Island Hopping in the Gulf of St. Lawrence

Story by Ron Keys// Photos by Ron Keys
August 1 2014

Relaxation and a slower pace of life make the Îles de la Madeleine a true island getaway

Across Colville Bay, the MV Madeleine plows along to her berth in Souris, Prince Edward Island. A yawing door opens, and I anxiously ride the Wing and trailer across oily steel floors into the depths of the ferry’s catacombs and park. After climbing the stairs up three decks, a window becomes our entertainment for the five-hour crossing.

A chain of Islands appears on the horizon in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The original name for Îles de la Madeleine is Monagoesenog meaning “islands swept by the surf.” The native Micmac word appears fitting on our approach.

Îles de la Madeleine TravelCarefully inching my way off the ferry, we turn right onto Route 199, the main road connecting this archipelago of seven main islands, eight if you include the uninhabited and hard-to-get-to Île Brion. The Wing churns over the hill, as Madeleine’s miles of beaches, interspersed with ancient volcanic cones covered in green, spread before us. Our destination is the Grande Entrée at the north end of the archipelago, all connected by spits of land and causeways. Slipping into top gear, we roll along, eyes darting left and right to take in Madeleine’s unique landscape. With its windswept dunes and flaming red bluffs, it is still much like it was when Jacques Cartier first landed on Île Brion in 1534 on his way to New France.

In the distance a tall tower splits the horizon, and as we get closer, I carefully pull off the pavement, being wary of the gravel that can give way to deep sand at any point. A half-ton motorcycle does not do well in sand. On our right stands a tall, vertical structure with two curved aerofoil blades mounted at the top and bottom of a rotating central shaft. It sits silently, spinning in the never-ending wind of the open sea. Invented in 1931 by Frenchman Georges Jean Marie Darrieus, this peculiarity is one of his two vertical-axis wind turbines in Quebec, the other to be found near Cap Chat on the Gaspé Peninsula.

I carefully manoeuvre back onto the pavement, and a few miles later we pass the Canadian Salt Company mine, a huge reserve of salt that provides employment for many Madelinots. With not much daylight left, I speed up, winding left and right through Grosse-Île, an English speaking community amongst this group of Quebec-owned islands. Grosse-Île’s heritage dates back to early Scottish settlers who fished these waters, and in an otherwise French-speaking area, Grosse-Île stands alone, fiercely protecting its rich heritage.

Across another causeway, I make a hard right-hander and motor up a hill where we stop for Tina to mail a few postcards. At the top of the hill, another hard left takes us past an old Anglican Church beside a workshop with a pile of lobster traps that are being repaired for the next season. Lobster fishing is a very big industry here in Grosse-Île, and at the road’s end sits the largest lobster processing plant in Quebec.

Îles de la MadeleineWe peel downward out of town, where the landscape changes to stumpy little trees and sea grass with daisies, buttercups and brown-eyed Susans everywhere. Then up and out of the sea grass and through Old Harry. Nobody seems to know the reason behind the peculiar name; however, one notion is that because of the similar shoreline features, it was named after a region of the same name near the chalk cliffs in England. A huge cross on a hill heralds our lodgings for the night at La Salicorne, and we bounce to and fro up the driveway and miraculously make it to the parking lot unscathed. Across Bassin aux Huîtres lie the distant cliffs of Île Boudreau, and on the other side sits the harbour of Grande Entrée. Basque fishermen worked these waters as early as the 16th century.

Early next morning I enjoy a beautiful sunrise reflecting off the sandstone cliffs. We mount up and head out to land’s end. The harbour is filled with colourful lobster boats, all moored and ready for the next two-month lobster season. Thrumming along in low gear, we turn down another road that ends at the sea.

The landscape is breathtaking, and we pause before backtracking to Old Harry. The road is bumpy – probably due to the harsh winters here in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. I carefully pull off at Sea Cow Path to find out what it’s all about. This is where sea cows, relatives of the manatee, would sun themselves on the rocks. They were believed to grow to over nine metres in length and a weight of around 10 tons. Sea cows were a source of food for early mariners, but without protection, they were extinct by 1768.

A bit further, a sandy track takes us out to the point of Old Harry. Here we can view the astounding 22.5 km of Old Harry Beach from the cliffs. An old dory sits beside us that could probably tell some interesting tales. Old Harry is so unique and beautiful that it was once featured in National Geographic.

The distant mountainside of Grosse Île is dotted with multi-coloured homes, a backdrop for lobster traps piled high on front lawns and the occasional dry-docked fishing boat awaiting off-season repairs.
At chemin de la Dune du Sud we hang a left, and chemin du Cap Rouge follows the foothills between mountain and sea to the Fromagerie du Pied-de-Vent, a small family-operated cheese factory. The fresh curds squeak noisily as we munch away, sitting on the deck, gazing across the hills at the distant sea.

We meander down to Pointe-Basse and the Fumoir d’Antan, a smokehouse family-owned for three generations. The smoked herring, salmon and oysters are to die for.

Along the cliffs of Cap Alright sits a quaint little lighthouse. Here the road changes to gravel, but Tina’s faith in my riding ability underlies her wish to continue down the gravel road. Drawing from experience, we slip and slide along, trailer in tow, and climb up and over the chemin des Montants. The views from here are spectacular and make the mountain ride, fraught with danger, well worth it.

Gulf of St. Lawrence Art galleries and craftspeople are in abundance and we stop at La Meduse Gallery. While Tina looks around, I make friends with a beautiful horse staring curiously at me from the field beside the bike. As with many buildings here, they have history, and this Gallery was once École Saint-Joseph, a boy’s school.

Through Cap aux Meules we arrive in L’Étang du Nord. We pull into a paved lot and take a walk up the hill to the Seven Fishermen, a sculpture portraying seven fishermen pulling together on a rope, epitomizing a “one for all and all for one” attitude, the glue that has held this community together. From here, a long causeway takes us across to La Grave, Îles de la Madeleine’s original settlement. La Grave, meaning “beach,” came from its sandbar-like setting, and with its natural harbour, it was the preferred landing for the early settlers. Colourful shops and eclectic restaurants populate the sandbar, making it a great place to shop and take some very nice maritime photos.

With the only evening sound being the lapping of waves, the world’s cares fade away as I gaze out my window at Chez Denis. Next morning after a great breakfast (wow, these French people sure know how to cook), we take the chemin du Bassin, a winding road along rugged coastal cliffs where radiantly coloured homes pose against a sloping sea of green and patches of wildflowers on the mountainside, a full-spectrum celebration of colour. We stop at the chemin du Phare to inspect another lighthouse high atop the red cliffs before winding up and over the mountain to Route 199. As we pass by the Baie du Havre aux Basques, the dark sky is dotted with colourful kites, sending kite- and wind-surfers scudding across the choppy waters. Further on, Saint-Pierre-de-la-Vernière, the second-largest wooden church in North America, commands the horizon in L’Étang-du-Nord. Built from the salvaged wood of shipwrecks, each piece was blessed before becoming part of the structure. Îles de la Madeleine is truly a unique part of our earliest Canadian heritage, and although not a place of spine-tingling, adrenalin-rushing curves, it is a place from which one returns rested, rather than needing a vacation to recover from the vacation.


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