Day 12 |
Sep 14, 2011

Magdalen Islands, Quebec Province, Canada 

By Robin Aiello, Marine Biologist

Co-ordinates: 47º22’41”N, 61º51’16.6”W
Weather: overcast with strong winds
Air Temperature: 17ºC

I was excited about today’s visit to the archipelago of the Iles de la Madelaine – otherwise known as Magdalen Island. This small island is located in the Gulf of St Lawrence – about 215km from the Gaspe Peninsula, 105km from Prince Edward Island and 95km from Cape Breton Island. The islands form a half moon, or fish hook, shape that stretches over 65km in a south-west/north-easterly direction. The six islands that make up this archipelago are linked by long, thin sand dunes, upon which they have build the roads.

The first European to visit the islands, in 1534, was Jacques Cartier. The seigneur of the island, François Doublet, named the island in 1663 after his wife, Madeleine Fontaine. Today, there are about 30,000 people living here year-round, and most of them get their living from the sea. Today they are mostly lobster fishermen, but in the past it was herring that drove their economy.

Our tour was a full-day tour of many of the highlights of the island – not just scenery, but also a bit of a tour of the tastes of the island. First stop was at the Fumoir d’antan smokehouse. This is a traditional style fish smokehouse that the Arseneau family has been running for three generations. It was originally opened when herring was extremely abundant, but when the fish stocks crashed, the smokehouse was closed down. But more recently, they reopened the smokehouse and started smoking more than just herring - now they smoke scallops, mackerel and salmon. They let us look inside the smokehouse and told us all about the procedure – the fish are salted, then strung onto poles that hang from the smokehouse roof. Then a series of wood and sawdust fires are lit on the floor and these are maintained 24/7. For some types of the fish it takes about 2 months to get the desired dryness.

Our next stop was at the Dune de Sud beach (or South Dune Beach), which stretches for over 22 km. Many of us took off our shoes and walked along the shoreside, letting the sand tickle our toes. For me, this was just perfect! With a few guests in tow, we beachcombed the water’s edge to see what we could find – there were lots of razor clams, Astarte clams, and moon snails. Surprisingly, the water was not as cold as I thought it would be!

The drive to our next destination was beautiful – one of the most unique things that you notice about this island is the brightly coloured houses. Nothing here is drab! They love colour – there were bright (and I mean BRIGHT) yellow, blue, green, red and even purple houses dotting the green rolling hills. It is really a unique image!

Before lunch we made another stop – this time at the Fromagerie Pied de Vent cheese factory that produces artisan raw milk cheese. It turned out that this small cheese farm was actually run by our tour guide’s family. When we arrived we were met by the mother who told us all about the history of the farm and the trials and tribulations they went through to get it up and running about 20 years ago. But now it is a highly respected cheese farm that distributes throughout Quebec. They then brought out 3 different cheeses for us to try, including their pride and joy - Pied de Vent.

For lunch we gathered at the domaine du Vieux Couvent – an old convent refurbished into a restaurant. As we were served our delicious lunch of either hamburgers (a special local-style that was delicious!), clam chowder, mussels or warm chicken salad (I’m getting hungry again just remembering the meal) we drank our local beer and wine and looked out over the wind-swept ocean.

The afternoon included a few shopping opportunities – first at a large fishing wharf called La Cote, then is a small historical town called La Grave, and finally at a well-respected artisans gallery called Baraque Art Gallery. Here, the artist himself showed us how he chooses the stone (he works primarily in alabaster), decides on the design, and then carves it. His work was really quite amazing – many pieces were double sided - one side would be fish while the other birds!

The 30-minute drive back to the ship took us along the coastline again, with its steep red sandstone cliffs, arches and caves. It really is a very beautiful, calm and scenic island – one that I look forward to returning to again and again.