By Ron Bernthal
Shortly after sunrise, with the sky the color of pewter, and a chill sea breeze creating whitecaps in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Jean-Guy Bougeois pilots his small fishing boat, the Marie-Nicole, into the sheltered harbor of L’Etang-du-Nord, a tiny village in the French Canadian archipelago of Iles-de-la-Madeleine.
For the fishermen of Iles-de-la-Madeleine, a long and narrow group of barrier islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, accessible from Montreal by boat or plane, fishing is not a part-time hobby that occupies a lazy Sunday afternoon, but a traditional way of life that is the largest source of income in this poor, French-speaking outpost of Quebec province.
On these Canadian islands, where wind-blown marram grass sits atop fragile sand dunes, and the steel-gray ocean is never out of sight, fishermen spend most of the year in their small, wood houses, which are often painted in bright Crayola shades of fuchsia, tangerine, vermilion and lavender to help brighten the foggy and misty days that arrive with the onset of fall.
The busiest time of year on the islands is between May and July, when the wooden lobster traps on the sea bottom begin filling up with the area’s most popular, and still plentiful, product. Strictly enforced trapping regulations ensure supply, and although not every fisherman here has a license to catch lobster, there are enough lobster boats in the harbor at Grande-Entree to bolster its claim of being the “Lobster Capital of the World.”
Many of the lobsters caught in these waters are consumed locally, in rolls bisque, and butter sauce, but most are packed in ice and sent off to Montreal and American cities on the East Coast. Snow crabs and scallops are also harvested during the spring and summer, as are mackerel and herring.
The Madelinots, descendants of French Acadians who arrived in the 1500’s, live in scattered villages, none with more than a few thousand people, or on small farms, and just about every house has a view of the sea. Those who are not involved with fishing have turned their lovely homes into guest houses, small businesses, crafts studios or cozy five-table restaurants, creating a unique homespun economy that makes it easy for visitors to meet the locals on a somewhat intimate basis – Diane Gallant makes delicious chocolates (including little chocolate lobsters); Nicole Gregoire creates unique sand sculptures; Francois Turbide has a glass blowing studio; Francine Pelletier and Denis Painchaud run a small guest house and restaurant.
“We had about 160,000 hits on our web site last June,” says Claude Richard, Executive Director of the Iles-de-la-Madeleine Tourism Association, as he drives along the main road, Route 199, that connects the six main islands. Most of the road’s 65-mile length crosses long stretches of dune landscape, where motorists spy sandpipers, plovers and seagulls along the beaches, and red sandstone cliffs that form much of the islands’ coastline.
“As our fishing industry income declines, the tourism segment is rising at the same rate,” says Claude Richard, Executive Director of the local tourism association, well aware that the islands’ tourism income of $30 million annually is fast approaching the $50 million that fishing brings in.
Indeed, there are signs that savvy travelers and marketing firms have already discovered these out-of-the-way little islands. Saatchi and Saatchi, the worldwide advertising firm, recently filmed a Lexus commercial here, and upscale professionals from Montreal and Boston have found housing prices so inexpensive that brightly painted summer homes are sprouting up in the hillocks above the sea like a profusion of wild berries. These homes, constructed with weathered timber and gingerbread trim, are identical to the indigenous 200-year-old fishermen houses, and blend in nicely with the islands’ rural, nautical environment.
The two airlines that service the islands – Inter Canadian and Air Alliance – are promoting special excursion fares to and from Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa, and a new deluxe car ferry has replaced the old ship on the five-hour trip from Prince Edward Island. This past summer a hovercraft made trial runs from Cape Breton, in Nova Scotia, and there are rumors of direct air service from New York and Boston in the near future.
For now, however, the pleasures of Iles-de-la-Madeleine remain relatively undiscovered, especially among Americans, and visitors quickly become enamored with the villages’ small town charm. There is no crime here, and in the one convenience store robbery that took place a few years ago, the thief turned himself in 10 minutes after the holdup, realizing that everyone on the island already knew his name and address.
The popular saying, “the French don’t eat, they dine,” is especially true in French-speaking Quebec, and the small restaurants here have the same quality food and atmosphere as country restaurants in France, only more affordable.
At La Table des Roy, the table d’hote (house special) four-course meal is $20 in American currency, and Joanne Vigneau, the owner, may serve a marinated salmon appetizer, a bowl of pumpkin soup, fresh filet of fish with vegetables and potatoes, a selection of desert cheeses and fruit, and a glass of wine.
Many of the restaurants on the islands occupy the downstairs portion of the owner’s home and are thus open year-round. Both La Table des Roy, and the highly rated La Maree Haute, provide intimate settings for enjoying delicious home-made French cuisine.
At the Cafe de la Grave, in the toy-like fishing village of Havre-Aubert, French folk songs play softly as residents and guests linger over bowls of hot mussels, plates of lobster salad and glasses of wine. Others spend time reading the chalkboard menu, or the latest publications from Montreal and Paris. The smell of freshly warmed baguettes is reminiscent of the cafes in Brittany, as is the cool salted air that blows over the room when the front door opens.
“We know that one day tourism will replace fishing as our main industry,” says tourism official Pascal Arseneau, “but the sea, the lobsters and mussels, the birds and sand dunes, they are all around us and will always be part of our lifestyle.”