October 5, 2013
Sometimes you need a change of scenery to maintain your balance and peace of mind. At least, I do. This summer I decided to spend a week in the Gaspésie peninsula in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. I’ve traveled a lot and mostly in Asia and Europe. I’ve visited Canada a few times, both West and Eastern regions, but it was my first time that far up east in Quebec. To be surrounded by nature and off the grid for part of it is a luxury few are willing to experience, but I took the time to recharge, minus laptop, and with minimal, if at all, cellphone service. To sum it up in 3 words… I loved it.
It takes two days to get to Gaspésie, because there are only two daily flights from Montreal to Quebec City, and finally to your destination. Total flight time? less than 4 hours. From New York you can also easily drive to Montreal, which is about 7 hours, another 2-1/2 hours to Quebec City, and another 3 hours to Gaspésie. It’s doable and I might just take the scenic drive next time, making several stops along the way because Quebec is that wonderful mix of city life and rugged terrain with everything in between. Wandering around and taking in the natural beauty of this place would have been more than satisfying for this low-key traveler who prefers backpacking and going off course over anything else. That said, I did hit a few touristy spots for fun.
Deciding to take it easy and go with the flow, meeting people and engaging in fun conversations, my newfound friends and I get on a boat to tour the famous Rocher Percé, a large outcropping with a naturally formed hole—or piercing, hence the name “percé.” Surrounded by seals, penguins and gulls, this massive limestone rock formed millions of years ago is somewhat fragile, its huge hole a direct result of erosion. It sheds about 300 tons a year, but while it may disappear one day, it’s estimated that we have another 20,000 years to enjoy it before that happens. In other words, we’ll be gone long before it is!
Barely noticeable on the map is Bonaventure Island, which at one point may have been attached to Rocher Percé. There are many nature trails to choose from, the shortest one taking a good hour and half roundtrip to hike. And, once you get to the top, you discover one of the largest Northern Gannet colonies with about 48,000 pairs in existence. Lots of birds, though the numbers are less than half from a few years ago. Needless to say, egg poaching is frowned upon in this bird watcher’s paradise!
You come to this part of the world and naturally whale watching is not far from your thoughts… well at least not from mine. It’s been on my bucket list ever since I was a kid. We get to the dock, and captain says, “ok let’s gear up because it gets wet and rough out there.” Dressed in these huge yellow rain coats (I could have fit two more people inside mine), we sat by the water’s edge ready to get on the boat again and go out to sea. Captain comes back to deliver the news that “because of the dangerous high waves (and he threw some technical terms at us, I now forget), our excursion is canceled.” Bucket list item, “
whale watching,” crossed off upon arrival in Gaspésie, is now back on the list… “whale watching.”
Though I admit that whale watching is something I’ve always wanted to experience and one of the major reasons I came on this trip, not all was lost because the next stop allowed for a moment of stillness, which is something I seek no matter where I am. The Forillon National Park affords just that. Seated on a bed of rocks, my eyes closed, the waves rolling softly, I gave myself thirty minutes to chill.
Established in 1970, Forillon is the first of 42 national parks in Gaspésie. Pristine with lush green rolling hills and massive rock formations surrounding a beach, you can walk around trails or simply sit by the water as I did, peacefully.
My next stop, the Chic-Chocs, part of the Notre Dame Mountains, a continuation of the Appalachian trail. It is massive! I hiked for hours but never felt it because the trails are just jaw-dropping beautiful. The highest summit is Mont Jacques Cartier at 4,160 ft high. Whether you go in the summer, where you can also hike down to Helen’s waterfall—I attempted to dip in the 48°F water for about 2 seconds—or in the winter to experience some of the best, most challenging powdered ski trails in the East Coast, you will want to return because there is no way you can experience every trail in one trip.
It’s hard to do it all in a week. Gaspésie has too much to offer and it’s the kind of place you need to take the time and explore. It is simply one of the most spectacular natural wonderland to experience. What I’ve given you is just a small taste.
WHERE TO EAT & STAY… AND OTHER INTERESTING STUFF!
After a first day of sightseeing, me and my friends were hungry. A vegetarian at heart, when I travel all bets are off because the only way to get to know a culture and quickly make friends with the locals is by sharing and enjoying a meal with them. In this case it was easy to let go of my dietary preferences because the Saint Lawrence boasts some of the finest seafood on the planet including the Gaspé lobster, aka Canadian Atlantic Lobster. Steamed is the best way to taste the naturally sweet flesh of this crustacean, direct from the pollution-free, rocky bottom of Gaspé’s coastal waters. That and a good local beer on draft is what I ordered for dinner at La Maison du Pêcheur, a local favorite since the early 1970′s. It’s a full menu offering something for everyone, though vegetarians will have a choice of salad… or salad. This place is huge with a beautiful view of the Rocher Percé, but if not here, there are plenty of restaurants from town to town that will serve this wonderful seafood Gaspésie is known for.
The beautiful L’Auberge Des Trois Soeurs, overlooking the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Contemporary, clean and affordable, our stay included breakfast at their nearby restaurant, La Maison Mathilde, where I enjoyed the local smoked salmon on multigrain and cup of fresh fruit. I wanted something substantial before my whale watching expedition!
The restaurant at the Auberge William Wakeham in the town of Gaspé is a fine-dining, multi-course exploration of local and artisanal ingredients from the region including Gaspé, Percé and Mont Joli. Created and executed by owner and chef, Desmond Ogden, the menu is eclectic, served with French elegance, and touching upon world flavors with subtlety. I highly recommend having dinner here and at the very least having the lobster bisque and pan-seared scallops. My friends were delighted with their braised lamb shank and duck magré as well. On another note, an overnight stay is at your own risk. I don’t mind staying in inns and bed & breakfasts, in fact I often prefer them. In this case, while it may be tempting given that the Auberge is a historic building, the rooms need some serious upgrading. I say, go for the food!
Exploramer, the maritime museum, was actually very interesting. Our group got to enjoy putting on waders to get wet and explore marine life. Fun for adults and children alike! The museum has other children’s activities and an exhibit featuring local sea life, which you can pet and otherwise handle including sea cucumbers, urchins, and seahorses. They also have a small café which also offers some delicious simple fare for lunch. The savory ever so slightly spicy seaweed soup was unexpected and absolutely delicious.
Auberge de Montagne des Chic-Chocs, was the highlight of the trip. This is base-camp if you plan to hike, mountain bike or ski the mountain range. The guides are extremely well-trained in any condition and are all experts skiers. There was not a moment where I did not feel safe. They also make sure you have a way to rehydrate and communicate. In fact your stay comes with a survival box! Everyone on the trail gets a walkie-talkie, so you might want to brush up on the lingo—”10-4!,” “Roger!,” etc… (the quicker the message, the better. For those who can’t communicate unless they TXT, make the effort and hit the “talk” button because you won’t have time to thumb “Falling, catch me pls, K? :-|”) While the trails are safe for the most part, depending on your physical abilities, it’s important that you put all ego aside and listen to your guide. He has your best interest at heart, and should anything happen to a group member, the guide relies on everyone else. In other words, you must proceed as a team!
The rooms at the Auberge are beautifully appointed with natural wood and stone finishes. All come with a gorgeous view of the mountains. In fact no matter where you sit you will experience an amazing view, even from the hot tub, which I did enjoy after hiking for 6 hours! Your stay there includes breakfast, snack, lunch, and dinner, and you will enjoy all of these because the closest restaurant is about 2-1/2 hours away otherwise, not to mention that you will no doubt burn those calories. Chef Alain Laflamme is absolutely wonderful and makes some delicious homestyle supper fare. The courses are served family-style at communal tables, encouraging conversations among guests. If you have dietary preferences, you must let them know ahead of time, otherwise you eat as everyone does and that may include roast elk (vegetarians beware!). There is only one menu at supper time. Breakfast offers plenty of choices, from fruit to cereals, yogurts, eggs, juices, cheeses, and breads, and some local specialties as well. Snacks of nuts and dried fruit, and homemade energy bars, are available, as are boxed lunches, if you plan on hiking all day. They aim to please, and all you have to do is ask.
On the last day we visited the Jardins de Métis, a botanical garden that boasts colorful varying textures, from manicured to more natural settings, and art installations due to a yearly competition that invites artists from around the world to participate. The Estevan Lodge Restaurant was another highlight, with floral arrangements (direct from the gardens), not on the table but in your spoon! Delicate and sweet bites throughout the meal with a menu that changes seasonally, as it should be. You will not be disappointed. Spring and Summer, I would imagine are the best times of the year to experience this stunning place.
Bon voyage… t’sais!