Just north of New Brunswick is a beautiful place where small towns and lighthouses are served up with a friendly French twist.
By Lisa Halvorsen
In 1534 Jacques Cartier set sail from France in search of gold, spices, and a passage to the Far East. His explorations brought him into the Gulf of St. Lawrence in what is present-day Quebec. There he first noted La Gaspesie “” the Gaspe Peninsula “” a place of unparalleled beauty, abundant wildlife, and plentiful fishing.
Today much of this part of Quebec is as untamed and undeveloped as it was when this intrepid explorer first claimed it for the King of France. But it also offers visitors much more, from beguiling coastal towns and historic lighthouses to museums, public gardens, and other cultural, historical, and natural attractions.
The peninsula’s name is a French version of the Micmac Indian word gespeg, meaning “end of land,” a reference to its geographic location. It is a part of Canada that can “” and should “” be part of any tour you make of the Atlantic Maritime region.
Sainte-Flavie (look for Mont-Joli on your map if Sainte-Flavie does not show up) is on the north shore and is considered the gateway to the Gaspe Peninsula. From there you can circle the peninsula on Route 132, the “Route de la Mer,” a scenic 600-mile drive. Most of this road hugs the coast and offers stunning scenery and panoramic sea views, and the roads are fine for motorhome travel.
For an introduction to Gaspe’s maritime history, visit Pointe-au-Pere Lighthouse, just west of Sainte-Flavie. This architecturally interesting lighthouse, one of many that you’ll see in your travels, was built in 1909 and is the second-tallest lighthouse in Canada. The Musee de la Mer (Museum of the Sea) on the lighthouse grounds recounts the ill-fated voyage of the Empress of Ireland, which collided with another ship in the fog off Pointe-au-Pere in 1914. It was Canada’s deadliest maritime disaster ever, with more than 1,000 lives lost. The underwater wreckage was discovered a half-century after the disaster.
Follow the north shore to Grand-Metis to tour Les Jardins de Metis (Reford Gardens), which features more than 3,000 plant species from around the world, including the rare blue Himalayan poppy. The property was used by Canadian Pacific Railroad magnate Lord Mount Stephen as a fishing lodge. Credit for the spectacular gardens belongs to his niece, Elsie Stephen Reford, who developed them over a 35-year period.
In addition to the historic gardens, you can tour the 37-room Villa Estevan, including an exhibit on the family and the home’s history as seen through the eyes of the staff, fishing guides, and gardeners. Every summer the International Garden Festival takes place on the grounds, featuring guest garden designers who showcase plants and garden styles in temporary gardens.
Continuing along this route, you’ll notice more than 100 wind turbines, all part of Nordais Windmill Park, the largest wind energy plant in Canada. Tours are offered in the summer. Watch for signs for Eole Cap-Chat (Wind Energy Interpretation Center), where you can learn more about wind power.
For a look at the diverse marine life and biodiversity of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, visit Exploramer, a marine discovery and research center in Sainte-Anne-des-Monts. Check the schedule when you first arrive for special guided tours of the various aquariums, touch tanks, and other exhibits there. For an additional fee you can board the JV Exploramer, an 18-passenger boat, for an up-close look at the marine species and research conducted at this facility. Different hands-on eco-experiences are offered, including a Laboratory on the Sea trip where participants help collect scientific data.
From Sainte-Anne-des-Monts you either can continue along the coastal highway or detour inland on Route 299 for 25 miles to Parc National de la Gaspesie (Gaspesie National Park). Head south, and once you’re at the park’s visitors center, you can pick up maps and learn more about Quebec’s Appalachian Mountains: the Chic-Choc range, the boreal forest, and arctic-alpine flora and fauna, as well as park activities. Take a walk to Lac aux Americains, a pretty glacial lake, or a longer mountain hike. The park also offers great fishing and canoeing. In addition to its dramatic topography “” it has some of the highest peaks in Quebec “” this national park is home to the only herd of woodland caribou south of the St. Lawrence. You also may spot white-tailed deer, moose, and other wildlife.
Make your way back to Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, and follow Route 132 to La Martre for a guided tour of a century-old, still operational, wooden lighthouse and the adjacent Musee des Phares et Balises (Lighthouse and Beacon Museum). Two other picturesque lighthouses along this shore “” Cap de la Madeleine and Pointe-a-la-Renommee “” also offer guided tours and spectacular views of the St. Lawrence.
Don’t let the scenery distract you when you’re behind the wheel in this area. You’ll need to exercise extra caution on the 70-mile stretch from Mont-Louis to Parc National de Forillon (Forillon National Park). The road is well-maintained but has steep, winding sections. Take it slow.
One of the country’s true treasures is Forillon National Park, a 92-square-mile preserve on the peninsula’s easternmost tip. A good place for birding and whale watching, the park includes the Grande-Grave National Heritage Site, a 1900s hillside fishing village with 26 original buildings, including the Hyman & Sons General Store, which once served as a company store.
In the town of Cap-des-Rosiers is a lighthouse with the same name. European seafarers centuries ago named the area for the dense thickets of roses (rosiers) on the headland. This 112-foot lighthouse, built in 1858, is the tallest in Canada. In summer you can take a whale-watching tour or guided sea kayaking trip from Grande-Grave Harbor.
The nearby town of Gaspe has another stop-worthy venue, the Gaspe Regional Museum and Jacques Cartier Monument. Here you can learn more about the area’s history, and about Cartier’s voyages and explorations of Quebec. Stop by the Site d’interpretation de la culture Micmac de Gespeg (Micmac Cultural Center), too, where the history of the Micmacs is presented through a video and interpretive displays. In addition to the indoor exhibits, you can wander through a re-created outdoor village circa 1675 that demonstrates how the Micmacs lived in each of the four seasons.
Other attractions in town include the Cathedral de Gaspe, the only wooden cathedral in North America, and the Sanctuaire Notre-Dame des Douleurs (also called Notre Dame de Pointe Navarre), with its impressive religious art and replica of the Lourdes Grotto.
As you head toward Perce, you’ll encounter a few more steep inclines. After this point, the driving gets easier, for the peninsula’s southern shore is fairly flat.
Perce has so much to offer visitors that you’ll need to stay in the area for a few days to see it all. Start at the Charles Robin Historical Complex, a converted wooden fish-packing house near the government wharf. It houses the visitor information center for Parc National de l’Ile Bonaventure-et-du-Rocher-Perce (Bonaventure Island and Perce Rock National Park), as well as exhibits on the area’s natural heritage and history, including its cod fishing industry.
Tides permitting, you can walk on the sea bed to Pierced (Perce) Rock, Quebec’s best-known natural landmark. The famous rock, which was pierced by wave action over millions of years, is 1,420 feet long, 290 feet high, and 375 million years old. Mont Sainte-Anne offers spectacular views of the sea and the rock, but you will need to walk or use your towed car to reach its summit, as the road is narrow and parking is limited at the overlook.
Tne of the most accessible colonies of northern gannets in the world, numbering more than 100,000 birds, can be found on Bonaventure Island, a short boat ride from Perce. Tour boats circle the island to allow you to view the gannets, black-legged kittiwakes, double-crested cormorants, and other bird species from the sea before dropping you off to walk to the colony. In the summer, park rangers offer interpretive activities and guided walks on Bonaventure Island.
Be sure to visit the many fun boutiques and art galleries in the town of Perce. It also offers a number of restaurants where you can feast on fresh fish and seafood and sample regional favorites, including poutine “” French fries with white-cheddar cheese curds and gravy.
It’s a short jaunt from here to L’Anse-a-Beaufils, where you step back in time into the Magasin General Historique Authentique (Magasin Historic General Store). As you chat with the re-enactors, you’ll quickly become immersed in the daily life of a typical Gaspe fishing community in 1928.
You can further explore the socioeconomic importance of fishing to the region at Site Historique du Banc-de-Peche-de-Paspebiac (Paspebiac Fishing Bank Historic Site) in Paspebiac, the historical capital of fishing in Gaspe. The complex includes 11 historic buildings that once belonged to two companies that prepared and exported salt-dried cod.
Le Bioparc de la Gaspesie (Gaspe Biopark) in Bonaventure provides a look at the flora and fauna of five ecosystems with more than 30 animals and 70 plant species in their native habitats. At the nearby Musee acadien du Quebec (Acadian Museum of Quebec), exhibits focus on the local Acadian culture and history.
Visit the Village Gaspesien de l’Heritage Britannique (Gaspesian British Heritage Village) in New Richmond, where costumed interpreters invite you to learn about the contributions of the British to the region’s history and culture. The complex has 24 historic buildings, including an art gallery in an 1850 barn that showcases the work of present-day artists.
Amazing fossil finds characterize Parc National de Miguasha (Miguasha National Park), a world-renowned site with plant and fish specimens dating back 370 million years. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 and recognized for having the highest number and best-preserved fossils from the Devonian Period (Age of Fishes) in the world. Your guided tour will include the natural history museum, teaching laboratory, and a walk on the beach to observe fossil formations in the sea cliffs. It’s a pleasant drive from the coast back to Sainte-Flavie via the beautiful Matapedia Valley. Plan a stop in Causapscal to tour Matamajaw Historical Site (Salmon Lodge) on the Matapedia River, now preserved as a historic site but representative of the many elite private fishing clubs that sprang up in the valley between 1870 and 1930.
Whether your interests lie in following the footsteps of history, delving into local culture, or communing with nature on land or sea, La Gaspesie will not disappoint.
Further info … and some pointers
(877) BONJOUR (266-5687)
Passports are required of U.S. citizens.
Don’t worry if you don’t speak French. Most everyone you’ll deal with can speak English also.
Summer temperatures on Gaspe average in the upper 70s during the day, with nighttime lows in the 50s. The summer season begins in mid-June and ends by September. October highs average 52 degrees.
The Bonjour Quebec Web site has campsites listed under the Gaspe region. Additional campgrounds may be listed in your favorite campground directory, or at the following: www.tourisme-gaspesie.com, www.quebecmaritime.ca