TO THE MAGDALEN ISLANDS BY SHIP:
MONTRÉAL TO THE GULF OF ST. LAWRENCE
Québec’s Francophone community has long known about the attractions of the Îles-de-la-Madeleine, but the word has not yet reached the rest of Canada to any great extent. I thought the time had arrived to see these islands for myself.
What I knew was that the archipelago was about 50 (80 kilometres) miles from one end to the other, and that the population of 13,000 was about 95 percent francophone. A glance at the map showed me that the Magdalens were roughly equal in distance from Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton, while the Gaspé Peninsula and Newfoundland were slightly farther away. There is a regular ferry service between the Magdalens and Prince Edward Island.
In the summer season, the ferry C.T.M.A. Vacancier leaves Montréal each Friday afternoon, stops briefly late Saturday at Chandler, a small town on the Gaspé, and reaches Cap-aux-Meules on the Magdalen Islands on Sunday morning. Passengers have the option of staying at hotels, inns and bread-and-breakfast establishments throughout the islands, or living aboard ship for the three days in port. I chose the latter option. Vacancier leaves Cap-aux-Meules on Tuesday evening, stops for about six hours the next day at Chandler, where tours are offered to the famed Bonaventure Island and the Percé Rock, then continues to Québec City for an eight-hour stay on Thursday afternoon. Come Friday morning the ship is back in Montréal.
Vacancier is not a conventional cruise ship. In fact, she was built as an overnight ferry some 35 years ago for service in the Baltic and adjacent waters. She has undergone several name changes and refurbishings over the years, and she has plied various European waters, but for the last five years she has sailed for C.T.M.A. (Co-operative Transport Maritime & Aérienne). Her captain, officers and crew are mostly from the Magdalens. Some are completely bilingual in French and English, others’ fluency in English varies considerably. My own knowledge of French is limited, but this was never a handicap during my week aboard and on shore.
Vacancier is 410 feet (125 metres) long. Her passenger capacity is 500 and she can carry 250 automobiles. Her cabins can best be described as basic. Do not look for television or radios, balconies, safes or refrigerators, or chocolates on your pillow at bedtime. And do not expect to pick up a phone and call the galley to order a late-night sandwich delivered to your cabin. I occupied Cabin 605, which had fixed upper and lower bunks, a washbasin with lots of hot water. Toilets and showers were down the hall. Three small clothes closets had more than sufficient space for me, but to my displeasure they contained wire coat hangers, eight all told but four with bent crossbars. An information sheet in my cabin suggested gratuities of $10 per person per day, which seemed just a tad high to me in view of the limited services provided. By the way, some cabins, mostly inside, have their own private facilities. There was no swimming pool, no spa and no casino. Remember, Vacancier is still essentially a ferry that was built for overnight service.
The ship has two lounges, quite spacious and each with a bar, and a small but well-equipped gymnasium with excellent views of the sea. The upper lounge is often used by groups who are participating in theme cruises between June and September. Among the themes for 2008 are bird watching/photography, chocolate, spiritual matters, art, bridge, Scrabble, French immersion and English immersion.
Cruise ships generally have a dress code, often covering all three meals, but aboard Vacancier casual clothing is just fine, regardless of the time of day. The ship’s restaurant on Deck 6 was open for breakfast and lunch, served cafeteria style. Breakfast included the standard dishes; lunch usually offered three choices for the main course. If I had to label the lunch dishes I would use the word “hearty” rather than “elegant.” Dinner, with waiter/waitress service, was served each evening in the dining room on Deck 7. Here the chef had a better chance to shine. The four-course dinner had a choice of two main dishes, one being seafood, which was always very popular. The Magdalens are noted for the quality of their seafood and if you travel during the lobster season, as I did, you will be well rewarded, gastronomically speaking. The dining room uses linen tablecloths and napkins and it has a wine list with about 20 selections. The restaurant and the dining room have windows on three sides; a window table is just the place to admire the passing scenery of the Lower St. Lawrence.
At dinner, a musician supplied pleasant easy-listening music on the keyboard at both sittings. The ship carried one other entertainer, a singer of popular songs, all in the French language, who found ready favour with the francophone passengers (who outnumbered Anglophones about 15 to 1 on my voyage).
Cap-aux-Meules is the principal port of the archipelago and it was here that Vacancier remained from Sunday morning to Tuesday evening. I lived on board and had a continental breakfast each morning. An attendant still made up my cabin each day.
The Îles-de-la-Madeleine are the centre of one of Canada’s principal fishing regions but nowadays tourism is growing in importance. The islands are hilly in some places, flat in others. Long, narrow sandy spits, often stretching for several miles, connect four of the main islands. You are never far from the sea. I had no preconceived notions about the islands, but I took some tours to see for myself.
In some ways the Magdalens, with its red soil, reminded me of Prince Edward Island; in other ways, such as the seemingly casual manner in which houses were situated alongside the road on or on hillsides, I thought of Newfoundland. But the Magdalens still have their own individuality.
My three days passed quickly, faster than I had anticipated. I visited two churches, a winery that produced its specialties from cranberries, strawberries and flowers. I spent some time—and money—at the Fromagerie du Pied-de-Vent whose superb varieties of cheese are, alas, unavailable in Ontario but can be found throughout Quebec. I dropped into a microbrewery that used local barley to make its beer. One afternoon I spent some time at the Musée de la Mer a small maritime museum on Cape Gridley. I visited a smokehouse, Fumoir d’Antan that produced excellent smoked fish using traditional methods. I saw lobsters by the hundred being unloaded from fishing boats at Grande-Entrée. And one evening I sat down for twenty minutes at Tim Horton’s in Cap-aux-Meules, with a cup of coffee and a doughnut.
Vacancier left Cap-aux-Meules on Tuesday evening. The stop at Chandler on Wednesday offered local tours, as did the stop at Québec City on Thursday. I knew the city well enough to simply walk around on my own, visiting the places that appealed to me.
On Friday morning, Vacancier reached Montréal. Disembarkation after breakfast was fast, and within minutes I was in a taxi, heading for Central Station with a VIA rail ticket to Toronto in my pocket. When I left Montréal seven days earlier I boarded the ship without having to undergo the time-consuming security screening that is typical of airports nowadays. Rail travel, too, is simply a matter of stepping aboard the train. These are, to me anyway, factors that added to the enjoyment of my journey.
It is important to remember that Vacancier is not a modern cruise ship. If you can accept her for what she is—fairly basic, reasonably comfortable and on an appealing itinerary—you will likely have a pleasant experience.
I made my arrangements through John Lang of The Cruise People and as usual he did a fine job.