Vacancier in port Îles de la Madeleine (Photo credit: ken ratcliff)
review by Gordon Turner
"I’ve just got back from Îles de la Madeleine," I tell an acquaintance, and I am rewarded with a blank look. "In English," I add, "it’s the Magdalen Islands." The blank expression remains.
Thus I have to explain that the islands are located in the centre of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, nearer to Cape Breton, but not all that far from the Gaspé Peninsula, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. They are part of the province of Quebec.
My recent visit was my second since 2008. There are three parts to my story: one is getting there; the second is the islands themselves, and the third is coming back.
The downbound voyage
Early on a Friday afternoon in June I found myself at the Bickerdike Basin in Montreal harbour ready to board Vacancier, located a few hundred metres away from a parking lot, which was beginning to fill up with passengers’ cars. I had arrived by taxi. The procedure was exactly what it had been four years earlier: hand over your suitcase to a crewman, who loads it into an elderly van at a corner of the parking area, then proceed to a large tent where chairs and bottled water waited. Before I had time to twist open a bottle top and sit down, a small school bus arrived and I joined the first group of waiting passengers for the three-minute trip to the ship. The van with the luggage reached the ship shortly before sailing time and crewmen delivered the suitcases to the cabin doors.
Vacancier is definitely not one of your modern cruise ships with more amenities than you ever knew existed. Not at all. She was completed as a ferry in Germany in 1973 and began her career with daylight sailings on the Gulf of Bothnia. In 1982 she was sold to an Irish company and renamed Saint Patrick II. She sailed between Ireland and France and as this was an overnight service cabins were installed. In 2002, the ship came to Canadian waters and was renamed Vacancier. My journey was advertised as a cruise but it did not fall within the terminology of what most people consider nowadays to be a cruise ship. For instance, there was no swimming pool and no casino. Also, passengers could buy tickets for any port-to port segment if they did not want to take the full seven-day voyage. They could take their cars along too, as Vacancier has a spacious car deck.
Most of Vacancier‘s cabins are very small—tiny, to be truthful—and there’s no getting around this fact. It is important to recall that they were built for single-night use, and nowadays they are in service for seven consecutive nights for passengers making the full week-long journey, Montreal back to Montreal. Some cabins are a bit larger (or smaller) than others, some have a private bathroom and some do not. Some have a window or porthole but many do not. If you are claustrophobic…well, you get the picture. I occupied Cabin 305 and it had no porthole or window, not that I really minded. Size? I did not pack a tape measure but when I stood in the middle of the cabin and stretched my arms across its width I could easily touch both walls and when I tried it lengthwise my fingers fell short by maybe 30 centimetres (12 inches). The cabin had its own small bathroom, complete with shower, toilet and wash basin.
Limited size notwithstanding, Cabin 305 was built for two persons, with upper and lower berths. I had it all to myself and the upper berth was folded back into the wall for the duration of my voyage. The cabin was simply furnished. The lower berth was narrow but sufficient for me, there was a fairly large mirror with a small dressing table and stool, and a row of pegs with coat hangers. And that was about all. No chest of drawers. I stowed my suitcase under the lower berth and came to appreciate the phrase "living out of a suitcase." The cabin had no television, no radio and no telephone. If you wanted a wake-up call, you notified the Purser’s Office and the next morning a crew member knocked at your door until receiving a sleepy response.
Each morning while I was at breakfast an attendant made up the bed and cleaned the cabin. Vacancier is a clean ship and she is well maintained. Her master, officers and crew are just under 100 in number and the great majority are Madelinots, as residents of the islands call themselves.
The ship measures about 12,000 gross tons and is 126 metres (413 feet) in length. She has 220 cabins and a passenger capacity of 450. If you are not fluent in French (and I am not) there’s no need to be concerned. The crew members you are in contact with speak English to a greater or lesser degree—and this also applies to most of the people will you will meet on the islands themselves.
Vacancier left Montreal punctually, emerging from the Bickerdike Basin and entering the St. Lawrence River. Although the ship serves Îles de la Madeleine year round, it is only in the busy season, June to September, that she sails from Montreal. For the rest of the year she leaves from Matane on the Gaspé Peninsula. We passed Quebec City late in the evening and the following morning (Saturday) around 6:30 the ship was at the confluence of the St. Lawrence and Saguenay rivers, where early risers were rewarded by the sight of four or five whales. For much of the downbound voyage, the ship sailed close to the southern shore of the St. Lawrence, but on this occasion rain, clouds and threatening skies reduced the visibility.
But if the weather precluded sitting out on the open decks, there were things to do inside the ship. In June and September when bookings are comparatively light, theme cruises take place. Music, health and beauty, food, nature and history are among the topics. Passengers are largely Francophones so the presentations are in French. On my voyage, the ship carried only 150 passengers, with possibly 12 to 15 whose mother tongue was English. The principal entertainers were Suroît, a versatile quartet of vocalists and instrumentalists who presented well-attended evening programmes. Suroît’s roots are in Acadian and Celtic music but in keeping with many groups to-day it had an array of high-tech equipment and its own soundman.
Cuisine aboard ships always evokes passengers’ interest. Vacancier provided three meals a day and a late evening snack while the ship was docked at Cap-aux-Meules. There are two dining venues, the restaurant for breakfast and lunch, and the dining room one deck higher for dinner each evening. Each room has windows on three sides. Breakfast is cafeteria-style, with standard dishes. The three-course lunch offered waiter service and a choice of main dishes. If asked to summarize these two meals in a single word, I would say "satisfactory." Where the ship really shone was at dinner. The dining-room tables had linen tablecloths and napkins, good-quality cutlery and chinaware, and sparkling wine glasses. And the service was skilled, pleasant and attentive. A musician played unobtrusively on a keyboard while we dined. On my first evening most diners ordered a whole lobster as the main course of the four-course dinner. The Magdalen Islands are noted for their lobster fisheries and much of the catch is exported to the United States. Fortunately my voyage was during the height of the lobster season. Between courses, I reminded myself that suggested gratuities were $10 per person per day, the sum including tips to dining room staff, cabin attendants and any other crew members who rendered personal service.
But there’s more to life aboard than entertainment and food. The lounges were pleasant and comfortable, each of the two larger ones also including a bar. To my surprise, there was a hairdressing salon. A 50-seat movie theatre screened feature movies in French with English subtitles and also documentaries about the Magdalen Islands. The exercise room is small but reasonably well equipped. A children’s playroom is next door to the Tours Office where tours for the ports of call can be booked. A shop sells souvenir items and some of the necessities that passengers tend to forget to pack. To my way of thinking, the most desirable locations were two small and narrow lounges, port and starboard, that had remarkably comfortable armchairs and sofas and provided fine views of the passing scenery—at least when the weather co-operated.
Vacancier was due to reach Cap-aux-Meules, the principal town of the islands on Sunday morning at ten o’clock. Her only stop on the downbound voyage was for half-an-hour at Chandler on the Gaspé Peninsula to load cars of residents returning to the islands.
Three days on the islands
And now for the second part of my story. Îles de la Madeleine is home to about 13,000 residents, 95 percent of whom are Francophones. A longtime resident informed me that there were also 9,000 cars and trucks on the island. Stop signs and a few traffic lights existed but he also said there were no parking meters and no paid parking lots. Among the other attributes of the Magdalens that begin with "no"I found these: No highrise buildings, no graffiti, no vandalized phone booths, no huge in-your-face roadside billboards. I was a casual visitor, of course, and I was there for only three days but in that time I toured the islands from one end to the other, a distance of about 70 kilometres (45 miles), before making these observations.
Visitors who arrive by ship have the option of staying ashore at additional cost or staying aboard between Sunday morning and Tuesday evening as part of the inclusive fare, which was my choice. This meant a continental breakfast and a late evening snack of sandwiches and cookies. For lunch and dinner there were plenty of restaurants ashore, many of which were not within walking distance of the ship but taxis were available.
Vacancier remains docked at Cap-aux-Meules from about ten on Sunday morning until nine on Tuesday evening. I had several options for my time ashore. I could have rented a car or a bicycle but I decided instead to take a different coach tour each day. As there were sufficient Anglophones who had signed up for tours I found myself aboard a coach with an English-speaking driver/guide each morning about nine, returning to the ship just after four in the afternoon.
The definition of islands is applied rather loosely in the case of the Magdalens. At one time they were islands in the conventional sense but over the passage of time six of them have become linked by long, narrow sand dunes. Physically, the islands are sometimes flat and sometimes hilly. There are a number of beaches, some stretching for several hundred metres, with the finest of powdered sand. The downside is that although the beaches are inviting, the islands are noted for ever-present winds, which have a strong influence on the climate. Really hot days are rare and the waters of the gulf are not warm enough to encourage swimming until late summer. Still, water-sports enthusiasts can try their hand at kayaking.
For many years, the economy of the Magdalen Islands was based on fishing, but in recent years tourism has grown in importance. Although the islands are not on the radar of most Canadian travellers, at least in Quebec an awareness of their attractions exists. Artisans and artists have taken up residence and on my tours I visited several. The tours also included visits to churches of architectural and historic interest, beaches with soft sandstone cliffs and a maritime museum. We spent some time at two small harbours where fishing boats came and went. Lobsters were the big catch and an obliging fisherman held up the largest one so that I could take its picture.
The islands are home to a number of small establishments that produce food and drink in various forms. For me, pride of place goes to the artisanal cheese producer Pied-de-Vent. The cheese is made in a building on one side of the road, while the cows in the field across the road chew contentedly until milking time arrives, when a farm hand steps onto the road to hold up traffic until the cows have crossed and made their way to the barn. Visitors can watch the cheese being produced and try the free samples. I bought several varieties, including the outstanding Tomme des Demoiselles, and after I tasted them back in Toronto I wish I had bought more. Incidentally, Pied-de-Vent, aware of the proper way to handle cheese, delivers purchases to the ship, where it is kept under refrigeration until Friday morning when passengers collect the packages from the Purser’s office just before they disembark.
But cheese is far from being the only edible or potable product of the islands. A micro-brewery uses local grain to produce several varieties of beer. A winery makes variations of home-brewed wines flavoured with cranberries, dandelions and strawberries. Down at La Grave near the southern end of the islands, a chocolatier sells top-quality confections that are every bit as good as those sold in high-end shops in Toronto—and at a third less the price. One tour included a stop at a herbarium, where an employee pounded away with a pestle on some small leaves while the owner sold combinations of mixed herbs and aromatic oils that would draw out the flavour of fish, fowl and meat. A smokehouse was busily making kippers over a smouldering fire of maple logs.
But not everything on these tours was food related. We visited studios and shops where some people specialized in glass blowing, others in painting, sculpture, handicrafts or jewellery. In my opinion, it would be difficult for a visitor to leave the islands without buying something either for personal use or as a gift.
The upbound voyage
And on Tuesday evening Vacancier left Cap-aux-Meules just after nine o’clock. The upbound voyage was not an anti-climax by any means. There were two stops, the small town of Chandler on the Gaspé Peninsula for six hours on Wednesday morning and Quebec City, also for six hours, on Thursday afternoon. I skipped the Gaspé tours, mostly because I knew the ship would pass later in the day close enough to Percé Rock and Bonaventure Island for a photo opportunity. That this occurred on a sunny day was simply a bonus.
We had fewer passengers on the upbound leg of the voyage but we still had the same entertainers and their evening performances remained popular. For the return trip, Vacancier kept close to the scenic northern shore of the Lower St. Lawrence. The fine weather of the previous day held up, not too cold on the open decks and sunny all day long. Towns, villages, church spires, hills, forests and fields—we saw the region at its inviting best. And again—but only for those early risers—whales appeared as if on cue where the Saguenay met the St. Lawrence.
Much has been said and written about Quebec City and the centre of the city richly deserves its description as the most European city in North America, at least in its appearance. Vacancier docked within easy walking distance of the historic Lower Town with its mixture of historic sites, art galleries, antique shops and restaurants. It was only after I returned to the ship that I realized I had not found time to visit Chateau Frontenac or strolled along the Dufferin Terrace. So be it.
Much of the stretch between Quebec City and Montreal took place during the night, just as it did downbound. A pity but it’s all a matter of scheduling.
One of the attractions of taking a voyage that is exclusively in Canadian waters is the absence of time-consuming and frequently irritating security checks. Body scans by the Border Security Agency? X-rays of suitcases and hand luggage? Customs and Immigration? No, not on this kind of trip. Thus, when Vacancier reached Montreal disembarking after breakfast was simple and uncomplicated. And a small bus conveyed groups of passengers to a corner of the parking lot where I claimed my suitcase then took a taxi to Central Station for a trip back to Toronto by Via Rail.
I made all my arrangements through John Lang of The Cruise People, Ltd., Toronto, for the flight by Porter Airlines from Toronto to Montreal, the seven-day voyage to and from Îles de la Madeleine, and the rail trip from Montreal to Toronto. Everything fell neatly into place, just as I had expected from previous experience.
For information in French and English about the ship Vacancier and other vessels in the company’s fleet, visit CTMA’s website www.cruisesctma.ca.
To learn more about Îles de la Madeleine visit www.tourismeilesdelamadeleine.com.
Tourisme Quebec’s website is www.bonjourquebec.com. It publishes a free 160-page guidebook, available in both English and French, titled Îles de la Madeleine 2012-2013. Its text, maps, photos and advertisements made it, at least to me, indispensable.
There is more than one way to reach the islands. CTMA operates a daytime service from Souris, Prince Edward Island, to Cap-aux-Meules using the ferry Madeleine, which carries automobiles as well as passengers. It is a year-round service, once or twice a day in mid-summer, twice a week in mid-winter.
Îles de la Madeleine can be reached by air from Montreal, Quebec City and Gaspé. Some flights require a change of planes, some include one or more stops.