One of Canada’s best kept secrets is a wind-swept archipelago of islands that forms the shape of a hook. Nestled in the heart of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, it’s one of those places that looks like specks of dust on the map but is where adventure, heart-warming hospitality, proud heritage, seafood delights, and culinary surprises awaits.
It’s called the Magdalen Islands.
While locals that are in-the-know visit in the summer, the colder months are a magical time of the year where fluffy snow, perfect light, cute wildlife, and intertwine. This is your guide to the best things to do in the Magdalen Islands in the winter time. Before we’re done, you’re going to start planning your trip here because it’s easier than you think!
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Here's what we're covering:
- Best Things To Do In The Magdalen Islands In The Winter
- 1. Baby Harp Seal Observation
- 2. Visit the Lighthouses
- 3. Craft Beers At À l’Abri De La Tempête
- 4. Look For Red Foxes In The Snow
- 5. Crafts From The Sea
- 6. Drive Island To Island
- 7. Savour Local Delicacies
- 8. A New Kind Of Winter Adrenaline
- 9. Winter Photography Expedition
- 10. Eat To Your Heart’s Content
- 11. Learn The Importance Of Seals
- Map of Magdalen Islands in the Winter Locations
- Magdalen Islands Travel Guide
- Frequently Asked Questions
About The Magdalen Islands
First and foremost, the Magdalen Islands is part of the Province of Quebec and belongs to a region called Quebec maritime. That said, if you look at the map, the archipelago is closer to Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland than it is to the Gaspé peninsula of Quebec.
While we’ll be referring to the islands as the Magdalen Islands, the French name is Îles de la Madeleine or simply Les Îles. For the purposes of this guide, we’ll use its English name for consistency.
This is an archipelago of 8 major islands, 6 of which are connected together by sand dunes. The Magdelen Islnads is blessed with sweeping crescent beaches, soaring red-cliffs, rolling green hills, and colourful palette of houses.
Long before explorers like Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain came, the indigenous Mi’kmaq Nation lived here where they named the island “Menagoesenog” which means “islands swept by turf”.
The history of the islands is fascinating. It’s a tale of French-speaking Acadians coming to the island to hunt for walruses, survivors of at least 400 shipwrecks around the islands, and the back and forth ownership between the British colony in Newfoundland to being finally becoming part of Quebec in 1774.
Today, you’ll find 13,000 or so inhabitants on the islands, also called Madelinots.
The local community are a seafaring community that are renowned for their hospitality, and proud of their Acadian heritage.
Best Things To Do In The Magdalen Islands In The Winter
While popular and packed to the brim in the summer, winter in the Magdalen Islands is not to be missed. For those that are adventurous enough to brave the cold, there are a bounty of treasures to be uncovered in the snow and ice.
In the guide below, we’ll cover our favourites from our recent trip to the islands. Without further ado, here are the best things to do in the Magdalen Islands in the winter.
1. Baby Harp Seal Observation
Fluffy white, delicate whiskers, wide eyed, and simply cuteness overload, did you know that the Magdalen Islands is the only place in the world where you have a chance to get right up to baby harp seals?
Every year, harp seals swim to this region of the Gulf of St. Lawrence to give birth to their pups on stable platforms of ice called ice floes.
Château Madelinot offers once-in-a-lifetime expeditions to observe the harp seals where you are flown onto an ice floe by helicopter and you can see pups being taken care of by their mothers, you can get as close as nose-to-nose with them, and take as many photos as your memory card can handle.
National Geographic recently named the Château Madelinot Harp Seal Expedition to 25 of the best trips to take in 2020 for not only how captivating the baby seals are but also in how quickly global warming is making this part of the lifecycle so challenging.
The ice is becoming less and less predictable and ice floes that are thick enough to allow helicopters to land on has meant that the past two years (2021 and 2022) seasons have been cancelled.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Château Madelinot are the ones that also run this expedition. This is the same hotel that we stayed at for our trip where we did a full review of (coming soon).
Address: 323 QC-199, Fatima, QC G4T 2H6
Dates: The seal pups are born in the last week of February to early March. In years past, it’s been roughly between February 25 – March 8.
Cost: There are two packages available – all-inclusive and breakfast-only. To give you an idea, for 4 nights and double occupancy, it’s $5,100+ per person for the all-inclusive option, and $2,500+ per person for the breakfast-only option. Each package only includes 1 helicopter excursion. Additional flights are extra and prices are in CAD.
- Get on the mailing list by reaching out to [email protected] to register your interest.
- A minimum of 4 nights is recommended.
- The seal pups grow quickly and so if you’re looking to see the stages of growth that range from just-born yellow fur to small and fluffy white, come earlier in the season. If you’d like to see them when they’re plump and ready for their first swim, come later in the season.
- The expedition provides special Mustang suits that double as flotation devices so you don’t need to bring special jackets for being on the ice but it’s recommended that you have your own pair of boots and gloves.
- The technical team makes decision 2 weeks prior to the season on whether the expedition can proceed or not. If the ice conditions aren’t favourable, they will cancel the season.
2. Visit the Lighthouses
There are a total of 6 lighthouses in the Magdalen Islands but only 3 are on the main connected islands. Each of them are situated on different parts of the archipelago and are well-worth a visit.
To the east is the Cap Alright Lighthouse, located on on the island of Havre aux Maisons. Now a privately-owned lighthouse, it was built in 1928 and the last one built on the archipelago. It stands at 8.3 metres high and near the edge of the red rock cliff that stretches out to the sea.
To the west is the Borgot Lighthouse on the Cap aux Meules Island. Sitting atop of a hill at 11.5 metres, the circular towered lighthouse has great sight lines to dramatic cliff coastline that leads to Belle-Anse, a popular destination on the summer.
Lastly, there’s the Anse-à-la-Cabane Lighthouse on Havre-Aubert Island. This is in fact the oldest lighthouse that is still in service. Looking south and standing at 17.1 metres, this is a unique hexagonal structure that is likely the last of its type in the country.
In the winter, the white lighthouses with their vibrant red tops standing as sentinels amongst the blanket of snow are a favourite capture for photographers.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Cap Alright Lighthouse
- Address: Havre-aux-Maisons, QC G4T 5J6
- Alternative names: Phare du Cap-Alright, Cape Alright Lighthouse, Île-du-Havre-aux-Maisons Lighthouse, L’Échouerie Lighthouse
- Address: L’Étang-du-Nord, QC G4T 0J2
- Alternative names: Phare du Borgot, Cap-aux-Meules Lighthouse, Cap Hérissé Lighthouse, L’Étang-du-Nord Lighthouse
- Address: Chem. du Phare, Bassin, QC G4T 0J2
- Alternative names: Phare de l’Anse-a-la-Cabane, Amherst Island Lighthouse, Havre Aubert Island Lighthouse, Millerand Lighthouse
- No admission required.
- Each lighthouse has a parking lot nearby.
- In the winter, beware of the cliff edges. Stick to the viewing platforms and try to stay behind the fences. They are there for a reason.
- The Cap Alright Lighthouse is on private property so please be respectful.
3. Craft Beers At À l’Abri De La Tempête
While things certainly do slow down in the Magdalen Islands in the winter, somewhere that continues to be incredibly popular is the local watering hole, À l’Abri de la Tempête.
Come here Tuesday and Friday and you’ll find their character-filled brewpub buzzing with conversation as local Madelinots gather and catch up.
Don’t let the size of the islands fool you. This microbrewery is constantly innovating with their classic and limited-edition bottles, drawing on local ingredients of the island such as malted barley, sea salts, locally grown herbs and flowers, and even smoked malt that comes from the Fumoir d’Antan smokehouse.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Address: 286 Chem. Coulombe, L’Étang-du-Nord, QC G4T 3V5
Hours: In the winter, their hours are 4PM-10PM on Tuesday and Friday only.
Parking: There’s plenty of parking at the brewery.
Website: À l’Abri de la Tempête
- Since they are on more limited hours, it’s recommended that you go early. They don’t take reservations.
- They have a vast selection of beers on tap. If you’re not sure what to order, get their flight which includes their Cale Seche, Fleur d’Eau, Grave du Café, Trans IPA, and Saint Crème.
- The brewery is adjacent to Corfu Island Beach, a great spot to watch the sunset.
- In the winter, they don’t have an extensive food menu. When we were there, they only had a chip dip available.
4. Look For Red Foxes In The Snow
Baby harp seals aren’t the only stars of the show on the islands. Indigenous to the island are only a few land mammals and one of them is the red fox.
It’s quite the spectacle to see these red foxes in their natural habitat. In the winter, you’ll see their red fur, fluffy white-tipped tail, and pointed ears against the white tundra backdrop.
The best time to find them is at sunrise or sunset when they’re out hunting for their next meal.
The thing is, there’s no fixed location where you can spot red foxes on Magdalen Islands. This is when you need to lean on the locals to tell you where they’ve seen them recently. The good news is that Madelinots are extremely friendly, so just ask!
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Hours: Sunrise between 6-7AM or sunset between 5-6PM.
- We were lucky enough to spot them on the hill on the road that leads from Highway 199 to Fromagerie Pied-du-Vent. Speak to the staff at the store to see if they’ve spotted them when you go.
- There’s also intel that they will nest somewhere around the dunes of Pointe-aux-Loups.
- As close as the above photo looks, the red fox is actually quite far away. If you’re a photographer, you’ll want to bring a super telephoto lens that can reach 800mm or more.
- Foxes can get close but they will generally stay away from humans so you don’t need to be worried that they’ll attack.
5. Crafts From The Sea
The Magdalen Islands is full of surprises. Where sand meets the sea on the southern island of Havre Aubert is a one-of-a-kind studio, Atelier Côtier.
Pauline and her talented team of artisans have transformed her family business of creating sand sculptures to now incorporating other materials and forms of art, graphic, and industrial design. Their passion for capturing the spirit of the islands comes through every piece you can find in their workshop.
It’s more than just a workshop though. It’s a gallery, boutique, science centre, and playground all wrapped in one.
You can spend hours jumping from the mini sand playground for the kids, interactive sand installations, collections of sand from all over the world, exhibition to learn about the grains of sand, and impressive sand art.
Beyond the world of sand, you’ll also be surrounded by waves of creativity with hand-made products that range from screen-printed shirts, beautiful illustrations, jewelry, and one-of-a-kind decor.
Atelier Côtier is a sandbox of creation that can’t be missed.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Address: 907 Chem. de la Grave, Havre-Aubert, QC G4T 9C8
Hours: 12-5PM from Monday – Friday. They are closed on the weekend.
Parking: There’s plenty of parking by the shop on both sides of the highway.
Website: Atelier Côtier
- Make sure to spend the time to explore the shop including all of the informative displays on sand.
- The staff is friendly so if you have any questions, make sure to ask and they will be more than willing to show you around.
- 1% of their sales goes to Islands Conservation Society which is just one of the ways they operate as a sustainable business.
6. Drive Island To Island
The Magdalen Islands aren’t the kind of destination where you stay put in one place. It’s meant to be explored!
If you’ll remember, Magdalen Islands consists of 6 main islands that are connected together by sand dunes (and now bridges). After you land at the airport, we highly recommend that you rent a car and spend your time here exploring each island. There’s no wrong way to go about it and there isn’t a specific loop that you should do.
Each varies in size, topography, coastline composition, and language as we learned from the locals. Everyone speaks French on the islands but the accent is slightly different. It’s fascinating to know that each island developed in its own way because they weren’t always connected.
Our favourite stretch of road is the long thin strip between Pointe-aux-Loups and Gross-Île-Nord where you’re flanked by dunes on both sides.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
- Highway 199 is the main road that connects all of the islands together. This is an easy road to drive and well-maintained.
- It takes just a tad over an hour to get from the southern island of Havre-Aubert to complete opposite end at Grande-Entrée so it is a bigger archipelago than you might think so plan accordingly.
- We rented from the car rental company Agence de Location des Îles at the airport. The other company that has a booth there is Leblanc Location d’Autos.
7. Savour Local Delicacies
Beer isn’t the only thing that’s produced on the islands. This next top thing to do in the Magdalen Islands in the winter is actually clustered close to each other. Each business offers mouthwatering delicacies that are exclusive to the islands.
The first is Les Cultures du Large where you’ll step into the world of mariculture and the technique of offshore marine farming. For their oysters, they bring them from Bouctouche, New Brunswick and drop them into the open sea in special plastic cages. It’s the consistently cold temperatures and salt water that allow them to become even juicier, crisp, and plump. They also farm mussels, and catch lobster.
Start your visit with a walk through the hyper-interactive museum that explains more about this unique method of production by putting on the VR glasses to see what it’s like on the fishing vessels, captain a ship out to sea, and peer behind the glass of the packaging facility.
Follow this up with a tasting of the seafood they catch. It’s simply the price of the oyster plus $0.50 each. We highly recommend that you try their oysters especially if you aren’t planning on eating at Les Pas Perdu.
Right across the street is Le Fumoir d’Antan. The artisanal process of smoked herring is a bit of a lost art, similar to the salmon canning and herring reduction plant we visited in Richmond, BC. Unlike the cannery, this family run business maintains its traditional process of suspending herring in large smokehouses over open pit fires for 3 months to this day.
We weren’t sure if we would like smoked herring but resembling beef jerky with its deep smoky flavour, this makes a great snack, is a perfect pairing with wine and cheese, or as a topping for salad or fried rice.
This next stop could just as well be lifted from the Oxford County Cheese Trail but is unlike what you’ll find in Ontario because of their single dairy herd of Canadienne cows and what they eat in the Magdalen Islands. Fromagerie du Pied-De-Vent is a cheese maker that is named after the sun’s rays piercing through clouds and you’ll find their cheeses served in many of the islands’ restaurants.
Their signature cheese is called Pied-De-Vent, a handcrafted semi-soft surface-ripened cheese that carries hazelnut and mushroom flavour that is accompanied by a rich aroma.
The shop also has an informative interpretation centre where you can watch a video about how the cheese is made, a gift shop featuring local artists, and large glass windows that allow you to watch the cheese being created at different stages.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Cultures du Large
- Address: 26 Chem. du Quai, Havre-aux-Maisons, QC G4T 5M1
- Hours: Monday to Friday 9AM – 5PM in the winter
- Price: Interpretation centre is $10 for adults and free for children.
- Website: Les Cultures du Large
- Tips: Their Maritime excursions are typically for the summer but it doesn’t hurt to ask whether they’d be willing to head out when you’re there.
Le Fumoir d’Antan
- Address: 27 Chem. du Quai, Havre-aux-Maisons, QC G4T 5M1
- Hours: Monday – Friday 9AM – 5PM
- Website: Fumoir d’Antan
- They don’t do guided tours in the winter but you’ll be able to visit the shop and buy their products. Don’t be shy and ask for samples of their famed smoked herring and other freshly smoked fish.
- They have a short video you can watch and a model of the smokehouse you can check out.
Fromagerie du Pied-De-Vent
- Address: 149 Chem. de la Pointe Basse, Havre-aux-Maisons, QC G4T 5H7
- Hours: Everyday at 11AM – 5PM in the winter
- Website: Fromagerie du Pied-De-Vent
- Tips: You’ll typically find the cheesemakers working in the morning so that is probably the best time to go.
8. A New Kind Of Winter Adrenaline
Madelinots sure know how to take advantage of the winter. Trading in their kayaks, stand up paddle boards, kites, and surf boards, you’ll see locals snowmobiling, snow kiting, and ice yachting instead.
Since the Magdalen Islands quiet down considerably in the cold months, there are only a handful of locals that can take visitors out to try these winter sports. You just need to know who to ask.
One of them is Cindy Hook Sports Aventures. She’s a local entrepreneur, passionate about outdoor activities, and ambassador of the islands who has her own café and adventure outfitter company.
While she’s best known for her stand up paddle boarding and kayaking excursions in the summer, she also plans to have a full offering of winter sports between February 15 and March 20.
- Photography tour (wildlife and winter landscapes)
- Snow kiting for beginners
- Kayak and winter SUP
- Cross-country skiing and snow shoeing
- Winter yoga retreat
In chatting with her, she’s has a huge personality and big heart. As strangers walking into the cafe, she was quite generous in her time, offering to take us to her favourite photography spots, show us where the red foxes might be, and of course the snow kiting despite it not being on the website yet.
If you’ve always wanted to try snow kiting, this is your chance!
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Address: 10 Chem. de la Pointe, Îles de la Madeleine, QC G4T
Hours: Tuesday – Wednesday 11AM – 4PM, Friday to Sunday 11AM – 5PM. The cafe is closed Thursday and Monday. That said, the hours in the winter are more variable so it’s best to call ahead of time or check their Facebook page.
Parking: There’s plenty of parking in front of the cafe.
Website: Cindy Hook
- Cindy is your go-to person for every question you might have about the outdoors so don’t by shy.
- For the winter sports, reach out to her a few weeks ahead of time through Facebook or Instagram to coordinate the activity, time, and rate.
- Snow kiting is highly dependent on the wind conditions so you’ll have to be flexible.
9. Winter Photography Expedition
For the photographers out there, not only do you have harp seals and foxes but you also have an entire archipelago at your fingertips. Capped with snow, the shore shielded by a fortress of ice, and the sky bursting with golden hues at sunrise and sunset, this is a shutterbug’s heaven.
When talking to the locals, they all say one thing – the light is perfect in the winter.
We weren’t entirely sure what that meant until we got there. The magic of the pristine and chilled air leads to the most vivid of colours. It’s pure, clear, and remarkably saturated.
It’s this particularly sweet Golden Hour and even Blue Hour combined with the stunning backdrops that makes the Magdalen Islands one of our favourite spots to photograph in the winter.
There really is something special about that Nordic light that you get here.
LOOKING FOR THE BEST PHOTOGRAPHY SPOTS?
We have put together a guide to the best places to photograph in the Magdalen Islands. With this, you’ll be able to plan your sunrises and sunsets with confidence.
10. Eat To Your Heart’s Content
One of the core things to do in the Magdalen Islands in the winter is to have a hearty meal after a full day of exploring.
While some restaurants are closed in the winter, the ones that remain open for the locals are actually the best ones.
Start with Resto Bistro Accents, the restaurant that is connected with Château Madelinot. For those staying at the hotel, not only will you be blown away by their breakfast, but you’ll also find that their gourmet menu of dishes that feature locally sourced ingredients prepared by executive chef Hugo Lefrançois are superb.
We highly recommend their refreshing salmon tartare, poutine packed with Pied-De-Vent and squeaky cheese curds, and massive braised short rib.
Another must-visit is Les Pas Perdus, a funky restaurant that delivers unpretentious bistro cuisine that also uses as many local ingredients as they can. Featuring an eclectic mix of decor from all over the world, it’s a lively restaurant that is always packed.
This restaurant features oysters from Les Cultures du Large that popped with champagne freshness so don’t miss out.
Lastly, we also highly recommend La Maisonée des Îles, a true seafood restaurant that has a rustic and maritime vibe. Incredibly popular amongst the Madelinots, your tastebuds will thank you with their platters of fruits de mer which include lobster, scallops, clams, and shrimp.
We tried their seafood linguine and butterfly prawns and our only regret was that we only had a chance to eat there once because we waned to try more.
The local gastronomy options on the islands will surprise you!
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Resto Bistro Accents
- Address: 323 QC-199, Fatima, QC G4T 2H6
- Hours: Dinner hours – Monday to Saturday 5PM – 9PM. Closed on Sunday.
- Website: Resto Bistro Accents
- Tips: Reservations are highly recommended Friday and Saturday and can be done online. Normally in the winter, they are closed for lunch unless it’s during the Seal Observation period.
Les Pas Perdus
- Address: 169 Chem. Principal, Cap-aux-Meules, QC G4T 1C4
- Hours: Wednesday – Thursday 4:30PM – 9PM, Friday – Saturday 4:30PM – 10PM
- Website: Les Pas Perdus
- Tips: Reservations are highly recommended all days of the week and can be done online.
La Maisonée des Îles
- Address: 319 QC-199, Havre-aux-Maisons, QC G4T 5A4
- Hours: Friday – Saturday 5PM – 8PM, Sunday 4:30PM – 8PM
- Tips: Since they don’t have an online booking system, you have to call them at 418-969-2525. Reservations are highly recommended since they only open Friday – Sunday.
11. Learn The Importance Of Seals
Last but not least is the Seal Interpretation Centre, which is quite controversial but we feel is important to highlight for cultural context and perspective, regardless what your opinions are about seal hunting.
First and foremost, this centre is a celebration of the Magdalen Island’s maritime heritage and how seals play an important part of that.
Every visit to this interpretation centre is guided. As you go through the two levels, you’ll learn about the different types of seals that can be found in the region, and getting a deeper understanding of their life cycle, diet, and population to name a few.
The topic of seal hunting is contentious and complicated and that’s the topic that the second part of the guided tour focuses on. Here, you learn more about the reason why it’s important to the community, how the hunt has evolved, and its impact on both humans and marine habitat.
For us, we went with an open mind and despite our beliefs, we appreciated being able to gain new perspective from a side that doesn’t often get heard.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Address: 377 QC-199, Grande-Entrée, QC G4T 7A5
Hours: Monday to Friday 9AM -12PM and 1PM – 4PM, Sunday 10AM – 12PM and 1PM – 4PM. Closed on Saturday. Closed in December and January.
Parking: There’s plenty of parking here.
Website: Seal Interpretation Centre
- Reservations are required in the winter. You can reserve by calling 418-985-2833 ext. 21.
- Go in with an open mind!
- The interpretation centre will be be expanded soon, so expect this to be even better in the future.
Map of Magdalen Islands in the Winter Locations
The below is an interactive Google Map which has points for all of the places mentioned in this article and more, making this an integral part of your trip planning process. To make it your own, simply maximize the map and make a copy on your own Google account.
Magdalen Islands Travel Guide
I’ll be honest, when we first started planning our trip to the Magdalen Islands in the winter, I discovered that there wasn’t a lot of detailed information in English so this guide is meant to fix that and provide some of the fundamental details that you’ll want to know before you go.
Why Visit In The Winter
There’s no denying the beauty of the Magdalen Islands in the summertime. This is when you get the best weather, the world-class beaches call your name, the island is abound with water sports, and the land is lush and full of life. This is also when the island is the most packed, expensive, and difficult to book.
Winter is, by its nature, the polar opposite, but there’s something magical about its winter landscape, the crisp and calm air, Golden Hour, and having the island all to yourself.
I’m not kidding – we didn’t encounter tourists anywhere we went.
It’s one of those things that’s hard to describe but once you know, you know.
Winter allows you to slow things down, connect with nature, and have the freedom to explore.
How To Get To The Magdalen Islands
There are two primary ways to get to the islands in the winter – by plane and by ferry.
The airport at Magdalen Islands is Aéroport des Iles-de-la-Madeleine and has the airport code YGR.
The Magdalen Islands is serviced by 3 carriers: PASCAN Aviation, Air Canada, and PAL Airlines. Currently, only PASCAN Aviation and PAL Airlines operate in the winter.
Both PASCAN and PAL are regional airlines that fly in Eastern Canada and operate a fleet of small twin-propeller planes. The PASCAN fleet consists of the SAAB 340, Jetstream32 and Pilatus PC12. The PAL fleet consists of Dash 8 and Beech 1900D. Between the two, PASCAN Aviation has been around longer and is who we flew with for our trip.
For the majority of visitors coming, you’ll be using Montreal or Quebec City as your connection point which both PASCAN and PAL service. If you’re flying with PASCAN, note that they operate from Montreal’s Pierre-Elliot-Trudeau (YUL) and Saint-Hubert (YHU) airports so don’t mix them up.
Something to be aware of is that flights to the Magdalen Islands will consist of multiple legs, typically including hops to Bonaventure (YVB) and/or Gaspé (YGP). This means that you’ll stay on the plane to pick up and drop off passengers.
Since you’ll be flying in the winter, weather can impact your travel plans so the best thing to do is to expect the unexpected. This can range from a small delay, a delay of a few hours, being grounded at one of your hops for an extended period of time (this happened to us), or your flight being cancelled.
The PASCAN Experience
We flew to the Magdalen Islands with PASCAN Aviation from Montreal.
Cost: This will vary but to give you an idea, this ended up being quite reasonable at $544.80 for two people at the end of February to early March.
Check-in luggage: They are quite strict about weight for your check-in luggage. It doesn’t matter how many bags there are but the total must be under 40 lbs.
Carry-on bags: You are allowed a carry-on and personal item. The carry-on must be under 13 lbs. For me, this was quite challenging with all of my camera gear so I definitely had to move quite a bit around between my carry-on and check-in to make it work. They will weigh this bag and give you a tag to say that it’s been approved.
Food and drink: The flight attendant will do a service of drinks (water, juice, coffee, and tea) and your choice of Kashi bars.
Bathroom: If you need to use the toilet, there is one at the front of the plane but I would recommend using it in emergencies. The SAAB 340 toilets do not have sinks.
Seating: While you may be able to select a seat when checking in online, don’t expect to get that seat when you board. Since these are smaller planes that also carry cargo, weight balance is much more critical. For our flights to YGR, the flight attendant assigned us seats as we boarded but on our way back to YUL, we got to sit at our seat according to the boarding pass.
TIP: The best place to sit on the plane for a clear view would be the second last row of the plane. If you’re hoping to sit back there, see if you can board the plane the first to let the flight attendant know.
Flight Hops: When hopping from airport to airport, you’ll be dropping off and picking up new passengers. During this time, you stay on the airplane. Connection times are typically 30-40 minutes.
Flight delays: This can happen at anytime and while we didn’t experience weather issues going to the Magdalen Islands, there was a minor electrical issue that took longer than expected to resolve while in Bonaventure. Eventually, we had to deplane. The delay ended up only being 1.5 hours. While at the Bonvaventure airport, they made sure to hand out more water and snacks.
Impacts of weather: On our return flight to Montreal, there was poor weather in Quebec City which was one of the hops. They said that this would be a game time decision whether they could land there or not so for anyone that didn’t want to take that gamble, their luggage was removed.
The Îles de la Madeleine airport has an all-in-one terminal. There is an open space which has the luggage belt arrivals, waiting area for chairs, car rental kiosks, and check-in counters. This is all accessible to the public so anyone can come in or out.
There is a line to get into a separate closed-off part of the airport which includes the security area with single x-ray machine that then leads into a small waiting area with chairs that act as a gate. When it’s time to board the plane, they’ll make an announcement in French and English. From there, you’ll walk outside to get to the plane.
In the winter, your ferry options are a bit more limited but they do operate.
CTMA (Coopérative de Transport Maritime et Aérien) is the official ferry that has serviced the Magdalen Islands community since 1944.
Ferry between PEI and Magdalen Islands
Every season’s schedule changes but as it stands, the winter ferries run Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday between Cap-aux-Meules in the Magdalen Islands to Souris in Prince Edward Island. This crossing takes five hours and is subject to change with weather and ice conditions.
While we didn’t take this ferry, if you take a look at the services on board, you’ll see how modern the facilities are between the cafe, pub, restaurant, playroom, lounges, kennel, store, and cabins. In a lot of ways, this reminds me of a smaller version of the Interislander Cook Strait ferry between Picton and Wellington from our 3 week New Zealand itinerary.
This is a car ferry so you can board with a vehicle.
Cruise between Montreal and Magdalen Islands
Just for your information, in the summer, they run a 7 day cruise along the St. Lawrence River which includes 3 days on the archipelago.
Where To Stay In The Magdalen Islands
In the winter, there are a couple of key accommodation options that we recommend.
We had the opportunity to stay the Château Madelinot, the largest hotel property you’ll find on the islands and one that’s worth considering.
Make sure to check out the full review of the Château Madelinot but here are reasons why we loved it:
- Convenient location – It’s in Cap-aux-Meules which is the most populated and central islands, making it a great hub to start your adventures.
- Comfortable, spacious, and renovated rooms – The rooms at Château Madelinot are renovated to modern standards with USB outlets, flat screen TV, fast wifi, and comfortable bed.
- Resto Bistro Accents – This is arguably one of the best restaurants on the islands and to be able to walk to it for breakfast.
- Modern amenities – They have a pool, hot tub, and brand new gym for those that want a little me-time.
- Friendly staff – The front desk staff were incredibly friendly and pro-actively provided us with travel tips. The cleaning staff also double checked with us whether we wanted the room to be serviced since we had the Do Not Disturb sign out.
Other accommodation recommendations in the winter
If you prefer to book more of a B&B-style property, there are a few that we recommend.
Gîte La Maison Chez J.P.
Friendly, comfortable, and convenient B&B with a warm cottage atmosphere located on the island of Havre-aux-Maisons and right by the airport.
There are 2 shared bathrooms and includes a fabulous breakfast each morning. Parking is also free.e
Chalets et Maisonette La Martinique
Affordable cabins for rent located off of Highway 199 between islands Cap-aux-Meules and Havre-Aubert.
The base category has 2 bedrooms, private bathroom with shower, TV, full kitchen including microwave, and internet. A laundromat is also on the premises.
Weather in the Winter
When you look at the map, the Magdalen Islands is nowhere near as north as you might think and if winter in Quebec gives you the chills, the archipelago really has more of the climate of the Maritime provinces.
That said, there’s no sugar coating the fact that it still does get quite cold in the winter but not necessarily because the base temperature is cold (only gets down to -5°C /23°F) but when those big gusts of wind come in, which is quite common throughout the year, that’s when you really feel the freezing temperatures.
While there is certainly a decent amount of snow on the ground, it doesn’t mean that it is constantly snowing. On average, you might see it snow one day while you are there.
The main idea we want to get across is that the weather can change on a dime on the islands so you can go from a sunny and mild day to full on blizzard, and everything in between.
With the weather the way it is, it’s very important to be prepared with the right clothing to handle it all, and also to have a flexible schedule.
For instance, if you have a long drive to Grand-Entrée planned but that day turns out to be snowing hard, just swap the day with another one and carry on.
Below is a table of average temperature statistics for the islands. Use this as a general guideline but go with the expectation that the weather can change very quickly.
|Month||Average Temperature||Snowfall||Wind Speed|
|November||6°C (43°F)||723.6mm||32.5 kph|
|December||-1°C (31°F)||342.5mm||34.9 kph|
|January||-4°C (24°F)||535.9mm||34.4 kph|
|February||-5°C (23°F)||608.8mm||30.8 kph|
|March||-3°C (26°F)||435.9mm||29.2 kph|
Getting Around Magdalen Islands In The Winter
Having your own car and being able to drive around is essential in the Magdalen Islands as there isn’t public transportation.
Where to rent a car
The best place to rent a car is right when you land at the airport because there aren’t exactly any shuttles that’ll take you into town.
The main company is Agence de Location des Îles which is who we rented from. Another company is Leblanc Location d’Autos which also has a booth at the airport. You won’t find any of the big car rental companies here.
We highly recommend that you add on car insurance to your booking as well.
Lastly, make sure to get an SUV if there’s one available. It’s not to say you won’t be able to get around with a minivan which is what we ended up with but something with good traction is helpful for deeper snow and icy inclines.
Here are a few tips on driving and the road conditions that will help you in your trip planning.
- The roads stay clean – Unless you’re in the middle of a snowstorm, plows seem to be constantly out, making sure the main roads are in good condition so it was quite comfortable to drive on the islands.
- Some roads are off limits – In the winter, there are several roads that aren’t maintained and as a result, the car rental insurance does not cover you if you end up getting stuck there. Beware of these roads because Google Maps may try to take you through there. In the case of the road by Cap Alright, they have large pylons in front but that is not always the case.
- Filling up – Some gas stations are self-serve (these are post-pay) and others like the Crevier which are full serve.
- Gas is expensive – As you can imagine, the cost of gas is high on the island so make sure to account for that in your budget. For 6 days, we spent $126 at the pump.
- Speed limit is higher than you think – The main highway 199 has a surprisingly high speed limit. In most areas, it’s 80 km/h but it can go up to 90 km/h. The speed limit is one thing but you’ll find that locals drive much faster. Most of the road is one lane each direction so other cars will start to push your pace or pass. Don’t feel too pressured to drive fast if you’re not comfortable.
- Speed traps – I asked the locals and they said speed traps aren’t a thing on the island. In fact, I didn’t see one police car on our trip.
- Inspect your car rental – When picking up your car rental, make sure you do a full inspection. When returning the car, they will inspect the car quite closely as well so keep that in mind.
- Parking lots – You won’t encounter any paid lots. All of the main viewpoints will have lots but not every single one is plowed. Don’t try to drive into the lots that aren’t maintained as you may get stuck.
- Transmission – All rental cars here should be automatic transmission.
- Winter hours – Even the airport car rental counters have quite limited hours. In the winter, Agence de Location Îles Iles is only open 8:30AM – 5:30PM Monday to Friday. You can reserve on a weekend but this means you can’t just show up to the counter on Saturday or Sunday.
- Ice scraper –
Map of roads that are not maintained in the winter
The below is a marked up map from the car rental company (look for ballpoint pen marks near areas circled in red).
To the left are some of the dotted line roads that are more for snowmobiles so it’s a reminder to stick to the main roads. To the right is a stretch or road north of Cap Alright Lighthouse and south of Dune de Sud that you shouldn’t use in the winter.
General Travel Tips for Winter in the Magdalen Islands
Having done these top things to do in the Magdalen Islands in the winter personally, these are practical travel tips that you should know before you go.
Only a select few businesses remain open in the winter
One of the frustrating parts about coming to the islands in the winter is that a large number of businesses close down and don’t reopen again until the high season. There are others that might open if there’s a large influx of tourists for the Harp Seal Observation.
When businesses are open, their hours will also be more limited. As an example, we could never time things right to go to the popular Hélène Des Iles bakery because we were always out exploring and they close at 5:30PM.
A great resource is the Tourisme Îles de la Madeleine page which keeps up to date hours for businesses but if you’re still unsure, going to the Facebook page of the individual businesses is the next best thing.
When doing your trip planning research, just be mindful that what you read about is mostly for the summer.
Be mindful of the day of the week
If you can, plan your visit between Tuesday and Saturday.
You’ll notice that most businesses are only open on specific days. Make sure to check the off-season hours so you can plan accordingly. A general rule of thumb is that most businesses are closed on Sundays including cafes and shops.
For instance, notice that À l’Abri de la Tempête is only open Tuesday and Friday so if you want to grab a pint there, make sure you are there on one of those days.
Another thing to be mindful of is how busy restaurants get on Saturday and Sunday. On those days, a reservation is a must.
Friendliness of the locals
Everyone was overwhelmingly friendly in the Magdalen Islands. It is one of the endearing qualities that will really stick with you on your trip.
The only reason we knew about Cindy Hook Aventures and the location of the foxes was because locals proactively wanted to tell us more about their island.
We encourage you to strike up a conversation with locals. You’ll learn so much more about what life is like on the islands and it’s an opportunity to ask anything you want. Also, if you need help with something, they’ll find a way to assist.
Overcoming language barriers
Being in Quebec, the Magdalen Islands is primarily French-speaking but like we said above, the hospitality of Madelinots combined with their willingness to try to communicate is why this isn’t an issue if you don’t speak French.
You’ll find that most locals will start off by apologizing for their poor English but the truth is, we found that they could communicate really well and we could understand what they were saying.
There were only a few occasions where someone couldn’t speak any English at all and in those cases, you could tell they were trying hard to express something by throwing in the bits and pieces of English they knew.
Overall, you’ll get by quite easily with English.
Safety of cliff edges
A major attraction on the islands are the red cliffs that follow a large part of the coastline. This includes sights such as Belle-Anse, the Cap Alright Lighthouse, Borgot Lighthouse, and Old Harry Beach.
The combination of snow, ice, and erosion makes it particularly dangerous in the winter. With the snow cover, it’s hard to tell what surface is solid or not. Then you have the steady amount of erosion that’s occurring and that leads to unstable edges.
Common sense should prevail whenever you’re exploring these areas so stay away from these edges.
Next, we learned from the tourism board that officially, you’re not allowed to go beyond the roped fences. Unfortunately, the signage is not the most pronounced or clear to visitors.
We have two examples. In the summer time, there’s a Belle Anse Trail (Sentier de la Belle Anse) that runs along the cliffs and also weaves through the nearby forest. This is technically not allowed in the winter so you can’t go beyond the parking lot fences and you definitely can’t walk all the way out to the rocks that jut out into the sea.
Another example is the Borgot Lighthouse. Yes, you’re allowed to hike up to the lighthouse itself but you are not allowed to continue walking out beyond the lighthouse along the rock.
We heard stories from locals of people falling off these cliffs, so play it safe.
What to Pack for the Magdalen Islands in the Winter
Now that you know about how tempestuous, chilly, and fickle the weather can be in the winter, what should you pack with you on your trip to the Magdalen Islands?
Lucky for you, I diligently catalogued what I packed for our trip and share my thoughts on what worked and what didn’t. This packing list will help you think about the kind of clothes and gear you need for the Magdalen Islands in the winter.
Frequently Asked Questions
Seeing the Magdalen Islands in the winter is a road less travelled but for the adventurous allows you to see one-of-a-kind snowy landscapes, wildlife unique to the region, unique winter sports, a chance to disconnect, opportunities to connect with locals that aren’t insanely busy because of the summer crowd, and you’ll also have the island all to yourself.
Lobster season is between early May and early July so it is not during the winter season.
As solid as the ice may look along the shore, it is not safe unless accompanied by a professional travel guide that have experience.
November to March is considered to be the winter season which is not to be confused with low season which is October to May.
Yes, these are practically the same thing except the difference is the scale and scientific study. An interpretation centre are meant to educate visitors on knowledge of natural or cultural heritage.
The Magdalen Islands are beautiful in the winter but it may not be for everyone because of cold temperatures, high winds, many businesses are closed, and
You want to be prepared for the cold and windy cold weather. This cold weather packing list will be help you immensely..
The trail is not officially closed. The trailhead isn’t marked though so you’d have to know where to start (just a bit downhill from Cap Alright). Near the top, there is also a rope-assisted climb which is not hard going up but can be a challenge getting back down so you do need to make sure you have the right gear.
Yes, if you are lucky and you happen to be at the right place at the right time. Make sure to pack your telephoto lens and/or binoculars. Locals say they can be near the beaches of L’Ètang-des-Caps, Belle Anse, the dunes of Le Petite-Havre, and Grosse-Île-Norde harbour. That said, it changes every year so it’s best to ask locals.
We definitely planned to do more hiking on the trail and even kept our crampons in the car but if you gain access to our 6 day Magdalen Islands itinerary, you’ll see that we had a busy schedule and it never worked out timing wise. Also, when we did try to do a bit of hiking, the weather was just way too cold. There was also some hesitation because without a guide in certain places, we were definitely less confident about where trails would lead.
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