Cap-aux-Meules is the biggest town in les Iles-de-la-Madeleine, not based on its population, which is actually smaller than that of other villages, but because its central location makes it the "urban centre" of the Islands, so to speak. Cap-aux-Meules is where you'll find the Island's movie theatre, hospital, federal and provincial government offices, the Islands' main port, and one of the world's busiest Tim Hortons restaurants (!), among other services. Cap-aux-Meules is therefore much more busy and somewhat less charming than other villages on the Islands, but if you happen to be staying there make sure to join the locals on the "Sentier du Littoral". This biking/walking trail goes along the cliffs from the edge of town to the actual Cap-aux-Meules, a round cape that rises several feet above the town. It gets especially busy in the morning when people walk their dog or go out for their morning jog as well as in the evening when it's time for that lazy stroll along the sea. At the end of the trail you'll find some steps that lead to the top of Cap-aux-Meules, from where you can enjoy a great view of the marina on one side and of the town on the other.
The Magdalen Islands boast roughly 300 km of beaches around the archipelago. While some have been a bit more developed, such as the Grande-Echouerie beach on Grosse-Ile, others are almost completely wild. On our first day in les Iles, we stumbled upon Martinique beach, which is located on the narrow stretch of land where Route 199 runs between the islands of Cap-aux-Meules and Havre-Aubert. There are a few parking spots on the side of the road and a small boardwalk that leads to the beach, but that's about it. The water there was surprisingly warm (though perhaps not quite as warm as its name would lead us to believe!) and the currents were not too strong, something you always need to look out for when you're swimming around les Iles. We were later told that the waters in the Plaisance Bay area, which is where this beach is located, are among the warmest you'll find at les Iles-de-la-Madeleine. So if you feel like spending some time at the beach but would rather avoid the crowds, this is definitely a good spot to explore.
The Site de la Cote is located in the Etang-du-Nord area, on the island of Cap-aux-Meules. It was developed a few years back by local residents who wanted to create a spot where both local people and visitors could meet up and hang out in this beautiful part of les Iles-de-la-Madeleine. Some little cafes and souvenir shops have grown around the site, along with walking trails and a small theatre. There is also a really nice sculpture by Roger Langevin called "Les Pecheurs" (The Fishermen), representing a group of seven fishermen possibly pulling a large catch to the shore. Many people like to take a spot between two of the fishermen and pretend they're helping them pull :o) I thought the Site de la Cote was a really good place to stop for lunch and it's also very nice in the evening when people gather around to fly kites and then watch the sun set on the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
There are plenty of beaches all around the Magdalen Islands, but Dune-du-Sud stands out as one of the nicest and most photogenic: it has soft sand, rocky cliffs and caverns you can explore at low tides, and waters that are are calm enough for even kids to swim in. Since it's a pretty popular spot, there is now a little area set up with picnic tables and public restrooms right next to the beach; we also saw a beach volleyball net. It doesn't take anything away from the natural beauty of the place, but it does make it more convenient. It truly is a great place to go for those who feel like spending an entire day at the beach!
The small wooden lighthouse at Cap Alright (1928) was again built in an effort to prevent shipwrecks in the Gulf of St. Lawrence corridor. Since people have started keeping track, there have been 713 shipwrecks recorded around the Magdalen Islands, mostly due to the treacherous winds that often blow on the archipelago. If the lighthouse itself is of modest size, its setting is anything but modest! The cliffs of Cap Alright stretch far into the sea, with the dark shape of Entry Island looming in the background. To get there, all you need to do is follow chemin de la Pointe-Basse and keep going until you reach the little rest area and parking spots that were created near the lighthouse. It's possible to walk up to the lighthouse as long as you make sure not to walk too close to the edge of the cliffs.
Anse-a-la-Cabane is located in the village of Bassin, on the island of Havre-Aubert. To get there, you must take the panoramic road that goes through the village (chemin du Bassin), and that in itself could be considered as a thing to do! The hilly road goes along the coast, with the majestic Gulf of St. Lawrence on one side and the hills dotted with little houses on the other. The architecture in this area is quite typical of les Iles, the island of Havre-Aubert being home to the first permanent settlement established on the islands (around the middle of the 18th century).
It's impossible to miss the Anse-a-la-Cabane lighthouse, the tallest (17 m) and oldest (1870) lighthouse on the Magdalen Islands. It's estimated that there were about 400 shipwrecks around the Islands during the 19th century, which is what prompted the decision to build a lighthouse at l'Anse-a-la-Cabane. The lighthouse is still in operation today, although the lightkeeper position was abolished in 1970 when the lighthouse became automated. One of the best spots to see the lighthouse is on the small but beautiful beach of l'Anse-a-la-Cabane. The small path that gives access to the beach is easy to spot thanks to the observatory tower that was built next to it and that can be seen from the road.
Pied-de-Vent is a little cheese dairy that was created in 1998 and that is mostly famous for producing the cheese it was named after, a soft cheese that is often used in recipes by restaurants all around the Islands. The dairy now produces a new type of cheese called "Tomme des Demoiselles", aged from 6 months to up to 2 years. While the Pied-de-Vent cheese is good, Sylvain and I agreed that the Tomme des Demoiselles was superior. It's got such a nice flavour, it's the kind of cheese that doesn't need anything to go along with it, except perhaps a nice bottle of wine :o) If you stop by the Pied-de-Vent dairy, it's possible to sample the different types of cheese, learn more about their production and also see the dairy workers in action!
The island of Havre-aux-Maisons, with its beautiful landscapes, winding roads and colourful houses, is probably the most picturesque of all the islands. Two panoramic roads are well worth seeing: chemin de la Pointe-Basse, which takes you along the coast to the Cap Alright Lighthouse, and chemin des Montants, which goes through the island's hilly backcountry to end near the "Dune du Sud" beach. If you're in good shape, driving around these roads on a bicycle must be a fantastic experience. Since I'm not quite that good, I was more than happy to drive around on my scooter, a drive that was punctuated with many, many stops to take in the fantastic scenery of Havre-aux-Maisons.
Belle-Anse is located on the island of Cap-aux-Meules, more precisely in the small village of Fatima, which is the most recently established village on the Magdalen Islands. It's fairly easy to get to Belle-Anse by following the chemin des Caps. Once you get there, there are plenty of parking spaces available along with a really nice rest area. The cliffs at Belle-Anse, beautifully sculpted by the sea, are among some of the most majestic you'll find on the Islands. It's possible to walk around them, but you do need to be careful as erosion is a common phenomenon.
Even though this park is home to a campground and a youth hostel, it is still open to all visitors. It's well worth leaving your car at the gate and going for a walk around the park since some of the Islands' most beautiful landscapes can be seen here. The red cliffs that project into the sea are especially nice to see towards the end of the afternoon when they are lit up by the sun. You also get a nice view of Ile d'Entree (Entry Island) from the park; this island, located about 5 km from the other islands, is home to about 100 people and it can be reached by ferry in the summertime. Another popular activity at the Parc du Gros-Cap is to go kayaking around the Islands with a certified guide, which is something I really want to do on my next trip to les Iles to take full advantage of the Islands' amazing landscapes.
Les Artisans du Sable was created in the early 1980s when Nicole Gregoire and Albert Cummings succeeded in finding a product that made it possible to solidify sand and then sculpt it. Les Artisans du Sable's workshop/boutique, located in Havre-Aubert, is now open to visitors. It's truly impressive to see all the different objects created with sand, and the most interesting part is that you can learn all about the art of sand sculpting in the museum portion of the workshop. It's even possible to try your hand at it thanks to the blocks of sand that are made available to visitors - this seemed to be especially popular with children! Of course, I couldn't leave this place without trying to find a sculpture for my international pig collection, and I did manage to find one :o)
As a side note, Nicole Gregoire and Albert Cummings, along with their associate Claude Bourque, are also responsible for the creation of the sand castle competition that takes place in Havre-Aubert in August, an event that attracts around 10,000 visitors every year (for more info: http://chateauxdesable.weebly.com).
The Magdalen Islands' first settlers were for the most part Acadians who had been forced to flee from the Maritimes to avoid being deported to Louisiana. They arrived on the island of Havre-Aubert and built a small fishing industry around the area now known as La Grave. This historical site still retains much its fishing hamlet atmosphere, though its vocation has now become entirely geared towards tourism. The different structures built by fishermen over the years have now been converted into quaint little restaurants or souvenir shops that sell local crafts. I was actually amazed at the quantity and quality of arts and crafts produced on the Islands - you can get jewels, soaps, sand sculptures, pottery, clothes, even books! This is definitely the place to go if you're looking for unique souvenirs. For my part, I got a beautiful sand dollar ring made at "La Pierre des Iles" workshop :o)