It has become apparent that our new angle in travel is cornering nirvana. With Kim’s looming retirement almost edibly on the horizon, every place we visit undergoes scrutiny for future real estate potential. With southwestern Ontario winters becoming increasingly like a barren Arctic experience, we’re setting our sights on more palatable landscapes and temperatures. Don’t even get me started on the barometric disappointment of this summer. Ugh.
However, even at a bone-deep 13 degrees, under a duvet of fog, we found an immense love for the Magdalen Islands. We were already heading east to Prince Edward Island, an annual pre-determined event to visit Kim’s parents and bloodlines. Kim has been to PEI over 50 times. It was my fourth visit and the lure of crab cakes, lobster rolls and the cinnamon cliffs of Cavendish will never pale for me. But, we wanted to jazz up the annual this time and tack on a few days nearby. Flights to Newfoundland out of Charlottetown were prohibitive. We’d both been to Halifax a few times. I investigated ferries to Boston and Maine, but, we needed more days than we’d already stretched.
I’d heard of the Magdalen Islands years ago but somehow lumped them in with Saint Pierre and Miquelon which sit in the northwestern part of the Atlantic, near Fortune Bay, Newfoundland. The neat part is that the islands are owned by France. The Maggies (or Iles de la Madeleine) are an archipelago in the Gulf of St. Lawrence just five hours from Souris, PEI. But, despite being geographically closer to PEI and Nova Scotia, the francophone Magdalens are part of Quebec.
With a tight population of less than 13,000 and a land mass of 205 square kilometers, we knew we could bomb around the chain of islands in three days. Plus, I had found an Air Canada seat sale for $240 bucks (the same airfare as a Toronto to Charlottetown ticket). The ferry was an additional $100 (for two), but, the only option for us to get from PEI to the Maggies.
We arrived poorly packed for the pissy east coast climate, leaning more towards an optimistic June forecast of 25+ degrees. Not a wavering 13-15 degrees with pelting rain. We were both wearing all the long layers that we had brought, knowing full well that we were travelling to islands known for excessive and relentless wind. The Magdalens are a kite-boarding and hang-glider haven. Every B&B and restaurant had “wind” in the name. Though my Francais is extremely scratchy at best (despite Madame Massicotte’s best efforts in highschool), I did know that “vent” translated to “wind.”
Wind indeed. Rain indeed. Jean-Francois was at the ferry gate as promised. It all seemed so dodgy, just weeks before, booking a rental car with him without a confirmation number or email receipt. Nothing, just Jean-Francois assuring me that he had been in the business for 30 years, that he didn’t have a computer, and he would be at the ferry at 7pm.
The kindness of the locals was ten-fold. In the fog and ensuing night fall, we couldn’t find our B&B after three U-turns on the main road into Bassin. Kim stopped our little Fred Flintstone rental (an Aveo?) in front of a convenience store where I ran in, armed with maps. Me being the “more French fluent” of the two of us. (*Note: totally need to check out this Rosetta Stone thing).
I asked the cashier, “ou a la B&B?” while pointing to La Rose Des Vents address I had scribbled down. The cashier started blankly looking at my entire page of notes which outlined our itinerary of smoked herring, the cheese factory and beers to try. She shook her head and rang through a bag of Doritos and a Pepsi for the buying customer.
Conversation between them ensued. It sounded heated, but, was just normal chatter. Hands waved, eyes went back and forth to me and suddendly the cashier was give me the “shoo” sign. But, she was shooing me in the direction of the Doritos guy. Doritos guy gave me a “come, come” sign (I was transgressing into a golden retriever) and I followed him into the parking lot. He gave me a head nod as he got into his vehicle and I pointed to the Aveo and Kim and he nodded enthusiastically. I had no idea what we had just agreed to, but, he had chips and didn’t look serial-killer-ish.
I told Kim to follow him, for lack of better ideas.
“He’s taking us there?”
“I dunno. I think so.They didn’t speak English, but, it seemed like we were supposed to follow him.”
Oh, so trusting–but, we had a witness in the cashier. Sure enough, the Dorito fan brought us directly to the B&B (which we would have NEVER found in the soup fog, missing the critical street name that we needed to turn on to (which wasn’t on our touristy cartoon-like map). He stopped, honked, pointed and pulled a U-turn and roared off.
Between Jean-Francois and Mr. Dorito, we were already charmed.
Just before we flew east I had immersed myself in the Magdalens courtesy of Claire Mowat and her memoir, “Travels with Farley.” From their outport life in Newfoundland, the Mowats ended up spending several magical years in Old Harry, near Grand Entree Island. I love when book pages come to life and you can drive directly into the descriptions with that bizarre literary deja vu.
Kim described the Magdalens best (once the fog lifted the next morning and we could actually see beyond 10 feet). “It’s like a chunk of Iceland broke off and floated south.” Indeed, the colourful homes against the elephant grey sky and gulf waters was pure Reykjavik. We swooned over countless homes–lime green, purple and orange beauties atop cliffs and so isolated from the density of Cap aux Meules. By the mid-afternoon, we had agreed on over 50 homes that we could instantly move into, without debate.
Route 199 (again, so similar to Iceland’s Ring Road) was empty of traffic, save for a scavenging fox and a few stalking herons at the roadside. Scrubby pine forests thinned into soupy bogs. Sand dunes and bleached grasses gave way to brick-red cliffs and verdant hills. I could see how the Mowats were seduced into making a life in the Maggies.
Hickory smoke permeated the air as we neared the Havre-aux-Maisons herring factory. We needed provisions for our day, and nibbles of marninated smoked herring was as authentic as we could get. We picked up extra packs for my mom (who had seen the very factory we were at in a TVO documentary) and some dried razor clams for Michelle, our fisheries friend on the west coast.
We cued up in line at the cheese factory next, procuring a bag of squeaky cheese curds. It was all so pastoral and storybook.
As we turned on to the Sea Cow Path I read aloud notes from Claire Mowat’s book. It was the site of the massive slaughter that led to the walrus extinction on the islands in 1799. A dozen hunters could kill 300-400 walruses in a single night because of the animal’s poor vision and defenselessness on land.
Our side trip to the Maggies held all the essential elements for us, and we mused about summering in Bassin at the aptly named L’abri de la Tempete (“Shelter in the Storm”) brewery. Rain spat outside and the powder grey sky looked increasingly ominous. But, tucked in at the bar that oozed whimsy and cozy, we were rather content with our beer paddle. It was an unexpected and lovely pit-stop. I had only expected a 15 minute generic tour of the microbrewery led by some bored or hungover summer student. Here, the view of the western dunes was unmatched. We ordered a brie and old cheddar plate with tiny, chewy in-house baked bread bites (made with beer) served with a puddle of local cranberry preserve and pea sprouts. The saisson made with fleurs picked by the brewmaster was like beer champagne.
Again, it was the sheer kindness of strangers that led us to the brewery. Bungled with vague directions, we ended up in Fatima, thinking the brewery was close to the city core. We pulled into the Decker Boy restaurant and asked a server if she could point us in the right direction. She had an idea of where the brewery and agreed it was difficult to find. She pulled out a phone book to find the proper address while asking a table of locals eating pizza if they could assist us. Ironically, it was a woman who I remembered from our five hour ferry ride that came to our aid. On the back of a menu they drew a very efficient map (who needs GPS when you have the Decker Boy team of strangeres?) and sent us on our way with many “mercis” on our part.
The western dunes by the brewery were desolate. After being spoiled on Zanzibar’s empty east coast beaches, we’ve become accustomed to being the only visible humans for miles. Here, we found that solitude. Kim skipped stones and we pocketed several smooth rocks. The sand was like that in Basin Head, PEI–“singing sand.” The high silica content makes the sand actually talk underfoot. Like cheese curds.
We walked several stretches of beach west and east and in Old Harry. When rain threatened again we made our way to La Grave, near our B&B. The first settlers landed here on the pebble beaches and began a thriving fishery. Today, the half moon bay is a hot bed for artists selling silver jewellery, blown glass and acrylic works from their studio spaces. Cafe La Grave became our reliable stop for truly ambient pints amongst the stacks of National Geographics and hardbacks. The robust waft of the on-demand espresso maker mixed with the sweet nutmeg of baking minced pies. On a Wednesday night, a table of jovial twentysomethings suddenly broke into song. Several songs actually as hidden instruments emerged and soon there were flutes, accordions and snare drums in the mix. Pure fun and my god, if you order the mussels–expect a place of over three dozen straight up in a divine briny broth with diced celery and onion. The skin-on fries are killer and the taps are from Shelter From the Storm–the stout is as black as tar and served up in a mason jar. We needed more days to eat our way through the menu which included wild boar sausages and kraut, tartiflettes, salt cod cakes and seal pate even.
Are you hooked yet?
Our B&B innkeeper was gentle, engaging and a dynamo at breakfast, plying us with plates of local cheese, fresh cranberry studded loaves, yogurt with a stir of thick apple sauce and granola. My sister would have purred over the daily fresh fruit shake and foamy lattes. Best yet was breakfast with the horses–watching her two lovelies graze and gallop just feet from the solarium. Two cats circled our ankles inside the house and Genvieve’s Irish Setter made us feel welcome with eager headbutts and enthusiasm.
We found ourselves cross-legged in bed early. The sky would still be pink (the sun so desperate to break the clouds) when we’d retreat to our suite. We could still hear the horses huffing and moving about as we tried to down the marechal plonk we bought at PEI from Rossignol. Kim read Coelho’s memoir of his journey on the Camino while I was deep into Bruce Chatwin. The day’s thrills, timeless beach-combing on Sandy Hook, and deep satiation from the punishing climb up the Demoiselle trail for an unobstructed 360 view were the perfect stew for sleep.
Of course, the day we left the temperature cranked up to 25 degrees. We spent our last hours on Sandy Hook beach imagining life in a purple house, idle days watching plovers and reading good, inspiring books and endless shoreline walks. Fresh catch on the grill. Nights at the pub.
It came as no surprise when we returned home and fired up the laptop to check out real estate listings in Sandy Hook. Cornering nirvana, it’s the best research to conduct.