Tuesday, August 18th, 2009
Picton Castle’s visit to Iles de la Madeleine has been fantastic and the crew have fallen in love with these islands in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. With a year-round population of about 13,000 people, these islands can almost triple in population in the summer to about 35,000 people. They’re part of Quebec and many visitors come from the mainland of Quebec, but an increasing amount of tourists are coming from farther away. This comes as no surprise to us – how could anyone resist the natural scenic beauty of the place and the friendly warmth of the people who live here?
The first island we spotted on the horizon was Ile d’Entree, or Entry Island in English, with high cliff faces topped by rolling hills with no trees. As we sailed closer, we could see the lighthouse and a few neat homes, with cows grazing on the hills beyond. Entry Island is the only inhabited island that is not connected to any of the other islands by land. It’s also one of two English settlements in the otherwise very French Iles de la Madeleine and has a population of 100 during summer and 80 during winter. All of the other islands are connected by long, narrow, flat sand spits.
We anchored just off Cap Aux Meules, the main commercial centre of the islands and the port where the ferry comes in from PEI and Montreal. There are two parts of the harbour there, one that is bigger for the large ocean-going ferries to dock in along with bigger fishing vessels, then a smaller harbour that is full of lobster fishing boats and pleasure craft. Fishing in the number one industry in the Islands, the harbour at Cap Aux Meules is home to 80 fishing vessels alone. In all of the harbours on all of the islands, there are hundreds of vessels for fishing.
Tourism is the second biggest industry in Iles de la Madeleine, but we found the people to be more than just ordinarily friendly. We all tried our best to communicate with our broken French (except for Cat, whose first language is French), in most cases people jumped in and helped us out in English. By just sitting on a patio with a cold drink or striking up a conversation on the wharf, it was easy to make friends. Manon, from the local radio station, explained to me that people from the Islands are naturally curious, which I recognize as a trait in many small communities, and are particularly curious about things that have to do with boats and the sea, which makes sense because those elements are such a part of daily life. It was amazing to be at a beach on the opposite side of the islands from where the ship was anchored and start a conversation with someone who knew immediately what I was talking about when I said I sail on Picton Castle.
There seem to be a lot of young people in Iles de la Madeleine, and lots of things to do to keep them engaged and occupied. Our crew took in a few different live music shows, all of which received great reviews. Beaches are beautiful, long ribbons of white sand stretching for kilometres at a time. In some of the low areas between islands, salt water lagoons are formed and they are ideal spots for kiteboarding and windsurfing with lots of wind but less waves than the open ocean. With caves to explore, trails to hike, there are all sorts of beautiful sights to see. Many of the Islands’ residents are artists and craftspeople, there are little studios everywhere. Dining out on the Islands is also fantastic with great restaurants, well-stocked little grocery stores and outstanding bakeries and delis that would be found in big cosmopolitan cities.
Donald, Buddy and I made friends with a local excursion boat driver named Michel who offered to show us around the islands one day. We drove from one end of the archipelago to the other, stopping several times along the way to eat, drink, walk on beaches, take photos and generally enjoy the day. La Grave was one of the most interesting places we stopped, the original settlement on the Islands. While it doesn’t appear that very many people live there now, the old buildings have been turned into restaurants and shops. The buildings are all made of wood with wood shingles on the outside walls, all are quite small and fairly close together along the water. One of the buildings now houses a restaurant with live music – they have instruments there and on nights when no performers are scheduled to play, restaurant patrons are welcome to take the stage. We also saw artists’ studios where jewellery and sand sculptures are made, a cheese house, a place that makes Bagosse (the local home made alcohol), interesting churches and lots and lots of fishing boats.
When the ship is anchored, we make scheduled runs in the skiff to transport people between the ship and the shore. The skiff run was a fairly long one here, so it was a good chance to do some small boat handling instruction and practice. Our 15 foot Grenadian boat that we built onboard last winter, MR BONES, was launched again here, this time with a new sailing rig and two new sails. The sails are made out of green and orange tarps, sewn together where they could be and stuck together in other places with contact cement. The wind was good for sailing and MR BONES sailed well, shooting off to windward.
After a one day delay in sailing to wait for favourable winds, Picton Castle sailed from Iles de la Madeleine this morning, bound for Newfoundland and the French islands of St Pierre & Miquelon, not far away.