Winters are brutal here, way out in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Ice fastens the Madelinot islanders in place for more than half a year and snaps tenuous links with Prince Edward Island and the mainland almost 100 miles away. There are few outsiders around in the bitter months. But as spring surges into summer they come once again looking for the special loneliness and seclusion of the Iles de la Madeleine, the ancient tales and traditions kept alive by a proud Acadian-French population, the brimming pot-en-pot seafood casseroles and the shimmering sheen of silence over the marshes and sands of Ile de l'Est.
Even in midsummer you can sit on the crest of a dune halfway along the road to Grosse Ile and look out over 20 miles of broad empty beaches. Breezes with a tang of lobster-broth blow through the marram grass, and cormorants skim the waves like fast shadows. In the far distance tiny white cottages are scattered daisy-fashion across the green hills of Grindstone Island (Ile du Cap aux Meules); the Lagune de la Grande-Entre'e is a sheet of silver reflecting fishing boats, canneries and herring smokehouses along the waterfront of Grande-Entre'e village.
A county of Quebec, the 13 islands of the archipelago all have French names; but many of them are better known by their English names, and the island group is commonly called the Magdalens. Each of the seven inhabited islands of the main archipelago, all linked by thin tendrils of dunes and causeways, has its little mountains, the last writhings of America's great Appalachian system. Young fir forests cover much of Grindstone and Amherst (Ile du Havre Aubert) islands; the others are virtually treeless and reminiscent of the Scottish Hebrides. Many of the tiny cottage homes are charmingly Victorian, graced by high-pitched gables and "carpenter-gothic" trim.
With the exception of two small clusters of English-speaking families at Grosse Ile and tiny Entry Island (Ile d'Entre'e) out in Pleasant Bay, the majority of the 14,000 Madelinots are of Acadian descent and still maintain a fierce loyalty to their sad history, so movingly captured in Longfellow's "Evangeline."
Prior to the American Revolution, French settlers, mainly from Brittany and Normandy, flourished as farmers and fishermen in the colony of Acadia, formed from a portion of Nova Scotia in the late 17th century. As colonial friction increased between France and England, the presence of a substantial French-speaking minority in the colony was considered dangerous, and Acadians who refused to swear oaths of allegiance were forcibly deported in the "Grand De'angement" of 1755. Families were splintered; some fled south to the lower colonies in Virginia and Carolina and, most notably, to the bayous of Louisiana, where they rekindled their distinctive Cajun culture. A few settled in the Magdalen Islands, only to be scattered again or subjected to feudal control by new English landowners during the late 18th century. It was not until 1895 that Acadian Madelinots were finally allowed to purchase land and build an independent economy on the islands, free of colonial domination.
As part of the province of Quebec, most islanders enthusiastically retain their French heritage. And while lacking some of the duty-free extravagances of the tiny islands of St.-Pierre and Miquelon 240 miles to the east (a tiny outpost of France off the southern coast of Newfoundland), they live and eat well on the ocean's bounties. Lobsters, scallops, herring, cod, mackerel and crabs are all found abundantly in nearby waters, and the fishing villages of Etang-du-Nord, Havre-Aubert and Grande-Entre'e are bright with gaudy boats and redolent with the aroma of herring smokehouse canneries (usually open to the public during the summer).
There is an enticing array of French restaurants, and all the island restaurants offer seafood in all guises. But perhaps an even better idea is to forget formal meals and concentrate on island snacks -- thin strips of pungent smoked herring washed down with beer; slices of rich pate' de la campagne available in local stores, with a $3 bottle of strong French cider; lobster rolls bursting with cold cooked lobster meat; fresh clams and mussels; a score of different fish chowders and bisques; or slices of Acadian meat pie made with strips of pork and beef between crisp pastry crusts.
Then come the quiet explorations of these sea-wrapped islets. The archipelago is less than 50 miles from end to end, so everything is easily accessible: Rte. 199 runs along the dunes, linking the inhabited islands. Cap-aux-Meules on Grindstone Island is the islands' main port, and the docking point for the ferry from Souris, on Prince Edward Island. You can rent a car -- or, better still, a bike -- in Cap-aux-Meules, and head out to explore.
Grindstone, the largest of the islands, is the centerpiece of the archipelago. Drive, bike or walk up Butte du Vent, in the center of the island, for an overview of the whole archipelago. Travel past the Fatima coastline with its long, inviting beaches to the Plage de la Pointe de l'Est, the Magdalens' northern tip. Recently declared a National Wildlife Area, it is famous for its unspoiled marine environment. Migratory birds pause here by the tens of thousands during the fall, and you can lose yourself for a day on the wriggling paths between the dunes. No vehicles penetrate the wilderness; the world belongs to you.
That's part of the magic of the Magdalens. During the summer, hundreds of adventure-starved travelers are quickly absorbed. You can walk the sand-ribbons between the islands and claim miles of beach as your own. The great North Dune between Gross Ile and Grindstone Island is more than 23 miles long, and the even more isolated West Dune, while a mere eight miles long, is one of the loneliest walks you'll ever experience -- just the sand, the sea and long, long silences.
South of Butte du Vent is Amherst Island, with its seaport at Havre-Aubert dominated by a fish processing plant, smokehouses and dozens of fishing boats. There's a maritime museum here, with information on the island's history. Museum Director Frederic Landry -- who is also a priest, boat captain, radio celebrity, historian and author of several island guidebooks -- is a fascinating source of island lore. Spend an afternoon browsing through its restored cottages, craft shops, smokehouse and cannery. Then adjourn to the Cafe' de la Grave in an old general store (across the road from the museum) for a bowl of homemade cream of celery soup, occasionally served to the accompaniment of a Mozart piano recital by one of the waitresses.
There's one place in the islands that many visitors overlook. Tiny Entry Island out in Pleasant Bay is home for a handful of families descended from Scottish settlers and stranded victims of vessels that foundered by the hundreds on the sandbars and shoals of the Magdalens. It's only accessible by boat -- the only inhabited island not linked by land to the archipelago.
The islanders here speak a curious kind of dialect tinged with Scottish phrases. Their houses seem even smaller and cozier than the ones on the main islands, and while friendly to newcomers, they obviously relish their semi-isolation on the green slopes of the island's 559-foot peak, the highest spot in the archipelago. Paths leading to the eastern side of the island end in abrupt red cliffs laced with caves and covered with cormorants. The "village" side consists of a gently tilting plateau leading down to a tight rocky harbor.
Because of the exposed location of the islands and the absence of trees, the wind here is a notable shaper of island character. The strips of dunes are constantly changing form and size after winter storms; the tall red sandstone cliffs, particularly at Etang-du-Nord and Old-Harry, have been holed, chiseled and smoothed by the ferocious pounding of wind-whipped surf. Many of the cottages have little "wind-porches" protecting the front door, and even the impressive new Catholic churches at Fatima and La Vernie`re have been streamlined to reduce wind-impact on their broad roof-spans. During the long winters the winds become truly ferocious, blowing snow into 20-foot-high drifts in places and freezing the ocean in Pleasant Bay to such thickness that islanders make skiddoo trips across the ice to Entry Island, more than 12 miles from Cap-aux-Meules.
Scattered randomly about the islands, you'll see the unusual Magdalen baraques used for hay storage -- another structure that has been adapted for the environment. The challenge was to design a structure that required little wood, was flexible in height, gave easy access and good ventilation to the hay, and had a roof for protection and to hold the hay in place during occasionally fierce storms. The resultant semi-open box with a vertically mobile pitched roof is a brilliant piece of folk-engineering and an admirable photographic subject.
Equally innovative but rather more technical in nature are the experiments at the Hydro Quebec Center on Alright Island. Elegant metal forms rising high above the dunes are used for testing the potentials of wind power as a practical energy source (guided tours during the summer from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.).
Prior to regular air and sea ferries, the Magdalens were notoriously isolated during the cold months. In the particularly vicious winter of 1910 the islanders felt so marooned on their tiny bastion of frozen sand and sea that they protested to the world by filling a wooden barrel with complaints to government officials, equipped it with sail and rudder and set it adrift in the open waters of the gulf. Four weeks later the famous "ponchon" bumped ashore on Cape Breton Island and created such public outcry that the embarrassed government in Ottawa dispatched special ice-breaker supply ships and wireless communication equipment in an unprecedented burst of efficiency.
Even today's regular links with the outside world have left much of the island way of life untouched. Homes are still modestly furnished; the Acadian-French population enjoys its own island folk music and traditions, and sees little need to learn English; baraques are still regarded as the best way of storing hay, and Aucoin, Leblanc, Gaudet, Poirier and Decoste remain the most familiar names on Amherst and Grindstone islands.
The 700 Scottish descendants around Grosse Ile are equally nationalistic. They hold down their hay in Hebridean fashion with rock-weighted nets, worship at their tiny New England-styled Anglican chapel in Old-Harry, eat fish and chips and sausage and mash at Kerry's Country Kitchen and enjoy English-language movies at the tiny Strand cinema on the edge of a small lagoon near the new salt mine.
The Magdalens are not for the heavy-action tourist anxious to plan vacation days as tightly as office schedules. The pleasure comes from the silences, the long dune walks, the languorous seafood dinners in cozy guest houses and restaurants. The Madelinots have enjoyed more than two centuries of simple living and proud independence, and it will take far more than a few summer tourists to change all that. David Yeadon, author of "New York's Nooks and Crannies" and "New York: The Best Places," is writing and illustrating his 15th travel book, "Wild Places -- A Journey Around the Earth."