Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula

At first acquaintance, Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula was something of a disappointment. I had pictured a remote, rugged coast, empty bar a few isolated settlements. But as we drove eastward along the Baie de Chaleur towards Land’s End the words of a late colleagues came back: “Everywhere is somebody’s backyard”. I kept wondering when the string of small seaside towns would peter out – but they didn’t. Not that it was unpleasant. This was hardly the product of mass tourism. There wasn’t a high rise in sight. Only later did I discover that early American visitors had nicknamed this coast the poor man’s Florida.

Perce rockThe bay’s name should have provided a clue: chaleur, for those who don’t speak French, means heat. It was coined by the explorer Jacques Cartier who opined, when sailing here in July 1534, that it was warmer than Spain. On a grey day in September that seemed a gross exaggeration but it was easy to see why so many Acadians, Canada’s earliest settlers who were driven from their homes when Wolfe defeated Montcalm to capture the city of Quebec, made their homes here. And it was easier still to understand the proliferation of holiday cottages.

To save you reaching for the atlas, the Gaspé Peninsulais south of the St Lawrence river as it empties into the Atlantic, its profile that of some great sea creature rearing from he waves.

Cartier’s comparison seemed the more risible when, wrapped in waterproofs, we took a boat from Percé to Bonaventure Island, to visit on of the world’s largest gannet colonies. We barely had time to marvel at the thousands of them, crowding the shore, gliding on those great wings whose span can measure nearly six feet, before we were obliged to leave early – lest a mounting storm prevented the boat from mooring at the quay on our return.

Graveyard memorialWe put up in Percé at the immaculate Hotel Le Mirage, more a smart motel really, with rooms ranged on a grassy hillside overlooking the limestone rock, with its arched doorway, which gave the resort its name. We’d had a close look at it from the boat. Seen next morning from our room, in warm sunshine, it looked even more magnificent.

Not far beyond the port of Gaspé any lingering disappointment at unfulfilled expectations quickly evaporated. Forillon National Park stretches from here to the peninsula’s north coast. On the more sheltered southwest facing side one of the most delightful day hike imaginable leads to Cap Gaspé, at its extreme eastern tip. The trail runs along cliffs, dips in and out of little coves with pebble beaches, penetrates dark forest. A grassy clearing at Indian Cove contains the graves of immigrants from Jersey and Guernsey, who came here to fish for cod – precious sustenance to be dried, salted and exported to Europe. Among them is that of a woman whose six children all predeceased her.

Tourism was encouraged by the opening of a railway that opened at the end of 19th century. It was simulated further by the completion of a road, in 1929, that enabled travellers to drive right round the peninsula. We took broadly the same route, heading north, then west along a coast dramatically different from that we had just left. With the main holiday season over there was hardly any traffic. The switchback route ran through small seaside communities, widely separated by undeveloped countryside, that enticed us to linger. There were relatively few places to east and stay. We ate lunch – fish chowder and a shared lobster club sandwich – at a little restaurant cum b&b, separated from the shore only by a lawn.

From the Forillon coast trailHere was the sense of remoteness I had come for, a feeling intensified when we reached our last stop before heading south again, a cabin in the Gaspésie National Park. On the 26 mile drive to the Mount Jacques Cartier trailhead we encountered a moose on the dirt road. It stepped down the bank to a small pond, turning to ensure we weren’t going to cause trouble, and vanished into the trees. On the mountaintop, in biting wind, we went in search of caribou. The only remaining population of these animals south of the St. Lawrence lives here, but they are threatened and shy. Finally we spotted four of them, on a ridge high above the track. The day had provided heartening reassurance that beyond the fence of the backyard there remains a vast, pristine wilderness.

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Roger Bray

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