Suddenly, the little Dash 8 I'm aboard is being thrown around like a thong in a drier. Must be the tail end of hurricane Ike. My fellow passengers nervously strangle their armrests. Silence reigns. Only the flight attendant remains calm. I search her eyes for signs of well-disguised terror. There are none.
Miraculously, we flatten out for a flawless landing.
Iles de la Madeleine (the Magdalen Islands) is a remote, magical, archipelago of a dozen islands near the mouth of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, northeast of Prince Edward Island.
Six are joined by an umbilical cord of paved roads perched precariously on narrow sand dunes. Dune du Nord, Dune du Sud, Dune de l'Ouest . . . perhaps the use of such unromantic names reflects the temporary nature with which they are viewed? The whipping winds and unrelenting tides threaten to erode them out of existence.
Shaped curiously like a barbed fish hook and stretching 80 kilometres end to end, these low-lying islands have lured more than 500 unfortunate ships to an early grave. Wrecks have been recycled into colourful, seaweed-insulated homes by the first white settlers -- Acadians fleeing forced expulsion in 1755 during Le Grand Derangement.
I am soon to discover why 53,000 tourists visit here annually. The daily ferry from P.E.I. takes five hours to travel 134 km. A weekly "cruise ship" brings passengers from Montreal via Gaspe. Of course you can always fly.
"There's a traffic jam on the highway," apologizes the car-rental lady.
"Good grief! In a place like this I expected to be the only car on the road," I said. Finding Hertz at the tiny airport seems incongruous enough.
I carefully open the door of my Hyundai Kia to avoid being flattened by the wind. This is not a good place for fancy hairdos or umbrellas.
I drive south, leaving Ile Du Havre Aux Maisons. Little houses are plonked haphazardly along the hillside. Purple. Orange. Turquoise. Bilious green. Madelinots love wild colours. Long lines of lobster traps are neatly stacked in gardens, along the roadside, up lanes and across fields. Some 325 lobster fishermen will spend the winter readying 97,500 traps for spring.
The bridge is under repair. A traffic controller has one hand clenched around her stop/go sign, while keeping the other firmly planted on her hard hat to avoid liftoff.
Curiously, the waves on my left are pounding the shores in a wind-driven rage, while the lagoon to my right can only muster a ripple.
I head through the largest island, Ile du Cap Aux Merles. There must have been a few mutterings when a modest Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall was built cheekily under the shadow of the vast Catholic Church of Saint Andre. But with 13,000 full-time residents on the islands there is room enough for all faiths.
The road opens up past a row of holiday cottages.
Plage de La Martinique combined with Plage du Cap runs a cool eight kilometres, and it becomes obvious why windsurfers and kitesurfers flock here in droves.
The inner lagoon is mirror flat, lying just below the reach of the howling gale slamming the beach on the other side of the dune. Yet it is just the right height to allow a flotilla of windsurfers and kite surfers to experience the wind without the waves. A perfect combo.
To stand still is to starve on these islands -- unless you are a rich lobsterman or a snow crabber. An entrepreneurial spirit is mandatory.
Madelinots pull together. Lamps, made entirely from sand mixed with acrylic by the Artisans du Sable at La Grave, can be found in restaurants and inns.
Wondrous raw-milk cheeses from the Pied-de-Vent cheese factory (courtesy of 55 contented cows just up the hill a piece), are on every menu. Exquisite glassware, from the blowers and shapers at Verriere La Meduse, is sold in boutiques around the islands.
Why would you go? To read that novel on a deserted beach that stretches as far as the eye can see. To hike or bike the miles of trails. To be spoiled rotten by the island's chefs at Denis a Francois or the Domaine du Vieux Couvent -- a converted stone convent.
Maybe to sing a song or dance up a storm at Cafe Le Grave or Pas Perdu on a Thursday night.
Perhaps, to meet English-speaking descendants of Scottish families who were once washed up on these shores and now live in enclaves in Ile D'Entree, Old Harry or Grosse Ile. You will find them on streets named Red Head or Post Office or Goodwin.
A honeymoon? An amour to forget, or one to entice? The invigorating air, wind and sheer bleak beauty of these islands will gladden your heart and cleanse your soul.
-- Canwest News Service
If you go
By air: Air Canada Jazz (www.aircanada.com) and Pascan Aviation (www.pascan.com) fly from Quebec City and Montreal.
By ferry: A daily ferry (seasonal) runs from Souris, P. E. I. Check www.ctma.ca for departures.
Ile Du Havre Aubert (South): Auberge Chez Denis a Francois: comfortable, reasonable, great kitchen; www.quebecmaritime.ca/denisafrancois
Ile Du Havre Au Maison (Centre): La Butte Ronde: immaculate, reasonable; www.quebecmaritime.ca/butteronde
Domaine du Vieux Couvent: Converted stone convent, four-star with great food, smart dining; room www.domaineduvieuxcouvent.com/
Ile De La Grande Entree (North): Auberge La Salicorne: great value, all-inclusive home cooking, non-profit, full range of activities; www.quebecmaritime.ca/salicorne
Useful guidebook and website
-- www.quebecmaritime.ca/idm -- Pick up an excellent guidebook at the airport or tourist office.