Gaspé Peninsula: A Land of Ocean and Mountains
Living in Ontario, Canada, we heard the name of Gaspé Peninsula in Québec for it’s whale watching opportunities. We had thought that this place in Quebec is too far and too remote for a family to travel with kids, and even if we went there, it would be only for a short trip.
And, now, after a 23-day long road trip to Eastern Canada by car, I consider this place as one of my greatest travel experiences of all time with full of blissful surprises, mouth watering foods, nice people, a culture that is decisively different than that of where we live, soothing salty ocean air that calms the mind, beautiful sunrises and sunsets, ocean in one side and mountain the other and breathtaking roads that snakes through mountains with ocean view and surprises at every bend. What a surprise it was!
Funny enough, people in Quebec always knew about this region; in fact, Gaspé Peninsula is the most visited region in the Province of Quebec by the people of Quebec. Did they want to keep it all to themselves?
In this unfortunate time of COVID-19 when we are severely restricted to travel to other countries, we decided to go on a road trip within our own. As a family, we just completed a 12-day long road trip to the North Shore of Lake Superior last year during September/October 2020 Fall Color season. This year, we decided to go the other way. Personally, I had already traveled on the Trans Canada Highway from Toronto to the West Coast in British Columbia, Canada and this time we would do the East Coast and hence would complete the full Coast to Coast - East to West of our beautiful country.
This was so much different from our other typical tours that it still feels like a dream, a dream that I do not want to wake up from. The contrast in geographical features, language, culture, food, architecture and way of life is enormous, only a few hours from Toronto; few examples:
We are from a region where English is widely spoken. Gaspé is in Quebec, hence this is a francophone country.
Architecture in and around Toronto is typical of North America. On the other hand, starting from Quebec City, you can clearly identify a different trend. We noticed European flavor, metal roofs, colorful houses in green/blue, and curved roofs.
Food is decisively sourced from the ocean in Gaspé. Along with that, French style cuisine is what you should expect and enjoy.
Compared to Toronto, we have noticed a lot more bikers (bicycles and motorbikes) around the Gaspé region. In fact, it seemed to us that almost every house has a big motorbike (e.g. Harley Davidson) and it is part of the culture over there.
A lot more runners compared to Toronto, which means people are physically fit.
The air that you breathe feels fresher. The region is afterall on the ocean.
Geographically, the area is rugged and remote; while driving, you will have ocean on one side and mountain on the other.
Neighborhood, lakeside or riverside parks have much richer children's playground areas compared to what we see near Toronto. From that perspective, Quebec seems much more family friendly.
Travelling from home, our first overnight stop was Montreal. We had visited Montreal before, however, they were more like passing through the city. We had heard from multiple friends that Montreal was a city that was more vibrant than Toronto; so, we wanted to see. We had always wanted to visit the Montreal Botanical Garden and this time we made it. It was a beautiful garden with plants from all over the world. They have even built micro regions inside the garden with miniature mountains and suitable plants that resemble different climatic regions and continents. While around Montreal, all nature lovers and families with kids should visit this garden.
While taking a stroll inside the city, we had stopped by a fast food shop for lunch. Had a chat with the shop owner and learned that the now quiet area was usually full with pedestrians and artists, pre-COVID. But, now, it was quiet with shops going out of business and with empty restaurants. Even the roads were not so clean anymore; it was sad. It shows the devastating impact of the pandemic. When he had learned about our plan to visit the Peninsula, he had asked us to take sideroads instead of highways, and we complied. What a good decision it was!
Our next major stop was Quebec City. With so much history to tell, this old city never gets old. According to Wikipedia - "Quebec City is one of the oldest European settlements in North America and the only fortified city north of Mexico whose walls still exist". Established in 1608 by French explorer Samuel de Champlain, this city is the cradle of North America’s Francophone population with culture and cuisine unique to this region. A few hours of slow walk in the old city will certainly tell you many stories about the uniqueness of this colorful and majestic place. With artists showing their crafts in the squares, with uniquely architected restaurants and cafes to satisfy your appetite, with views of St Lawrence river, with mural and graffities as tall as 3-story buildings, with majestic tall old European style buildings, you will feel like you are in Europe and with all the romantic notations that come with it.
And then, the real road trip towards the cherished Gaspé Peninsula began. As I have mentioned before, we were going to take the side roads by the St Lawrence river, with a view of the river at the left. Life is slow here, imagine travelling by motorbike or even bicycle. Take it slow. Stop whenever and wherever you fancy. Small villages along the route, with flowers hanging from light posts, with museums and historical places to learn about the places.
We had stopped at the Musée maritime du Québec at L'Islet. It is the maritime museum that tells you stories of the past, if you have the time to imagine life at that time. It shows you types of boats that people used in the beginning of the settlement along with literature that explains the hardship of people so long ago. Can you imagine a harsh climate, when the rivers are frozen, when routes are covered under layers of layers of snow and ice? When it takes days or even months to visit the nearby place when there may be a doctor, if needed? How were boats with goods transported over frozen water that blocked the waterway? These were tough people and all I could have was a feeling of respect for these people. They had left their original place of birth to find a new place to settle down, crossing the ocean, and had settled down in a place with a climate that was much harsher compared to the place they are from. And, they built their lives here, regardless of the hardship. And, they are still there with their tough spirit that they had passed down to their descendants.
And, curiously enough, my eldest daughter liked the museum. I do not know what was going through her mind when she was only 6-year old; what was she imagining? Sometimes I wish I could imagine what my daughters are imagining! Perhaps I should participate in their pretend play more!
Next short stop was Kamouraska. It is a beautiful small town with a beach. Luckily, it was low tide at the river and we took the opportunity to walk far away down to a boat that was moored a few hundred feet in the river. Our daughters accompanied me, barefoot. We saw crabs running and hiding, seaweeds, and smaller fish along the way. Very unique and enjoyable experience.
Next, driving towards Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, we passed by small picturesque villages that remind you of the joy of a road trip. It is a place of colorful small communities, large hanging flower baskets, people taking leisurely walks, local cafes, clean roads, perhaps a tall church, small and tidy houses, folks taking care of their gardens, old chaps taking rest on a roadside bench. This is a place that is very different from what we see in and around large cities.
From Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, many people travel towards Gaspé via Gaspésie National Park. However, although suggested by friends, we decided to travel by the shore all the way, only because it seemed like we would have better ocean views. What a good decision it was!
Highway 132 is one of the most scenic routes I have ever travelled. When travelling towards the tip of the peninsula from Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, you have Gulf of St. Lawrence on your left and mountains on your right. It is wide enough to feel safe, but of course with a lot of curves typical to a mountain road. Every curve seem to have a small picturesque village waiting for you to explore, with an welcoming beach to rest and breathe some salty fresh air, to swim, with crystal clear water and colorful beautiful rocks under, schools of small fish that get kids excited, restaurants to try some tasty seafood, with opportunities to adventure with boats and paraglide from the mountains that will take you over the ocean before you land. And, of course, the lighthouses! Gaspé, in my view, is a paradise. It is remote, quiet, beautiful, natural and original.
Then over to Gaspé. Gaspé is a busy city of over 14 thousand people with a lot of history. This city claims the title of “Cradle of French America”. It is a beautiful city that is nestled within mountains with the Gulf of Saint Lawrence on one side. A perfect place for an overnight stay.
Forillon National Park lies within the city boundary. Kids really enjoyed the sandy beach at the park visitor center. The beach was clean with soft sands, suitable for a nice long walk. After such a long drive, we really needed to relax, and this beach was a perfect place for that. In fact, we did not want to move from here even though it was getting pretty late. From there, we went to the harbour to find out about whale watching tours. Beautiful place to cast your line or just relax with a cup of coffee. You can see people enjoying sea kayaking with the backdrop of the setting sun with a burst of orange color that lit up the sky, folks young and old catching fish, with seals bobbing their heads up and down in search of food. It was as relaxing as it could get!
From Gaspé, the next stop was Percé. Percé is about a 50 minutes drive from Gaspé. Percé is a small town with a population of about 3 thousands and home to Percé Rock and Bonaventure Island.
Percé Rock is a large beautiful rock near the shore with natural door-like holes. People can walk up there during a low tide. Bonaventure Island on the other hand is an island of 4.6 square km facing the town. It is populated by one of the most important gannet colonies in the world and many other species such as puffins, cormorants and murres also use the island as a home and breeding ground. Whale watching is also a popular attraction. We took a boat ride from the harbor to the island and the kids had a blast! We saw seals, and many other species of birds. Gannets are remarkably skillful in catching fish; we saw them diving under the water like a rocket and came back out with a fish. I could literally see the happiness in the eyes of our daughters as they sang along quietly with the movement of the boat against the wind. They were not tired even after being 7 days on the road; in fact, it felt like they did not want the trip to end!
Not only that we had collected memories that we would never forget, we had also collected beautiful gem like rocks by the harbor for our aquariums.
By the way, Bonaventure Island is part of the national park network and it requires a fee before we could explore it on foot.
And, that was our last major stop before we entered the beautiful province of New Brunswick. Next few weeks would be preoccupied with fulfilling our long cherished dream of visiting the maritime provinces of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. And, that would also mean that we would finally complete the whole length of the Trans Canada Highway that joins the East Coast to the West of our great country of Canada.
Stay tuned with our stories and photos of this epic 23-day road trip to the East.