Quebec’s Îles-de-la-Madeleine are beloved for stellar beaches, seafood and kitesurfing — but that’s only part of the story

As I skirted the sandstone cliff’s brink, careful not to slip into the thrashing waves below, I suddenly felt gravity pull me down. Fortunately, the edges of my wetsuit booties secured me from a surprise plunge into the sea. I looked at my right hand and found the culprit of my near-tumble — a chunk of red clay plucked straight from the cliff. If this rock could come loose so easily, I thought, what’s to stop a gust of wind from tearing it straight off?I was on a weeklong trip to Îles-de-la-Madeleine, or the Magdalen Islands, a string of eight main islands in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, and part of Quebec’s Maritime regions. Six months before my trip this summer, I hadn’t known about this place, but in Montreal, where I landed during the pandemic, I couldn’t stop hearing about it. “The beaches are turquoise, like the Caribbean,” one enthusiast told me, with an almost unbelievable level of adoration. “The seafood is the best anywhere,” and “you have to try kitesurfing.”So I booked the five-hour ferry from Souris, Prince Edward Island, with little hesitation, but I soon learned that the archipelago’s beauty is only part of the story.I travelled via the new 1,500-passenger “Madeleine II” ferry, surely a much smoother ride than the journeys experienced by the Mi’kmaq, who hunted here for centuries, or the Acadians, who settled here after escaping exodus during Le Grand Dérangement in the 18th century. Almost as soon as I arrived, I noticed the jagged red cliffs and pretty, pastel-coloured houses set dangerously close to the edge. In recent years, the water surrounding Îles-de-la-Madeleine has been rising due to climate change, and the sea ice that acts as a shield against brutal storms hasn’t formed every winter. The result is that these red coastal cliffs, like the one I teetered on during a playful nautical swim organized by La Salicorne, are crumbling into the sea.After I settled into my campsite, I immediately set off to explore the southeastern village of La Grave on Île-Havre-Aubert, where the Acadians first settled. There, quaint cafés project traditional music into the night and lovely art shops provide a charming maritime setting, but they’re all threatened by coastal flooding.“It’s really hard on the stress level of people here when there’s a storm,” says Pauline-Gervaise Grégoire, director at La Grave studio and art collective Atelier Côtier. “When you look at the waves,” she lets out a nervous scream, “it’s bad.”The municipality that governs the islands’ 13,000 year-round inhabitants is in the process of hauling in 75,000 tons of gravel to protect La Grave, but as I perused Atelier Côtier I couldn’t help but feel hopeful for its future. Many pieces were made by gluing sand — the product of crumbling cliffs — to create beautiful works of art. It was just one of the examples I’d see of how locals here are making the best of what they have.On the Circuit des Saveurs, a food trail for procuring the ultimate beach picnic, I stopped at Miel en mer for crystalized white honey and sweet mead wine. There, the owner’s son, Victor Arseneau, told me how their bees, which were originally from Italy, have adapted to incessant wind and unpredictable seasons, even figuring out how to melt snow: by huddling together and vibrating to produce heat around their hives.“It’s an extreme sport,” says Arseneau of cultivating bees on Îles-de-la-Madeleine. Now, their colonies are growing, and Miel en mer honey is found across the archipelago, including in dishes like the breakfast bagels at the hip new spot Chez Renard. As I hopped from producer to producer, I noticed a web developing: Every business seemed to be sharing with the next.The islands’ only brewery, À l’abri de la Tempête, gives leftovers from its beer making to Fromagerie du Pied-de-Vent to make one of its cheeses. Milk residue from the fromagerie isn’t wasted, but given to feed the boars at Aucoin des Sangliers. Some boar meat is smoked at traditional herring smoker Le Fumoir d’Antan, where grain for Corps Mort, one of À L’abri de la Tempête’s beers, is also smoked.The goal of all this sharing, the producers told me, is to sustain other businesses and to cut down on the costs of shipping off-island — both the financial and environmental costs.“You cannot be egotistical on the islands,” Arseneau says. When asked why not, he’s blunt: “Because you will die.”I couldn’t leave the islands without kitesurfing, so one morning I slapped on a damp wetsuit and, feeling like a tadpole, learned the ropes from instructor Youri Gauthier of Aerosport.As I braced myself, waist-deep in whipping waves, the wind launched my bright kite high into the air on my left — and then to my right with a huge splash. After getting yanked around a few times, I started to get my bearings and even managed to stand up on the board (before faceplanting two seconds later). I felt triumphant.“People come here for a week and want wind every day, and ... usually they get it,” says Gauthier, who, after

Quebec’s Îles-de-la-Madeleine are beloved for stellar beaches, seafood and kitesurfing — but that’s only part of the story

As I skirted the sandstone cliff’s brink, careful not to slip into the thrashing waves below, I suddenly felt gravity pull me down. Fortunately, the edges of my wetsuit booties secured me from a surprise plunge into the sea.

I looked at my right hand and found the culprit of my near-tumble — a chunk of red clay plucked straight from the cliff. If this rock could come loose so easily, I thought, what’s to stop a gust of wind from tearing it straight off?

I was on a weeklong trip to Îles-de-la-Madeleine, or the Magdalen Islands, a string of eight main islands in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, and part of Quebec’s Maritime regions. Six months before my trip this summer, I hadn’t known about this place, but in Montreal, where I landed during the pandemic, I couldn’t stop hearing about it.

The landscape on Îles-de-la-Madeleine is distinguished by red sandstone cliffs.

“The beaches are turquoise, like the Caribbean,” one enthusiast told me, with an almost unbelievable level of adoration. “The seafood is the best anywhere,” and “you have to try kitesurfing.”

So I booked the five-hour ferry from Souris, Prince Edward Island, with little hesitation, but I soon learned that the archipelago’s beauty is only part of the story.

I travelled via the new 1,500-passenger “Madeleine II” ferry, surely a much smoother ride than the journeys experienced by the Mi’kmaq, who hunted here for centuries, or the Acadians, who settled here after escaping exodus during Le Grand Dérangement in the 18th century. Almost as soon as I arrived, I noticed the jagged red cliffs and pretty, pastel-coloured houses set dangerously close to the edge.

In recent years, the water surrounding Îles-de-la-Madeleine has been rising due to climate change, and the sea ice that acts as a shield against brutal storms hasn’t formed every winter. The result is that these red coastal cliffs, like the one I teetered on during a playful nautical swim organized by La Salicorne, are crumbling into the sea.

The water surrounding Îles-de-la-Madeleine has been rising due to climate change.

After I settled into my campsite, I immediately set off to explore the southeastern village of La Grave on Île-Havre-Aubert, where the Acadians first settled. There, quaint cafés project traditional music into the night and lovely art shops provide a charming maritime setting, but they’re all threatened by coastal flooding.

“It’s really hard on the stress level of people here when there’s a storm,” says Pauline-Gervaise Grégoire, director at La Grave studio and art collective Atelier Côtier. “When you look at the waves,” she lets out a nervous scream, “it’s bad.”

Pauline-Gervaise Grégoire, director of Atelier Côtier in La Grave.

The municipality that governs the islands’ 13,000 year-round inhabitants is in the process of hauling in 75,000 tons of gravel to protect La Grave, but as I perused Atelier Côtier I couldn’t help but feel hopeful for its future.

Many pieces were made by gluing sand — the product of crumbling cliffs — to create beautiful works of art. It was just one of the examples I’d see of how locals here are making the best of what they have.

On the Circuit des Saveurs, a food trail for procuring the ultimate beach picnic, I stopped at Miel en mer for crystalized white honey and sweet mead wine. There, the owner’s son, Victor Arseneau, told me how their bees, which were originally from Italy, have adapted to incessant wind and unpredictable seasons, even figuring out how to melt snow: by huddling together and vibrating to produce heat around their hives.

“It’s an extreme sport,” says Arseneau of cultivating bees on Îles-de-la-Madeleine. Now, their colonies are growing, and Miel en mer honey is found across the archipelago, including in dishes like the breakfast bagels at the hip new spot Chez Renard.

As I hopped from producer to producer, I noticed a web developing: Every business seemed to be sharing with the next.

The islands’ only brewery, À l’abri de la Tempête, gives leftovers from its beer making to Fromagerie du Pied-de-Vent to make one of its cheeses. Milk residue from the fromagerie isn’t wasted, but given to feed the boars at Aucoin des Sangliers. Some boar meat is smoked at traditional herring smoker Le Fumoir d’Antan, where grain for Corps Mort, one of À L’abri de la Tempête’s beers, is also smoked.

The goal of all this sharing, the producers told me, is to sustain other businesses and to cut down on the costs of shipping off-island — both the financial and environmental costs.

“You cannot be egotistical on the islands,” Arseneau says. When asked why not, he’s blunt: “Because you will die.”

Victor Arseneau, heir to beloved honey farm Miel en mer on Îles-de-la-Madeleine.

I couldn’t leave the islands without kitesurfing, so one morning I slapped on a damp wetsuit and, feeling like a tadpole, learned the ropes from instructor Youri Gauthier of Aerosport.

As I braced myself, waist-deep in whipping waves, the wind launched my bright kite high into the air on my left — and then to my right with a huge splash. After getting yanked around a few times, I started to get my bearings and even managed to stand up on the board (before faceplanting two seconds later). I felt triumphant.

“People come here for a week and want wind every day, and ... usually they get it,” says Gauthier, who, after teaching in Miami and South Africa, believes Îles-de-la-Madeleine is the best place to learn kitesurfing because of its lagoons and consistent wind.

As I slipped into dry clothes, Gauthier told me about another way locals embrace the wind: The municipality just installed two new turbines, a source of clean energy that should help the islands cut greenhouse gases from the diesel energy plant by 15 per cent.

Later, I learned from Jean Hubert, the municipality’s director of engineering, that more wind turbines could be on the way in a new climate change plan, along with solar power, and artificial intelligence to manage energy use in buildings as well as stricter regulations for energy-efficient construction.

A sign warns hikers not to get too close to the edge of eroding cliffs on Îles-de-la-Madeleine.

“I think people who live on the islands take good care of their surroundings because they see the effects of what they do, be it transportation, construction or garbage collection,” says Hubert, adding that in 1994, the municipality became the first in Quebec to offer compost collection alongside recycling and waste collection. “We’re faced with the erosion hitting harder and harder, so yes, we need to do things — and we need to do things before all the other people.”

As I sailed back to PEI on the ferry, exhausted after a week of gourmet picnics, beaching and speaking with Quebecois who are both passionate and concerned for their beloved islands, eroding red cliffs caught my eye again.

Around the same time as my trip came the news that a moon “wobble” could increase sea levels into the 2030s; it also coincided with the release of the United Nations’ “code red” report, which stated that human impacts on climate change are irreversible for at least the next few decades. I couldn’t help but be concerned that I might be one of the last generations to see Îles-de-la-Madeleine above water.

But if I learned anything here, it’s that Madelinot are resilient and will make the best of what they have. I recalled an expression I heard on the islands: “tous dans le même bateau.”

With climate change, whether we’re on an archipelago that’s visibly eroding, in a city like Toronto, or anywhere on this planet, we’re all in the same boat.