Posted by: seanmichaelbutler | January 5, 2009


I don’t have the statistics at hand, but the Îles de la Madeleine (also known as the Magdalen Islands in English) must have the highest beach to surface area ratio in the world. They are an archipelago of several small islands joined together by long sand dunes, and all along those dunes stretch fine sand beaches for as far as the eye can see. In effect, they are not islands with nice beaches; they are beaches with some islands tacked on as an afterthought. Naturally, I decide to go.


Actually, as I sit on the ferry from P.E.I. to the islands, the beaches are the last thing on my mind. I’m more interested in the culture of the people who grew up on this remote outcropping in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, as well as the wealth of outdoor activities the islands offer. I’m saving some money by leaving my car behind and only taking my bicycle across (the islands are small enough that bike touring should be ideal). Oh yeah, and I’m also hoping to eat well.


The language on board the ferry is almost all French, and nearly all the license plates on the cars below are from Quebec. Besides this five-hour ferry from Prince Edward Island, Groupe C.T.M.A. also operates a weekly ferry service from Montreal. Throughout the summer and fall, it leaves the port of Montreal every Friday afternoon, stops briefly in the Gaspé, and arrives at the Madeleines Sunday morning. On the way back, the boat stops for longer in the Gaspé, and also spends an afternoon in Québec City. The cost for a cabin and meals runs at around $500 each way, depending on the level of luxury you choose and the time of year. A car costs another $275 – but bicycles only $30. In comparison, my crossing with a bike from P.E.I. sets me back $50 each way. Intriguingly, the ferry even makes three special trips over the course of the summer to the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon.


For the time being though, I must be satisfied with my poor-man’s cruise. Dolphins dive out of the massive ship’s way, and we see the spumes of a pair of whales. Slowly the red coast of P.E.I sinks behind, and then the bare green hillsides of the Madeleines rise from the sea before us. We pass Entry Island, connected to the others by neither dune nor culture — a small English-speaking community of Scottish descent farms and fishes there — and ease into the dock.


I stop at the tourist information hut just beyond the ferry terminal and pick up an excellent, comprehensive, and English-language guide to everything on the Madeleines. I take a quick glance; there’s the Musée de la Mer, exhibiting the local history; a store that sells both traditional, family fun-type kites and battle-ready Rokkaku flyers; Au Vieux Treuil, a little seaside music hall; and the opportunity to go snorkelling with seals, sea kayaking, or “kite buggying” — harnessing the ever-present wind with a large parachute-like kite and zipping down the endless sand dunes in a low-slung three-wheeled cart. I can see that a week’s not going to be nearly enough time.


I start pedalling through the evening light to my chosen campsite, on the opposite side of the island. The islands are almost completely treeless — extensive logging when Europeans first arrived saw to that — and those trees that do cling to the windswept land are usually stunted conifers. The older houses are painted vibrant colours, cool blue trim contrasting brilliantly with warm orange sides. Many houses, both new and old, bear the little plaque that indicates they are guest homes. Yet tourism is only the number two industry here; fishing’s still king.


As I top the hill in the centre of the island and start coasting down to the far shore, I can see the whole town of Fatima. The town is as spread out as can be, great fields of grass and wildflowers rippling in the wind between houses. I feel like I’m riding into someplace like Iqaluit or Rankin Inlet – the treelessness and prefab-looking houses have a distinct northern feel — but this impression is belied by the warm breeze coming off the water. It’s this breeze that allows the islands to have the least amount of annual frost in Québec, and the summer warmth to bleed over well into the fall.


A few minutes later I’m camped right beside that water, into which the sun is just about to bellyflop. For a tourist magnet, the Îles de la Madeleine are refreshing free from the customary excesses of such places. No sprawling resorts gobble up beachfront property, and with the exception of the strips in the main towns, few restaurants beyond the local casse-croûte exist to entice passing travellers. There are a handful of hotels, a smattering of B&B’s, and a dash of campgrounds, but the preferred type of accommodation for most visitors is in cabins. Most of these units go for under $100 a night, come equipped with a kitchen, and can sleep four to eight people. People pack a few friends in there, cook their own meals, and walk to the beach – everything they need for a very fun and affordable week in the Madelinot sun.


The next day I walk to the Dunes du Nord, which begin not far from the campground. Along the way I skirt reddish-brown cliffs, worn into fanciful shapes by the constant attention of waves. Nature, like a playful child building sandcastles on the beach, has rendered caves, arches, bridges, and towers out of the adobe-hued rock that guards much of the islands’ coastline. But the creations are transient; the rock is rough to the touch, and seems loose enough to almost crumble between my fingers. Below, in coves scooped out by the sea that range from intimate, bedroom-sized chambers to cavernous amphitheatres, are pockets of the sand that makes up so much of the islands. Since abandoning their former collectivist lives in the cliff wall and striking out on their own as atomistic particles, their colour has alchemized into a light gold.


I follow a road that slides down a cleavage in the sand dunes. On either side they rise, speckled with a hardy grass that seems the only life willing to put up with these conditions. Then the road opens up to the ocean. Forty kilometres of unbroken beach stretches languidly away to the northern tip of the archipelago; somewhere before that distant point, it disappears from sight around a corner in the Earth. I think to myself: I could get used to this.




I am discovering that the Madeleines are not the cycling paradise I’d imagined. The islands are surprisingly hilly, the few roads are hurried with tourist traffic, and, if you’re so unfortunate as to be crossing from one island to another along a flat stretch of dune while biking straight into the omnipresent wind – as I am – you’ll understand why aerodynamic drag is such a drag. It’s ten kilometres of dune from the island of Cap-aux-Meules to its southern neighbour, Havre-Aubert – ten kay of nothing but vast expanses of ocean between you and the wind. Havre-Aubert might as well be at the top of a mountain.


But my trial by wind is redeemed by La Grave, a strip of old fishing huts, houses, and stores declared an historic site by the Québec government. Of course, now it’s all boutiques and restaurants. At one end is the Artisans du Sable – half sand museum, half gift shop of sculptures made with a unique process that binds grains of sand together into rock-solid figures. The sand that was once rock has been – through the miracle of science – reconstituted as rock once again, only this time into more saleable forms: seals, birds, candleholders. The shop’s founders also started a very popular sand castle festival that takes place every August.


Further down the strip is a restaurant-bar called Le Régal II. I feel like I’ve walked into a backpacker hangout on a beach in southern Mexico. The place is packed with young, beautiful Montrealers (this is an assumption – for all I know, they could all be from Chicoutimi) who all seem to know each other, the walls are hung with beach-salvaged treasures, and Jean Leloup croons from the stereo. I grab a seat on the deck overlooking the pebbly beach, where some kind of ritual is in progress.


I know from the posters that the ritualistic procession of people with lobster traps on their heads, emerging from the water like goofy Godzillas, is actually performance art. Half a dozen performers plod through Sisyphean tasks: one rides a bike repeatedly into the water, another duct tapes rocks to his body then walks into the water until it is over his head (he emerges – rockless – like an amateur escape artist, brandishing a knife and a clown’s nose). But the audience participation – namely, of the children – is the best part. A group of little boys attach themselves to a chiselled, shaven-headed, and tattooed man, swathed in black body paint and blacker clothes, and building a pile of rocks around and over a smouldering fire. They help him slather black paint on each new rock. Meanwhile, a middle-aged woman wearing rabbit ears is impassively stitching Energizer bunnies into the stomach of a large wolf doll, while a clutch of little girls pet and cuddle the bunnies before their rendezvous with the wolf’s insides. It’s the kind of creepy juxtaposition between innocence and malignity, and blurring of art into real life, that performance art does best.       


Sick of biking into the wind, I instead test the roadside gusts with my thumb and soon get a trio of rides for my troubles. The first is from the man who founded the Musée de la Mer, a serene elder who has written many books about the islands’ history. The next is from a local artist, and the last from an artist’s son, his backseat brimming with easels and paint. He drops me in the town of Cap-aux-Meules, the islands’ throbbing metropolitan heart (pop: 1661).


It’s clear that when the bodily and stylistically well-endowed Le Régal crowd find themselves in Cap-aux-Meules, they coalesce at Les Pas Perdus resto-bar like cream at the centre of an éclair. Its innards surely have the Madeleines’ highest population density. A line constantly threatens to form in the doorway, yet the T-shirt and shorts clad maître d’ seems dismayed by the prospect of turning anybody away, and always manages to mate a couple more chairs with hopeful behinds, deftly tucking hungry guests into communal tables.


I look around at this creation, and it is good: a pack of couches wait obediently at the feet of a bookcase, the taps of a couple of local microbrews poke conspicuously from the bar, and the menu’s vegetarian options are a quantum leap beyond the usual french fries. A couple of internet portals blink forlornly in a corner, upstaged by the warm immediacy of human contact stewing around them. The servers – nymphs and satyrs in tribal jewellery and beach-mussed hair – slip through the throng like eels in mud, and breathe into my ear to be heard above the merrymaking. The place has the feel of what surfers must experience when they balance their boards atop a big wave and ride it in – teetering over an organized chaos, just enjoying the ride while it lasts.


 And that’s exactly what I do.

Copywrite Sean Butler 2005

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, Travel, March 12, 2005, as “Dunes, Dude”





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