As provinces alleviate travel restrictions and visiting another country remains too uncertain, vacationing within Canada is becoming the safer bet. Why not start with Quebec’s best kept secret, The Magdalen Islands. During these times it is important that before you start on any trip to another province, check travel advisories for the coronavirus (COVID-19) on the Government of Ontario’s website; www.ontario.ca.
The province of Quebec is often referred to as La Belle Province (The Beautiful Province) but so many Canadians just do not know the total extent of its beauty, and now one of its best kept secrets has been uncovered.
The Magdalen Islands (Les Îles de la Madeleine) lie off Quebec’s southeast coast in the middle of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence where it meets the Atlantic Ocean; flanked on the west by the Gaspe Peninsula and New Brunswick, in the south by PEI and Cape Breton and to the east by Newfoundland.
This small archipelago is comprised of eight beautiful islands. Six of these islands are linked by long, narrow sand dunes and a roadway (Hwy. 199). The islands are: Grande Entree, Grosse ÃŽle, Pointe aux Loups, Havre aux Maisons, Cap aux Meules, and Havre Aubert. The two other smaller islands are Entry Island, located 10 km east of Havre-Aubert, and Brion Island, 16 km north of Grosse ÃŽle. Seven of the eight islands are inhabited.
With just 13,000 year-round residents – who are known as Madelinots the island’s population swells to 80,000 in the spring and summer months when all attractions and restaurants are in full swing.
What to do in the Magdalen Islands
Visitors and residents can enjoy the islands’ many activities like biking, camping, sea kayaking, windsurfing, kitesurfing, parasailing, and nature walks. Whether walking along one of the long stretches of white sand beaches, hiking along the high sandstone cliffs, or taking in local art galleries, there is so much to see and do on the Magdalen Islands.
The Islands are connected by one roadway. Driving from end to end takes about 90 minutes. There are so many breathtaking views along the route that my advice is to have your camera ready, take your time and capture all of the unique colourful homes, rolling sand dunes, the crashing ocean against the tall red cliffs, the beaches, lighthouses, the endless boardwalk paths and the many other attractions that will catch your eye. Of course, this will mean that driving around the islands will take a lot longer than 90-minutes, possibly days!
The exquisite local cuisine is a much sought-after experience and these islands are home to several culinary masters, who offer an inspired array of what the terroir and the sea provide, making The Magdalen Islands a Canadian and a world-class gastronomic destination. Chef Johanne Vigneau manages two operations, an upscale restaurant called La Table des Roy and Gourmande de Nature, a culinary school and shop on Cap aux Meules island.
Her restaurant (La Table des Roy) on Cap aux Meules island, is actually in the house where she was raised and converted into her premier restaurant more than 35 years ago. Chef Johanne is a self-taught culinary master with cuisine centred around the local bounty of the Magdalen Islands. As she says, The Table des Roy is 35 years old and like good wine, it improves with time. To learn more visit www.restaurantlatabledesroy.com.
At the Gourmande de Nature, Chef Johanne provides unique cooking classes for the many cruise ship passengers visiting and all other visitors. Her students get lessons on preparing local foods and enjoy the fruits of their labour afterwards. She does not skimp on the portion sizing. Everyone leaves satisfied but also wanting more. During her class, she whipped up an exquisite hors d’oeuvre of seared bruschetta in olive oil topped with a meaty lobster and a fish mixture; this was followed by three large lightly seared scallops on a bed of a mashed potato pilaf, drizzled with a mini vine tomato salad and topped off with two small strips of bacon. It was simply enchanting. Next came the skillet-braised beef accented with shaved cheese slices with a nice glass of wine. Chef Johanne’s cooking class provides a great taste of the local cuisine and students really get their money’s worth. To learn more visit www.gourmandedenature.com.
To truly experience the extreme delicacies of the islands, visit Chef Hugo Lefrancois, head chef at Resto Bristo Accents at the Chateau Madelinot Hotel (located on Cap aux Meules island) and try his seal meat dish. Yes, seal meat! He is passionate and proud of his creations, especially the seal meat and is quick to point out that seal meat is a popular dish on Les Îles de la Madeleine.
He seasons the seal meat to tender perfection. The meat is taken from the tail section, which is the most tasty and tender part of the seal, states Chef Hugo. A good helping is sliced and placed on top of special sauces that he creates and artistically brushes on the plate. This is then accented with very thinly sliced radishes, some blueberries and a touch of greens. As I slowly lifted the first piece towards my mouth, my taste buds immediately went into high alert. Once I reached the point of no return, my taste buds quickly kicked into high gear and yelled, This is not seal meat, it tastes like a perfectly prepared filet mignon, have more! To learn more visit www.hotelsaccents.com/chateau/resto/
One of the best breakfasts on the islands can be enjoyed at Auberge Chez Denis a Françios, a unique 15-room inn on the island of Havre Aubert. This hotel sits majestically on a hill overlooking the sea and has an interesting history. In 1874, a ship washed ashore due to a terrible storm, so the lumber and its cargo were gathered and used to build a house that is now the Auberge Chez Denis a Françios.
Chef and owner Francine Pelletier cooks up a delectable meals highlighting the bounty of the sea and farms in front of her doors which includes braised seal, scallops, crab, seafood potpie, bouillabaisse, mussels, beef and more. A breakfast treat is Chef Francine’s local and seasonal berries with bananas, kiwi, cantaloupe and pineapple piled on freshly made waffle and covered with local syrup; this simple dish glistens in the sunlight. It is fluffy, light and heavenly; the perfect accompaniment to the morning orange juice and coffee while gazing out the restaurant window looking at the scenic surroundings that are steps away. To learn more visit www.aubergechezdenis.ca.
A short walk down the hill from Auberge Chez Denis a François is the Atelier Cotier. Translated, the name means Coastal Studio because the studio is at the cliff’s edge of the island of Havre Aubert. Owner and artist, Pauline-Gervaise Gregoire uses the white sand of the area to create artistic masterpieces. She is quick to point out that they do not take any sand from the beaches on the island, they use the sand from the islands’ inland areas because they wish to protect the beautiful white sand beaches. All shells, impurities/pollutants are removed from the sand and a specialized glue is added, it is then compacted and ready to be sculpted by the artists who only have three days to work the sand into the final piece.
Pauline offers sculpting classes at the studio as well as retails a variety of locally produced sand-sculpted items from local island artists. Most popular are the footprints line of products that range from clocks, frames and even urns. Their location is in the historic and very scenic area of the island, known as Chemin de la Grave (translated means Path near Grave). Pauline is the new generation, continuing the love of sand art that her parents (Albert and Nicole) introduced to the islands in 1981. It’s all about playing with the sand everyday, states Pauline. To learn more visit www.ateliercotier.com.
The Magdalen islands are known for their unique cheeses, although there are only two producers, The Fromagerie Les Biquettes a l’air is located on the Ile du Havre Aubert and produces artisan goat cheeses. Opened in 2015, owner/artisan cheese maker Eric Longpre utilizes the milk from his 40-plus goats to produce his fresh cheeses. He combines local flavours like garlic flower, sea parsley, wild pepper, fruits and honey in his unique cheeses. Eric offers visitors a unique opportunity to bond with the goats and taste some of the marvelous cheeses he creates. Visitors can walk the goats, like a Sheppard would around the rolling hills in the area and have them graze, then return to the fromagerie with the goats and taste the yummy cheeses he produces and of course, drink a glass of goat’s milk. He produces his goat cheeses every 48 hours in peak season, so every day the freshest is available for purchase. To learn more visit www.biquettes.ca.
On Iles du Havre aux Maisons, The Fromagerie du Pied-de-Vent cheese factory is a producer of cheese using cow’s milk. Renee Landry is one of the owners and says that she has been eating cheese everyday for more than 20 years because she is also the taste tester for all of the six types of cheese lines they produce. Their cheeses are available across Quebec and various specialty boutiques outside of the province. The fromagerie provides cheeses sampling and a viewing area to see the cheese being made (check production schedule) and be sure to visit the cows on the property or in the field as they graze. To learn more visit www.fromageriedupieddevent.com.
If fish you prefer to feast on fish, a stop and tour of Le Fumoir d’Antan for smoked herring (on the Ile Havre aux Maisons) is a must and it is a short distance from the Fromagerie. In 1940 there were 40 smoke houses on the islands, today Le Fumoit d’Antan is the only smoke house remaining. Herring are harvest twice a year (Spring and Fall). For the health conscious, the spring herring processed is less fatty than the fall herring. To learn more visit www.fumoirdantan.com.
The peak months on The Magdalen Islands are May to September where all activities, attractions and communities are in full swing. During the off-season many places are closed until the following May. During the winter months, beginning in mid-February, the Magdalen Islands switch to eco-tourism. Visitors can observe newborn and young harp seal pups on the pack ice that surrounds the islands. Tour providers will get you up close to the seals to take spectacular photos.
The language spoken on the Magdalen Islands is French. One can’t help but get a romantic-welcoming feel from touring the islands, meeting the locals, seeing the spectacular scenery and experiencing the cuisine. Their passion to provide a world-class gastronomic offering to residents and visitors alike and to roll out the welcome mat by shouting viens pour une visite (come for a visit) to Canadians should not be missed. The Magdalen Islands may have been Quebec’s best kept secret however not anymore!
Getting to the Magdalen Islands
The easiest way to get to The Magdalen Islands is by airplane, with transfers in Montreal or Quebec City to the Islands. Air Canada flies into The Magdalen Islands. Their small airport is located on Havre-aux-Maisons (House Harbour Island). Check flight schedules, cancellations and restrictions before booking.. It is about a 1-hour and 45-minute flight from Quebec City. A car rental is a good idea when one arrives because there is so much to see and do.
By driving and taking a ferry
Under normal circumstances to drive directly to the Îles-de-la-Madeleine (Magdalen Islands) from Toronto, you need to find your way to the ferry from Prince Edward Island. The drive is beautiful and will take you through Eastern Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick before arriving in Prince Edward Island. The ferry dock is located in Souris, PEI. The ferry crossing is quite long but the five hours of downtime will reward you when the beauty of the islands unfolds. The ferry departs daily at 2 p.m. throughout the summer with some additional overnight crossings available. Visit http://traversierctma.ca/ for details. You can also take a ferry from Montreal or Quebec City but the journey will be a great deal longer.
Keep in mind that during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are restrictions in place; many activities, hotels/motels, restaurants and other conveniences are NOT open to accept tourists. Check first before embarking on your road trip.
At the time of this article, during the COVID-19 pandemic non-maritime residents are not allowed to enter the provinces. An agreement has been made by the governments of Quebec, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island allow non-maritime residents to drive between mainland Quebec and the Magdalen Islands.
While travelling through P.E.I., drivers may stop only for gas or to go to the bathroom as they travel straight to the ferry terminal.
Travellers using the road and ferry to travel to and from Îles-de-la-Madeleine must now fill out a form to be allowed to cross New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.
They must print this form and have it on hand when they travel, along with their reservation on board the CTMA ferry and all documents confirming the valid reason for their trip (proof of principal residence, secondary residence [tax account], medical paper, document provided by an employer, booking of tourist or family accommodation, etc.).
COVID-19 TRAVEL RESTRICTION ADVISORY FOR MARITIMES AND MAGDALEN ISLANDS
At the time of this article during the pandemic restrictions, The Magdalen Islands have limited visitors to those that fall into the essential travel categories; must be a Quebec resident, must be an essential worker, must be a resident of The Magdalen Islands; have a summer home on the islands; or if there is a family emergency on the island.
If you plan to travel within Quebec, the government asks that you follow its instructions for safe vacations amid COVID-19. Those recommendations can be found on their website; https://www.quebec.ca/en/health/health-issues/a-z/2019-coronavirus/
The province of Quebec does not currently mandate any self-isolation period for people arriving from other Canadian provinces. However, it does discourage non-essential interprovincial travel, especially to remote areas like The Magdalen Islands. Check all government website information for travel advisories before you embark on your road trip outside of the province.
To learn more about The Magdalen Islands (Les Îles de la Madeleine), what to see, what to do, maps and more visit the official website of the tourism office at www.tourismeilesdelamadeleine.com/en.
Important COVID-19 Travel Links
Quebec travel: www.quebec.ca
New-Brunswick Coronavirus website explains the public health measures and guidelines in place and if you can pass trough the province: www2.gnb.ca
Prince-Edward Island COVID-19 restrictions and guidelines :
Ontario COVID-19 travel advisory website: www.ontario.ca
Frank Greco is a world traveller and television producer of The Travel Guy, Gourmet Escapes and other lifestyle programs/documentaries. Follow Frank on Twitter (www.twitter.com/iamthetravelguy); Facebook (www.facebook.com/frank.greco.338); Instagram (thetravelguy1 and travelwithmeandde); Youtube Channels (TGTV-Food or Frank Greco-The Travel Guy) its all free.