So we are back from the archipelago known as les Iles de la Madeleine. Will tells me that the name Madeleine is given to this group of Islands in the 17th century and not to a religious figure. A wealthy French merchant who owned a concession on the archipelago Francois Doublet De Honfleur obtained permission from the French King Louis XIV to name in January 1663 the islands after his wife Madeleine Fontaine. The name remained to this day.
If you visit the Islands today you have to know that the vast majority language is French at 99%, every sign, menu, everything is in French, you might encounter a bit of English but it is negligible. The Islanders or Madelinot as they call themselves are mostly Acadians and have a distinct accent which reminds me of Brittany/Normandy/Flanders. There is a tiny Irish/Scottish population who live on one of the islands and are descendants of shipwreck passengers of the 17th-18th-19th century. The population is 12,000. but in Summer it doubles and this can be a problem given very limited fresh water resources. The vast majority of tourists/visitors are French speaking from Québec with a few Americans and Europeans.
The archipelago is known to be in North America as the most dangerous coast with the largest watery graves of hundreds of ships and passengers. Violent storms tossing ships are frequent, the Gulf of Saint-Laurent is like a giant washing machine furiously agitating the waters.
Our crossing from Souris to Cap aux Meules was on the new ferry bought in Europe by CTMA, ( cooperative de transport maritime et aérien) it can carry 1500 passengers and heavy trucks and cars. Everything comes to the Islands by ferry. Gasoline is brought over by IRVING and at the pump a litre of gas is currently $2.28 or $9.12 a gallon. The 8 Islands from North to South end measure 73. Km so yes driving is expensive and there is no public transport. The only highway route 199 brings people to the various villages. The ferry the Madeleine II is quite beautiful and comfortable, the seating is similar to business class on a plane and the restaurant offers a good quality menu of hot and cold dishes plus a wine list. You see the influence of French culture of the company and its clientele at play here. So very different from the Island ferry we have between Wood Island and Nova Scotia which is an old rust bucket.
The Islands have developed a Gourmet experience in all its restaurants, great pride is given in the quality of dishes, presentation and service. Most wine lists are private importation wines. Even in a place which would look like a diner you will find this high end quality. Same with coffees and desserts, quality in preparation is #1.
Our Auberge in Havre Aubert has 14 rooms and was a 150 year old mansion perched on a high hill with great views of the surroundings. The dining room has 8 tables decorated with quality art works by local artists. The cuisine was superb, serving breakfast and dinner, very imaginative and beautifully presented. So a visit to the Islands is to discover the cuisine, the cheeses, the craft beer made from Sea Water and try new dishes with seal meat which is very good.
The Craft beer we tried at the Bistro Alpha owned by Mario Cyr who is described as the new Cousteau for scuba diving and his involvement on Seal population studies, which has been exploding in the last 20 years having no predators, the Bistro a wonderful place at the end of Hwy 199, in Ile de la Grande Entrée, a must. A very simple restaurant but the food is nothing short of spectacular, it is very difficult to get a reservation because Mario Cyr is very well known is scuba diving milieu.
To drink we tried a locally brewed craft beer by A l’abri de la Tempete (safe haven) the beer is called Cale sèche (dry dock) and is made with sea water. However the disclaimer on the bottle says that it is not legal to make beer with sea water, though it can be printed in bold letters on the label, so the brewer wrote on the label that he is not telling you this, you understand. A very good light blond beer with 4.2% alcohol content. The note adds at the end, a flou législatif , meaning legal vagueness, how to wink at the Law in Québec, I found it amusing.
On the matter of seals in the Gulf, since 1974 when Brigitte Bardot and Green Peace did their number, the industry of seal harvesting has been decimated. At the time about a million seals of various types lived in the Gulf, today the number is 10 million plus. This has created another problem, the herring is now on the endangered list due in part to the fact that it is very much on the seal diet. The fishers are trying to re-introduce seal meat on the menu with the help of local chefs and slowly people are developing a taste for it. I also had at another restaurant seal paté which again is very good.
We also visited a Fromagerie which is known for its local cheeses made from a breed of cows called Canadienne, they came from Saint-Simon de Rimouski and from l’Isle Verte. In 1998 they were the first cows to come to the Islands. This breed of cows came to the St-Lawrence valley in the 17th Century from Brittany and Normandy, they are rustic and sturdy animals producing about 5,200 litres of milk a year. It’s milk is high in fat at 4.5% which makes for very good cheese. The cheese is made daily in the Fromagerie, you can watch them make it in the early morning. We bought a Tomme, a cheddar and some fromage de terroir and a fromage a pate molle affinée which is similar to a camenbert.
Near our hotel just below the hill is an historical area called La Grave which is nothing more than a stretch of sand populated with old Fishing Shacks now converted into a variety of small artisan store and a coffee shop. The archipelago counts no less than 14 archeological sites and it is very interesting to learn about them. At La Grave I visited a private art gallery owned by a friends of my uncle and aunt who travel each year to les Iles de la Madeleine and have done so for decades.
When we walked in the gallery the fellow looked at me and said you look very familiar, have we met before? I told him who I was and he laughed, he told me I had that Beaulieu look, which is a dead give away. Will says it’s the nose, like a trademark. We had a great visit with him and his wife exchanging family news.
Here are some more pictures of the Islands as we drove from South to North on Hwy 199 a distance of 73 Km
We really enjoyed our time and hope to return to les Iles de la Madeleine, only 95 Km from PEI.