Gaspe Peninsula, Quebec: Plenty of Room, Plenty of Whales
This region north of PEI is a Summer Paradise with Few Tourists
By Max Hartshorne
If you started on Prince Edward Island, then drove 754 miles up the craggy coast, you'd reach the tip of the Gaspe Peninsula, also known by its French name, Gaspesie. It would be an eight-hour slog, which explains why we chose to fly from Montreal to Quebec City and then flew 2 1/2 hours to Gaspe.
This place might be a bit hard to get to, but once we arrived, we were very happy to be there. Gaspe is vast, and very lightly populated, and has places that make you gasp. Really.
The Perce Rock is just one example....and there are 47 lighthouses that dot the rugged northern coastline that make great photo stops too.
Face to face with a moose? Close enough to hear the breathing of a pod of Humpback Whales? Yep, we did all of that during our July visit to Gaspe, which left us wanting to return.
The Lay of the Land
The capital of Gaspe is the town with the same name, with about 15,000 residents perched just below the tip of the peninsula, Cap Bon Ami, which is a national Park called Parc National Forillon.
One of the benefits of traveling in 2017 is that Canada is celebrating their 150th birthday, and with a 2017 Parks Canada Discovery Pass, admission is free.
The long tip of the park sticks out into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and it's a whale migration route. So each open-topped whale watching vessel that goes out almost always returns with thrilled passengers, who can get as close to a Humpback or Right Whale as possible.
Brise-Bise for Fun
In Gaspe our first night, we discovered the most rockin' place in town hands down--Brise-Bise restaurant.
Arriving too late for dinner, instead, we were treated to a fantastic rhythm and blues band, with horns blasting and people dancing and having fun. Outside, a huge crowd of 20-somethings mingled, enjoying the music and the view of the water from the balcony.
In Gaspe, we stayed at the Hotel des Commandants, a comfortable and affordable lodging with a surprise view, which we discovered the next morning at breakfast.
But we had no time to enjoy the view, as we were off to a small boat in the Forillon National Park to meet some humpback whales with Croisieres Baie de Gaspe.
I wondered when I got up to the dock where the big whale watching boat was. We were accustomed to the large two-level vessels that ply the waters of Cape Cod and New Brunswick but this time, our boat was open, and with a much smaller number of passengers.
Open Top Boat
The captain explained that with an open boat, fewer people get seasick. And it's much easier to spot the whales when there are no walls around. We headed out with gray, foreboding skies, and in just a matter of minutes, it began to rain.
But we were equipped....everyone wore the company-issued, long yellow rain slickers. The torrent began, and lightning flashed and thunder rolled. But as the cheery French-only speaking naturalist guide said, "like children, we will enjoy the trip, we won't let the rain keep us from having fun." (The morning whalewatches have English speaking guides, too).
And when the first of about 20 humpbacks made their appearance, we were all pleased to agree, it was well worth it!
Forillon has miles of trails and beaches to roam, including the very tip of the peninsula, Lands End. Cap Bon Ami features dramatic soaring cliffs and you can sometimes spot whales right off the coast. In Cap des Rosiers, a long boardwalk skirts the rugged seaside.
Touring the Coastline on Route 132
Like many visitors, our destinations in Gaspesie would take us up along the northern coast, where 15 lighthouses dot the shoreline. Route 132 is the road, and it winds past sparkling beaches, beautiful vistas and wide open farm fields.
We stopped for two nights at Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, a perfect place to explore both the mysteries of the St Lawrence and the Gaspesie National Park. Our accommodations here were sleek and modern. Hotel and Cie and its restaurant, La Broue dans l'Toupet fit the bill perfectly.
Exploramer is a place where you can discover many interesting things about the sea; an exhibit about sharks was fascinating and a lot of it was hands-on, making it perfect for travelers with kids. With their own JV Exploramar vessel that takes visitors for a 90-minute excursion out into the St. Lawrence, you can learn about oceanography and fishing, traditions that go way back in this town.
Sadly, on the day we visited there were blowing winds that kept the boat tied up at the dock.
But we did get a chance to tour the shark exhibit and see the local aquatic life in their circular aquarium, including a rare blue lobster and all manner of crustaceans and touch pools.
Here, guide Patrick Kenney told us the region's Blue Fork sustainable seafood program, that lists 40 species that are not endangered, including welk, Stimpson clams, seal meat, dulse and turbot. Yes, seal is one of the most abundant species found here, and like others we met, he pointed his finger at Brigitte Bardot and Paul McCartney, blaming them for the public outcry against seal hunting.
Hiking to See Moose
Exhilarated by the surroundings, we drove inland into the big Gaspesie National Park, which is about 60 km long, in the center of the peninsula. A briefing with a guide directed us to the trail leading to the Lac aux Americains, named for geologists who once worked here. An easy hike revealed the beautiful pristine lake, and next to it, a rustic cabin that looked like it would be a good place to stay for the night. There are many options for rustic camping, semi-serviced camping, and canoeing here.
Following the ranger's tip, we headed next to the top of Mont Ernest-Laforce, where soon we were face to face with a female moose!
While we sat in awe, up ahead on the trail, a second moose stood by the trail even closer, munching on weeds and oblivious to our clicking cameras. The commanding view was 360 degrees of green, an incredible reward for the hike, with more moose on the way down.
Reford Gardens and Rimouski
The next morning we drove west again on 132 to Grand-Metis, a speck of a town that is famous for Reford Gardens, a family-owned 200-acre, verdant paradise on the banks of the St. Lawrence River.
Alexander Reford, the great-grandson of Elsie Reford, runs the place that features rare plants, three cafes, and a fine restaurant, the Estevan Lodge. He's a busy man with weddings every weekend and many staff answering to him.
He graciously gave us a tour including showing us a giant African lily that only blooms every seven years...we were in luck!
It's a remarkably beautiful garden and the restaurant features the cuisine of Chef Pierre-Olivier Ferry, using herbs and vegetables grown in their garden.
Our itinerary took us out of Gaspesie and into the Bas-Saint-Laurent region for a night when we visited Rimouski, a lively town of around 50,000 residents on the river with the Promenade de la Mer, a walkway featuring two-level seating areas to watch the impressive sunsets when the tide goes out about a quarter of a mile. On the night we were visiting, a 10-day street festival was still underway, with pedestrians only and beer stands on every corner.
The Empress of Ireland
It was just eight miles to the east that in 1914, a ship carrying thousands of passengers sank, and we learned all about the Empress of Ireland tragedy at the Pointe-au-Pere Maritime Historic Site the next morning. Although almost as many people perished as in the Titanic, the Empress of Ireland was mostly filled with Irish and other European immigrants returning to the continent, when a coal ship collided with the vessel in fog, and more than 1000 perished.
The building housing the museum about the doomed ship is built to resemble what the Empress of Ireland looked like when it was found by divers in the 1960s, with a cantilevered shape resembling the broken vessel. The guides present an empathic look at the terrible tragedy and artifacts and ship models recreate the history. Another building is devoted to what life here was like way back in 1914, the year of the disaster.
Also on the site are two more attractions....the Onondaga submarine sits astride the beach, now open for tours...so you can see how crowded life was for submariners in the Canadian navy who lived aboard the 90-meter boat.
The tour can be a little claustrophobic since everyone goes in one line and there is no turning back, but the history is fascinating as presented in recorded segments on hand-held devices.
Next to the sub, Canada's second tallest lighthouse awaits, with 128 steps to climb and an exhibit of photographs covering 50 years of underwater archeology at Parks Canada.
Our road trip continued as we headed south to the town of Perce, one of the most beautiful of towns in Gaspe. Maybe it's that rock...the Perce Rock that dominates the view offshore and to its right, Bonaventure Island, where hundreds of thousands of gannets nest and raise their young atop the rocky cliffs.
We found Perce to be a fun town, with a main street reminiscent of Ogunquit in Maine, and its center might just be the La Maison du Percheur, where a big line snakes out the door every night.
The seafood restaurant is right on the water and was recently renovated after a winter storm tore off its front. Our lobsters and the ambiance were just perfect, in fact, we came back the next day to have lunch after touring Bonaventure Island.
If you visit Perce, besides gawking at the marvelous rock, taking the excursion with Bateliers de Perce is a fantastic day trip. You get close up views of the rock, and then you're dropped off at Parc National de I'lle Bonaventure-et-du-Rocher-Perce, where 250,000 nesting birds reside.
First, you can view the birds as they squawk and alight from the tall cliffs on the ocean-facing side, then you can hike to the edge and see them up close atop Bonaventure Island. It takes about 2 hours and bird lovers will be enthralled at all the gannets up close.
Geoparc de Perce
Another nearby attraction that is very popular is the Geoparc de Perce, which is perched up atop a mountain facing the river. It has a suspended platform with a glass floor that's guaranteed to make you queasy, but the view is pretty killer. There are also exhibits about local fossils and a fun indoor play area for kids.
Gaspe, or Gaspesie, is indeed a destination you'll never forget. Some day Americans might just get around to discovering it. But for now, you'll have it mostly to yourself, so go!
Find out more about Gaspe!
Our trip was sponsored by Quebec-Maritime, but the opinions are all our own.
Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted, and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and watching his grandchildren grow up.