Travel

The Secret Island Getaway Most Canadians Have Never Heard Of

Windswept hills, secret beaches, Acadian culture, and the freshest seafood like, ever.

Photo by Stephanie Foden
Photo by Stephanie Foden
Photo by Stephanie Foden

Alright America, huddle up. I’m about to let you in on a secret.

On the east coast of Canada, smack in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, there’s an archipelago of eight islands with 186 miles of pristine red and squeaky white sand beaches, rich Acadian culture (yes, the same Acadians that migrated to Louisiana and became known as Cajuns), and truly amazing gourmet eats. I’m talking some of the best seafood, anywhere.

They’re called Îles-de-la-Madeleine, or the Magdalen Islands, and they’re wildly popular among Québecois-yet few people in the rest of Canada have even heard about them.

If you’ve read up on climate news lately-moon wobble, code red, ahh!-this stunning archipelago might not be around for too many more generations. And every year, more and more people are finding out about this pearl of the east coast (yep, thanks to stories like this one). So you’ll definitely want to plan a trip sooner rather than later.

Photo by Stephanie Foden
Photo by Stephanie Foden
Photo by Stephanie Foden

What to know before you go

With a landmass just 20 square miles bigger than Manhattan in a gulf of water roughly the size of Minnesota, Îles-de-la-Madeleine isn’t exactly a place you’ll bump into unless, well, you’re Jacques Cartier sailing to North America in 1534. So if you want to go, you’ll need to plan ahead. Seriously, some people plan their trips two years in advance.

To get there, you can fly into Îles-de-la-Madeleine Airport on the island of Île-du-Havre-Aux-Maisons, or sail about five hours on the sparkly new Madeleine II ferry from Souris, Prince Edward Island. The extra cost to bring a car aboard the ship is worth it, as there’s so much to explore, despite the archipelago being just an hour drive tip-to-tip.

June to August is your best chance at great weather and when you can see the awesome sandcastle festival. But peak season is also when the islands’ adorable pastel-colored cottages, cabins, and campsites book up, so May and September might be a better bet.

And yes, this is Quebec, so expect to hear mostly French with smatterings of English when necessary.

Photo by Stephanie Foden
Photo by Stephanie Foden
Photo by Stephanie Foden

Explore secret beaches and historic lighthouses

If coming by ferry, you’ll land at Cap-aux-Meules, which has all your necessities but admittedly lacks on the charming side. For something cuter, drive south to La Grave, where Acadian refugees first landed after escaping deportation in 1755’s Grand Dérangement, when the British and French colonists butted heads over Canadian land. Today, La Grave is a cute fishing village with solid restaurants like Café de la Grave, pretty shops like Atelier Côtier where you can buy art made of sand, and the beachfront venue Au Vieux Treuil that plays music into the night.

Other hubs worth checking out are L’Étang du Nord, with its boardwalk, carnival-like energy, and delicious ice cream from Cremerie du Port; Entry Island, which requires a short boat trip, has only 60 inhabitants, and grants desktop screensaver-like views from atop its biggest hill; and Île-du-Havre-aux-Maisons where you can see glass-blown jellyfish at La Méduse and the historic Cape Alright Lighthouse-built in 1928, it’s much cooler than its name suggests.

As for beaches, you won’t have to look too hard. For every one of the 13,000 year-round Madelinot locals, there’s probably a different “secret” beach, but some faves are at Pointe-aux-Loups, L’Anse aux Whalers in Fatima, at the tip of La Grave’s long and skinny sand dune, and Dune-du-Sud on Havre-aux-Maisons.

Photo by Stephanie Foden
Photo by Stephanie Foden
Photo by Stephanie Foden

Procure the ultimate picnic

Seeking out and eating gourmet food is basically a sport on Îles-de-la-Madeleine. The Circuit des Saveurs food trail features 26 producers that offer traditional, extremely tasty local cuisine that you can usually taste on-site.

At Fumoir d’Antan, you can see (and smell) herring smoked the traditional way-over slow-burning fires for three months-and then grab some for your picnic along with smoked mackerel, scallops, and salmon. At Miel en Mer, open a door to witness thousands of bees working on their honey, which turns white when it crystalizes. And at Cultures du Large, you’ll absolutely want to hop on a boat out to sea and eat the freshest oysters you’ve ever tried before taking a box for yourself.

Photo by Stephanie Foden
Photo by Stephanie Foden
Photo by Stephanie Foden

As for booze, brewery À l’Abri de la Tempête serves intriguing flavors in its multi-level bar and Le Barbocheux does artisanal yet inexpensive berry wine tastings.

For a more guided food experience, restaurants across the islands cleverly combine these gourmet products. At Gourmande de Nature, Chef Johanne Vigneau utilizes the abundance of amazing seafood around the archipelago-think crunchy lobster tail and a deconstructed cheesecake served inside a scallop shell. And at Bistro Accents, where 80% of all ingredients are local, Chef Hugo LeFrançois sears halibut to perfection and knows how to cook a mean seal filet mignon.

When I asked LeFrançois why Madelinot are so passionate about eating local, he told me it’s a form of mutual respect.

“If everyone would be independent, everyone would die,” he said.

Photo by Stephanie Foden
Photo by Stephanie Foden
Photo by Stephanie Foden

Get in on some of the world’s best kitesurfing

Being on the Atlantic coast means that the weather on Îles-de-la-Madeleine tends to be prettay windy, but you can make the best of it by grabbing a board and a kite and literally flying. Off beaches across the archipelago, you’ll see kitesurfers levitating airborne before gently gliding back down to the rippling waves below.

But you don’t have to be a pro kitesurfer to go here. Îles-de-la-Madeleine might be the best place in the world to learn, because there are plenty of lagoons; so if you lose your board, you can just walk over instead of body surfing to get it.

The wind is also really consistent, so if you go for a week, you’ll likely spend most of your time out on the water rather than chatting with your travel mate(s) about all the people you want to share these secret islands with.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Joel Balsam is a freelance journalist and travel guidebook writer whose work can be found in National Geographic Travel, Time, The Guardian, Lonely Planet, and Travel + Leisure. Follow him @joelbalsam.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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