The archipelago of the Îles-de-la-Madeleine (Magdalen Islands), in the middle of the Gulf of St Lawrence some 200km southeast (and one hour ahead) of the Gaspé Peninsula and 100km northeast of Prince Edward Island, consists of twelve main islands, seven of which are inhabited. Six of these are connected by narrow sand spits and crossed by paved and gravel roads, while the last is only accessible by boat. Together these dozen islands form a crescent-shaped series of dunes, lagoons and low rocky outcrops that measures about 80km from end to end, with the main village and ferry port roughly in the middle at Cap-aux-Meules. The islands lie in the Gulf Stream, which makes the winters warmer than those of mainland Québec, but they are subject to almost constant winds, which have eroded the red-sandstone cliffs along parts of the shoreline into an extraordinary array of arches, caves and tunnels. These rock formations, the archipelago’s most distinctive attraction, are at their best on the central Île du Cap-aux-Meules and the adjacent Île du Havre-aux-Maisons.
The islands’ 15,000 inhabitants (most descended from Acadian settlers) are largely dependent on fishing, the lobster catch in particular. Despite international pressure, the annual seal hunt in late winter also still supports many islanders (seals can be easily spotted on the ice floes in March). Other sectors of the fishery are now suffering because of fish-stock depletion, and the islands’ future livelihood revolves around tourism. Many residents worry about preserving their way of life and the fragile ecology of their beautiful islands.
Visitors are drawn to the archipelago for its wide-open landscapes and sense of isolation – it’s easy to find a dune-laden beach where you can be alone with the sea. The islands’ big attraction for many adventure travellers is the strong winds that blow here: between late August and late October conditions for windsurfing and kitesurfing are exemplary and the Canadian Professional and Amateur Windsurf Championship heads here every year. Throughout the islands, powerful currents and changeable weather conditions can make swimming dangerous, and the waters are occasionally home to stinging jellyfish.Read More
Outdoor activities in Îles-de-la-Madeleine
Outdoor activities in Îles-de-la-Madeleine
Unsurprisingly, the opportunities to get on, and in, the water around the islands – from wreck diving to horseriding on a beach – are plentiful and every bit worth setting aside time for, if not making them the focus of your trip.
Île du Cap-aux-Meules
Boat and fishing trips
Outings depart from near the ferry terminal during summer. Excursions en mer (t 418 986 4745, w excursionsenmer.com) and Le Pluvier Aventurier (t 418 986 5681, w www3.telebecinternet.com/lepluvier) offer similar services.
Windsurfing, kitesurfing and kayaking
The island boasts Canada’s first kitesurfing school, Aerosport Carrefour d’Aventures (t 418 986 6677, w aerosport.ca), at 1390 chemin de La Verniére in Étang-du-Nord. If you’re looking to windsurf or kitesurf stop here first; it’s an indispensable source of advice and rentals. It also offers excellent guided kayak tours to some of the islands’ geographical highlights, including the red sandstone caves of Gros-Cap (3hr; $44).
Winds have also played their part in causing so many ships to founder around the coast, leaving behind some superb wreck-diving. For information contact Le Repère du Plongeur (t 418 986 6548, w repereduplongeur.com), 18 Allée Léo Leblanc, Étang-du-Nord.
In Cap-aux-Meules, La Crinière au Vent (Mon–Sat 9am–5pm; t 418 986 6777), 115 chemin John-Aucoin, leads scenic horseback rides along the beach. It also offers pony rides and day-camps.
Île du Havre-aux-Maisons
Down at the wharf, Les Trésors de la Lagune (June–Sept; 1hr 30min; $25–37; t 418 937 8906, t 1 855 986 1724, w tresorsdelalagune.com) departs daily at 7.30pm for a highly entertaining and educational tour of the lagoon on a glass-bottom boat. It also has four excursions daily that take in the island’s marine life and demonstrate lobster fishing.
Île du Havre-Aubert
The Centre nautique de l’Istorlet (t 418 937 5266, w istorlet.com), at 100 chemin de l’Istorlet, offers guided snorkelling ($95) trips to see the seals that live around the islands’ coastline as well as sea-kayak outings ($50).