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Magdalen Islands offer sand, sea and as much serenity as you could ever want

NEW YORK TIMES
                                Boats in the Magdalen Islands. The islands sit in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, far from everywhere but closer to the Maritimes and even Newfoundland than to Quebec, to which they formally belong.
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NEW YORK TIMES

Boats in the Magdalen Islands. The islands sit in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, far from everywhere but closer to the Maritimes and even Newfoundland than to Quebec, to which they formally belong.

NEW YORK TIMES
                                Bluffs near La Grave, a village that is home to a sea museum and arts-and-crafts shops, in the Magdalen Islands.
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NEW YORK TIMES

Bluffs near La Grave, a village that is home to a sea museum and arts-and-crafts shops, in the Magdalen Islands.

NEW YORK TIMES
                                Dune du Sud Beach on Havre-aux-Maisons, in the Magdalen Islands. As climate change causes winter ice to diminish, erosion is eating away at the islands.
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NEW YORK TIMES

Dune du Sud Beach on Havre-aux-Maisons, in the Magdalen Islands. As climate change causes winter ice to diminish, erosion is eating away at the islands.

NEW YORK TIMES
                                Brightly painted houses on Havre-aux-Maisons in the Magdalen Islands.
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NEW YORK TIMES

Brightly painted houses on Havre-aux-Maisons in the Magdalen Islands.

NEW YORK TIMES
                                Boats in the Magdalen Islands. The islands sit in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, far from everywhere but closer to the Maritimes and even Newfoundland than to Quebec, to which they formally belong.
NEW YORK TIMES
                                Bluffs near La Grave, a village that is home to a sea museum and arts-and-crafts shops, in the Magdalen Islands.
NEW YORK TIMES
                                Dune du Sud Beach on Havre-aux-Maisons, in the Magdalen Islands. As climate change causes winter ice to diminish, erosion is eating away at the islands.
NEW YORK TIMES
                                Brightly painted houses on Havre-aux-Maisons in the Magdalen Islands.

They tell a story in the Magdalen Islands about a winter so bitter that they were completely cut off, with no way to guide their boats through the frozen harbors.

Running out of supplies and desperate, they penned letters detailing their plight, sealed them in an empty molasses cask, affixed a tiny sail to it and cast it into the sea. Two weeks later, it washed up on the mainland, the Canadian government dispatched icebreakers, and the people of “the Maggies” were saved — as in a fairy tale.

Except it really happened. In 1910, an errant ship severed the undersea telegraph cable connecting the islands to the world; a tiny, bobbing barrel really did save them from disaster.

But not obscurity. As I drove across the border from Maine into St. Stephen, New Brunswick, the Canadian agent, inspecting my passport, asked me where I was going. When I responded, “The Magdalen Islands,” he narrowed his eyes and said, “The what?”

A place apart

The Magdalens — Les Iles de la Madeleine in French — are an archipelago of eight islands, seven inhabited, six connected by bridges, causeways and sandbars, the whole shaped like a fish hook, or maybe a question mark, both fitting. Altogether, they comprise less than 80 square miles and have a population of about 12,000.

They sit in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and formally belong to Quebec. There’s one small hospital, which looks as if it may fall into the sea before too long — the islands’ sandstone cliffs are eroding in some places as fast as almost a meter per year — and a movie theater, which looks as if it could tumble in any day.

Madelinots, as the locals call themselves, fish and farm and hang their laundry out to dry in the islands’ strong winds as they have done for more than two centuries. They live atop garnet-colored cliffs, surrounded by sapphire water and emerald grass. They keep their houses tidy and paint them turquoise, orange, cherry red, lime green, bright yellow and every shade of purple.

Visitors kayak, kitesurf and parasail in lagoons and on the sea; ride bicycles, scooters, motorcycles and trikes around treeless plateaus speckled with equally treeless buttes. They seek out bluffs and lighthouses, sun and swim at expansive beaches, eat locally made cheese, locally smoked herring, locally bred beef and even locally hunted seal.

As you approach the islands by ferry, the buildings and terrain spread themselves out before you like a living diorama.

Hidden treasures

As one young man there told me, “Each island has its own personality, even its own accent.” The fact that he appended an H to the start of that last word only underscored his point. About 95% of people in the Magdalens are Francophone, though a few islands are primarily English-speaking.

The two largest, in area and population, sit at the bottom of the archipelago. The southernmost, Havre Aubert, where most residents speak French, is also known as Amherst Island.

The village of La Grave is a hub of culture, with a sea museum and lots of inviting arts-and-crafts shops in little shacks. It’s also the oldest settlement on the islands. The first settlers in the islands were French-­speaking Acadians, expelled from Nova Scotia by the British in the 1760s during England’s war with France, but invited to settle in the islands.

It wasn’t benevolence: The British needed Acadians to establish fisheries. More than two centuries later, their culture and language remain dominant on most of the islands; even the brightly painted houses are an old Acadian custom.

The next island up is Cap-aux-Meules, also called Grindstone. This mostly French-speaking island seems to buzz more than Amherst, with many shops and restaurants, parks and lighthouses, and hidden treasures such as shoreline caves you can explore by kayak, as well as a shipwreck, the Corfu, which sits on Corfu Beach on the western shore.

Buzzing doesn’t mean busy; nothing on the islands ever seems very busy, even when there are a lot of people around. Crowds are even rarer on Havre-aux-Maisons, the next island up, which is home to the airport. It’s seemingly all cliffs, buttes, capes and lighthouses, including one, at Cape Alright, so charming it could brighten even the darkest heart.

Heading north, you cross onto the most unusual of the linked islands, Pointe-aux-Loups, which to my untrained eye appeared as little more than a 14-mile-long sandbar, barely wider than a two-lane road. Its salt mine produces what sprinkles North American roads every winter.

Faith and fishing

Pointe-aux-Loups, quiet as it is, provides a nice transition from the lower islands to the upper ones, which have fewer people.

The first, Grosse-Ile, has no English name, which is curious because almost everyone who lives there is Anglophone. The same is true for the next two communities, East Cape and Old Harry. In all, the Magdalens have about 600 English-­speaking residents, and almost all live up here. Their houses are white, gray or brown; their churches are Anglican, not Catholic like the Acadians’. Many are descendants of shipwreck survivors from England, Scotland and Ireland.

If you go past Old Harry to Grande Entrée, a favorite of outdoor adventurers, you can see what the Maggies were like a century ago. None of the islands had electricity until the 1950s; these northern ones didn’t get it until even later.

Harvesting the sea’s bounty was, and is, everything there. It started with walruses — Magdalen walrus oil is said to have lit the streets of Paris for 100 years — and though they were all wiped out by 1799, you can still find their bones on the beaches. Cod, haddock and shellfish dominate now.

There is evidence everywhere of how hard life was, from the cemeteries, which betray a startling rate of child mortality, to the Church of St. Peter’s by the Sea, which doubles as a memorial to the many islanders lost at sea. It, too, was built with lumber salvaged from a shipwreck.

I didn’t meet a somber soul there, though; faith and fishing seem to keep them moored.

Vanishing way of life

The Magdalens are disappearing. Erosion used to be checked by winter ice, which climate change has diminished greatly. Tourists come up every February to gawk at newborn harp seal pups on the ice, but there’s been so little ice in recent winters that the cows have gone elsewhere to give birth. Rock formations that were landmarks crumble every winter; new ones appear each spring.

But there are other kinds of erosion, too. Take a ferry to Entry Island, the final inhabited piece of the archipelago, and you’ll see more dramatic nature but not many people. The population, which was 270 in 1980, is now 50. Last winter it dropped to 23. The man piloting the boat said that because the island has no police officers, it’s not uncommon to see young children driving pickups.

Entry Island is English-­speaking, settled originally by farmers. Craig Quinn, who is in his 70s and grew up there, told me that in 1964, the local school had 72 students. It closed in 2015, when that number fell to two. A woman who works at the museum that now occupies the building told me her son was one of them.

If the place is dying, though, it’s dying well. Every person I met agreed that they never want to be anywhere else.

Entry Island is the Magdalens’ Magdalen: dazzling and soothing, the kind of place that dislodges the clutter in your head and then sweeps it clear.

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