A Summer Visit to Quebec's Gaspé Peninsula
The scenery in Gaspé is exceptional, as are the opportunities for hiking and wildlife spotting (especially for whales and seabirds such as puffins and gannets). Moreover, the local architecture can be quite charming as the inhabitants of this region take great pride in creating beautiful homesteads, often with dazzling private gardens in full view from the roads. The native tongue of virtually 100% of the population is French, which adds an added dimension of “foreign” travel to a location that is adjacent to northern New England. Nonetheless, English is widely understood, and non-French-speaking travelers can get by with little difficulty. For those who know some French, any attempts to use the language, however imperfect, earn you an extra special welcome in what is already a very hospitable region.
The roads are well maintained and the signage (which relies on international symbols) is excellent. In particular, attractions, hotels, gas stations and places to eat are very well marked off the roads. Additionally, virtually every town has a tidy rest stop along the main road, invariably with immaculate rest rooms, picnic tables and a scenic view.
As in France, food is taken very seriously here. Scrumptious 4-course table d’hote dinners in many fine restaurants can be had for under $40 Canadian (less than $30 US) per person, counting taxes and tips. You can spend a lot less in humbler establishments, even roadside snack shops (called casse-croutes), and still eat very well. I give high marks to all the places where I ate, and they included a random assortment of snack shacks, a coffee house, a bakery, fine restaurants (one was attached to a campground!), diners and a jazz club that offered vegetarian burgers.
Perce has transformed itself from a sleepy, remote fishing village circa 1900 into a major tourist destination. Nonetheless, it is not yet overbuilt, and the streets are remarkably quiet from around 8 PM until roughly 10 AM, even in the midst of the tourist season. This is the one town on the Gaspé peninsula with any noteworthy concentration of hotels, motels and B&Bs (gites, in French). Farther west, on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, the cities of Riviere-du-Loup and Rimouski have a number of places to stay, but these are not prime destinations for vacations, but handy overnight stops instead.
The north shore of the St. Lawrence, in the region east of Tadoussac, is relatively sparsely populated, and less visited that the south shore, with correspondingly more limited hotel facilities. The cities of Baie-Comeau and Sept-Iles are the major centers of population, commerce and industry, and the best places to find accommodation, accordingly. Nonetheless, the rocky subarctic terrain of the north shore is, in many respects, even more memorable than that of the Gaspé. The Mingan Archipelago (pronounced “MAN-gaw”) is home to a large colony of puffins (over 1,800 nest here in the spring and summer) and stone monoliths that have been sculpted by wind and water into truly fantastic, sometimes surrealistic, shapes. Whales frequent the area as well. This area, though relatively remote (about 1,100 km or 660 miles driving from Quebec City), is a truly memorable landscape that deserves many more visitors than it receives.
Much closer to Quebec City (120 km or 72 miles), Ile-aux-Coudres (Island of the Hazlenut Trees) is a pastoral gem only 11 km (7 miles) long and 5 km (3 miles) wide. It makes a splendid contrast to a Quebec City that often is thronged with tourists. Travelers with more limited agendas, such as just visiting the walled city of Quebec, would do well to consider a modest jog eastward to this small paradise. It has a variety of hotels, motels and inns, yet does not feel crowded or overrun in the least. It has one ring road, and the traffic is surprisingly light. Indeed, many visitors choose to bike around it.
Reaching this region by air is slightly problematic, however. Lesage Airport at Quebec City does not have full status as an international airport, and flights from the U.S. are few. In fact, the airport is a rather sleepy one that has relatively few domestic (Canadian) flights as well and pretty much closes by 10 PM. Air Canada is the main option, but usually with a change required in Toronto, Montreal or Ottawa.
A week’s car rental with unlimited miles cost $376 (Canadian), all taxes and fees included. Note that gasoline is a bit expensive here, but don’t bother to price shop. Prices are controlled, and all the stations in a given area will post the same price. Interestingly, the highest prices were around Quebec City, while the more remote areas had lower prices. The lowest I found was in the area around Tadoussac on the north coast.