All good tours should start with a ferry ride. And to get to the Magdalen Islands (or Isles de la Madeleine, as a good local would call them) you need first get to Souris, PEI. Ideally, you should book ahead so you don’t have to take the 2 AM ferry, though when I arrived after midnight I found there was a tailgate party going on in the waiting lineup.
A festive crowd of Acadians — who didn’t quite seem to understand that at this time of the morning, this sort of gaiety was a bit out of place — helped up my own cheeriness meter, that was reading just a tad low.
After a rather sleepless voyage, I woke up with a majestic view of rocky Entry Island rising from the sea as we pulled into Cap-Aux-Meules. I had no real idea of what to expect – this was one outpost of Atlantic Canada where I’d never ventured. I had no idea where the best roads were, where the best food was, or even where my hotel was. Plus, I don’t speak the local language.
Despite being close to PEI, the Magdalen Islands are actually part of the province of Quebec and, as my sister warned me before I left, “very French”. Since most of my French vocabulary has been gleaned from the sides of cereal boxes, I wasn’t sure if my ability to rattle off the ingredients of Shreddies au Francaise would help me much here.
While the tourism board had provided me with a list of local attractions, craftsmen and good restaurants, I was pretty sure I would be better off just riding madly off in all directions to discover the archipelago on my own terms – so that’s what I did.
The beach life
I gotta admit, I had a big smirk on my face as I headed down Rt. 199, the islands’ main artery. I love exploring new territory, but this was extra-special. Almost everywhere I looked, I saw sand dunes or ocean.
The individual islands that make up the archipelago are connected by causeways that route through the sand dunes between the islands. Nobody builds houses on these parts, meaning you’ve got a straight line of asphalt for several kilometres, with water or dunes edging up to the sides of the road.
The Magdalen Islands may be a small place, but the sky and the ocean seem even bigger than usual here, making you feel like a tiny, motorized speck on one of the most beautiful coastlines I’ve seen in Atlantic Canada.
There are quick side jaunts to beaches everywhere. Unlike most of Atlantic Canada, locals are actually allowed to drive/ride on the sand. It’s probably a lot more enjoyable in a Jeep or a quad, but ever since I watched Dust to Glory, I’ve wanted to find a place like this – a place where you can rip along the beach as fast as you want, preferably on a properly-kitted desert bike.
Alas, the beaches are only open to traffic between the months of September and April. Besides, the CMG long-term BMW F800 GS wasn’t suitable for that sort of thing anyway, so I opted to tootle up and down the gravel beach roads, where I’d hop off, snap a few pics, enjoy the scenery and the sun, then remount and speed off until I saw another detour that caught my fancy.
If you get tired of looking at the sand dunes or the ocean, you can ride down to one of the parking lots beside the lagoons, which are full of VW vans with surfboards and kayaks strapped to the top. It’s almost like you’re stepping back in time to a groovy beach movie from the 1960s (only with French subtitles).
Since the islands are rather windswept, they’re a Mecca for windsurfers and kite boarders. Instead of grumpily hunkering down in their houses and complaining about the breeze, the locals and tourists fill the lagoons, darting around under the wind’s obliging power.
Like the desert highways I rode in Arizona and New Mexico in 2013, the causeways aren’t overly twisty, but that’s OK; there’s so much to see that the straight pavement is a blessing. The roads on the islands themselves are often decently curvy, still with good views, though they also snake through heavily populated areas, which is bad. However, despite the islands’ limited landmass, there are many less-populated gravel roads, which are short, but can be extremely fun.
While exploring these gravel roads I discovered something else – a network of ATV trails. One of the most interesting trails took me to the centre of Cap-Aux-Meules, where I followed the signs up a hill that housed a broadcasting tower. From up there, you have a 360-degree view of the archipelago, as long as the wind doesn’t blow you off the hillside. I’m not recommending you ride all the way to the top, as capable riders won’t have any trouble, but lesser-skilled riders might find the descent just a bit tricky.
The ATV trails that run close to the beach often have sandy patches that could be trouble for riders with street-biased tires. As the GS was loaded down with luggage and I was alone – not a good recipe for fun in the sand — I opted to turn around, but were I on a lighter bike with gnarlier tires, I’d definitely explore this trail system further.
Stuff to see
If you want a souvenir, the town of La Grave is the spot to get it, and if you feel like packing a canvas aboard your bike, you can pick up a painting by a local artist here too. There’s also a cafe that’s highly recommended; I popped in the door, and it looked fairly busy and smelled delicious – both good signs.
While you’re there it’s worth a visit to the Musée de la Mer. The museum would have been a good place to start my tour, as the exhibits give a fantastic overview of the island’s culture and history, with the exhibits explained in English to boot.
I could have gone and visited the local cheese making operation (friends tell me it’s good) as well, or dropped by the butcher to pick up some seal sausage – the Magdalen Islands offer some tasty treats.
What you don’t expect to find is industry, but there’s an actual salt mine on the islands, with a bilingual interpretation centre, where a company rep kindly met me on her day off. Normally, I am not a big fan of this sort of thing, but the peek into the mine’s operations was actually quite interesting. And as long as you get a company rep as enthusiastic about her job as Lucy was, you’ll enjoy the stop (unless you don’t want to spend the $6 admission).
Although this is a predominantly French-speaking area, I did find the English community of Grosse Isle. Normally, in the Maritimes, we hear about Acadians who are worried their people are losing their French culture.
Here, it’s just the opposite. The English-speaking people are the minority, and they’re worried about maintaining their identity. They have a long, proud history here – judging by the war museum, just about every able-bodied male signed up for World War II – but sadly provincial government language restrictions are making it harder for them.
Should you visit?
While the Islands are not suited to riders who simply want to tear along on their crotch rockets at high speed, getting their knee down at every opportunity, they are very suited to riders who like to take their time, explore side roads, talk to locals, and hang out at the beach.
You can ride the archipelago end-to-end on Rt 199 in under two hours, while it takes five hours (and lots of money) to travel each way to the islands by ferry.
However, in my opinion, only Cape Breton can equal the scenery here; as long as you don’t mind shelling out the dough for the boat ride, it’s definitely worth a trip, especially if you have a dual sport motorcycle that can handle the many gravel and dirt roads. Just make sure you bring a camera – you’ll need it.
A big thanks to the Quebec Maritime tourism board, who sponsored my ferry ride and the hotels I stayed at.
I stayed at three different hotels this trip – the Salicorne, a fantastic getaway with an emphasis on ecologically sustainable tourism. They even assigned me a guide who showed me his favourite hiking trails and photography spots. Thanks again!
I also stayed at Chez Denis à François, where I tucked into one of the most memorable meals of my life. I’d heard they had a seal meat appetizer here, so I ordered it, expecting an oily, fishy-tasting piece of meat. I was very happily surprised when, instead, the waitress delivered a piece of the most delicious meat I’ve ever tasted, cooked to perfection. It wasn’t a cheap meal, but it was delicious, and the rooms had a great old-time feel to them as well.
The last night was at Chatineau Madelinot, where my balcony doors opened directly on the beach, letting the sound of surf fill the room. Once again, the digs were fantastic.
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