercial, paddling spots are so close that you can soon be what seems a world away. Imagine - bobbing lightly on a SUP board in a lagoon while dining on a breakfast picnic and hiking along the wind-sculpted cliffs or white sand beaches that lie below.
Those winds and lagoons mean Cindy will lead the group on everything from downwinders to a stunning sunrise and sunset paddles and easy gliding through gentle coastal waters. That was the experience on Pam’s scouting trip out of Cindy’s paddling centre, Cindy Hook, at La Petite Baie, just minutes from the ferry terminal.
The pond-still bay mirrored a brilliant sky as we glided along a shore with pastel cabins and quiet fields. After a while, we finally stopped to indulgently soak up a perfect day. While sitting there Pam pulled out her phone and opened the tourism Iles de la Madeleine bird-watching page and we must have spent 2 hours watching and identifying the local birds.
It won’t all be this easy.Participants who join Blue Jellyfish SUP Adventures Magdalen Island Multisport should be able to paddle for two to three hours with rest breaks and also hike for the same time frame.
All that activity will be fueled by fresh local foods prepared by Blue Jellyfish’s personal chef. Cordon Bleu chef, Yvonne Lamb, will pick the best from the sea, led by local lobster, and the land like the unique “pummels de pre,” a tiny red berry that is a tart accompaniment to the best from the islands’ grocers, fromageries and bakeries.
Things To Do In The Magdalen Islands
A Feast for Foodies
You might want to experiment and seek out a local favourite whipped up in a ritual that is fixed in local lore —Croxignoles. This is a traditional dish on the Maggies, as local folks call the islands, made of donut dough that gets kneaded, rolled up and braided right before being fried in seal oil. That makes it both sweet and fishy. Preparation and cooking take place outside of the house because of the heavy smell of frying that lingers for days. But islanders say the fishy taste passes after a first bite and the nutmeg element takes over.
While that seal element may be a bite too far for many, the embarrassment of marine riches hauled in by Maggies’ fishers covers all the traditional tastes.
Lobster leads the list of local delicacies with scallops, herring, mussels, crab and mackerel close behind, depending on your tastes.
There are several seafood restaurants and the bounty from the land is showcased also in hearty dishes like Pot-en-pot, a meat pie or tourtiere, salted meat stews with root vegetables and local beef notable by flavours passed on from salt-brushed grasses on slopes close to the sea. Often these dishes are washed down by Bagosse, local home brew.
The islands are also dotted with artisanal cheese makers, bakeries, herbalists and fish shops.
One culinary highlight is dinner at Bistro Plongee Alpha sampling local fare expertly prepared, and learning about marine ecology and the polar expeditions of Mario Cyr, cinematographer and animal documentary-maker.
Learning Local Culture & History
To understand the islands’ formation, history and reliance on the sea, a visit to Musee de la Mer les Isles de Madeleine and the historical village La Grave, both on Isle Havre-Aubert, is a must.
When we visited the museum in October, a guide noted we were only the fifth and sixth English visitors that tourist season. Rest assured that at the museum, as in shops and restaurants, our passing familiarity with French was not an impediment.
In fact, folks on the Maggies were over-the-top helpful as we muddled through their language.
The museum’s exhibition Vivre aux Isles is compelling testimony to the resilience of the the islands’ inhabitants, showing how the sea and land shaped the culture going back to original settlers. Many of them were Acadians fleeing the relentless British campaign in the mid-1700s to remove the French-speaking population from what is now Atlantic Canada.
La Grave is an enclave just a short walk from the museum which portrays traditional maritime life in a cluster of buildings on a short strip of land between two bodies of water. It is named after the French greve, or pebble and sandy terraine, and features cafes, arts and crafts and boardwalk sweeping around a small harbour.
Storytellers and musicians enliven the cafes here as the history of the Maggies and its people is kept alive from generation to generation.
With its perches and ground cover on islands in the middle of a vast gulf, the Magdalens are a natural refuge for bird life.
The Pointe de L’est National Wildlife Area, for instance, provides the dune environment ideal for the piping plover and horned grebe, both endangered species who visit during breeding periods.
There are two interpretive trails accessible from Hyw. 199 and visitors can arrange for a certified guide to show them the area.
On a wider scale, birdwatching is available, well, just about everywhere on the isles, and can be especially rewarding as “paddle-birding.” SUPs are something of a stealth craft in gliding close to see shore and water birds.
Anywhere with sand dunes is a likely area to see the piping plover while freshwater areas like Ben’s Pond, shelter herons, Pied-billed Grebes and Belted Kingfishers. A hike in the woods of the Magdalen forest, which is dominated by balsam fir and white spruce, could reveal Boreal Owls, Winter Wrens or chickadees.
Try a New Wind Sport
And if you want to catch humans impersonating birds, kitesurfing and windsurfing are major draws on the islands. They’ll congregate wherever winds blow hard, which is most places, and it’s not unusual to spot a colourful kite rising above a dune as you drive the long, narrow islands.
Explore Beaches & Dunes
And as often happens with travel, it’s the wrong turn or missed turn that brings unexpected joy. That’s how we discovered Dune du Sud, sandy hillocks backing what seems like an endless beach punctuated by rich red-cliff abutments.
It got even better when she stumbled on a beautiful beach shack turning out magnificent sweet and savoury crepes.
Overseeing this glorious scene was a string of charming pastel cabins. We vowed we were coming back and staying there.
Just up the road which traced the coast is Lighthouse Cape Alright and a winding path that opens up to a majestic crescent of towering cliffs dwarfing the beach.
If the scene had not overwhelmed us, the stunning solitude, far from the madding crowds, might well have, summed up the Magdalens’ experience in a few seconds.
Want to explore Les Îles de la Madalene, but not sure who to go with?
Join Blue Jellyfish SUP Adventures on our 8-day Îles de la Madalene Adventure. This trip is influenced by the ocean, the culture and what the locals enjoy. It will allow you time to rest, relax and recharge through time spent by the sea, active in the outdoors, nourished by the healthy, local foods and casual group vibe.
Have you travelled or paddled in Les Îles de la Madalene? Leave a comment below.