Story by Mark Stevens
ILES DE LA MADELEINE, QUEBEC — When Jacques Cartier first saw the Îles de la Madeleine he perused the expanse of dunes and beaches and gave them the name “sand” before heading out for what he considered more appealing destinations.
“Sand Islands” is no misnomer for this 12-island archipelago that’s part of Quebec despite the fact it’s located almost smack dab in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, way closer to PEI or Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island than to the rest of Quebec.
The Îles de la Madeleine (how they got that name is a whole other story) possess a lot of sand.
That much was clear even before we landed at the airport. We could see swathes of green and blue from the plane, voluptuous hills sporting stands of wind-crippled pine, seas that were white-flecked and wind-vexed along the north, mirrored glass to the south.
It connected the islands, decorating them with alabaster borders, marching east uninterrupted from Île Havre Aubert for 16 kilometres with a single emerald splash (Île de La Pointe Aux Loups) in the middle for a bit of variety then continuing for 16 kilometres before stopping for a quick rest at Grosse Île Nord before hooking around toward the southwest.
But the sand is just the beginning.
For these are islands with tremendous variety, rich in culture and surprisingly sophisticated, given their relative isolation.
Here you have talented artists and artisans. Several art galleries line the strand at La Grave; a craftsman creates fragile and elegant glass masterpieces at La Méduse Gallery. A fromagerie named Pied-de-Vent creates artisanal cheese. Take a lesson in gourmet cooking at Gourmande de Nature and sample superior cuisine (think French subtlety combined with fresh seafood) served in elegant surroundings at establishments from La Moulière to La Table des Roy (both are serious must-dos).
You can hike here and bike here, kite-surf or windsurf, swim in caves, go sea kayaking.
But it’s still all about the sand.
“Lots here,” says local guide Gilles LaPierre. “Gets in your pants, your shoes, your bus. Sometimes at night you even find it in your bed.”
That’s the downside.
The upside? Some of Canada’s most beautiful beaches, dunes stretching to the horizon, sandcastle-building competitions unlike anywhere else on the planet, and a gallery that boasts artworks and souvenirs where sand is the chief ingredient.
Welcome to One of Canada’s Top 10 Beaches
But it’s not just how they use sand to create art here at Artisans du Sable that makes it both a fun side trip and metaphor for the islands (who else but the Quebecois could transform sand into art?). This gallery is a Quebec phenomenon called an Economusée — a purveyor of cool stuff with a bit of learning thrown in. A collection of sand samples from around the world decorates one wall, while a lesson in the formation of sand occupies another. A children’s sandbox reclines just inside the front door.
A staffer teaches us how the artisans produce these creations — a mixture of sand and epoxy that can be sculpted or poured into preformed moulds.
Seems appropriate that our next stop is Sandy Hook, a beach that is downright Caribbean. Sea grasses atop rolling amber dunes sway in a wind-swept samba. The beach arcs north as far as the eye can see, waters calm, sapphire, cerulean.
Vacay.ca ranked Sandy Hook (aka Havre-Aubert Beach) No. 7 among best beaches in Canada. Come August, hordes invade this place to take part in the world’s biggest sand-castle-building competition. Today there are probably 15 people on beach, basting in the sun that’s been AWOL up until now.
But once the sun comes out, a visitor will quickly realize more beaches await. Three hundred kilometres’ worth.
Other must-dos include the South Dunes. Here is a pastel-painted souvenir shop and a rickety set of stairs that descends to the water and proceeds through a sort of pumpkin corridor between two red sandstone cliffs. The sun glitters on the surface, kids run around, laughing and splashing each other.
There is no one on Martinique Beach. It is a minimalist landscape worthy of the National Gallery – a Jackson Pollock splash of colour provided by a row of rudimentary cabins — coral and lime, pink and yellow.
A beach in Bassin is guarded at one end by a boat harbour, at the other by flaming cliffs. A lighthouse stands sentinel on one promontory, a view you can see from your deck at a gorgeous sun-basted B & B called Havre sur Mer.
Down on the beach, one of the guests, a man from Montreal, works with pail and shovel to create a gigantic — and very lifelike — lobster sculpture. His daughters assist, somewhat desultorily.
“They want to build something new every day,” he says. “Who am I to argue?”
Welcome to Sand Islands.
MORE ABOUT ILES DE LA MADELEINE (ALSO CALLED MAGDALEN ISLANDS)
Getting to the Islands: Air Canada Express is among the airlines offering daily flights to Îles-de-la-Madeleine airport. Visitors can also opt for ferry or cruise options for reaching the islands. Details, including costs, are on the tourism board’s website.
Where to Stay: Havre Sur Mer (1197, chemin du Bassin, Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Quebec) has rooms that range from $110-$180 per night during high season ($80-$120 in low season). Telephone 1-418-937-5675 or email email@example.com for more info and to make a reservation.
Tourism Info: Visit the website www.quebecmaritime for additional details on the islands.