Introducing Îles de la Madeleine
Everything about the Magdalen Islands, a stringy archipelago that resembles a Mandelbrot set on maps, is head turning. Located 105km north of Prince Edward Island, its six largest islands are connected by the 200km-long, classically named Rte 199, which curves between lumpy, verdant blotches of land on sand spits that seem about to be reclaimed by the omnipresent ocean. Between the islands' 350km of beach are iron-rich, red cliffs, molded by wind and sea into anthropomorphic forms and caves just crying out to be explored by kayak. Surprisingly, despite their exposed position, the isles are a comforting place, where the horizon is normally interrupted, along with the thought that you're in the open sea, by another wing of the archipelago.
The Magdalens look like desert islands as you circle above their crescent beaches on one of the tiny airplanes that fly here. In fact, 13,000 lucky blighters live here, and that figure quadruples in the summer. As on the Gaspé Peninsula, the islands' isolated communities, descended from Acadian refugees and shipwrecked sailors, have developed in ways that would make an anthropologist zip between them faster than the wind whips the sand spits. In the Anglophone minority, for example, some members of Grosse Îles' 600-strong, Irish-descended community report that they often struggle to understand the accent on Île d'Entrée, where the 130 residents mostly have Scottish roots.
A great way to meet the islanders, who generally don't lock their scattered, brightly painted houses when they go out, is at boîtes à chansons. The archipelago has a vibrant nightlife, and on Cap aux Meules you can normally catch wistful Acadian songs being strummed on summer evenings. During the day, if you're not busy in rock pools or trying to keep your bike upright on a blustery sand spit, other forms of creativity can be enjoyed in the seafood restaurants, économusées and boutiques. The islands are teeming with artists, often encountered looking for inspiration in a pot-en-pot (a local specialty, with mixed fish, seafood and sauce baked in a pie crust) or a Pas Perdus (one of three beers brewed on Cap aux Meules).
The islands fall in the Atlantic Time Zone, one hour ahead of mainland Québec.