Monday, July 15, 2013

Part 1: Sailing on two wheels

In early June we spent the better part of a week vacationing with our friends Dan and Addie on the Îles-de-la-Madeleine.  We had long tossed around the idea for a trip together and explored various possibilities as the time we had put aside drew near. Sometime in May we settled on a trip the islands together, with Dan and Addie exploring Cape Breton in the week before we arrived and us doing the same in the week after their departure. It was a wonderful vacation with two distinct parts that were equally as rewarding and quite different from each other. 

This view captured me every time we pedaled by. The storybook aspect of the houses and colors drew me in. 

Meeting Dan and Addie in Souris, PEI. You can see our ferry off to the left.  It was big.

We were situated on Havre-aux-Maisons--a convenient location from with to explore in different directions

This was our view from out little place on Havre-aux-Maisons. The sea is calm here, but often provided a dramatic show along the red cliffs. The island in the distance is Entry Island

The Magdalene Islands are situated about 50 miles out in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and are accessed by ferry from Prince Edward Island. There are 5 islands connected by roughly 60 miles of long sand causeways with a 6th island reachable by ferry. The islands are predominantly French speaking, although there are two English speaking towns that we never managed to get to. That's okay; it was great to be immersed in French culture and language. 

Our home for the week

Morning coffee

This house was just around the bend from us

We rented a magical little house at the base of a very steep hill that looked over the ocean to the southeast. It would be hard to overstate the beauty of this house; it's location at the base of a high dramatic hill, the view to the east of open ocean with exhilarating views of the sea churning against the red cliffs, the sweet little porch, the tastefully arranged interior. We joked at one point that it was like living in a magazine photo spread. Almost a little too good to be true. And most importantly, it immediately felt cosy and warm. 

Food was a cornerstone of our trip. The four of us all appreciate honest, local, quality foods, no matter where we are, so it was natural to see what we could find on the islands, and we were richly rewarded. 

Down the street we found a herring smoke house that has been run by the same family for three generations and has weathered the challenges of quotas, loss of stock, and the other difficulties of making one's living from the sea. The process itself was amazing. The fish are brined for a day or so and then strung up on wooden stakes and then hung in the smoke house rafters. A full smokehouse would have thousands of herring if it were filled up. We were able to walk through the smokehouse and see the fish hanging. Needless to say, the herring were an amazing treat, both dried and in a jarred marinade. Just across the street we found a family cheese making business with a variety of cheeses, all made from the Canadian breed of cow. They were all yummy and we again stocked up.

The fumoir that has been creating smoked herring for three generations

Herring hanging in the smoke house

After the fromagerie we cycled around Cap-aux-Moules where we got some coffee, toured around and managed to find a neat brewery located in an old fish processing plant right near the ocean. There was a shipwreck close by to boot. 

Our days easily stretched into the evening as the sun did not even set until about 9:00PM.

Each day was a chance to explore a new area; the islands are roughly 60 miles long from end to end, allowing a lot of room for meandering and discovering new places.  Since we chose to only bring our bikes, we had to consider our choices in ways that would not have been notable had we had a car. This week reinforced the beautiful relationship between place, scale, movement and experience provided by riding a bike. Our days roughly broke out into exploring an island a day. Given the strong winds, we had to be mindful that a journey fifteen miles to the south with the wind at our backs would mean some serious work returning. The experience reminded me of sailing, which I suppose is appropriate 50 miles out in the middle of the ocean.

Exploring a shipwreck near Étang du Nord

One day we decided to pedal north to explore the vast lengths of beach that connect Havre-aux-Maisons to Grosse-Ile. We had the place to ourselves, napping in the sun and contemplating our good fortune to be in such a lovely place

All our journeys were by bike. In a place as windy as this, you need to think carefully about traveling too far downwind unless you have a lot of time and energy to get back

A meal of fresh scallops and salad of local greens

Our place at night

Our journey to Havre-Aubert was an all day affair. The wind was strong and we seriously contemplated the possibility of arranging a taxi ride back home before we set out. It was work pedaling along in the wind and sand and mist, but beautiful too. Our determination was rewarded with a lovely meal at the Cafe de la Grave. A personal highlight for me was ordering my meal fully in French. 

We didn't see many other cyclists during our stay on the islands with two exceptions. We met a French couple who were traveling around the eastern provinces of Canada. We had a lot in common and it seemed that we just kept crossing paths with them where ever we went. We also met two young women who had rented bikes and made their way out to La Grave as well. That ride was not for the faint of heart. 

La Grave was beautiful despite the raw weather. It had an antique quality to it, as well as a bohemian air. I'd like to head back there for a little more exploring next time around.

On our way out to La Grave on Havre-Aubert, the wind was fierce and sand blows at you over the dunes. The distances from island to island are not insignificant

The Cafe de la Grave. This place was dream-like in its timeless setting and decor

Our time on the island was so rewarding. We loved the food, the stunning scenery, being with dear friends, and having a cozy home. As the time to leave drew near we simply couldn't leave, so we decided to extend our stay an extra night. 

An evening walk with Dan and Addie

The night before we left we decided to scramble up the hill behind our house, and thank god we did. As the sun was setting we got higher and higher and the island and sea spread out below us, our affection for this magical place was sealed for good. 

We departed the islands with heavy hearts, grateful for a good time, but sad to let go. Nancy and I were headed on for further adventures while Dan and Addie were headed home. If I had been able to rearrange things then and there I think I would have voted to stay for the rest of our vacation.  I dearly hope we will get back there again some time. There is more to explore and great places to return to. 

Au revoir!

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