Pieds-de-vent

 Îles de la Madeleine, Quebec

“You’re from Vancouver?! How did you end up here?”

It’s almost as if people are disappointed that someone’s let out their best-kept secret. Quebec’s popular summer vacation spot, a tiny archipelago barely visible on a map, accessible only by ferry from PEI or by prop plane, is already pretty full in the summer. (I’m here at the very tail end of their season, the crowds having thinned out before everything closes.) Already well-known everywhere east of Quebec, the islands remain practically unheard of to most of us folks west of Ontario. Being strongly and primarily francophone gives it even less visibility out west, I’d assume.

So what’s the big deal?

A twelve-hour plane-hopping journey from one coast to the other, my arrival was unceremonious and in the dark of night, arriving at 1am with no taxis at the airport. Barely minutes in and I already receive the famed hospitality of the islands — a stranger, picking up another passenger from my final flight, sees me looking confused and offers to go out of their way to give me a ride to my hostel. I’m extremely grateful — I certainly wouldn’t have been able to walk the distance, let alone find the place down a gravel side-road in the dark. Disoriented, jet-lagged, and forcing myself to speak a ragged out-of-practice French, I’ve lost all sense of place in my own country.

And then I wake up the next morning.

Two steps out the door, I see this.

Without the time to go slow and hitchhike across the islands like many visitors do, I made my way down from north to south over my three-day stay on a rental scooter. Up in Grand-Entrée, a short way out from the fishing village is a beach path to Île Boudreau, a thin islet accessible on foot leading to what feels like the edge of the world, with cliffs falling into the ocean.

Down the road are the tiny settlements of Old Harry and Grosse-Île, blessed with some quaint farms, great lobster, and a curiously anglophone community. The road then narrows significantly through Pointe-aux-Loups, surrounded on both sides by sand dunes and the ocean.

The main fun lies in the three largest islands, Havre-aux-Maisons, Cap-aux-Meules, and Havre-Aubert, full of rolling green hills dotted with colourful houses, and plenty of coastal drives. The lighthouses couldn’t be anymore perfect, and usually are also the start of desire paths leading tantalizingly to who-knows-where through tall, windblown grass. It’s like a dream. And yet, for whatever reason, they named one of the lighthouse locations Cape Alright. (Yeesh, if that’s just alright, what’s amazing?)

On the west side of Cap-aux-Meules, not far from the towns of L’Étang-du-Nord and Fatima, is Belle Anse, the best spot to see the red cliffs the islands are famous for, full of crags and even natural arches. The south side of Havre-Aubert is similar, and a beautiful drive to see just how close people are willing to locate their houses next to a cliff. (Or…erect a giant chair?)

The main road ends in Havre-Aubert at La Grave, a national historic site that was the first settlement on the islands. There’s Sandy Hook Beach nearby, home to the famous annual sand castle building competition, a whole 12 km long stretching almost but not quite to Île-d’Entreé, the one island not connected by road.

The road from top to bottom should take about an hour, but for me, I couldn’t stop stopping on the side of the road to take it all in. I think I took a good four hours cumulatively, and that’s not even counting all the detours off the main road. Plenty of beautiful side streets and coastal scenery.

Unfortunately, the wind and weather didn’t make it easy. Strong headwinds, gusts, and the occasional bit of rain and hail did not make for easy driving at times, especially when I started having some engine trouble. Sunlight was rare and fleeting, and I really wish I got to see everything all lit up and glowing. I also really could’ve gone for a nice beach day on one of the archipelago’s many long stretches of perfect sand, or perhaps kayak through some coastal caves!

People on the island are used to this weather, of course. On virtually any stretch of beach I encountered, there were people kitesurfing and windsurfing. At the top of a hill, I met two locals who, after greeting me, promptly ran off the edge with their paragliders. In the harbours, I still saw fisherman handling their catch or working on their boats. And as for the elusive sun, you know when rays of sunlight peek through the clouds? That’s basically the weather all the time, and they’ve got a name for it — “pied-de-vent,” which basically translates to, uh, “wind foot” in English. Sounds more romantic in French.

The island itself, however, might not be handling the weather so well. The famed cliffs crumble away after every storm, and parts of the main road connecting all the islands together are eroding more and more every year, requiring significant multi-million-dollar work that the Quebec government doesn’t exactly have the budget for. And indeed, perhaps even with the stormy weather I got, I was lucky: the remnants of Hurricane Dorian slammed the islands head-on a mere two days after I left, destroying houses, eroding cliffs significantly, and damaging general infrastructure and the main road even more. Even a part of the landscape I saw doesn’t exist anymore.

In front of my hostel at Parc de Gros Cap. That pillar no longer exists after Dorian 🙁

Given the long history of this place and the many shipwrecks left by past storms, its landscape has probably already changed infinitely anyway; what’s happening now can’t be unusual. Centuries of visits by the Mi’kmaq people, a stop by one Jacques Cartier himself (if you don’t remember your social studies, he was the first European to reach Canada, claiming the land for France) back in the 1500s kickstarted a whole bunch of immigration and competition for walrus (now hunted to regional extinction), seal (hunting continues in the winter after the ocean ice forms), and fishing. Multiple names were given the islands over the years as control was passed back and forth: the two primary ones being Madeleine, in honour of the wife of the man who owned the island in the 1600s (what a mensch!), and Samuel de Champlain’s “La Magdeleine,” which is still used now in English as the Magdalen Islands.

A whole mess of history with France and the nearby St. Pierre and Miquelon, Newfoundland, Quebec, Scotland, and Massachusetts (illegal fishing in Madelinot waters) later, those who form the archipelago’s population of 12000 are primarily Acadians who returned after displacement. (Sound familiar? Their tricolour flag with the yellow star flies proudly all over the islands.) Bafflingly, it seems like Madelinots speak French with different strong accents on every island from south to north. The anglophone community of about 500, including on Île-d’Entrée, the only part of the archipelago I didn’t visit since it’s not connected by road, are primarily Scottish descendants, and even there I found those who spoke an English I’m used to, and those who… well, sound like they’re from Newfoundland. Some can’t speak French at all, despite how tiny this whole place is.

Tiny, with a bit of everything. Each settlement has at least a church, a school, a gas station, a community hall, and a restaurant. Typical small-town life. There’s a bit more stuff where the tourists go, like in La Grave and Cap-aux-Meules, but that little bit goes a long way, particular with food! Seafood is aplenty, with fish and chips, oysters, mussels, and lobster all fresh and frequently on the menu, but also seal. A little bit gamey, delicious served as a filet, but downright the best burger I’ve ever had.

There’s the artisanal stuff too. Cheese named Pied-de-vent, no less, from the now relatively-rare Canadienne cattle that are still bred across the island. Fruit wines, honey, smoked meats, microbrews… All amazing, and a pity that much of it isn’t distributed beyond the islands. And of course, plain old art and live music, though I had less time to seek that out.

Then there’s the people. Not just the locals, but all the visitors: mostly from Quebec (and literally from all over, many driving over two or three days to get here) or France, a few from the maritime provinces, everyone was easygoing and very outgoing, from the Quebecker at my hostel who relished in the irony of making a pâté chinois for un chinois (me, basically the only Asian on the islands) after finding out I’d never tried one, to the locals who’d chat with me on their walks and lend me a hand with directions or my scooter, or the many strangers who kept me company while dining alone at bars and restaurants. I even got an invite onto a boat that I had to sadly decline! As an atypical visitor to the islands, a solo-travelling Asian from the other side of the country that flew in for a short stay, was pretty much the only person on the roads with a scooter for three very blustery days, and could passably speak French, I may have received a bit more… attention than most, but I appreciated the frequent opportunities to share my stories and perspectives as much as I enjoyed listening to theirs.

Three-and-a-half days felt like both an eternity and a millisecond simultaneously. So much I did and so many lovely conversations, yet so much I’d love to return for and so much I didn’t get to do. Will I come back soon? It’s not likely, given the effort and expense to get here from BC. Am I going to dream about this trip longingly until that next time, jealous of all the Quebeckers I met who make the trip every summer and stay for weeks on end? You bet.

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