In Quebec, Isles of Splendid Isolation

Leonard Clark's great-grandfather arrived on the Magdalen Islands clinging to a lifeboat after the Good Intent, the ship he traveled on from England, lost its rudder in a gale in December 1855. His wife's grandfather floated ashore on a ladder several decades later.

After years of digging through shipping records and mariners' journals in Europe and North America, Clark, an amateur archeologist, estimates the Magdalen shoals have scuttled 1,000 sailing vessels. The reason for the treachery lies in their location: They're halfway between Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island in the middle of the entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, making them a foundering ground for storm-struck 19th century ships carrying wood to England and immigrants to Canada. Many of the castaways stayed; some of the houses they built from wood delivered by the waves remain.

Les Iles-de-la-Madeleine, or simply "Les Iles," as they are known, are a 50-mile-long croissant-shaped archipelago fringed by 160 miles of wild, wide beaches. They have long been a summer getaway for residents of Quebec, the Canadian province in which they lie.

When the tourists who triple the population from early June to early September thin out after Labor Day, departing by plane or ferry, the Magdalens are reclaimed by a year-round population of 15,000. My boyfriend, Philip, and I arrived after the crowds last September when the air was still warmed by the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which surround the islands.

Exuding an isolated Robinson Crusoe aura, these islands are magical as only remote, windswept specks of land can be, swirling with fog and tales of romance and adventure set against a backdrop of pounding surf. The pace is leisurely and the cast of characters lively and colorful. The eclectic collection of weathered fishermen and seal hunters, artists and well-heeled refugees from the rat race has created an uncommon mélange of rural simplicity and European sophistication that we found alluring.

We flew from Montreal to the Magdalen Islands, a two-hour flight, renting a car on arrival so we could explore the beaches and far-flung towns. But often we abandoned our four wheels for two and cycled along the miles of paved bike routes that line the beaches of most islands. We split our time evenly between B&Bs on the islands of Havre-aux-Maisons and Havre Aubert. We spent a week in all, plenty of time to explore, relax, kayak the coastline, sample the islands' cuisine and practice our French with locals at outdoor cafes.

About 95% of the residents of the "Maggies" are French Canadian; the rest are English speaking. Most people in the towns speak some English; in the countryside English is rarely spoken. The single main town, Cap-aux-Meules--"Grindstone" to the Anglophones--is an unremarkable gathering place for modern commerce and administration, so we did not spend much time there.

Instead we made our first base about 10 minutes' drive away at a lovely B&B, Au Salange, a large house set on a remote stretch of meadow overlooking the sea on Havre-aux-Maisons. Local art complements the breezy, stylish island theme.

The smaller hamlets of the Magdalens are more charming than Cap-aux-Meules and warrant exploration. Bassin is a seaside community of mansard-roofed homes; La Grave has a single street of shingled galleries and a theater.

At L'Etang-du-Nord a cluster of clapboard shops includes the Café la Côte, whose specialty is a salt cod pizza served on a deck overlooking one of the most recent shipwrecks, the Duke of Connaught, a casualty less than two decades ago. The Duke's angular hulk has rusted into the same red as the cliffs onto which it was swept. Locals joke that it is the work of one of the islands' well-known contemporary metal sculptors.

But the tranquil soul of the islands lies on the web of rural roads between farms, past marshes crowded with wading herons and alongside endless beaches blurring into distant sea mist. Daisies and buttercups lay siege to lush springtime fields. In autumn, buttery rays of sun fire up the crumbling cliffs, rock stacks and 10 squat lighthouses and add voltage to the electric colors of the gabled homes, painted mauve or candy pink, orange or turquoise with lime green or purple trim.

Now landscape art, the vivid hues were originally an Acadian tradition to transform houses into beacons for fishermen returning from the sea.

Old-fashioned values prevail; churches are well attended on Sundays, doors are rarely locked and keys are left in cars. "It's like the rest of Canada in the 1950s," says Brigitte Michaud, who recently moved from Montreal to run the Magdalens' tourism bureau.

But in many ways the outward rural appearances are deceptive. Homes are well stocked with the latest electronics, new cars are parked in almost every garage and residents are affluent enough to make frequent trips abroad and annual winter pilgrimages to the sun. Women are smartly clad, even if only pushing prams down country roads. And like the French everywhere, they love their festivals and their cuisine, which is increasingly attracting "foodies" from the Northeast.

"We have wild boar pâté, fresh duck eggs and snow crab," says Dominique Gagnon, who runs Au Salange. A wine buff, he holds regular tastings that quickly sell out and spends months in Bordeaux or Australia during the winter.

He is also an avid chef and creates wonderful breakfasts for his guests. Over scones slathered with thick cream--from cows grazing outside his window--and homemade wild strawberry jam, he continues to describe the local gourmet fare to me. "There is lobster, mackerel, halibut," he says. "Mussels and scallops are cultivated too." The herring smokehouse is legendary, and Pied-de-Vent cheese is sought after across the province. There is even a food festival every spring.

Other parts of rural Quebec also have a bounty of fresh products, but rarely are they woven into the innovative menus of first-class restaurants as they are in the Magdalens, eateries like La Table des Roy that would draw rave reviews in cuisine-savvy Montreal. During our dinner there I ordered a delicious dish of sweetbreads with local prawns; Philip loved his bouillabaisse, a flavorful seafood soup/stew made with local catches. La Marée Haute restaurant recently won a provincial culinary award for its seal filet with pomme de pré, a local cranberry, which we both ordered and thoroughly enjoyed. Seal does not taste fishy but is strongly flavored like game meat.

When not dining on haute cuisine or taking long, leisurely lunches by the sea, we explored along Route 199, a country road that knits together the seven main inhabited islands. It was completed in 1956; before then, residents had to row or wait for low tide to travel from island to island.

Even today each island has a distinctive French dialect; those from Havre Aubert roll their "r's," while Ile du Havre-aux-Maisons residents are recognizable by the absence of that letter in their vocabulary. I speak just enough French to get myself into trouble but could tell that the accents were different from what I hear in Montreal and that they also vary from island to island. "The story goes that 18th century residents of the island hated French royalty," Father Frédéric Landry, a locally born priest and historian, tells me, "and they vowed never again to use the letter 'r' as in roi, the French word for 'king.'"

Driving east away from the island of Cap-aux-Meules, we crossed a short bridge to Ile du Havre-aux-Maisons, then skipped onto Dune du Nord, a long thread of sand leading to the island of Grosse-Ile, where kayakers paddled the calm waters of the lagoon on my right. On my left, steady winds smashed rollers onto a beach where Eric Marchand zipped along in a three-wheeled buggy attached to a giant kite.

"By wind is the best way to see the islands," says Marchand, known as the "kite guru." He runs an outdoor adventure shop that offers not only "kite-buggying" and "kite-kayaking" but also "kite-surfing," a new sport in which he is world champion.

Strapping a surfboard to his feet, he skimmed across the water clinging to the cables controlling a rambunctious kite; I did not feel adventurous enough to give it a try, preferring, in the howling winds, to keep my feet on dry land. The persistent wind is as much a feature of the landscape as the sand and sea. Doorways are tethered with old leather belts or rope to keep them from ripping off hinges; power lines are strung low to duck the gales.

La Table des Roy maitre d' Michel Bonato learned island housekeeping tricks from his mother-in-law when he married a Madelinot and moved here from France. "I can now hang laundry in winds up to 40 mph," he says, only half-joking. There is even a wind festival each August.

I knew we had reached the island of Grosse-Ile without consulting my map. Gone were houses the color of lobster floats, replaced by weathered gray clapboard or shingle on a rolling landscape reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands. Grosse-Ile is home to most of the islands' 800 English speakers. About 150 of them live on tiny Entry Island, a short ferry ride from Cap-aux-Meules. While the French are linked culturally with Quebec, the English community has strong ties with New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, the Maritime Provinces. The French and English communities are culturally strong and live largely in their separate enclaves, but they still mingle freely.

We left the English community and continued driving to the easternmost island in the archipelago, reaching a vast wilderness of deserted beaches and marshland accessible only by loops of boardwalk or by boat. Pointe-de-l'Est National Wildlife Area is a lush sanctuary, and from the short boardwalk trail we could see why the area is popular with bird-watchers. We rented bikes and picked up picnic lunches in Cap-aux-Meules and rode off, watching fishing boats heading out to sea and kayakers threading through the archway of Elephant Rock. Or we headed to the shore of one of the lagoons to watch herons fishing or had a lazy afternoon of reading on a remote beach. There are few places on the islands where the ocean is not in plain view.

Fishing is still the main industry. Lobsters are the most lucrative catch, most of them caught on Ile de la Grande-Entrée at the eastern tip of the islands. It is one of the biggest lobster fishing harbors in Quebec and the site of the Lobster Festival each July, although delicious lobster pie can be enjoyed throughout the summer at the local cafe, Delice de la Mer. We were lucky to have lunch there on the last day before it closed for the winter.

Among the boutiques in Grande-Entrée, one shop sells designer hats, mitts and vests made of sealskin, a commodity the islands were once known for. Sealing continues on a small scale, but not of pups. The dark, rich meat appears on most island menus as anything from sausages and terrine to loup-marin en bourgignon (loup-marin, or "sea wolf," being the local term for seal), served at the homey Petite Baie Restaurant. Had I not known it was seal I would have thought it was moose or another tender game meat.

"Gone blueberry picking," read a note stuck to the door of L'Aquarelle B&B when we arrived to check in. "Your room is the one overlooking the sea. Make yourself at home." We stepped into the purple 19th century house expecting to be alone and were startled by a slim man with a trim white beard cheerfully stuffing home-grown pink and yellow roses into mayonnaise jars and water glasses.

"Bonjour! I'm Jean-Marc. I just dropped by with some flowers," he said. We headed up to our room with its charming country decor, the walls decorated with the innkeeper's watercolors. (Aquarelle is French for "watercolor.")

The owners returned later that afternoon. Micheline Boucher, who has a cloud of white hair styled by the winds and eyes as blue as the berries that stained her hands, made coffee and set out island-made chocolates. Her husband, watercolorist Louis Bernier, grabbed a sketch pad and joined us on the front steps overlooking the historic fishing village of La Grave. As the salty sea air mingled with the sweet smell of blueberries, Micheline explained that the couple had been vacationing on the islands for 20 years. In 1996, both quit their busy jobs in Quebec City and moved to Les Iles to run an inn and to paint. "For us living here is like heaven, a dream come true," said Micheline, a former nurse.

Providing sanctuary from the stresses of the outside world is not a new role for the Magdalen Islands. They have long been a refuge not only for English castaways but also for French Acadians expelled from Nova Scotia by the British in 1755, some fleeing as far afield as Louisiana. "They landed right here," said Father Landry, fisherman's cap on his head, as we strolled La Grave's pebble beach. "There were 250 people, and the surnames of all those 21 pioneer families still populate the islands' telephone book." Their flag, the Acadian red, white and blue with a gold star, adorns houses, cars and boats throughout the Magdalens.

La Grave, the island's only natural harbor and until 50 years ago its main town, is on Havre Aubert, a slower-paced, more traditional island than the others and one known for its arts.

Except for the modern Musée de la Mer, the maritime museum founded by Father Landry, the town's buildings, strung along a single main road leading to the fishing dock, date from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Among them is a theater that attracts performers from France. Others are now galleries and studios showing the works of local oil painters, jewelers and sculptors.

One of the most unusual is Les Artisans du Sable, run by Albert Cummings. He and a group of four artists developed a process to mix epoxy with the islands' most abundant commodity--sand--to create a rock-like substance that can be carved with lathes into bowls, vases, plates and sculptures.

With the departure of summer tourists, restaurants and cafes across the islands were closing for winter when we visited. The few still open had become, like shrinking water holes, busier and noisier with locals. Café de la Grave, with its clapboard walls, shelves stocked with stacks of magazines and no two chairs or tables matching, was adorned with an exhibition of Bernier's watercolors. I ordered the island specialty--pot-en-pot, a seafood stew in a flaky crust--while Philip had seafood pasta in a light cream sauce.

As the wine flowed and the laughter grew giddier, the cafe's jovial owner, whom I recognized as the flower-arranging Jean-Marc Cormier, sat at the upright piano and launched into peppy show tunes and ragtime. Island-born Cormier attended a prestigious Montreal music academy, but like so many Madelinots, he returned and never left. He teaches music at the local school.

When he slowed for a melancholy French ballad, everyone joined in. I felt as though I had been dropped onto the set of a 1940s European cabaret film.

Stepping out into the puddle of light spilling from the cafe into the darkness of the fishing village, we walked slowly back toward the inn, the music and tinkling of glasses fading into silence.

After a week in this peaceful outpost we were reluctant to return to Montreal. So before boarding our flight the next morning we did the only sensible thing we could think of: We reserved a refuge for ourselves, a beachfront cottage for next September.


Margo Pfeiff is a freelance writer based in Montreal.