Ecotourism at its Best
"Ecotourism" means many different things to different people. At its core, ecotourism is a vacation that focuses on a natural experience. Grande-Entrée is one of the finest places to do this; a fine balance -- a synergy -- between man and nature.
Grande-Entrée is not a giant nature preserve, but rather typical of the Madeleine Islands in that people live in loosely populated zones, earn a living, yet still manage to provide a natural setting for tourists to experience the forest, beaches, bluffs, and the sea. There are a couple of small grocery stores and gas stations along Rt. 199, and a small commercial fishing center at the very end of the road. There are a few artisans with shops here and there, history at "Old Harry," and fine dining, lodging, and recreational facilities at La Salicorne (formerly Club la Vacances). It is also adjacent to the Réserve nationale de la Pointe-de-l’Est, which begins just north of Old Harry.
Driving from Grosse-Île, la Pointe-de-l'Est provides a buffer of sorts between Grande-Entrée and the rest of the archipeligo -- not that any buffer is needed. It just creates a sense of remoteness, a sense that as unusual as the rest of Les Îles are, Grande-Entrée is perhaps even more so.
Once you enter Grande-Entrée you will come upon a very small English speaking village that once revolved around Old Harry. This was a boat ramp and fishing port that has fallen into disuse, mainly because the sea has claimed it and the Ministry of Fisheries has abandoned it. Currently they're trying to figure out what they can do with this historic spot in a Port of Old Harry Renovation Study. If you visit Old Harry on a typical day, you'll understand why it is impractical to operate a fishing port here with the constantly pounding sea. If you drive, park up on the bluff -- do not drive down to the ramp area for your own safety. On my last visit, it was perfectly safe to walk down and explore the remains of Old Harry.
On the opposite side of the bluff is a commanding view of Seacow Bay, however you are so high and the cliffs are so steep that you can't really see whatever is below. These palisades are among the most scenic in the Magdalens, but you'll need a sea kayak to explore them.
Once you pass Old Harry you climb into the forested section of Grande-Entrée, and it's quite beautiful. From here there are four left hand turns off Rt. 199 that are important to explore. The first one past Old Harry is Ch. Bassin Est, named for the east shore of the Bassin. This road leads right down to the beach; drive as far as you dare -- it is easy to get stuck in the sand. The beach offers beautiful views of the Bassin huites and Boudreaux Island. Chances are you'll see other vehicles down on the beach, it seems to be a very popular "get away" for the Madelinots.
Below, a photo taken on the beach off Ch. Bassin Est. Notice the vehicle in the background. The cliff off in the distance on the right hand side is Boudreaux Island.
After passing perhaps one or two other side roads, the next important left leads to La Salicorne, a hotel that caters to ecotourists. In the past this has been the easiest place to rent kayaks and other watercraft; we say easiest because it allows the novice kayaker an opportunity to paddle around in the safety of the Bassin, separated from the pounding surf by Boudreaux Island. Even if you aren't planning to kayak, La Salicorne provides outstanding views and some nice dining options, as well as a gift shop and some exhibits.
Back on 199 and proceeding toward the end of the island, the next important left hand turn is Ch. Bassin Ouest, or west shore of the Bassin. The road is actually south of the Bassin, but let's not be picky. You're headed for Plage du Bassin Ouest, or Bassin West Beach. This beach is actually on the sea, but again, that's a minor detail. The beach and bluffs are just part of the attraction, the real goal is Boudreaux Island.
Above, Plage du Bassin Ouest. Below, hiking trail on Bourdeaux Island.
Parking can be a problem at Plage du Bassin Ouest, you usually have to park on a narrow side street and walk to the beach. The walk isn't the problem, it's the fact that parking is so limited. If you go during July or August be sure to visit early in the morning or very late in the evening. An early morning arrival can provide a phenomenal view of the sunrise.
Below are some additional views on the spectacular Boudreaux Island...
Our fourth and last left off Rt 199 is Cap Isaac, accessed by turning onto Ch. des Pealey. This left is almost like proceeding straight; 199 bears right and Pealey arrows off. (Be careful to watch for oncoming traffic; the opposite lane obviously has the right of way).
The road ends at an interesting beach that, depending on weather and tide, may present various sand bars and pools. It also seems to be a collection point for broken lobster trap buoys, so if you want one of those colorful souvenirs to take home, here's a good place to look.
Our interest here lies in the cliffs at the "north" end of the beach. As of 2008 there is a very prominent arch here, and a semi-hidden pillar type arch right by it...
Although it is sort of fenced or roped off, it is very easy to walk up onto the grassy top of this headland and walk across. In doing so you can gain a better understanding into the geology of Les Iles de la Madeleine. As the salt dome below the ground boiled up, the petrified seabed above "cracked" as it rose up. In these the sea erodes the rock easily, it helps form the arches and caves. As you cross this headland you'll find a fine example of this type of crack, as the photo below shows. If you have very basic climbing skills, it is relatively easy to explore this feature...
Cap Isaac has a number of natural arch formations in various stages. Some are new, small openings that are slowly revealing themselves. Others are large, picturesque beauties, ready to collapse at the next tidal surge. All of them require some effort to find and photograph. Look closely at the photos below and you'll see a series of additional arches. One is directly "across" the headland from the main arch, and from the right angle appears to be a pair of opposing arches.
More Grand Stuff at Grande-Entrée
All of the above vistas and locations are found on the southern (or eastern) side of Grande-Entree. The northern (western?) shore of the island is virtually all populated, although certainly not heavily populated, and the cliffs are relatively low. As a result this side of the island receives little attention.
I urge you not to pass by so quickly.
Drive or bicycle down to the churches and occasional park bench, and spend some time observing and enjoying the area. We're just tourists intruding on the day to day lives of these Madelinots, but they are gracious hosts and don't mind if we sit for a while. Unless you live in a remote part of the Maritime Provinces yourself, the lifestyle and setting you'll see around you is radically different from your day to day existence back home. Here on Grande-Entree it is surprisingly quieter, and probably a lot less complex, but the people are living and working through the same joys, frustrations, pleasures, and problems that you and I deal with. Unlike us they can generally see their neighbors' homes -- many more of them than we can, anyway. Unlike us they probably know most of their neighbors. And unlike us they don't have a long commute, even if they work in Cap-Aux-Meules. Homes are not ostentatious, and you won't find many Escalades in the driveways. I don't want to call it a "simple life," because life is never simple. Let's just say it's honest, and a lot less cluttered. Whether that's just the Madelinots and their traditions, or a lifestyle dictated by the island's resources, it's a fact that on Grande-Entrée we see a beautiful balance of man and nature.
Unless you are 1) an expert birder, or 2) enjoy saying "wow, look at that bird, I wonder what it is" -- it's a good idea to bring a field guide of some sort. I used to cart around a compact but rather thick Audobon guide. An excellent book, and it's still my "go-to" source when I'm trying to figure something out and I don't know where to start. But when I was in the Magdalen Islands I found it to be rather cumbersome, and had to thumb through page after page of stuff to find anything. Even then, I couldn't be sure, since as an Eastern guide it contains a number of similar species. So I picked up a copy of Birds of Atlantic Canada by Roger Burrows, with illustrations by Ted Nordhagen and Gary Ross, which I found to be a lot narrower, yet comprehensive enough with almost 300 different birds depicted. I kind of prefer this to the regular photo book, because I think a photo is just too specific, and birds that roost 200 miles apart can look wildly different even if they're the same species. The illustrations in Birds of Atlantic Canada capture the essence of the species, not the exact look of a single bird. So by using this I was really able to identify everything I saw on the Madelienes, and I lost count of them. (Alright, I paid so much I didn't want to mark up the book. Now I regret not doing so). Now what I know about birds you can fit on the head of a pin, so I can't say for sure that I really identified all of them correctly. But I can assure you it was a lot more fun than saying, "wow, I wonder what that is..."