by Pam Hobbs, with pictures by Michael Algar

If you ever want to get away from it all, I mean really escape for a few days, I know just the place: Les Isles de la Madeleine, or as they are fondly known in English "The Maggies". Located in the province of Quebec, they are almost entirely French-speaking, so you'll feel a sense of adventure from the moment you land. They are easily reached by air from mainland Quebec or Nova Scotia, and by ferry from Prince Edward Island. Scenery ranges from gentle pastoral landscapes scattered with multi-coloured houses to dramatic cliffs steeped in a history of pirates and shipwrecks and rough winter storms. The beaches are wonderful, people as friendly as can be. Talk to the shop-keepers selling handmade jewellery and artists in their studios - watch the fishermen coming in with their catch - join musicians and their audience haaviing a rollicking good time in the cafes at night - then you will see why I am so endeared to The Maggies, and have kept them a secret for the past 25 years.

I have a friend here, Damien, a Madeleinot by birth and now a resident by choice. He never wears a watch. Says he doesn't need to except on this day when we've lingered on the beach, and he has to meet the four o'clock flight from Halifax. I tell him we still have ninety minutes. He shakes his head, squints at the sun, and says I am on Montreal time which is an hour behind that of the islands. Not too surprising since I am from the mainland ? Well, no. It's just that I have been here almost two days before finding out. This about sums up relaxation, Madeleinot style. Life here, you see, is ruled by the elements rather than the clock. It is where city stress is blown away by strong ocean breezes. Where your most important decision is whether to order lobster or bouillabaisse for dinner. Fatigue is when you walk for miles on an empty beach forgetting it's the same distance back. Hurry ? I guess, if you suddenly decide to watch the sun set beyond nature's rock sculptures at Etang du Nord. But then there's always tomorrow... So leave your worries on the mainland, along with mortgage payments, eight-lane highways and schedules. They will be there when you return. Meantime you can experience a unique vacation in these hospitable islands.

Located within the province of Quebec, but geographically closer to Nova Scotia The Maggies consist of twelve islands. Seven are inhabited. Six of these are connected by road, strung out for about 65 km in the shape of a letter "C", while English-speaking Entry Island lies some 10 km offshore. Combined population is around 12,000 people, whose daily lives are very much shaped by area history, geography and climate.

The islands changed hands often after Jacques Cartier came upon them in 1634. Annexed to Newfoundland in 1753, and then Quebec, they were next given to England's Sir Isaac Coffin for his services during the American Revolution. In l902 a third generation Isaac Coffin sold them to Quebec for $l00,000. Now all of the resident population is French-speaking, except for inhabitants of two small communities who conduct their daily business in English without so much as a French accent, and fiercely cling to their Scottish and Irish heritage.

So now you know where we are, and why we're here, what exactly is there to do ? Knowing that the whole experience will linger in memory, it is difficult to pinpoint a single highlight. The beaches are outstanding. Scramble over a dune and you will be on miles of broad beach, where litter is unclaimed sea shells and noise the screeching of seabirds, and quite possibly yours will be the only human footprints to mark it that day. In mid-June I watched local children splash joyfully in the ocean. Two or three weeks later it will have warmed sufficiently for the rest of us.

High rust-coloured cliffs gouged by persistent pounding of the sea inspire artists and photographers, while providing natural shelter for your beach cook-outs when winds above are chilly. Bird fanciers flock here to glimpse some of the islands' 200 bird species, including the elusive Piping Plover. Damien recalls idyllic summers here as a child, surrounded by three generations of his family. Every day, he says, he and his cousins would shimmy down those cliffs on a rope pegged to the top, and play on their own private beach. Throughout the season they carved out steps, and by Labour Day had a complete staircase to the top - waiting to be washed away by winter storms.

If you aren't into swinging from ropes and leaping into the ocean from cliff-tops, you will appreciate public access at beach level, and a variety of water excursions offered by local companies. Aerosports, for one, is a vital young company providing everything from regular surf-boarding to sand and water sailing, kayaking, diving, kite surfing and more. At Club Vacances, more enthusiastic young people escort kayak excursions into caves, with an optional mud bath when you get there. Zodiac tours, fishing trips, one-day excursions to Entry Island, bicycle and water tours are all designed to acquaint you with the natural treasures of Les Iles de la Madeleine.

Best of all perhaps are the unplanned days. Like the Saturday afternoon when we stopped to look at lobster boats in the harbour at l'Etang-du-Nord, then whiled away two hours or more on a dockside patio. Lunching on blue mussels and seafood pot-en-pot at Au Vieux Convent, the former domain of the Sisters of Notre Dame. An impromptu beach picnic, with supplies from the fromagerie de Pied-de-vent. Walking the cliff path at Cap aux Meules. Time and again stopping to admire land and seascapes, scattered with wooden houses of every shape, size and colour.

Come evening there are French movies and splendid sunsets and live bands performing in the restaurants. The Maggies have more than their fair share of excellent restaurants. Back in the l970s and 80s, some of the mainland's top chefs opted out of city life for a slower pace here. Many have since trained local chefs, who now have their own establishments. Such is Le Table des Roy, recipient of numerous awards, where an enormous bouillabaisse contains six kinds of fish, and the seafood platter is a work of art. On my most recent visit I dined at four or five restaurants, and give every one top marks for ambience, hospitality and food. At l'Auberge de La Petite Baie, owner Rejeanne Langford went a step further when she announced a glorious sunset out back, knowing she was disrupting service for a good fifteen minutes while most of her diners rushed outside to watch.

Lunch at Café de la Grave, (their clam chowder is sensational) and you will probably want to potter about the village for the rest of the afternoon. Here, fishing huts have been converted to craft and jewellery shops in which artists happily talk about their one-of-a-kind creations. Up the hill apiece, the Musee de la Mer has live exhibits from island waters, maritime memorabilia and a full-sized replica of Le Ponchon. You will see Le Ponchon in miniatures sold as island souvenirs with the story attached on a little card. Briefly, in l9l0 after the islands' only link with the outside world was severed during a January storm, this was the barrel set adrift to bring help. The 27 letters inside were to friends, and Members of Parliament, urging that the telegraph cable be repaired. And so it was, a year later.

Promise of a relaxed lifestyle, plus a wealth of natural colours and materials attract artists to the islands. Several now create unique pieces from local sand and alabaster. At his studio in Cap-aux-Meules, Francois Forest creates exquisite sculptures from multi-coloured alabaster taken from area cliffs and buffed to a brilliant shine. At Les Artisans du Sable in Havre-Aubert, several artists mix sand with water to form a clay for use in unusual ornaments and home accessories.

Sandcastle competitions have become serious business around the world. Every August contestants congregate in these islands to build elaborate castles several metres high. This is one of many annual events designed to attract more visitors and to lengthen the ridiculously short tourist season. (The traditional vacation period in Quebec is July 15 - August 15, which means that in September, when both the weather and water are deliciously warm, you can virtually have the islands to yourself.)

Because of the short holiday season, developers don't have an eye on these gorgeous beaches, and for this we can be thankful. In the twenty-five years since my first visit, the biggest change is an increased number of elegant B and Bs and inns with ensuite facilities and fine dining rooms. Three years ago an all-inclusive vacation club (Club Vacances) opened as a non-profit organization on a choice oceanfront site. Geared for families, its children's programme includes a circus school for youngsters. A child-minding service leaves parents and grandparents free to go off on conducted walks, kayaking and cycling tours. You can even get into a wet suit and literally float into nearby caves. Accomodation here is bright and attractive, evening entertainment home-grown, and meals feature island dishes such as their tasty fish pie. I should add that while staff members are bi-lingual, at this time almost all guests are French-speaking. So bring your phrase book and enjoy. The Frenchness, after all, is an important part of The Maggies' allure.

IF YOU GO: Air Canada flies to Les Iles de la Madeleine from Montreal, Quebec City and Halifax. A daily ferry service from Souris, P.E.I. takes five hours and will bring your car too or there is a weekly live-aboard ferry from Montreal. There is no public transportation on the islands, but you may rent a car or bicycle and join escorted excursions. We were happy with our stay first at Chez Denis a Francois in Havre-Aubert, within walking distance of La Grave's restaurants, boutiques and museums. And then at Chateau Madelinot, a modern hotel on the seashore at Cap-aux-Meules, where full amenities include a pool. Average cost for a double room (with ensuite) throughout the islands is $65 a night, a sumptuous meal for two with wine around $70. For more information contact Iles-de-la-Madeleine Tourist Association, P.O. Box 1028, Cap-aux-Meules, Iles-de-la-Madeleine GOB 1BO. Telephone: (418) 986-2245. E-mail: iles@cancom.net www.ilesdelamadeleine.com