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.