Lobsters are a significant part of the local economy, served fresh in a variety of dishes aboard the CTMA Vacancier and in restaurants throughout the islands. Alison Gardner
By Alison Gardner, Editor, Travel with a Challenge
Where History runs Deep and House Colors run Riot
Reflecting the French/English bilingual character of Canada, the island archipelago showcased in this article is known to the world as both Les Îles de la Madeleine and the Magdalen Islands. Despite their substantial distance from Québec’s nearest mainland shore, these islands are part of that province. Most of their 13,000 inhabitants have an Acadian French heritage different from, but just as historical as, the Québécois heritage. However, there are also a few island communities with an English-speaking heritage, mostly the descendants of mariners washed ashore from many shipwrecks over hundreds of years. English is widely spoken throughout the islands, and warm hospitality to visitors is a welcome element of the Madelinot character.
We invite you to get oriented to our story with the informative map page featuring maps of both the cruise-ferry route from Montréal to Les Îles de la Madeleine and of the archipelago of islands themselves. You will also learn about the remarkable, some might say bizarre, geological history of the islands.
When we climbed the gangplank to board the CTMA Vacancier at its Montréal dock, my husband, Peter, and I were not sure whether we would be experiencing a multi-day ferry trip or a classic cruise in the style of decades past. As the ship’s crew manoeuvered dozens of cars, motorhomes and trucks into the lower level, clearly they had a ferrying mission in mind, but the guest luggage handling at dockside, the efficient welcome aboard by a team of smartly dressed staff, and the orientation to activities and our cabin seemed more cruise-like in style.
Between June and September, the 450-passenger CTMA Vacancier cruise-ferry sails from Montréal to Les Îles de la Madeleine on 7-day round trip cruises. Peter Gardner
By the end of our two-day navigation down the St Lawrence River into the open waters of the Gulf of St Lawrence and across to the sandy shores of Les Îles de la Madeleine (see map), we had experienced some of each style. The 450-passenger vessel stopped briefly at small communities along the Gaspé Peninsula shore to drop off or pick up cargo and vehicles with virtually the entire village turning out to crowd the government wharf dwarfed by our ship.
We discovered that some guests were traveling only one way (ferry-style) rather than doing the round trip (cruise-style), planning to stay longer in the islands, then depart by ferry or airplane in another direction. Days and evenings offered a schedule of activities ranging from introductions to Acadian music and a lecture on European explorer history of the region to humorous but effective lessons in how to eat a lobster, THE signature delicacy of the Gulf of St Lawrence.
Then there were the meals, and what meals they were! While the cabins were admittedly small and basic in their interior design (let’s say more ferry-like), the chefs went all out to convince guests they were on a luxury cruise as far as dining was concerned. Every meal was not only a gourmet taste treat but a visual treat as well. And our particular trip was not even one of the thematic “Gastronomic” and “Gourmet” cruises scheduled each season, but merely a “Lobster & Maritime History ” cruise. I cannot imagine ramping up the food focus even more than what we experienced.
Cuisine aboard the CTMA Vacancier is an outstanding feature of the cruise. Alison Gardner
While the first language of the Vacancier is French and the majority of passengers are French-speaking, every effort is made to include English-speaking guests in the cruise experience and to keep them informed about what is happening along the way. Anyone with a little or a lot of French in their past education or heritage will enjoy the challenge of listening to and conversing in the language while never having to leave the shores of North America. The cruise certainly sharpened up our rusty French
CTMA is an island-born success story, a cooperative in which most islanders have a partnership stake. It was founded in the 1940s to provide the very isolated Les Îles de la Madeleine with a dedicated and reliable means of transportation, seen as a key to survival long before tourism became important. Today almost all CTMA staff are islanders with its ventures, both tourism- and commercial transport-related, being instrumental in encouraging economic development. As we pulled away from Québec’s mainland to cross 215 kilometers of the Gulf of St Lawrence to Les Îles, our ship’s engines seemed to surge with a new energy, reminding me of the way a horse lifts its head and increases its pace when it turns for home.
Havre-Aubert, one of Québec’s most picturesque villages, is a strollable place to immerse in the arts, culture and deep history of Les Îles with art galleries, one-of-a-kind artisan shops, a first class maritime museum and local-species aquarium. Alison Gardner
For an extra fee, we could have opted to sleep and eat aboard the Vacancier for the two nights and three days it docked in its home port of Cap-aux-Mueles, then go forth each day to explore the islands independently or go on locally-arranged tours from the ship. However, Peter and I thought it would be more adventurous to rent a car and locate on different islands for one night apiece. Sprinkled across the islands, there are bed and breakfast homes as well as some motel and resort accommodation, but our favorite default choice is always to sleep with local history if we can find it.
In 1874 during a terrible storm, a ship washed ashore with a cargo of scarce lumber. A nearby island resident took advantage of this misfortune to build himself a handsome house, today the Auberge Chez Denis à Francois. Alison Gardner
The first night ashore (see map), we chose the southernmost end of the archipelago, Île du Havre-Aubert, where many popular tourism interests are clustered. We settled in to the Auberge Chez Denis à François, a cosy mansion owned and restored by Francine and Denis Pelletier. This B&B in the village of Havre-Aubert offers the perfect location for exploring on foot the picturesque La Grave Historic Site, a sand isthmus sprinkled with weather-beaten wooden buildings once used by sailors and fishermen.
Today these carefully-maintained structures are home to numerous craft and artisan shops, art galleries and small family eateries with lots of local color. Visitors of all ages will also want to spend plenty of time in an outstanding Musée de la Mer which vividly tells the story of the island’s maritime history. And if straying farther afield for a top notch evening meal seems like too much driving, allow Francine Pelletier to demonstrate her exceptional culinary skills in the cosy Chez Denis à François restaurant, a popular choice with islanders and visitors alike.
For our second night in port, we island-hopped half way up the archipeligo to Îles du Havre aux Maisons, the third largest island and site of the airport. There we were welcomed to the imposing Domaine du Vieux Couvent with yet another historical tale and another gourmet eatery from which to sample the gastronomic specialties of the island.
Even into the early 20th century, literacy and education were scarce commodities here with students having to leave to get any education. A residential convent school was built to train young local women to be future teachers in small community schools throughout the archipelago. With volunteers from all districts, this only stone building on the islands was completed in four years. From 1918 until 1967 when a public high school began educating all Madelinots to graduation, the Domaine du Vieux Couvent was an active educational institution.
Today, still under local Acadian ownership, its ten elegant rooms offer breathtaking views of the sea from original floor to ceiling windows. Respect for the building’s original materials is evident in the re-design and decor of every floor, with stories of earlier days visually presented for guests to enjoy and former students’ voices almost audible in the hallways.
Formerly a residential convent school for girls, Domaine du Vieux Couvent has been meticulously restored as a heritage guest accommodation with a superior level of comfort and service. Peter Gardner
Les Îles are an inquisitive visitor’s paradise with so many stops of interest that it takes much longer to traverse this relatively small archipelago than one might expect from studying a map or the mileage. We were fascinated by the whimsical paint color combinations of houses which we were assured had a practical as well as a spirit-raising rationale in a time where there were no house numbers by which to give directions for either mail delivery or fire extinguishing.
In a relatively flat land-scape where most homes boast a sea view, a bright purple house with pink trim or a red and yellow house standing tall against vivid green grass also served as a navigation beacon for local mariners skirting shores where miscalculations about the nearest safe haven could mean a watery grave. Today’s proudly-maintained homes provided dozens of excuses in themselves to stop for photo ops, sometimes two or three per kilometer!
With her own shop in Havre-Aubert, artist Francine Bourque does not exaggerate the colorful houses and landscapes in her paintings that capture a signature impression of Les Îles. Alison Gardner
On our last island day before re-boarding CTMA Vacancier for the return cruise to Québec City and Montréal, we received a tip that we should drive north to the farthest island, Île de la Grande Entrée, by no later than 11 a.m. to witness the returning lobster boats that go out to sea well before dawn to check their traps. Our morning drive took us past endless vistas of wide cream sand beaches on either side of the road, over narrow bridges and through diminutive fishing and farm hamlets eventually ended at a bustling commercial marina for hundreds of lobster boats.
Teams of women waited to unload the lobster catch into refrigerated trailers that would take it to local canneries or to be fresh packed for flights to restaurants and grocery stores in Europe and America. Sharing stories with these women about their fishing families and watching how swiftly the low-slung boats backed nimbly to the dock, offloaded their catch and sped away to their moorings provided one more island treat.
Expert fishing has long provided the main income of the islands, with lobster being the most lucrative catch. Hubert Majeau
Les Îles also shares its history and culture generously through many small-scale, high-quality attractions including the Musée de la Mer, Le Site d’Autrefois living history museum, the Fumoir d’Antan herring smokehouse and shop, and the Pied-de-Vent Cheese Factory with tours and tastings. If readers are sensing a preoccupation with food in this article, let it be known that the Madelinots eat like kings and queens and serve their hearty organic soups and herb-laden savory dishes with the same panache as they play the haunting Acadian music, and paint their houses.
Only minutes from the CTMA dock but in a gastronomic stratosphere of its own, our final restaurant stop shouted out the final word on the nobility of island cuisine with its well-deserved name, La Table des Roy (Table of Kings). Each dish arrived on our table with a flourish and the colorful presentation did more than hint at the flavorful delights to conclude our all-too-brief stay.
The traditional smokehouse, Fumoir d’Antan, has been smoking herring for three generations. Once an important export industry with many family-owned smokehouses, this is the last example in the islands due to the decline of herring. Hubert Majeau
If joie de vivre is to be found anywhere in this world, it must surely be on these illusive islands floating low on the horizon in the Gulf of St Lawrence!
See the Tourisme Îles de la Madeleine website for a delightful insight into the visual treats of these magical islands as well as the outstanding cuisine opportunities, Acadian history and music festivals, active travel options and cultural highlights to be shared with visitors.
Getting There: In addition to the seven-day, round-trip CTMA cruise option from Montréal offered seasonally, there are regular Air Canada Jazz flights from Montréal and Québec City, and a five-hour ferry trip one way to/from Prince Edward Island, also operated by CTMA. Visitors may also mix and match these transport options, going one way on a CTMA cruise and spending longer in Les Îles de la Madeleine before departing by ferry to PEI or by plane.
Photo above: A modern freighter wreck along the shore of one island is a reminder of the current dangers of the archipelago seas even today. There are over 400 documented ship wrecks in the region. Alison Gardner
When to Go: Most travelers visit Les Îles de la Madeleine between late June and early September, when the 300 kilometers of sandy beaches and warm shallow waters offer particular appeal for families. If those dates are not the highest priority, other months have quieter charm and good off-season rates in a climate that is relatively temperate for the region.
CTMA’s Theme Cruises and Cruise/Land Packages: CTMA operates its regional Vacancier cruises between Montréal, Québec City and Les Îles de la Madeleine from mid-June through late September, with some weekly sailings featuring special themes and activities programs such as Lobster & Marine History, Cuisine, Bird Watching & Photography, Music, and Acadian Heritage.
Regardless of cruise choices, once in Québec, most travelers will want to spend some time in Montréal and Québec City, two vibrant destinations in themselves. Check out our in-depth feature article highlighting the special features of these two exceptional cities, including illustrations and descriptions of their most unique accommodations. Lonely Planet’s city guide, Montréal & Québec City, (3rd edition, December 2012) also deserves recommendation as an excellent reference for getting the most out of any visit there.
The Gaspé Peninsula and Îles de la Madeleine are two tourism regions of Le Québec maritime, www.quebecmaritime.ca. For province-wide Québec tourism information, visit www.bonjourquebec.com.
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine, www.travelwithachallenge.com.