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Travel Where to find a touch of the Caribbean in Canada

The breathtaking scenery of Les Ïlles de la Madeleine.

Tim Kiladze/The Globe and Mail

Just north of Prince Edward Island, tucked between Cape Breton and Newfoundland, there is an archipelago in the Gulf of St. Lawrence that will steal your heart.

I'm still not quite sure what did me in. Maybe it was the sea breeze that conjured memories of the Caribbean. Or the red cliffs that crash into the salt water.

Whatever the source, the Magdalen Islands, a cluster of roughly a dozen Quebec islands, made me realize the scope of beauty and diversity this country has to offer.

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Canadians are quick to tout the rugged beauty of our Rocky Mountains and the tranquility of the sunsets off Tofino, but the Maritimes don't get nearly as much love.

Maybe I never paid much attention to the region because the folksiness of Atlantic Canadians distracts from the landscapes. But I certainly haven't heard people talk about the Maritimes' natural beauty with the fervour they reserve for Canada's traditional tourist spots.

In this vacuum, the Magdalen Islands are especially overlooked, overshadowed by PEI, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.

But they are worth the trek.

The islands are certainly as remote as they sound, situated about 100 kilometres from PEI and 215 kilometres from the Gaspé Peninsula. Mainland isn't visible from the island. First discovered by Mi'kmaq Indians and later adored by the intrepid Jacques Cartier, les Îles-de-la-Madeleine, as they are known in French, are much bigger than they appear on maps. Driving across them, from the tip of Grosse-Île to the edge of Havre-Aubert, takes about an hour.

Too often, I've travelled to places where I still felt connected to the hustle that consumes my daily life, but out in the middle of the St. Lawrence, I felt free. I didn't give a damn about what was going on in the world, and I didn't feel guilty about it. There were too many sand dunes to discover, too many cliffs to climb.

All of this came as a surprise. I had reservations about the journey, which involved driving 4 1/2 hours from Halifax and then boarding a five-hour ferry. I don't get much time off, and I worried I'd be wasting my vacation on some small islands with retirees who finish eating lunch before I wake up.

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Yet, my boyfriend and I have had a love affair with Quebec since we went to McGill University. He pleaded with me to go. Even my cynical heart has a breaking point.

Now I owe him. The islands are unlike anything else I've experienced in Canada – natural beauty combined with a touch of Caribbean flair.

My mom's family is from Barbados, and driving around the Magdalens I couldn't help but feel like I'd escaped to some sister islands, passing clotheslines and brightly coloured homes set against lush hills.

Then there was the salt water air that made me sleep like a baby, just like it does at my granny's house.

The clear difference, of course, is the culture. Madelinots have roots in Acadia and Quebec, and it is clear, just from driving around, that they are fiercely proud of their heritage, flying these regions' flags outside many of their homes.

Yet, you won't be shunned, if, like me, your French is barely passable. The Madelinots I met were bilingual – or at least spoke enough English to aid when my French fell through. Better yet, they're happy to try their hand at English. Tourism is a major economic engine for the islands, and locals do what they can to appease visitors.

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Contrast that with my trip to Paris last summer, when I ventured deep into the 14th arrondissement for dinner. The restaurant owner, who doubled as the waiter, seemed incapable of speaking English, so I sat there Googling the different types of steak on the menu. When I paid for my meal with my Royal Bank credit card, he suddenly asked, "So, you're from Canada?"

There are myriad ways to spend your days on the islands. You can scoot around on rented bikes, swim in the salt water at the beach, try your hand at windsurfing and hike along set trails.

You can also sit back and eat; you'll have no trouble finding good food. The restaurant in our hotel, Domaine du Vieux Couvent, served meals that were just as good as those offered by top Toronto establishments I've eaten at – only it specializes in seafood and looks out over the St. Lawrence.

The only drawback is that even simple foods can be pricey because they're imported from the mainland.

I'll be frank: The islands are not some idyllic fantasy. Travelling to them takes dedication – next time I'd probably pay the price to fly from Montreal – and there are spots that look quite run down. It doesn't help that ugly hydro wires criss-cross the islands.

But these flaws were easy to overcome, largely owing to the freedom I felt. On vacation it can be hard for me to ignore the Internet. After just half a day on the islands this obsession disappeared. Remembering what breaking this chain felt like alone was worth the trip.

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Now when people wax poetic about southern France, an area I've long loved, I say, what about les Îles?

IF YOU GO:

Travelling to the islands takes dedication. Daily ferry service runs from Souris, PEI, (traversierctma.ca) but next time I'd probably fly direct from Montreal on Air Canada Express (flyjazz.ca).

Avoid the islands in August. (They're just as warm in September.) But if you must, be careful about booking accommodations during the month's annual sand castle competition.

To plan your trip, Tourisme Québec has set up a spiffy website and compiled a handy tourist guidebook that is available on the ferry. Both are extremely helpful. For more details, visit tourismeilesdelamadeleine.com.

WHERE TO STAY

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Domaine du Vieux Couvent is a nearly 100-year-old convent that was remodelled into a four-star hotel. Rooms start at $200 in high season. 292, route 199, Havre aux Maisons, Magdalen Islands, 418-969-2233; domaineduvieuxcouvent.com.

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