THERE’S A SPOT along the road outside the village of Arichat, Nova Scotia, known to the natives as “the place where the painters always go.” It’s not hard to see why. Before you rolls the steel-blue Strait of Canso, marching over from the Nova Scotia mainland in wave after purposeful wave to a series of steppingstone islands at your feet. One of these islands sports a lighthouse — a slash of white against the green grass and blue sea; another seems to house a colony of gulls, which wheel and dip with graceful wings and mournful cries; off a third island, an Acadian fisherman, looking suitably picturesque in his bobbing boat, wrestles with lobster traps. To right and left of this Maritime idyll stretch the shores of lie Madame, one of the prettiest, and one of the most neglected, travel spots in all the Atlantic provinces.
He Madame is a small, helmet-shaped island off the south coast of Cape Breton, not far from the Canso Causeway. It is off the main tourist route, the one that takes travelers along the Trans-Canada Highway toward the Cabot Trail, and to get to it you have to head for Sydney along Highway 4. About 20 miles along, at Grande Anse, turn south and cross to the island over two sturdy steel bridges near Louisdale (the bridges were built in 1916; until then, travelers crossed by rowboat or barge). Head for Arichat, seven miles away; it is the largest village on the island, and the only one with modern tourist accommodation. My wife and I stayed at the Isle Madame Motel, and recommend it, its owner Doug Shaw and his island without hesitation. (You probably won’t need reservations at either of Ile Madame’s motels; traffic is not heavy.)
Being off the main route has drawbacks for travelers looking for gourmet food, nightlife, or even a movie, but it has advantages, too, the chief of them being the individual attention visitors receive for a moderate price ($12 a day for a double room). One morning, my wife complained that we couldn’t seem to get lobsters to eat; that afternoon our host marched down to the fishing pier, and that evening we enjoyed one of the finest feeds of lobster ever. The dinner cost three dollars each.
Most of the 6,000 islanders are Acadians, descendants of the French uprooted by the fall of Louisbourg in 1758, and Huguenots from the Channel isle of Jersey. Later mingling with the Highlanders, who populate most of Cape Breton, gave their French a somewhat Scottish twist. Petit, for example, is pronounced petty. French is still the first language of the island, although all the continued on page 51
Acadians are bilingual (the same cannot be said about their English - speaking neighbors) and we ran into some whose grasp of their mother tongue has slipped to the point where they can speak French but not read or write it.
At one time, Arichat was a considerable town, centre of a thriving shipbuilding industry, home of the first cathedral in eastern Nova Scotia, and the original site of St. Francis Xavier University, which was moved to Antigonish two years after its founding in 1853. One symbol of the village’s former glory is the restored Lenoir forge, now a dockside museum furnished with ancient artifacts; another is the Catholic church, the former cathedral, which dates back to 1838 and features a magnificent altar painting executed in 1854. Father Alexandre Poirier, a brisk, cheerful and knowledgeable man, likes to combine a tour of his church’s beauty with an anecdotal account of local history. Once, he told us, in the island’s heyday, a local citizen went to visit Sydney and reported back, “If Sydney continues to grow, it is going to become as large as Arichat.”
Although there is little organized entertainment, no one needs to be bored on lie Madame. Beaches are numerous and excellent, the scenery is unsurpassed, and the fishing, either inland in freshwater lakes or out on the Strait of Canso, is usually rewarding. Local boatmen will take parties out to the fishing grounds — about half an hour’s run from Arichat — for about $35 in boats that hold from 10 to 20 people, so it’s possible to get an afternoon’s sport for two or three dollars. The fishing is done by handline and the quarry is pollock, haddock and codfish in the early summer, with the addition of mackerel after about the end of August. Trout are found in the inland lakes.
But you don’t have to go fishing. He Madame is a lovely spot for doing nothing much, for sitting in the sun, strolling along the seafront at Arichat, or driving a few miles down the road to Little Anse, a quiet cove full of weathered fishing shacks, stacked lobster pots and endless clusters of small children who swarm out on to the road to wave and grin at passersby. If you have the nose for it, you can visit a fish-packing plant at Petit De Grat (pronounced “Petty De Graw”).
A while back, a syndicated newspaper writer visited He Madame and found it to be “a bit of the French world of the 1700s,” to the intense delight of the locals, who haven’t the foggiest notion what France was like in that war-and-revolution-bloodied century, but know good tourist lure when they read it. Visitors still show up, occasionally, looking for Old World customs, stately manors and Basque maidens in peasant blouses. There are none. In fact, with its new two-million-dollar school, fish-packing plant and neat frame cottages, lie Madame has a scrubbed and modern look compared to most of Nova Scotia. No matter. The friendly atmosphere, superb scenery and moderate prices make the place well worth a detour for anyone traveling in the Maritimes. WALTER STEWART
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.