Now that I’m back on the mainland I am haunted by memories, as if of a first love: voluptuous and beautiful, alluring and deliciously exotic. Memories of a sort of maritime Juliet.
It’s no coincidence they named these islands after a woman.
I hope I’m forgiven for pushing the analogy (but if you ever get to the Îles de la Madeleine, Quebec’s island paradise, you’ll understand). They hold their own among the most romantic islands I’ve ever visited, even if at first glance they come across as windswept and rustic, even if they partly deserve the first names they were saddled with.
MicMacs who summered here called them “Islands Swept by the Surf” while Jacques Cartier simply called them “sand” islands (admittedly for very good reason).
But like the worthy object of any discriminating suitor, they possess a multitude of charms, their allure best discovered in the fullness of time – an allure recognized by their first seigneur who perspicaciously named them for his wife.
My most vivid memory of this island siren is of her colours, her rainbow of finery.
I remember a morning at Havre Sur Mer, one of the most beautiful bed and breakfasts I’ve ever stayed at. The sun has painted the cliffs towering over one end of a perfect gentle brown sugar sand beach a vibrant pumpkin colour, the seas are blue as the sky. Rolling meadows in the lee of the shore are five shades of green. Now the sun rises higher, spotlighting gabled houses unadorned but for colours worthy of a debutante’s dress: lavender and lemon, neon lime and turquoise. One house that sticks in my memory, a lonely landmark overlooking a red cliff, crouched atop a voluptuous emerald hill, is coral-painted. It could hold its own on a Caribbean island.
These are colours of heaven itself – for the Îles de la Madeleine are downright paradisiacal, from the whimsical house exteriors to the omnipresent cliffs sculpted by wind and sea. Iron oxide is the scientific explanation for their brash red-orange hues. It hardly suffices.
Filed in my memory bank: a beach with my name on it, two beaches, a multitude of sandy stretches I claim for myself. National Geographic calls Grande Échouerie one of the world’s best beaches. It is nice, lapped by lustful waves, surmounted by dunes capped by sea grass swaying seductively as a ballerina, amber sand stretching as far as the eye can see. Not a sign of humanity.
And this is not my favourite beach. I won’t tell you that one.
You can have the South Dunes, where we picnic beside glittering waters in the lee of rust-painted cliffs. I’ll tell you about Martinique beach, hidden coquettishly from a lonely road by undulating dunes. Take Havre Aubert Beach, a stretch of sand so white it is blinding, a beach festooned with three different kinds of clam shells, host to the world’s biggest sandcastle-building competition, a beach Readers’ Digest has rated among Canada’s top ten.
You can find your own favourite. And you will remember it forever.
I remember Madeleine’s sounds: winds clanging on the halyards of fluttering Acadian flags, their unceasing whisper in the ears. In Café de la Grave on a Sunday afternoon a fiddle cavorts with a clarinet and an accordion belting out jigs while the wooden floor shivers with the enthusiastic foot-tapping of a guy sitting in the corner. Down the graveled strand, Gilles LaPierre (he’s also a great tour guide) lays down a rhythm groove for a band playing to a packed house at with his “bones,” a homemade percussion instrument formed from animal ribs.
I will remember the tastes of Madeleine.
My neighbour at the next table at Café de la Grave noshes on fresh mussels, the person across from me cracks lobster claws. My nose remembers the pungent aroma of Thai spices as we learned how to prepare our own lobster under the tutelage of chef Johanne Vigneau at Gourmande de Nature. My mouth remembers Island-raised young beef, a lobster omelet at Salicorne on Grand Entrée Island, the tang of new cheese at the Fromagerie Pied-de-Vent, tastes washed down with craft beers titled with local names like Sea Foam or Dead Body (tribute to a treacherous offshore rock).
I remember rising at three a.m. to watch lobster boats casting off from their docks, engines rumbling, growling, roaring as they head seaward, their crews joking in sing-song Acadian French, one skipper proposing to my friend Camilie from his cockpit.
I remember the dawn as those boats sliced v-shaped wakes onto mirrored waters gilded by the newly-born sun.
I remember these islands as vividly as the day I left.
As vividly as the memories of my very first love.
– By Mark Stevens. Photos by Sharon Matthews-Stevens. –
Mark and Sharon are avid travellers and talented creative people. We’ve known them for years and I was delighted when Mark offered to contribute a piece to Roadstories. Even since our last post on the Magdalen Islands (Îles de la Madeleine) we havn’t managed to actually get there yet, so here is another deliciously voluptuous temptation to discover her charms. You can check out some of Mark and Sharon’s other work on their new website at www.travelwriteclick.com – Glenn
Mark Stevens has covered Canadian destinations for newspapers including the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Toronto Star and magazines as diverse as Dreamscapes, Sailing and Saltscapes. His writing has garnered numerous awards, including two Ottawa Tourism Travel Writing Awards, three Canadian Tourism Commission Northern Lights Awards. He has been a finalist three times in the Ontario Tourism Travel Journalism Awards.
A three-time finalist in the travel photography category of the Ontario Tourism Awards, Sharon Matthews-Stevens is a multiple-award winning photographer. Her work has appeared in publications ranging from Ensemble Vacations to Canadian Yachting. A graduate of the Humber programme in digital photography, Sharon also produces fine art photography and her work has appeared in both juried shows and art galleries.