A tour of Quebec's eastern treasure.
Famous for its charm, quaint fishing villages and superb flyfishing on the world's most beautiful rivers, the coastal landform on Quebec's eastern tip is generally known outside its boundaries as the Gaspé Peninsula.
Separated from the rest of Quebec by the Matapedia Valley, the peninsula is divided by the Appalachian Ridge into two main geographical areas: the North and South shores. Washed by the estuary and Gulf of St. Lawrence on the north and east, and Chaleur Bay to the south, there are five regions of the peninsula: the Bay of Chaleur, Land's End, Upper Gaspé, the Coast and the Valley.
Given its proximity to the cities of Montreal and Quebec to the west, the Coast is considered the doorway to the Gaspésie. However, travellers from the south and east most often drive through its provincial neighbour, New Brunswick, entering from Campbellton via the J.C. Van Horne Bridge, which spans the world-renowned Restigouche River. Our party of four went this way, on a mid-August day, following a trip along eastern New Brunswick's Acadian Coastal Drive-aptly named as the tri-coloured Acadian flag, with its lone yellow star, fluttered in the breeze from atop nearly every village spire and doorway along the way. Warmly welcomed by the residents of the French-speaking enclave of Campbellton, who quickly switched to English for those of us who did not speak French, their charm prepared us for more of the same on the nearly 900 kilometre coastal journey around the Gaspésie.
Across the Restigouche, where Atlantic salmon were preparing to spawn, Quebec's route 132 encircles the Gaspé Peninsula, inviting us to either go left, to the Valley region, or right to the Bay of Chaleur. We went right. Driving with the sun at our backs, we passed through small fishing communities stretched along the highway as it wormed its way between the hills and seashore, sharing the road with cyclists pedaling on the wide asphalt shoulders. Each community has either a large church at its centre or a lighthouse on the shore, towers gleaming in the evening light, for us signalling time to conclude a long but pleasant drive, find a campground and make ready for a new day. We found one on the banks of the crystal clear Nouvelle River. It was administered by a ZEC (in French zone d'exploitation contrôlée), one of 63 such organizations in Quebec, whose mandate is the management and conservation of wildlife. Following a restful night we left assured that if they manage and conserve wildlife as well as they administer campgrounds all creatures are certainly beneficiaries.
In the morning we backtracked 15 kilometres to Escuminac to visit La Savonnerie du Village, an old homestead where we were warmly welcomed by owner Madame Danielle Vallée, who produces handicrafts, along with a variety of beauty and household products made from goat's milk. She speaks passionately of her small goat herd, the farm and her creations. Our purchases complete she walked us to the doorway and pointed in the direction of our next stop, a few minutes south: the coastal cliffs of Miguasha National Park. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is known for the largest collection of fish fossils from the Devonian Period, or "The Age of Fishes," in the world, hundreds of which are displayed in a permanent exhibit at the museum on site. We would have liked to search the nearby beach to find our own specimens, but time did not permit as our goal before sunset was the town of Percé, 200 kilometres away. A three hour drive took us through more seaside communities, past excellent roadside picnic parks, and across some of the finest Atlantic salmon rivers in North America. Each year, in their gin-clear waters, anglers from around the world test their skills for the "king of sport fish." As we looked in envy at those casting lazy lines, we couldn't help but feel guilty for interrupting their peace.
Percé Rock glinted orange in the afternoon sun; its namesake town alive with photographers on shoreline boardwalks and processions of visitors on adjacent jetties, waiting to board tour boats to Bonaventure Island some 15 minutes, as the crow flies, offshore. Route 132 forms the town's main street and was lined on both sides with shoppers smitten by the numerous handicraft shops. A late, inexpensive and excellent lunch in a small bistro was impressive, especially the service. Like New Brunswick, francophones here quickly switched to English; if they couldn't a few gestures, by all, sufficed. Our next goal was a boat cruise to watch whales and visit Bonaventure Island, home to North America's largest northern gannet colony. Both were possible for about $30 each but cruise operators informed us it required a half-day commitment. We opted to wait umtil morning and started the 80-kilometre drive to Canada's Forillon National Park on the peninsula's eastern tip, our home for the night. Fortunately, we had reservations and got the last two campsites available. A wonderful site, with its varied ecosystems, nearly 700 plant species, more than 200 bird species, famous lighthouse, walking trails and family conveniences, this is the only campground, of the many excellent ones on the peninsula, where reservations were necessary. We bedded down and looked forward to our adventures the next morning.
Sunrise was quickly followed by high winds, driving rain and a change in plans. Our hike to the lighthouse and cruise to Bonaventure Island would have to wait for another time. A late breakfast and we were soon headed west along the rugged coastline toward Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, a three hour drive where, at times, the northern remnants of the Chic-Choc mountains squeezed the highway within yards of the pounding surf; thrilling-in well-maintained vehicles. Despite the weather, as we arrived windsurfers were preparing their sails on the boardwalk that fronts the town. Visiting several art galleries and souvenir shops, featuring local artists, kept the weather at bay till nightfall.
Early next morning we set out for the Coast region's Sainte-Flavie, for our last night on the peninsula. Signs of industry and commerce were evident as we drove through the town of Matane but soon faded as we headed back to the coast. Mist gave a surreal feel to the landscape, saturating the vivid colours of the perfectly painted homes. A cultural highlight along the way is a four-kilometre stretch known as "the Route des Arts" with art galleries, artisan workshops, gift stores, cafes and bakeries. Approaching from the east we were impressed by the life-size sculptures emerging from the St. Lawrence estuary. Known as Le Grand Rassemblement, or the Great Gathering, it's the work of sculptor Marcel Gagnon, more of which is displayed in Centre d' Art Marcel Gagnon, along with that of his wife and two sons. It's a must-see.
The last leg of our journey took us west to Mont Joli before leaving the sounds of the seashore to head south through the rolling farmland of the Matapedia Valley, where the Matapedia River glinted in the morning light as it snaked, parallel to the highway, on its way to the New Brunswick border. Fishers in canoes cast to hidden treasures as we watched, and they waited, in anticipation. Too soon we left the river and headed east to the bridge that took us here. We will return.