I grope for my chirping phone, reaching out from under the warm quilt into the black night. It’s 2:45am, and in the pre-dawn chill — it’s late May but barely above freezing — our group of seven guests at the Auberge La Salicorne is venturing down to the wharf at Grand Entrée to watch the local lobstermen prepare for their day at sea.
The nine-week lobster fishing season had started a week earlier on the Îles de la Madeleine, a remote cluster of Canadian islands where the Gulf of Saint Lawrence meets the Atlantic Ocean. Known in English as the Magdalen Islands, these predominantly Francophone specks of land, with a year-round population of about 12,000, are closer to Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia than to mainland Quebec. Fishing and tourism drive the islands’ economy.
Auberge La Salicorne is not just an inn. Overlooking the water, the auberge offers a variety of excursions and activities that introduce visitors to the islands and their inhabitants, whether paddling a kayak or voyageur canoe, exploring one of the 185 miles (300 kilometers) of beaches, photographing the dramatic red sandstone cliffs, or heading for the wharf for a middle-of-the-night lobster education.
We meet our guide from the auberge, Lucie Longuépée, at Grande Échouerie (Old-Harry) Beach, a short drive from the inn. The clouds seem to meet the sea over this more-than-five-mile (8.5-kilometer) span of sand.
At one end of the beach, red cliffs drop sharply into the water. The cliffs change constantly, Lucie tells us, as the sea carves and shapes their soft sand. They look solid, but they crumble to the touch, and she cautions us to stay far from the edge. One false step could plunge you into the ocean below.
Our next stop is Grand Entrée wharf, the islands’ largest fishing port, home base for about 125 fisherman. While the wharf is quiet in the late afternoon, Lucie spots one boat that’s still unloading its catch and hurries us over to take a look.
Their catch is snow crab, a crustacean with spider-like legs, native to the North Atlantic. The Magdalen Islands, we learn, ship most of their snow crabs to Asia, where they’re a highly prized delicacy.
Back at the Auberge, we learn more about the islands’ wildlife at the on-site Seal Interpretation Centre. Four species of seal — grey, harbor, harp, and hooded seals — live around the Magdalen Islands. Islanders have historically hunted seals for their skins, oil, and meat. You can still sample seal meat in the region (as we learn later in the week when we try seal poutine).
We also learn the French words for seal: loup-marin (literally, “sea wolf”) or phoque. We Anglophones quickly decide that using the latter term will get us into trouble, as we discover its similarity in pronunciation to the English “F-bomb.”
Before dinner, we briefly settle into our rooms. The inn’s 26 country-style guest rooms are basic, with warm duvets and rustic wood furnishings that a local cabinetmaker constructed. On the second floor, the nicest units have views to the water. Bathrooms have been updated, and the inn provides Wi-Fi for guests.
Rates at Auberge La Salicorne start at CAD$405 per person for a three-night stay, including breakfast, dinner, use of the canoes and kayaks, and a variety of nature activities. The season here is short; the inn is typically open to guests only from June through September. You may want to check rates on Travelocity or Expedia as well.
Served in the window-lined dining room that overlooks the water, meals at the auberge are simple but hearty. I enjoyed fish cakes and fresh greens for dinner and a start-your-day-right plate of eggs, bacon, toast, and fruit the next morning.
While the rooms are comfortable and the food is good, the real reason to stay at Auberge La Salicorne is for its activities and excursions, including our pre-dawn visit to the wharf.
At 3:30am, we watch as the lobster boats stream out of the harbor, each lit with an almost blinding floodlight angled over the bow. Some wave and toot their horns as they motor past. Others holler, “Go back to sleep,” shaking their heads at the crazy tourists.
By 4:30, thoroughly chilled, we take their advice. We return to the inn and fall back into our beds for just a couple of hours, until the sun comes up over the Magdalen Islands, and it’s time for another day of adventures on these islands by the sea.
Hotel feature by Vancouver-based travel, food, and feature writer Carolyn B. Heller. Photos © Carolyn B. Heller. My stay at Auberge La Salicorne was part of a tour of the Magdalen Islands organized by Québec Maritime and Tourisme Québec.