Le Boreal Docks in the Magdalen Islands (Iles de la Madeleine)

It’s a glorious sunny fall day as we dock at Cap Aux Meules. We’ll be visiting several sites in this archipelago in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Though closer to Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, the islands form part of the Canadian province of Quebec. Our tour, we’re told, will give us a sense of the area’s maritime and Acadian history.

Upon arrival we see the flags of Canada and Acadia; the latter resembles the tricolor of France but with a gold star (Stella Maris or Star of the Sea) signifying the Acadian quality of hope and endurance.

As we drive to our first stop, the Site d’Autrefois, we take in the topography — long sand dunes created by the constant erosion of the red sandstone cliffs. Our guide, Susan, tells us that in summer, the islands attract some 50,000 visitors, a huge increase from the 5,000 number in the 1970s.

The “season” is officially over, this being September, and it is quiet and peaceful as our mini-bus pulls up at the home of Claude Bourgeois, who was once captain of the Annick, a lobster fishing boat. In May, 1990, the Annick sank during a heavy storm; Claude survived, but because his oxygen supply had been cut off for a time, he suffered some residual physical damage. He retired from fishing and instead began building a small village representing the way of life of the islands. Today, he tells stories about the life of a fisherman in these islands and makes a living from the visitors who come to his reconstruction and buy the miniatures he carves as souvenirs.

He sings us a song, shows us his lobster traps and gives a demonstration of how the nets for the lobster traps are made. With practiced and nimble figures, he quickly produces a large square of netting, telling us he could make ten in an evening.

One of the representations at his Site d’Autrefois is of a woman hanging clothes on a line; it’s an iconic image we see represented throughout the day, in photographs, paintings – and even in locally made jewelry.

After leaving Claude, we move on to Havre-Aubert, one of the most beautiful villages in Quebec. It’s where the first Acadians who arrived on the islands settled, and we see their influence in the architecture of the fishing huts, boutiques and the courthouse. Havre-Aubert is a  fishing and yachting harbor; its prime attraction is the Historical Site at La Grave, where traditional architecture is showcased.

Of all the buildings dedicated to the fishing industry, the “fumoir” (smokehouse) is the most distinctive. We visit the most beautiful one, the Fumoir d’Antan in Havre-aux-Maisons, run by the brothers Arseneau, Ben and Daniel. They are the third generation of Arseneaus doing what is called “hard smoking” of herring, mackerel, salmon and scallops. Once upon a time the fumoir supplied smoked herring to Quebec, but since over-fishing decimated the herring population, they now import much of their fish from New Brunswick.

The Arseneaus are part of the Économusée Experience, whose mission is to promote and keep alive traditional crafts and knowledge by grouping together cottage industries specializing in arts and crafts and agri-food products that open their doors to the public for an authentic cultural  tourism experience.

We do our part by participating in a tasting of their smoked herring in both its dry form and the marinated variety (“grandmother’s recipe”). I prefer the dry, but that must be refrigerated, so several of us buy jars of marinated herring, which, we’re told, is a great substitute for anchovies in Caesar salad

Our last stop is the church in Lavernière, the second largest wooden church in North America. Constructed in 1876, partly of wood salvaged from shipwrecks (they’ve had more than 400 here), the church is a major representation of the madelinot heritage. The graveyard behind the church is a serene oasis overlooking the water.

From the serene and almost other-worldly setting of the church, we return to our ship, where I head for the very worldly Carita spa on Le Boreal for a facial. A very nice ending to another satisfying day on our cruise from Boston to Montreal.


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