The 10 Best Things to Do in the Magdalen Islands
The Magdalen Islands (also known as Les Îles de la Madeleine) have everything you’d want in a summer getaway: white sand beaches, jaw-dropping scenery and plenty of fun activities for the entire family. Here are 10 essential experiences in this breathtakingly beautiful enclave in the middle of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.
10 Great Reasons to Add the Magdalen Islands to Your Bucket List
Never heard of the Magdalen Islands? You’re not alone. And yet, that’s one of the reasons this isolated archipelago smack in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence makes the perfect getaway.
Across these 12 islands (one of which is completely uninhabited), you’ll find endless stretches of white sand beach and red sandstone cliffs dotted with vibrantly painted houses. The 12,500 inhabitants—who refer to themselves as “Madelinots”—are justifiably proud of both their fascinating ancestry and hearty cuisine. That the Magdalen Islands remain the Maritimes’ best-kept secret is testament to their tiny footprint (measuring just over 200 square kilometres) and relatively remote location. Although they’re part of Quebec (roughly a two-hour flight from Montreal), they’re actually closer to Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, yet still a five-hour ferry ride from the former. Visitors who make the trek during tourist season (the beginning of June to the end of September) will be richly rewarded, particularly if they give this list of 10 things to do in the Magdalen Islands top priority.
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1. Strike a Pose at a Lighthouse
An estimated 500 vessels sank in the waters surrounding the Magdalen Islands during the 18th and 19th centuries—a sobering stat with implications felt to this day, as almost every Madelinot is a descendant of a shipwreck survivor. Lighthouses have remained crucial to the identity of the islands, and understandably so. There are six working lighthouses tourists can visit, each one easily accessible. Our nomination for the most picture-perfect lighthouse goes to the Borgot Lighthouse, located on Étang du Nord. This Instagram-worthy red-and-white structure may be a modern-day replica of the 1874 original, but that doesn’t make it any less awe-inspiring.
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2. Step Back in Time at a Smokehouse
In the 1940s and 50s, the Magdalen Islands produced 15-million pounds of smoked herring every year. Between its old-fashioned smokehouse and gleefully literal name, visiting Le Fumoir d’Antan (French for “The Smokehouse of Yesteryear”) is a glimpse of what that heyday would have been like. Even Le Fumoir’s method of smoking—fish is cured with salt, then cold-smoked with birch wood for up to four months—has remained the same for three generations of the Arseneau family. Historical significance aside, it’s the addictive flavours—and incredible selection, including mackerel, cod, sturgeon, trout, razor clams and pork—that make this family business one of the top 10 things to do in the Magdalen Islands.
Magdalen Islands travel tip: Looking for a quick snack on your trip? Serve up Fumoir d’Antan’s marinated mackerel on good bread topped with brie cheese and partnered with a port wine. In a word: delectable.
3. Soak Up the Sun at Dune du Sud
In a place renowned for its tranquility, it’s tough to single out the most peaceful spot on the Magdalen Islands, but Dune du Sud (French for “South Beach”) must surely be a contender. An 18-kilometre stretch of white sand and calm waters, the beach is made all the more striking thanks to the gorgeous red sandstone cliffs that surround it. Not a swimmer? Dune du Sud is the perfect place to build sand castles, collect seashells or just sit and meditate by the sea. Just make sure to explore the caves hidden in the volcanic rock formations before you leave!
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4. Sample the Magdalen Islands’ Finest Cheeses
Each Canadian province has its own culinary specialty: think Alberta’s beef, Saskatchewan’s Saskatoon berries and Ontario’s wine. When it comes to Quebec, that specialty is, of course, cheese, and it doesn’t get any better than La Fromagerie du Pied-de-Vent. “Pied-de-vent” is an expression among Madelinots that loosely translates to “the sun’s rays piercing through the clouds,” and that’s a great way to describe the famed semi-soft cheese that comes from these parts. Pied-de-Vent is made from the milk of a single dairy herd of Canadienne cows exclusive to the Magdalen Islands. Equally drool-worthy is Jeune-Coeur, a farmstead cheese that’s ripened for three weeks. Oh, and it pretty much melts in your mouth, too.
5. Blow Glass with Ace Craftspeople
The Magdalen Islands may not be the first place that springs to mind when you think of world-class art, but one visit to La Méduse is enough to convince you otherwise. Opened in 1985, the glassblowing studio and boutique is renowned for its glass spheres in which coloured powders are suspended to resemble jellyfish (the perfect souvenir of your time in the islands). Owner Catherine Chevrier-Turbide and her team of artisans provides glass-working classes to visitors, but you’ll probably need to schedule more than one session if you want gallery-worthy results—in fact, according to Chevrier-Turbide, it takes at least seven years of experience to master the craft.
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6. Book a Craft Beer Tasting
Simply put, À l’abri de la Tempête is a beer-lover’s paradise. Opened in 2004 by two friends who fell in love with the Magdalen Islands after visiting (we told you they were captivating!), the beer hall and brewery prizes local ingredients—think pilsners infused with locally-harvested wildflowers, algae and fresh herbs. À l’abri de la Tempête currently produces a whopping 25 beers, and while most of their creations can be bought online and in stores throughout Quebec, some of the brews on the menu—like the delicately sweet “Palabre” cranberry beer—are exclusive to the Magdalen Islands. More reason to visit!
7. Stroll Along La Grave
If you want to get a good idea of what the Magdalen Islands were like when the first Acadians arrived on the archipelago in the 1700s, look no further than La Grave on the island of Havre-Aubert. Situated along a scenic pebbled beach and designated a historical site in 1983, La Grave is the Magdalen Islands version of a bustling town square. While browsing the strip, be sure to stop by Musée de la Mer to discover more of the Madelinots’ rich history, or take a peek in one of the street’s many quirky boutiques. Just don’t leave until you’ve treated yourself to a slice of homemade cake at Café La Grave.
8. Feast at the Best Restaurant on the Magdalen Islands
La Tables des Roy is where Maritime ingredients and European cooking techniques collide. Located on Étang du Nord in the former childhood home of chef Johanna Vigneau, it’s one of the oldest and most revered restaurants on the Magdalen Islands, and makes the most of the region’s locally-grown produce. Among the standouts on the distinctly French menu is smoked herring and mackerel (with potato foam, black garlic vinaigrette and sabline), and sweetbreads and lobster tail (served with an out-of-this-world stew of scallops, chorizo and mushrooms).
Want to cook like a true Madelinot? Chef Vigneau also runs the nearby Gourmande de Nature, a gourmet grocery store and cooking school that offers group cooking classes in French.
9. Master the Art of Sand Castles
Remember how much fun you had building sand castles as a kid? The artisans at Atelier Côtier have taken that summer pastime to new heights. This one-of-a-kind studio showcases stunning sculptures and figurines made of sand sourced from the over-300 kilometres of beaches across the Magdalen Islands, and reinforced with a special adhesive to give them the consistency of limestone. Want to reconnect with your childhood? Book a class with Albert Cummings (who founded the studio with his wife, Nicole Gregoire), and get schooled in the art of sand castle architecture.
Magdalen Islands travel tip: Every second Saturday of August, Atelier Côtier hosts a pop-up sand castle-making contest for Madelinots and tourists alike.
10. Spend the Night in a Converted Convent
For comfort that doesn’t hurt your wallet, book a suite at the three-star Chateau Madelinot—located on the island of Cap-aux-Meules and just a short walk from the local village. Amenities include an indoor pool, sauna and spa services, as well as the Accents Bistro. For a truly opulent stay, rest easy at Domaine du Vieux Couvent, located on the neighbouring Havre-aux-Maisons Island. A former convent turned boutique inn, the hotel offers spectacular views of the sea. House rentals are also available throughout the islands.
Magdalen Islands travel tip: Access to rental cars on the Magdalen Islands is limited. If you’re planning to take your own vehicle with you, make sure to book your ferry far in advance—even before booking your accommodations.