Things to do in the Magdalen Islands: Travel Guide and Trip Planner in Canada



The discreet Magdalen Islands are Quebecers’ best kept secret. | Photo by Stéphanie Foden

The discreet Magdalen Islands are Quebecers’ best kept secret. | Photo by Stéphanie Foden

Alright, America, come together. I’m about to tell you a secret.

On the east coast of Canada, right in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, there is an archipelago of eight islands with 186 miles of pristine red and white sand beaches, a rich Acadian culture (yes, the same Acadians who migrated in Louisiana and became known as Cajuns), and truly amazing gourmet dishes. I’m talking about some of the best seafood anywhere.

They are called the Magdalen Islands, or the Magdalen Islands, and they are very popular among Quebeckers, yet few people in the rest of Canada have even heard of them.

If you’ve been reading any weather news lately – moon swing, code red, ahh! And every year more and more people are discovering this pearl of the east coast (yes, thanks to stories like this). So you will definitely want to plan a trip as early as possible.

Prince Edward Island Ferry
The five hour ferry departs from Prince Edward Island. | Photo by Stéphanie Foden

What to know before you go

With a landmass only 20 square miles larger than Manhattan in a gulf of water roughly the size of Minnesota, the Magdalen Islands isn’t exactly a place you’ll fall into unless, eh well, you weren’t Jacques Cartier sailing to North America in 1534. So if you want to go there you will have to plan ahead. Seriously, some people plan their trips two years in advance.

To get there, you can fly to the Îles-de-la-Madeleine airport on Île de l’Île-du-Havre-Aux-Maisons, or sail for about five hours on the new sparkling Madeleine II ferry from Souris, Prince Edward Island. The extra cost to bring a car onto the ship is well worth it, as there is so much to explore, although the archipelago is only an hour’s drive from end to end.

From June to August, this is your best chance to enjoy the good weather and witness the impressive sandcastle festival. But high season is also when the adorable pastel-colored cottages, chalets and campsites of the islands reserve, so May and September might be a better bet.

And yes, this is Quebec, so expect to hear mostly French with touches of English if needed.

Hiking on the Madeleine
Stroll through windswept hills and charming fishing villages. | Photo by Stéphanie Foden

Explore secret beaches and historic lighthouses

If you come by ferry you will land at Cap-aux-Meules, which has everything you need but certainly lacks charm. For something cuter, drive south to Severe, where Acadian refugees first landed after escaping deportation during the Great Upheaval of 1755, when British and French settlers clashed on Canadian territory. Today, La Grave is a pretty fishing village with solid restaurants like Café de la Grave, pretty boutiques like l’Atelier Côtier where you can buy works of art in sand, and the place by the sea. At the Vieux Treuil which plays music until late at night.

Other hubs worth seeing are The North Pond, with its stroll, its carnival energy and its delicious ice cream from the Cremerie du Port; Entrance Island, which requires a short boat ride, has only 60 residents, and offers screensaver-like views from the top of its tallest hill; and Island-of-Havre-aux-Maisons where you can see blown glass jellyfish at La Medusa and the historic Cape Alright Lighthouse – built in 1928, it’s much cooler than the name suggests.

As for the beaches, you won’t have to look too hard. For each of the 13,000 Madelinot inhabitants throughout the year, there is probably a different “secret” beach, but some favorites are to be found. Pointe-aux-Loups, L’Anse aux Baleiniers in Fatima, at the tip of the long, lean sand dune of La Grave, and Dune-du-Sud in Havre-aux-Maisons.

Oysters on the Madeleine
Go to sea for fresh oysters with Cultures du Large. | Photo by Stéphanie Foden

Get yourself the ultimate picnic

Research and gluttony are above all a sport in the Magdalen Islands. The gastronomic circuit of the Circuit des Saveurs features 26 producers who offer traditional and extremely tasty regional cuisine that can generally be tasted on site.

At the Fumoir d’Antan you can see (and smell) the traditionally smoked herring – over slow-burning fires for three months – then grab some for your picnic with smoked mackerel, scallops and Salmon. In Miel en Mer, open a door to see thousands of bees working their honey, which turns white when it crystallizes. And at Cultures du Large, you’ll absolutely want to get on a boat offshore and eat the freshest oysters you’ve ever tasted before grabbing a can for yourself.

Smokehouse of Yesteryear
Smoked mackerel, scallops and salmon at the Fumoir d’Antan. | Photo by Stéphanie Foden

As for alcohol, the À l’Abri de la Tempête brasserie serves intriguing flavors in its tiered bar and Le Barbocheux offers artisanal but inexpensive berry tastings.

For a more guided dining experience, island restaurants cleverly combine these gourmet products. At Gourmande de Nature, Chef Johanne Vigneau uses the abundance of incredible seafood around the archipelago – think crispy lobster tail and deconstructed cheesecake served in a scallop. And at Bistro Accents, where 80% of all the ingredients are local, chef Hugo LeFrançois captures halibut to perfection and knows how to cook a nasty seal filet mignon.

When I asked LeFrançois why the Madelinots are so passionate about the local, he replied that it was a form of mutual respect.

“If everyone were independent, everyone would die,” he said.

Kitesurfing on the Madeleine
It may be the best place in the world to learn to kitesurf. | Photo by Stéphanie Foden

Learn about some of the best kitesurfing in the world

Being on the Atlantic coast means the weather in Îles-de-la-Madeleine tends to be pretty one windy, but you can make the most of it by grabbing a board and a kite and literally flying. Off the beaches of the archipelago, you will see kitesurfers levitate in the air before gently descending towards the undulating waves below.

But you don’t have to be a pro kitesurfer to go there. The Magdalen Islands may be the best place in the world to learn, because there are a lot of lagoons; so if you lose your board you can just walk on it instead of body surfing to get it.

The wind is also very constant, so if you are going for a week, you will probably be spending most of your time on the water rather than chatting with your fellow travelers about all the people you want to share these secret islands with. .

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Joel balm is a freelance journalist and travel guide writer whose work can be found in National Geographic Travel, Time, The Guardian, Lonely Planet and Travel + Leisure. Follow it @joelbalsam.

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