Road trips of yesteryear generate a sense of nostalgia. I remember competing with my older brother on who could pick out non-Ontario licence plates first while devouring greasy fast food while our car chugged along. As the miles added up so did the fond memories of roadside attractions, quirky characters, and scenic landmarks.
The COVID-19 travel restrictions may have kept two globetrotters from flying to the ends of the earth but not from embarking on an 11-day journey to the culturally and geographically diverse Quebec Maritime region. Instead of sitting on a plane hearing the jet engines roar while taking off, we heard the less-than-impressive whirring of my 2014 Ford Fusion’s engine.
Departing from the Toronto area, my travelling companion, Tim, and I confirmed trip essentials — music playlists, multiple masks, hand-sanitizer bottles, and wipes. Passports not required. Welcome to travel in the COVID era.
Crossing a provincial border at the “Bienvenue Québec” sign felt extra special after not travelling for months. It deserved a selfie. Our entry to Québécois culture began in Montreal with a two-day stay. We traded the car for scooters to explore graffiti-splattered alleyways and artfully lined streets, including a multi-storey building mural of the late Leonard Cohen. Cosmopolitan city dining and cultural delights packed in, we were on the road again with the iconic St. Lawrence River as our guide.
The Quebec Maritimes encompass four regions: Bas-Saint-Laurent, Gaspésie, Côte-Nord, and the îles de la Madeleine (or Magdalen Islands). The region’s 3,000-kilometre (1,865-mile) coastline is bound by the St. Lawrence River and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Themed routes include lighthouses and whale watching. We incorporate both themes on the 1,300-kilometre (808-mile) Bas-Saint-Laurent-to-Gaspésie route — a wonderfully diverse loop on Route 132 around the popular Gaspé Peninsula featuring many seaside fishing villages, national parks, and majestic mountain ranges.
St. Lawrence Sweetness in Quebec
The charming town of Kamouraska is bursting with galleries, and St. Lawrence River views but it was La Fée Gourmande chocolaterie that redirected my GPS. The aromatic chocolate scent greeted us along with the young cashier who said we were the first people she has served from outside Quebec since the pandemic began. Tim and I looked at each other and felt both proud and slightly ashamed that we were carrying the Ontario mantle in Quebec with our dishevelled looks.
Road trips are no time to be calorie-counting but we at least tried to burn off a few after indulging in the artisanal chocolate. We met Quebec Maritime tourism representative Suzie Loiselle at Bic National Park for a planned hike and “à la bonne franquette” or picnic. Heavy rains dampened our willingness for a long hike. Loiselle pointed out the coastal park’s impressive collection of bays, mountains, flora, and fauna.
Catching Up on Cod in Gaspé
Leaving Bas-Saint-Laurent we travelled south across the Gaspé Peninsula via route 132 to Carleton-sur-Mer and Chaleur Bay, within yelling distance of the New Brunswick border (closed to most non-Atlantic Canada residents). Chaleur Bay holds a special honour — it is a member of the Most Beautiful Bays of the World Club. A popular place for tourists with its numerous beaches and sand bars, where seafood lovers can feast upon the bounty of Atlantic salmon, lobster, and scallops.
Cod is a seafood staple in the Gaspésie region especially in the Acadian town of Paspébiac, home to the Banc-de-Pêche-de-Paspébiac Historic Site. A collection of 11 period buildings dating to 1766 show living history exhibits that illustrate the gruelling life and processes involved in cod fishing. More than 600 cod would be caught daily, dried, salted, and eventually exported around the world.
Birds Galore on the Percé Rock
After days of travelling through scenic but sleepy fishing villages and towns, we arrived in Percé brimming with youthful exuberance in the town’s pubs, restaurants, and shops. The town’s star attraction is the 400 million-year-old Percé Rock, named by explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1607. At 433 metres long, 90 metres wide, and 88 metres high, Percé Rock casts a formidable presence in the Gulf of St. Lawrence shadowing Percé.
On board Les Bateliers de Percé boat, we passed Percé Rock en route to Parc national de l’Ȋle-Bonaventure-et-du-Rocher-Percé. No human residents are left on Bonaventure Island but 110,000 of the world’s largest and most accessible colony of northern gannets call it home. Birdwatchers can aim their binoculars not just at these noisy seabirds but on 200 other species including puffins, razorbills, and kittiwakes.
Observing the gannet colony requires hiking a hilly trail and despite beads of sweat to get there the sight of thousands of gannets congregating was worth it.
Gaspésie’s Majestic Mountains
Heading northward to Gaspé a visit to the Musée de la Gaspésie and Jacques Cartier Monument National Historic Site proved an illuminating history lesson. Visual displays of Gaspé Peninsula’s rich fishing history was expected but learning how the area played a crucial role in fending off German U-boats from attacking Canada in World War II was something I was never taught in high school history class.
The Forillon National Park, celebrating 50 years in 2020, spoils visitors with a trifecta of natural attractions — the sea, cliffs, and forest. We donned our bright yellow raincoats and hopped on board a two-hour whale-watching excursion where humpbacks inhabit the choppy Gulf of St. Lawrence. Unfortunately, no whale breaches that day but we did observe a bob of seals catching a tan on the rocky shoreline.
No seaside drive would be complete without lighthouses. Many can be seen along Route, 132 including the Cap-des-Rosiers, the tallest lighthouse in Canada at 34 metres (112 feet).
As we detoured inland, the majestic Chic-Chocs mountain range came into view with a thick blanket of lush green forest at its base. We checked into a cozy Gîte du Mont-Albert cottage for the night next to the Parc national de la Gaspésie, home to the only caribou and moose herds south of the St. Lawrence River. Sitting on the porch at dusk, a grey fox eyed us suspiciously as we tightly clutched our Pit Caribou craft beer (there are some things you just don’t share).
Dotted along Route 132’s northern shores, mesmerizing winding roads opened up to spectacular seascapes like Cap-Chat. A view so captivating, I wasn’t paying attention to my speedometer. One of Quebec’s finest pulled me over for speeding but after the policeman approached sans ticket in hand, he let me off with a warning and surprised me with something else — travel suggestions. Merci beaucoup!
Reford Gardens, located in Grand-Métis, is an innovative juxtaposition of 15 vibrant gardens accompanied by interactive architectural displays. It is one of the largest gardens in North America with more than 3,000 species of native and exotic plants. While the gardens tickled our nose, our following stop provided a reason to chuckle. In the village of Sainte-Flavie, a procession of life-sized, phallic-like sculptures and statues rose out of the St. Lawrence sea bed. “Le Grand Rassemblement” sculpture display at the Center d’Art Marcel Gagnon. It’s a view of the St. Lawrence I never expected.
The road trip wrapped up and I was left with memories and sensations of the natural beauty, cultural attractions, and culinary delights that abound in the Bas-Saint-Laurent and Gaspésie regions. Most importantly, what I returned to Ontario with was the gratification for the genuine welcoming nature (even by the police) shown to two French-language deficient visitors during a global pandemic.
We are certain we will be “On the Road Again” to Quebec and its idyllic maritime region.
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