It's not every day you get to hold the penis of a beluga whale. This surprisingly small object was one of various parts of whales passed around during an engaging talk by the naturalist aboard MV Vacancier while we sailed through the Gulf of St Lawrence. We'd left Montreal and were heading east on a week-long cruise along the St Lawrence River past Quebec to visit the Iles de la Madeleine. The likelihood of seeing blue, fin or beluga whales was enough to draw many passengers and their cameras on deck early on the first morning as we passed through the Saguenay-St Lawrence Marine Park. We were not disappointed.
Describing the week as a "cruise" might raise false expectations when it comes to the ship; the Vacancier was built as a ferry to muscle its way through ice between Finland and Sweden and feels like a ferry with added facilities, such as an exercise room, small cinema and massage room. The cabins are small and utilitarian, with en-suite shower and toilet, but the food in the two dining rooms is good: dinner one night was scallops with hazelnut sauce, veal escalopes and chocolate fudge mousse. There is plenty of live entertainment as well, such as a crew of Madelinots to talk to about their islands – it's a policy of the Iles-based CTMA shipping company to employ locals.
Appropriately enough for islands where fishing has always been the dominant livelihood, the six Iles de la Madeleine are shaped like a fish-hook. The terrain is mostly rolling grassy hills with small forests of balsam fir and black and white spruce. Impressive sandstone cliffs edge some of the islands, but they are so friable that the occasional grazing cow – rash enough to ignore warning signs – becomes part of a landslide.
First recorded by the French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1534, the islands were inhabited only seasonally by Micmac Indians until 1792 when Father Jean-Baptiste Allain and 223 Acadians migrated there from the still-French isle of Miquelon. When they landed, the islands were unconnected but five have been linked by causeways that have increased the shoreline to 385km. About 60 per cent of it is pristine sandy beach, helping to make tourism the second – and rapidly growing – industry.
After we docked at the principal harbour of Cap-aux-Meules on the eponymous main island, where most of the 12,500 Madelinots live, I drove to the most southerly settlement, Havre-Aubert. A forest of yacht masts has replaced the herring fleet that sheltered in the natural basin here until the 1970s when the fish disappeared.
The story of the islanders' relationship with the sea is well told in the village's Museum of the Sea. The islands were second only to Sable Island off Nova Scotia for shipwrecks, and many of their mostly wooden buildings were made from salvaged ship timbers. One of the lighthouses, built to reduce the casualties, lies along the road that describes a circuit of Ile du Havre-Aubert; the octagonal lighthouse of L'Anse-a-la-Cabane on Cap du Sud forms a perfect ensemble of white wooden buildings with the lighthouse-keeper's house and outbuildings on the green sward above sandstone cliffs.
Art from the sea is on display in Havre-Aubert's Artisans du Sable, where sand is converted into solid malleable material with the consistency of limestone, by mixing sand with a special adhesive in a bakery mixer. Bowls, candleholders, lamp-stands and chess pieces rub shoulders with starfish and miniature sandcastles. The studio also displays fantastically shaped drinking glasses in the most vibrant of Murano-like colours fashioned by another islander, making me wonder what it is about islands and artists: do islands attract creative people to live on them or does the lack of employment opportunities foster creativity?
A love of colour is the most obvious visual characteristic here, as though the local council has made sure no two houses are the same shade, thumbing through the Pantone book or paint charts to find an unused hue. The vivid colours on the siding and cedar shingles of the Madelinots' houses sometimes produce some garish juxtapositions – lime green and turquoise anyone? – but the randomly scattered houses give the same cheerful lift to the landscape as the brightly coloured houses of Burano or Tobermory.
Contrast this with the huge white church of Saint-Pierre in Lavernière, the second largest wooden church in North America (the largest is on the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia). Timbers retrieved from shipwrecks had to be blessed before being incorporated into the church in 1876. It has a U-shaped gallery and the interior woodwork gleams.
One of the islands' few stone buildings is a former convent, now the Domaine du Vieux Couvent hotel on Ile du Havre-aux-Maisons. Though passengers sleep on the Vacancier, the evenings are free so they can sample the islands' many restaurants, with their inevitable speciality of fish. The Domaine's forte is lobster, which became the mainstay of the islands' fishing from the 1880s. The conservatory dining-room overlooks the shore.
From here, I watched squadrons of geese and some of the 200 species of bird found on the islands wheeling over the water, with the ferry from Prince Edward Island easing past Ile Grande Entrée in the distance.
East of Vieux Couvent is the last of 40 smokehouses; Fumoir d'Antan is one of the islands' artisan food producers, maintaining a traditional method for preserving fish by smoking it over a smouldering fire of maple mixed with sawdust. Herring are making a comeback, enabling lobster fishermen to keep the Areseneau family's smokehouse supplied as one of Quebec's Economusée promoting traditional crafts.
Among the most successful of the islands' producers is the microbrewery named A l'abri de la Tempête – "sheltered from the storm" – which opened its facility in an isolated old crab factory a few hundred yards from the shore on Ile du Cap-aux-Meules. Two of its eight brews have won awards, the hoppy full-bodied Terre Ferme took a Gold Medal at the World Beer Festival in Strasbourg in 2011. The beers are available on the Vacancier and throughout the islands.
To reach the two northerly islands, I drove along the longest causeway. There are bike lanes and some off-road routes for those willing to battle the frequent winds; even the houses are angled to minimise them. Near incongruous industrial buildings at the approach to Grand-Ile is an interpretation centre that almost defies belief: beneath the islands are columns of salt up to five kilometres thick, and 1.5 million tonnes a year are extracted from subterranean galleries crawled by giant excavators and shipped to the mainland for de-icing roads.
The road ends at the barb of the fish-hook on Ile Grande Entrée, deserted until the 1870s but now home to more than 100 lobster boats packed in the harbour. Not a trace exists of the 63 factories that once canned their catches; today the lobster is exported frozen or fresh. Strict quotas aim to prevent lobster going the way of the herring – or the walrus that were hunted to extinction by 1800.
Taking the nature trail and walking barefoot along the sand to tiny Ile Boudreau, I could gaze over this extraordinary archipelago with its relatively recent human occupation and appreciate how its stark beauty gets under the skin of those who have made it their home.
The writer travelled with Air Canada (0871 220 1111; aircanada.com), which has a daily service from Heathrow to Montréal from £545 return. Alternatives are available on British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Air Transat – sold in the UK through Canadian Affair (0843 255 9807; canadianaffair.com).
Cruises CTMA (001 888 986 3278; cruisesctma.ca) offers week-long cruises aboard the Vacancier from Montréal to the Iles de la Madeleine between June and September, with various themed packages on Flavours, Adventure, Cycling and Art & Culture. Prices start at C$1,444 (£963) pp, all-inclusive.
Domaine du Vieux Couvent (00 1 418 969 2233; domaineduvieuxcouvent.com). Doubles start at C$150 (£100), including breakfast.
Tourisme Îles de la Madeleine (00 1 877 624 4437; tourismeilesdelamadeleine.com).
Quebec Tourism (0800 051 7055; bonjourquebec.co.uk).