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In Quebec, Isles of Splendid Isolation

Quieting the soul in the Magdalens, where French and English castaways settled and where visitors today can bike rural roads, explore wild coastlines and enjoy first-class restaurants.

April 21, 2002

LA GRAVE, Canada -- Leonard Clark's great-grandfather arrived on the Magdalen Islands clinging to a lifeboat after the Good Intent, the ship he traveled on from England, lost its rudder in a gale in December 1855. His wife's grandfather floated ashore on a ladder several decades later.

After years of digging through shipping records and mariners' journals in Europe and North America, Clark, an amateur archeologist, estimates the Magdalen shoals have scuttled 1,000 sailing vessels. The reason for the treachery lies in their location: They're halfway between Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island in the middle of the entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, making them a foundering ground for storm-struck 19th century ships carrying wood to England and immigrants to Canada. Many of the castaways stayed; some of the houses they built from wood delivered by the waves remain.

Les Iles-de-la-Madeleine, or simply "Les Iles," as they are known, are a 50-mile-long croissant-shaped archipelago fringed by 160 miles of wild, wide beaches. They have long been a summer getaway for residents of Quebec, the Canadian province in which they lie.

When the tourists who triple the population from early June to early September thin out after Labor Day, departing by plane or ferry, the Magdalens are reclaimed by a year-round population of 15,000. My boyfriend, Philip, and I arrived after the crowds last September when the air was still warmed by the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which surround the islands.

Exuding an isolated Robinson Crusoe aura, these islands are magical as only remote, windswept specks of land can be, swirling with fog and tales of romance and adventure set against a backdrop of pounding surf. The pace is leisurely and the cast of characters lively and colorful. The eclectic collection of weathered fishermen and seal hunters, artists and well-heeled refugees from the rat race has created an uncommon melange of rural simplicity and European sophistication that we found alluring.

We flew from Montreal to the Magdalen Islands, a two-hour flight, renting a car on arrival so we could explore the beaches and far-flung towns. But often we abandoned our four wheels for two and cycled along the miles of paved bike routes that line the beaches of most islands. We split our time evenly between B&Bs on the islands of Havre-aux-Maisons and Havre Aubert. We spent a week in all, plenty of time to explore, relax, kayak the coastline, sample the islands' cuisine and practice our French with locals at outdoor cafes.

About 95% of the residents of the "Maggies" are French Canadian; the rest are English speaking. Most people in the towns speak some English; in the countryside English is rarely spoken. The single main town, Cap-aux-Meules--"Grindstone" to the Anglophones--is an unremarkable gathering place for modern commerce and administration, so we did not spend much time there.

Instead we made our first base about 10 minutes' drive away at a lovely B&B, Au Salange, a large house set on a remote stretch of meadow overlooking the sea on Havre-aux-Maisons. Local art complements the breezy, stylish island theme.

The smaller hamlets of the Magdalens are more charming than Cap-aux-Meules and warrant exploration. Bassin is a seaside community of mansard-roofed homes; La Grave has a single street of shingled galleries and a theater.

At L'Etang-du-Nord a cluster of clapboard shops includes the Cafe la Cote, whose specialty is a salt cod pizza served on a deck overlooking one of the most recent shipwrecks, the Duke of Connaught, a casualty less than two decades ago. The Duke's angular hulk has rusted into the same red as the cliffs onto which it was swept. Locals joke that it is the work of one of the islands' well-known contemporary metal sculptors.

But the tranquil soul of the islands lies on the web of rural roads between farms, past marshes crowded with wading herons and alongside endless beaches blurring into distant sea mist. Daisies and buttercups lay siege to lush springtime fields. In autumn, buttery rays of sun fire up the crumbling cliffs, rock stacks and 10 squat lighthouses and add voltage to the electric colors of the gabled homes, painted mauve or candy pink, orange or turquoise with lime green or purple trim.

Now landscape art, the vivid hues were originally an Acadian tradition to transform houses into beacons for fishermen returning from the sea.

Old-fashioned values prevail; churches are well attended on Sundays, doors are rarely locked and keys are left in cars. "It's like the rest of Canada in the 1950s," says Brigitte Michaud, who recently moved from Montreal to run the Magdalens' tourism bureau.

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