This has long been a favourite road trip for Montrealers and the Quebecois. Start at the St. Lawrence River—the _Fleuve St-Laurent_—so wide at Rimouski that the far shore forms just a line on the horizon. Proceed south through the Chic-Choc Mountains, and around the loop of Provincial Highway 132, which clings to the edge of this peninsula. The sea, just off the passenger side, is endless. And make frequent stops along the way, to nibble on cheese at a _fromagerie _or hike a trail or chat with a fisherman. And save plenty of time, too, to just marvel, at the birds on Isle Bonaventure and the beaches of Matane and the broad expanse of Percé Rock.
A small city of just under 50,000, this is the largest community in the region. Stock up on everything you’ll need for the journey at the good, large hardware and grocery stores in town. Then, stick around to visit a number of surprising local attractions. Walk the riverfront boardwalk along the St. Lawrence. Visit the lighthouse at Pointe-au-Pere, and while you’re there, the museum next door, which documents the last voyage of the Empress of Ireland, which sank here in 1914. And about half an hour to the east, up the river, a walk through the Reford Gardens (Jardins de Metis), is worthwhile, touring through avant-garde exhibits and some 3,000 varieties of flora.
Since the 19th century, city dwellers have sought an escape from the urban heat in this picturesque tourist town set on the Bay of Chaleurs. The seafront is strung with hotels and restaurants and green space. It’s a good place to get active, along six kilometres of bike trails near the salt marsh, or walking the beachfront boardwalk, which connects the Rue de Quai with the municipal beach, or even hiking to the 555-metre summit of Mont Sainte-Joseph. And, make sure to snap a photo of the town’s trademark lighthouse.
Banc-de-Peche-de-Paspebiac Historic Site
Here, for two centuries, cod was king. A rambling wooden complex of workshops and storehouses now preserved as a museum, Paspebiac once employed as many as 2,000 workers at a time, all of them drying and salting fish, and then shipping it off around the world. Take a tour with one of the enthusiastic guides. Then grab lunch at the on-site café, which serves seafood brought in by local fishermen, perfect to eat under the sun at a picnic table.
While it may be a familiar sight—anyone who has taken a core French class in school will recognize it from their textbooks—beholding the Percé Rock for the first time can still be a bit overwhelming. Extending more than 400 metres into the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, this limestone formation, with its famous archway, towers almost 90 metres high. And at its base, a charming fishing village, which features a cool geo-park, its visitor centre bringing the story of this stone to life with big, immersive exhibits. Plus, plenty of good hotels and restaurants, including La Morutiere, which faces the water with huge floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides. The menu includes lobster, salmon, scallops, and a steaming bouillabaisse with selected seafood right from the Gulf.
A short ferry ride from Gaspé, this island, this Quebec provincial park is home to some 200,000 birds. It’s a perfect place for a hike—take the 5.5 kilometre (round-trip) Colony Trail up a gentle incline to one of the largest colonies of Northern Gannets on earth. You’ll hear them before you see them, as you arrive at the end, 60,000 mating pairs, their white wings and backs covering every square inch of the red soil, spreading down the face of the cliffs. A boat cruise is another good option for a whole different perspective.
Set right at the tip of the peninsula, this is where Jacques Cartier, in 1534, claimed New France for the reigning monarch, Francois I—the spot is now marked with a 32-foot granite cross. Set on the placid waters of Gaspe Bay, everything from small boats to cruise ships sail through these sheltered waters, and the area’s seafaring history is well-presented at the Musée del a Gaspesie, an excellent museum. Spend some time there, then walk the charming main street downtown, which is lined with pubs and artisanal grocers and Café des Artistes, which is filled with artwork collected over two decades by the owner. Order up a Phare Fouetté (whipped lighthouse) or a La Baie au Lait, and wander around the café as you sip your java, absorbing everything from stained glass to sculptures, all produced by local artists.
Forillon National Park
This parks teems with life. Take a whale-watching tour from the Grand-Grave and spot humpback and even blue whales, plus playful seals. Walk the pebbles at tucked-away Cap-des-Rosier beach for views of towering sea cliffs as well as the tallest lighthouse in Canada. Sea kayak, kite-surf, fish for striped bass and mackerel, and even snorkel and scuba dive. Cycle or hike along the park’s network of trails, then take a leisurely dip, either at the on-site swimming pool, or a place like sandy Penouille Beach, where you can enjoy some of the warmest sea water in the region.
Parc National de la Gaspesie
Turning left off Highway 132 at Sainte-Anne-des-Monts and climbing inland, within minutes you’ll find yourself in a mountain wonderland. Entering this Quebec national park, the two-lane highway becomes a winding ribbon, curling around the base of green peaks rising to surprising altitudes. One, Mont Jacques-Cartier, is the second-highest summit in the province, at 1,270 metres. You can hike to the top, or take a more leisurely path, perhaps the trail to St. Anne Falls, which tumble over banks of black pillow lava. Paddle-board or kayak on one of the lakes, spot caribou, then grab dinner at the chateau-like Gite du Mont-Albert, which serves up arctic char, smoked salmon, and a very high-end poutine (barbecue smoked local cheese, with pulled boar).