It’s time to plan the family holiday again and you’re trying to decide on a destination. The problem is that Dad wants to hit some world class salmon rivers, Mom prefers to lie on the beach, big brother wants to work on reducing his handicap and Sis insists on going hiking in the mountains. Well, if your holiday plans include Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula you can relax because all of these activities are available within reasonable driving distance of one another. After a week spent doing an entire circuit of the peninsula we should know.
Leaving from my hometown near Halifax, we hit the road in the early morning for an approximately six-hour drive to Campbellton, New Brunswick. Crossing the bridge we arrived at the town of Pointe-a-la-Croix and Highway 132, which circumnavigates the Gaspe. Our first stop was a National Historic Site dedicated to the 1760 Battle of Restigouche. This museum, overlooking the mouth of the Restigouche River, houses the anchor and large hull fragments from the French flagship the Machault, which spearheaded an expedition designed to retake Quebec City, lost shortly before in the famed Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Thinly garrisoned by the British, the city would easily have fallen had the British fleet not bottled up their French counterpart in the mouth of the river. Quite likely if the French had reached Quebec they would have retaken the city and drastically changed our country’s history.
Eastward on Highway 132 we drove to the town our Nouvelle and a night’s lodging in our B&B, a converted manse, the Gite a l’abri du Clocher. This is just one of the many B&B’s which dot the Gaspe. They are almost invariably charming and comfortable with owners who go out of their way to make your visit enjoyable. The people of Gaspe in general are outstandingly friendly and hospitable, and though not all are fluent in English, a little high school French and a good sense of humor can easily get you what you want and where you want to go.
The next day we toured the Miguasha National Park (which is actually a Quebec provincial park.) A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the park harbors fossils dug from the nearby sea cliffs featuring 370 million year old specimens of early fish. What is distinctive is that these represent a transitional stage from gills to lungs and sea to land habitation. It is likely these fossil creatures are a direct evolutionary link to human beings (come to think of it, one of them did look a lot like my mother-in-law.)
Backtracking westward and inland we next hit the little town of Causapscal. Perched on the confluence of the Matapedia and Causapscal Rivers, this town was the site of the famed Matamajaw lodge founded a century ago by George Mount Stephen, one of the principals of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Limited to the very wealthy until the 1970’s it is now an historic site. One of the last people to enjoy the lodge’s facilities was President Jimmy Carter.
Of course the river is now open to everyone and frequently produces salmon in excess of ten kilograms. A doctor practicing in this town could duck out over lunchtime or take call and go fishing a world class salmon river all summer long! Speaking of doctors, another interesting attraction in this town is the restored home and office of Dr. Frenette. Visitors can get an idea of how physicians practiced one hundred years ago. And I understand Dr. Frenette wasn’t averse to trying his luck fly fishing the pool just down from his residence.
Proceeding north to the Gulf of St. Lawrence we then headed east to Grand Metis, and stopped at the spectacular Reford Garden’s. I was hardly prepared for the acres of manicured flowers and foliage which greeted us. The garden was begun by Elsie Reford, the niece of George Mount Stephen. Once an avid salmon fisher she was instructed by her physician to avoid the cold and damp of the rivers. Instead she chose to work on these gardens, noted as being one of the few places in the world where the Himalayan Blue Poppy will thrive outside its native home. Elsie’s grandson, Alexander Reford, is the present director of the gardens and has ably carried on the family tradition.
From Reford Gardens we proceeded to Cap-Chat and dinner at the Restaurant Fleur de Lys. We were hardly prepared to sample world class cuisine in a small town the north shore of the Gaspe, but were pleasantly surprised with the fine French cuisine featuring local fresh fish and seafood, as well as locally raised red deer.
Heading south on Highway 299 we soon found ourselves in the mountains, with many peaks over one thousand meters in height, still patched with snow. The Gaspesie National Park (Quebec) encompasses the northernmost summits of the Adirondacks and features glorious hiking to Alpine meadows in the summer and to some of the only herds of wild caribou south of the St. Lawrence. In the winter cross country skiers and snowshoe enthusiasts can make use of the extensive trails and huts. A great place to stay is the Gite du Mont-Albert, right in the center of the park. Built in the fifties it features comfortable rooms and a uniquely rustic dining room with a huge moose head mounted over the stone fireplace.
We chose to do some hiking up the slopes of Mont Ernest-Laforce. Our guide introduced himself as Francois Boulanger. He led us to the top of the mountain for a panoramic view of the park including some of its highest peaks such as Mont Albert and Mont Jacques Cartier. Afterwards we hiked down to the glacial lake, Lac aux Americains. In the course of conversing with Francois we discovered that he was the Director of the Park! Despite ample administrative duties he still liked to get out once or twice a week on the trails with guests to keep a hands-on approach.
Dinner at the Gite du Mont-Albert that night was a real treat. I managed to talk the rest of my crew into joining me in trying with the cream of frog’s leg soup followed by roast rack of caribou. Those of legal age should wash this down with an absolutely delicious white wine produced in Quebec, called Orpailleur. Everyone admitted that despite initial misgivings they had really enjoyed the cuisine.
Next day we backtracked north and then east along an increasingly spectacular coast, tracking the St. Lawrence. In places it reminded me of the Big Sur coast between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Of course such rugged coast line requires lighthouses. The quaint lighthouses of yesteryear are now largely replaced by more efficient but singularly ugly automatic lights. Not so at the privately operated light at La Martre. Here the incredibly enthusiastic Yves Foucreault directs a now privately run light, which is so efficient it is still listed in the mariners’ charts. Yves showed us around his museum and then led us up to the top of the lighthouse. The brass gears were polished to a golden gleam and the several ton light was so lubricated and balanced that it could be moved with a single finger. Monsieur Foucreault should have been born a hundred years ago when lighthouses still required keepers, for he certainly made an outstanding one.
Leaving La Martre we headed further east up the coast and past another lighthouse which also served as the world’s first active radio station, at Pointe-a-la-Renommee. From here we traveled on to the town of Gaspe, and Forillon National Park (of Canada). This park features ample wildlife including moose and bear. We spotted a black bear ambling beside the highway shortly after entering the park. Along the rugged coast historic buildings have been preserved including the Hyman General Store and a traditional homestead, the Maison Blanchette. Entering the Hyman General Store, an animator acting as the establishment’s head clerk, tried to hire me to join the cod fishery. The pay? Twelve dollars a month with a slight deduction for room and board.
We overnighted in the town of Gaspe at the Maison William Wakeham. Wakeham, a medical doctor, was also an avid explorer and was commissioned by the Canadian government to travel to and stake claim to Canada’s far north. His home is a solid building of brick construction and dark wood interiors, with airy bedrooms and a somewhat austere ambiance.
The next morning we headed back to the park for a whale watching tour with Croisiere Baie-de-Gaspe. There are many different species of whales which spend the summer in these waters including the Blue whale, the world’s largest living creature. Over eighty percent of cruises are successful in finding whales. Unfortunately the weather had turned by the next morning and with three meter waves it was virtually impossible to spot the whales spouting. We did manage to see two Harbor Porpoises and had a great time slamming into the large waves in our powerful tour boat.
That afternoon we drove to the town of Perce. Perhaps the most famous icon of the Gaspe is this huge rock which is pierced through at one end by centuries of wind and water fueled erosion. At low tide visitors can walk right out to the rock. Tour boats will take you around Perce and then out to Bonaventure Island to hike. The far side of the island rewards visitors with a close up view of one of the world’s largest gannet colonies, with over one hundred thousand birds nesting here.
The town of Perce has done a good job of preserving its traditional architecture. The Maison du Pecheur is notable for two things: incredibly good seafood and graffiti on the ceiling put there in 1969 by a group which later founded the FLQ (Front de la Liberation du Quebec). At this time the members were basically a bunch of free-living hippies. The numerous gift shops in the community offer the usual assortment of mass produced souvenirs, but usually a shopper can find a section featuring the work of local artisans including jewelry made from local stones, and polished Mount Lyall agate. Local painters and wood carvers also produce pieces which could be displayed proudly in any home.
From Perce we drove westward, back along the coast of the Baie de Chaleur. Passing through Newport, tourists can visit the home of Mary Travers “La Bolduc”, a famous French Canadian singer with whom Anglophones may be familiar from a recent historical television vignette.
Further up the coast we arrived at Gite Manoir du Vieux Presbytere in Port Daniel. Another converted manse, this imposing Victorian style mansion overlooks a fine beach. The proprietors were so hospitable we felt like members of the family by the end of the evening, as our hosts spent the evening regaling us with stories of life in the Gaspe in bygone years.
The next morning we drove on to the town of Paspebiac. One of my favorite destinations of the entire trip was the Historic Site of the Banc-de-Peche-de-Paspebiac. Incorporating original and rebuilt structures, the site gave a firsthand view of how a cod fishing and processing plant would have run a century ago. Given that many of my family’s ancestors were Newfoundland fishermen we found this glimpse of how their lives may have been enthralling.
Our final stop was the Bioparc de la Gaspesie in Bonaventure. This site displays many of the indigenous animals and environments of the peninsula. Both adults and children would enjoy a close up look at bears, moose, caribou, seals and other examples of marine and terrestrial life.
Continuing westward we passed through the beachside resort of Carleton and then on back to Nouvelle. We had now completed a full circuit of the Gaspe. A short drive west and we were once again at Pointe-a-la-Croix opposite Campbellton, New Brunswick. We were ready to travel back to New Brunswick and thence home to Nova Scotia, well fed and with our senses of adventure at least temporarily sated.
If You Go
The following websites are great sources of information for those contemplating a trip to the Gaspe:
Rocher Perce – Wikipedia Creative Commons
All Other Photos Are By George Burden – All Rights Reserved
This article first appeared in The Medical Post