Montréal and Les Îles-de-la-Madeleine

August 29 - September 17, 2018

For years my friend Susan and I have talked about taking a trip together. We both speak French — le français de la france for her and le français québecois for me —and we love the outdoors, albeit for slightly different activities. Susan enjoys charming country inns and fine dining, while I'm happy sleeping on the ground and cooking dinner over a campfire. Was there an adventure that might combine both our interests? Eventually I persuaded her to join me for something I never had the time or the money to do when I lived in Montréal: a cruise to Les Îles-de-la-Madeleine.

Les Îles are a chain of small islands in the mouth of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. I first visited this area in 1989, when I biked across Prince Edward Island and the Magdalens all the way to Île de la Grande Entrée. It was a very challenging trip, but I was dazzled by these tiny red islands in the enormous green sea.

At TIA waiting for our flight.

We landed in Montréal on a hot night in late August, but our luggage did not get off the plane with us, and we weren't alone There were more than 100 people in the lost baggage line at Air Canada, and many hundreds of bags piled up on either side of the queue.

The power was out so Marcel and Christiane cooked dinner on their camp stove.
Introduction to the "baguage des oiseaux" at Observatoire des oiseaux de McGill.
When our luggage still hadn't showed up by Thursday afternoon, we realized there was a good chance it might not arrive in time, so Christiane took us speed-shopping at Walmart to gather the minimum we would need for our cruise.
Dinner with Marcel and Christiane at "Patates et Persil," a delightful café-terrasse on the shore of Lac St-Louis.
Friday morning Marcel and Christiane delivered us to the Vieux Port where we picked up our rental bicycles and boarded our ship, the CTMA Vacancier.
For the next week, this car/passenger ferry constructed in 1973 would be our home. Our room was small and very basic, but we had everything we needed.
And while the accommodations were basic, the food was extraordinary!
From the upper deck we had a wonderful view of Old Montréal. The air was clear and cool and we loved the rumble of the big diesel engine below us.
As the sun set, we settled into one of the lounges and watched the lush green shore slide by.
The river gradually widened, and the reflection of the dimpled clouds on the water was hypnotic.
I spent as much time as possible on the sunny, breezy upper deck, making use of a rusty exercycle that made me feel like I was powering the boat!
On a brisk and sunny Sunday morning, Susan and I debarked at Cap-aux-Meules and set off to explore the islands. We had booked the "forfait vélo", which gave us three days of independent cycling supported with lunch, maps and a "navette" to compensate for the island's powerful southwest winds.
We explored the delightful shops strung out on a narrow strip of sand at "La Grave", in Havre-Aubert.
Then with the wind at our backs, we rolled back to Cap-aux-Meules, past several lovely beaches and along the ruddy cliffs of Anse aux Étangs.
At Havre aux Basques, we paused to watch dozens of kitesurfers and sailboarders. Les Îles-de-la-Madeleine are famous for it.
La Martinique
The rapidly eroding red cliffs near Pointe de l'Échouerie, with Île d'Éntrée in the distance. The islands are losing approxmately 10 cm per year to erosion.
At 385 passengers, the CTMA Vacancier is not a large cruise ship, but it dwarfs the tiny harbor at Cap-aux-Meules.
Home sweet home.
The next morning we rolled north along the Route Verte, past the colorful homes and soaring cliffs of Havre-aux-Maisons and across the Dune du Nord, a ribbon of sand that links the northern and southern clusters of islands.
Havre-aux-Maisons.
I think this ride tops my list of all-time favorites, with the ocean on either side of us and miles and miles of effortless pedaling.
Picnic lunch at Pointe-aux-Loups.
We made it all the way to La Grosse Île (27 miles).
Toasting a great day of ocean biking!
Day 3: a challenging loop around Île du Cap aux Meules.
Étang du Nord.
Anse de l'Étang du Nord.
From here the route turned inland and followed a dirt track through the forest to a lighthouse at the end of a peninsula. I don't know if these these red cliffs and crashing surf were the islands' most enchanting, but they were certainly contenders. One more dinner at "Les Pas Perdus," and it was time to board the ship. At sunset, we regretfully pulled away from the shore and the twinkling lights of Cap-aux-Meules slowly receded into the distance.
Back at our home port.
The video.
Susan and I left ourselves a few days of free time to explore the city.
During the next three days we would walk more than 21 miles, through the Plateau, Marché Jean-Talon and Parc Lafontaine, including visits to the Jardin Botanique and Insectarium.
And that's how we discovered the fabulous "La Stellina", my new favorite place for breakfast!
Farine Five Roses, an unmistakable feature of the Montréal skyline since 1954.
I was very impressed by all the efforts being made to make Montréal an even more pedestrian-friendly city, including makeshift terraces that cover part of the sidewalk and extend into the street, providing outdoor seating for many more restaurants. And this very artistic mister.
Le quartier gai
Hommage à Leonard Cohen.
Dennis flew in on 9/9 and Susan returned home on 9/11, and the next chapter of the journey began. By then Air Canada had finally delivered our bags (only one week late). Dennis' bags were also only recovered two days after he landed.
With Marcel and Christiane we visited the Planetarium, where there was a fantastic presentation on the aurora borealis.
"The Illuminated Crowd" by artist Raymond Mason at the entrance to the BNP Tower - Laurentian Bank Tower.
Putting the world back together at the Planetarium.
What a great day! 36 miles on the Petit Train du Nord, a rails-to-trails route that runs for 200 km from St-Jérôme to Mont-Laurier. The trail follows the Rivière du Nord, galloping downstream dark and foamy as a good stout. The leaves were just beginning to turn, and the air was sweet with the scent of fall. A bit short on time, we averaged 10 mph/hour on the way back!
One final excursion into the northern forest — once again courtesy of Marcel and Christiane — on the Sentier du Lac Kaël near Saint-Zénon.
La cueillette de champignons
"Spores Experts"
Lac Kaël
Getting together with the former (and not-so-former) members of the Velan Marketing Department. Maria was my assistant and Kathy was our graphic designer.
Reuniting with Mireille (25 years later).
We spent our last day in Montréal strolling along the St-Laurent near Rapides de Lachine with Marie-Anne, my old hiking, biking and cross-country skiing buddy.
Marie-Anne and Dennis
Last night in Montréal, exploring St-Henri and some fabulous converted turn-of-the-century industrial buildings along Canal Lachine.
Time to go. As if on cue, the train from New York City crossed our path. What an amazing three weeks! I figured this would be my last trip east, but who knows? Susan and I are already talking about returning in four years, before our beloved CTMA Vacancier is decomissioned.