By Wallace McLean
I’ve always thought that the outdoor world was divided into two camps: those people who love the mountains and those people who love the ocean.
Me, I’m a mountain guy. Which explains why, despite being a veteran adventurer, I’d never pulled on a wetsuit until I visited Quebec’s Magdalen Islands last summer. And I have to admit that it felt decidedly weird.
I’d travelled to the Magdalens to experience something a little, um, different, and I realized as soon as I’d arrived that I’d come to the right place. For those of you who aren’t familiar with them, the Magdalen Islands — known in French as les Iles de la Madeleine — are a group of small islands that sit out in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, about halfway between PEI and Newfoundland and Labrador. To say they’re remote is putting it mildly.
The Magdalens are probably best known for their white-sand beaches, which seem to go on forever. But I was personally more interested in their stunning red coastal cliffs. The ocean is constantly eroding these sandstone cliffs, and the result is spectacular: hundreds of sea caves throughout the islands. I wanted to explore some of these caves, up-close-and-personal.
As it happens, there’s an outfitter on one of the islands (Grande Entrée) that offers the perfect way to do exactly that. For several years now, La Salicorne has been organizing special sea-cave excursions for adventurous visitors. The idea is simple: You put on a wetsuit, a lifejacket and a helmet and they’ll take you swimming along a rugged stretch of cave-pocked coastline.
On the day I joined them, I was part of a group of about 20. We assembled on a beach and then headed into the waves for some pre-excursion instruction. For starters, the guides gave us tips on swimming — as it turns out, once you add a lifejacket to a wetsuit, you’re so buoyant that you can’t swim normally. The best way to move is to float on your back and do a modified backstroke. Once our group got the hang of it, the guides taught us some emergency hand signals, just in case we needed help.
And then we set off down the coast. It was a sunny but windy day. There was a decent chop on the water and we all bobbed up and down like oversized corks. In a matter of minutes we came to our first cave. Getting inside was trickier than I’d expected. We’d ride an incoming wave through the entrance, but then the receding wave would pull us back out again. It took an effort to finally make it far enough inside to escape the ocean’s pull. And then it was dark, and much quieter. It felt like we had entered a secret world, and we spent a few minutes exploring its hidden corners. When we headed back out, the trick was to break through the incoming waves that wanted to keep us inside.
We worked our way along the shore, exploring cave after cave. One was the appropriately named Washing Machine, in which we were tossed around like so much laundry. At another called the Confessional, the entrance was so small that the incoming waves actually blocked the opening — we had to take a deep breath and hold it until we reached the more expansive interior. It was not for the faint of heart; some chose to give it a miss.
For me, the scariest cave was the deepest — the Dragon’s Lair. It went back a long, long way and eventually narrowed into a slim passage. Perhaps 20 feet later it opened up again, but by this point it was absolutely pitch black. It was then that I remembered that I’m somewhat claustrophobic. I could only stay for about half-a-minute before I had to get back out to the light.
We explored more than a dozen caves during our two-hour-plus excursion, and we also did some cliff jumping and belly-sliding off small rocky islets. But surprisingly, one of my favourite moments came when I was just lying on my back in the saltwater, looking up at the hot August sun. It was a moment of pure relaxation. And as I floated there, I realized I could get used to having fun in the ocean.
La Salicorne offers a wide range of guided excursions.
Sea kayaking: With its fabulous beaches and stunning red cliffs, the Maggies are a sea kayaker’s dream. You can do a multi-day tour around the entire archipelago following the Iles de la Madeleine Water Trail, or you can explore smaller sections of coastline either by yourself or with one of many outfitters. If you want a guide for a longer trip, try the paddling experts at Vert et Mer. And if you’re looking for an extra thrill, La Salicorne also offers kayak surfing tours.
Hiking: The island’s star hike is the trail that runs to the top of the 174-metre Big Hill on Entry Island — the highest point in the Maggies. The islands also have nice coastal trails, such as the one that runs above the cliffs at Belle Anse. And then there are the long beaches — perfect for an exploratory ramble or run. Two of the best are the Grande Echouerie and Sandy Hook Dune.
Wind-sports: At the end of August, the winds coming off the ocean create world-class conditions for windsurfing and kite surfing. Contact Aérosport Carrefour d’Aventures for rentals or instruction.
You can fly to the Magdalen Islands from Montreal or Quebec City (via Air Canada), or you can take a five-hour ferry from PEI. Once on the Maggies, it’s easy to get around — all but one of the six main islands are linked, and it’s only about a 90-km drive from one end of the chain to the other.
Where to Stay
If you like to sleep in style, you can’t do better than the four-star Domaine du Vieux Couvent. The former convent is located in the centre of the archipelago, and provides modern comfort in a historic setting. It also provides fine cuisine — its dining room (Le Réfectoire) is one of the best on the islands.
For those who prefer more outdoorsy lodge-type accommodation, head for Grande Entrée Island. The folks at La Salicorne operate a comfortable inn that provides tasty meals.
If you’re looking for a campsite with a view, try the campground at Parc de Gros-Cap. Some of the sites here sit right along the edge of the coastal cliffs. The campground also rents kayaks and offers guided tours.
For more info: tourismeilesdelamadeleine.com
This article originally appeared in our Summer 2013 issue.