One of the nice things about living in New England is that we can take lots of cool road trips right from home. In 1996, we’d explored southern New Brunswick and eastern Nova Scotia with our then-young children, and we’d been feeling the call to explore other parts of eastern Canada: the Laurentian mountains north of Montreal and both sides of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, maybe even far away Newfoundland and Labrador. Yet somehow, every time we were ready to plan one of those trips, we either had a family commitment in the American heartland or someplace more exotic to visit.
Finally, in July of 2016—a full 20 years after our drive to the edge of Nova Scotia along the Cabot Trail—we really needed a relaxing, no-stress trip, after an incredibly urban week in China—the smallest city on our itinerary had 6 million people—followed by all the logistics of our daughter’s June wedding—and what better time to visit the ultra-rural Gaspé Peninsula—known to its residents as the Gaspésie—jutting into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
And not only is it driving distance from our house, but the way there goes through charming northern New England and parts of New Brunswick we hadn’t explored on the last trip. We decided to go via the Maine coast, revisit New Brunswick’s Fundy region, take a detour to Prince Edward Island (a new province for me), and then go north along New Brunswick’s Acadian Coast before crossing into Quebec, circling the peninsula, and coming back via the familiar Eastern Townships and Vermont—a nice mix of places we’d been before and those we hadn’t. And recognizing that our goal wasn’t to cover territory, but to explore and relax, we took our time. All but two days, we only drove four hours or less—sometimes a lot less.
Our first day was one of the long ones, since we had to get all the way up to Camden. But we’d been up the Maine coast several times and didn’t need to sightsee. We did take a hiking break at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge (trail at Headquarters Road, Wells, ME. This was a lovely trail through woods and over a salt mash. We got a few ocean views, but from a distance. Although the park gets enough use that the parking lot was almost full, our fellow hikers were nicely spaced and the trail didn’t feel at all crowded.
Route 1 east from Wells was surprisingly empty on a beautiful holiday (July 4th), very smooth trip. Also, except for all the signs to stores in the Boothbay Harbor area (on various coastal spur roads), the area was surprisingly noncommercial. It was a bit of a shock to hit the outskirts of Camden and be faced with so many tourist businesses, even as tastefully done as most of them were. Camden itself (pop. 3750) has a lovely downtown with interesting shops (including quite a few used bookstores), beautiful 19th-century buildings, and a public park named for local musician Gordon Bok right on the crowded harbor where we took in a concert and could have stayed to watch Independence Day fireworks. It’s also the point of departure for many sailing cruises around the bay.
Spending two nights in the Camden/Belfast area, we had time to explore at our leisure.
Exploring downtown Camden doesn’t take long, and we satisfied our hunger with excellent sandwiches at the Bagel Café (which has a second location in Belfast). Food was great but service was extremely slow. For dessert, we found Camden Cone, 33 Bayview, a hole-in-the-wall place near the cruise wharf with amazingly good homemade ice cream, generous portions, and low prices, and walked the few hundred feet to the harbor to enjoy our treats. Oddly enough, who should walk by but Steve Herrell, founder of both Steve’s (Somerville, MA) and Herrell’s (Northampton, MA) and the superpremium ice cream king in our own area (someone we’ve known for more than 30 years).
We also climbed Bald Rock Mountain, one of several climbable mountains in Camden Hills State Park (in Lincolnville, just northeast of Camden). It took less than an hour to climb each way, and we got fabulous views of the bay and Camden Harbor—and fresh ripe wild blueberries to snack on.
Belfast is also very pretty, with a riverwalk that starts as a rail trail, meanders through a working shipyard (a new experience for me), and then crosses the whole harbor over a beautiful pedestrian bridge. For natural foods folks, stock up at the Belfast co-op.
Our host and I were both up early the second morning, and she took me to a lovely pond with mists rising off the water, a pair of curious loons who swam over from the other side to check us out more closely (coming within a hundred feet or so), and a snakeskin I photographed in a rock crevice.
We discovered many years ago that the way to do the Maine coast is to get off Route 1 every now and then and explore some (but not all) of the peninsulas and islands, with their little villages and cool hiking spots. We’ve done this from the Yorks in the very south of the state to Southwest Harbor in the Bar Harbor area (we even took a cabin there years ago when our kids were young). Some of them can be done fairly quickly; others, like the vast Blue Hill Peninsula we did many years ago, require several hours.
On this day, we chose two destinations. The Schoodic Peninsula, which includes a small low-traffic and free-admission chunk of Acadia National Park, looked like it would make a good lunch spot. We drove to the farthest point for a spectacular (but brief) cliff walk, stopping first a couple of miles before the point to picnic on the rocks, with views of several islands including Mount Desert (pronounced as the verb, just like a sweet treat after a meal). This one was quick and easy, adding less than an hour of additional driving.
An hour or so after rejoining Route 1, we turned to the shore once again. This time our destination was the hamlet of Beals and the adjoining Great Wass Island, which, we’d read, had an extensive and nature-filled hiking system along the beach.
According to our very recent AAA map, we cross the tiny bridge onto the island and the road ends almost immediately. But either this map maker had never been there or it hasn’t been updated since things have changed. As soon as we crossed over, we were faced with a T intersection and no idea which way to go. Pretty much nothing was labeled anywhere on the island, it turned out. We chose the right fork, drove several miles, continued for a while until the road turned to dirt as it passed large wooded houselots for sale, one or two of them with fancy new houses.
Eventually, we spotted a trailhead on the inland side and pulled over. We were rewarded almost immediately with a spectacular pond, home to a large flock of partying seagulls and the occasional osprey. From there, we followed paths through some beautiful woods. We never did find the beach trails, but enjoyed our hike thoroughly.
Although the dirt road continued on, we turned around when we got back to our car and drove past the bridge and out the other end of the T: a much shorter distance (probably the road shown on our map) with a few older houses. We finally got our beachwalk by driving back across the bridge to mainland Beals (population 508 including Great Wass), parking in a pullout a few hundred yards in, and walking back to the small beach just after the bridge. This beach had at least a dozen different kinds of seaweed and numerous seashells, plus some decent if unexceptional views.
That night, we stayed on a farm in Machais, just one town southwest of the Canadian border.
After spending a couple of hours with an old friend in tiny Cooper (pop. 125)—the reason we skipped fascinating Campobello Island (a highlight of our last Maritime Provinces trip 20 years ago)—we crossed the border from Calais, Maine into St. Stephen, New Brunswick and picked up the highway to St. Martin, gateway to Fundy Trail Park, new since our last visit. Opened in 1998, this well-run private park (admission $7.50 CDN) offers a 16-kilometer scenic drive and accompanying footpath, with 11 formal parking lots and numerous pullouts. Most of the overlooks were coastal, several with beach access down steep paths or flights of stairs. On the rainy, foggy day of our visit, we favored mostly inland trails: the beautiful Sea Captain’s Cemetery walk at lot 2; Fuller Falls (between Melvin and Pangburn Beaches (the best falls view is via a slightly tricky cable ladder); the Interpretive Center, suspension foot bridge, and Big Salmon River mouth, all densely concentrated around lots 6 through 9. By the time we finally got to the eastern end (currently at Long Beach Lookout but an expansion is in process), it was raining much harder. Already wet and tired, we chose not to have a look and turned around.
Dinner was at Sushi Jo, 612 Main Street in nearby Sussex. This was quite a pleasant surprise. I almost never order tempura, because my Japanese stepfather makes it far better than the oily and flavorless stuff I’ve usually experienced in restaurants. However, I love sweet potatoes and couldn’t resist the yam tempura. It had a very light coating of decent batter and wasn’t overly oily. We also shared tofu teriyaki—nicely flavored tofu slices on a bed of bland stir-fried vegetables—but they perked right up when we added wasabi, which we had to ask for (and were brought a huge elaborately sculpted mound of it by our very friendly waitress). We also had a very nice avocado hand roll, small, but with the rice wonderfully seasoned. We didn’t particularly like their interpretation of miso soup, which came with something we ordered.
If you go to Sussex, be sure to notice the many murals downtown, showing glimpses of Fundy Coast life as interpreted by various local artists.
Fundy Trail Park is one of three major nature parks along the Fundy Coast, home to the strongest tides in the world. Going east, the next is Fundy National Park, and finally Hopewell Rocks Provincial Park. We’d been to both of these in our 1996 trip and returned for a full day in the national park.
Starting our day at Herring Cove Beach at low tide—about five minutes drive from the visitors center—we climbed down the long flights of stairs behind the parking lot bathroom and walked the wide, broad beach for several hundred yards in two directions. Most of it was rocky, but as we approached the water, we went into several-inch-deep quicksandy mud. Fortunately, it wasn’t actual quicksand, and we were able to extricate ourselves, get to a part of the water with rock access, and clean most of the mud off our sandals.
Most of our day was on the beautiful Matthews Head loop trail, rated moderate. The terrain is mostly typical woods trail, with inland forest vegetation. Even though you can hear it in some places, it’s hard to remember that you’re only a few hundred yards from a sea cliff. Of course, that’s quite obvious in the few places where the trail runs right up to the cliff edge—including the spectacular lookout spur, well-worth the detour (and with a pair of Adirondack chairs waiting), and another dramatic rock called Lion’s Head. Between hiking and hanging out at the scenic spots along this trail, we whiled away several hours.
Of course, we wanted to return to Herring Cove Beach at high tide. What a difference! This time, the surf came almost up to the stairway, and wrapped around us in a channel that left the second stairway (also back to the parking lot, but through a nice woodsy trail and with fewer steps) accessible only by using stepping stones. The whole expanse of the beach was under water except for a narrow strip.
Feeling sated and happy we left the park around 4:30 (skipping Hopewell Rocks this time—the tides again, but also massive rock formations of the sort you might encounter in the Utah desert) and headed into Moncton for dinner at Calactus, http://www.calactus.ca/ , an elegant and reasonably priced vegetarian eatery downtown. The menu is very international, with Italian, Middle Eastern, Mexican, and even Indian choices. This is an especially good choice for vegetarians to take meat-eating friends, because many of the menu items are familiar to mainstream eaters: nachos, burgers, enchiladas, pasta dishes. We shared the Quetzal Flute (a Mexican wrap) and cannelloni with gourmet mushrooms, both quite tasty. I would have used a less salty cheese than feta to supplement the ricotta in the cannelloni, but we were overall quite pleased.
In our weekend at the southeastern corner of New Brunswick, we were able to hit three weekly farmers markets: in Sackville, Moncton, and Shediac—in size order. In all three cases, craft vendors and restaurateurs outnumbered actual farmers, though a number of stalls offered agriculture-related crafts such as goats-milk soap and homemade jams. Also, all three had a very clear consciousness about eating healthy, local, and organic—certainly not every vendor, but the overall vibe. The two larger ones also had live music.
Sackville’s tiny market only took about ten minutes to go through. We would not have made a special trip, but we happened to be staying at a B&B there, less than half a mile away.
Moncton’s indoor market was a bustling place emphasizing prepared food. Oddly enough, there were about eight different stalls selling falafel (including one offering it baked instead of fried). Also Indian samosas, Filipino rice dishes, and foods of various other ethnicities. Oddly, walking the streets of Moncton for a full Saturday, we saw almost no people who looked like they came from any of those cultures outside of their stalls in the market or their restaurants. I saw three men on a corner who appeared to be Arab, a few who appeared to be Canadian First Peoples descendants, and virtually no blacks or Asians. I checked online and discovered that just 2 percent of Greater Moncton’s population (including neighboring Riverview and Dieppe—by far the largest population center of the trip) of 138,644 are identified as minorities—only varely slightly higher than the 1.9 percent of the whole (mostly rural) province. http://www.city-data.com/canada/Moncton.html
Moncton is a crossroads city where east coast Acadian and south coast English Canadian cultures come in close contact (1/3 identify as francophone), and the fabled Canadian bilingualism actually seems real. In our experience, most communities in Canada identify very strongly as either Anglophone or francophone.
Sunday’s market in Shediac was a highlight. This was our first real taste this trip of Acadian Canada. Both vendors and customers were speaking almost exclusively French (though, unlike some we’ve met elsewhere, perfectly fine about switching to English for our benefit). And the crafts were very different. Bright colors were quite noticeable in the paintings and textiles, and many artisans used sea-related materials, from old lobster traps to found sea glass. One vendor did tree and plant etchings on large mushrooms.
While in Shediac, we also enjoyed walking Main Street, having coffee in a Victorian mansion at one end and sampling homemade chocolates at the other, as well as walking to the little waterfront park. We happened to be there during the annual Lobster Festival, and were pleasantly surprised that it was easy to park and the crowds weren’t overwhelming.
A Day Exploring Moncton
Moncton is full of attractions that don’t cost anything. Of everything we list here, only Magnetic Hill has an admission charge.
Right at the edge of Downtown Moncton, almost on the Dieppe line, is Tidal Bore Park off Main and Steadman/King/Lewis streets. Every day, a single wave, powered by the super-strong Fundy tides, comes up the river, dragging in the water in its path and exposing the clay banks that are below water level most of the day. Behind it flows a massive wall of water that fills the banks up again over the next couple of hours. Stop in at Treitz Haus, the18th-century visitor center, and find out the approximate time to see the bore. Arrive at the amphitheater at least half an hour early, both because the timing of the wave is not exact (on our day, it was about 20 minutes ahead of schedule)—and to get the benefit of an interpretive talk. We were lucky enough to have James as our interpreter, and he was full of both information and humor, and happy to take questions. He also introduced us to Melvin the surfer, who rides the bore most days, starting several miles downriver and ending right at the park. The wave itself was not all-that-dramatic on the day of our visit, but the shift of water from low to high was pretty special. A riverfront walking and biking path goes through this park, too.
On the other end of town is another Moncton anomaly: Magnetic Hill. Park your car at the designated spot, throw it into neutral and ride backwards uphill for about two minutes. The ride this time was faster than I remembered, and I actually had to touch the brake as my car started careening to the edge of the road. When we visited 20 years ago, it was way out of town. Now, however, it’s been infilled by ugly shopping centers all the way up Mountain Road; I’d recommend taking the highway instead.
Once again, we ignored all the tacky amusement parks and minigolf courses on the way out, but we did go around the corner to the Magnetic Hill Winery, in a newly restored Victorian mansion on a beautiful scenic parcel. There, we worked our way through the guests for a wedding being held to the basement winery, where we met co-owner Zack Everett and sampled exotic wines. Our favorite was a white wine called Illusions. After we’d sampled it, we learned the secret: it has no grapes! This wine is sourced 100% from local rhubarb.
On the way back, we took a short detour (maybe half a mile out of the way) to city-owned Irishtown Nature Park. A series of short, easy, and well-marked trails lead through forests, brooks, and near a large pond; future trails will expand all the way around the pond. Very lovely little oasis, less than ten minutes drive from downtown.
We finished the day back downtown again, happily choosing among several dozen restaurants (a far larger array than in our previous visit). The few blocks around Main and Robinson offer particularly good choices. We were tempted by the very elegant looking Blue Olive Moroccan restaurant, but it was pricy. Other options included Mexican, Korean, Malaysian, Vietnamese, and vegetarian options (among others). We settled on the Taj Mahal Indian restaurant, which was fine but not particularly memorable.
Sackville Waterfowl Park—and a Restaurant Surprise
Sunday afternoon, we explored these marshlands and duck habitats along a series of boardwalks. Bounded by noisy Canada Highway 2 on one side, and downtown Sackville on the other, it’s still a great place to go. We started on the Sackville side, crossed the entire park, and stopped at the highway visitors center only because we needed the bathrooms. To our amazement, the visitors center hosts a high-quality craft boutique run by the artisans who exhibit there. Many items are far less expensive here than they would be in New England, and we each bought a pair of mittens made of reused wool sweaters, in case the Gaspé Peninsula is colder than we’d prepared for. We followed different trails back through the park to the city side, including a particularly lovely one that went under a canopy of white birch-like trees, but the leaves were not birch-like at all.
If you can stay in Sackville for dinner, go to the Coy Wolf Bistro on Bridge Street in the center of town (almost across the street from one of the waterfowl park entrances). Who would have thought that sleepy little Sackville (pop. 5558) would have a world-class farm-to-table restaurant tucked away in a small storefront downtown?
The menu changes daily. We shared three dishes: a nut pate and wild mushroom appetizer, spinach and asparagus ravioli with obviously home-made pasta, and a delicious flourless nut-crust chocolate torte. All were excellent. Portions were small, but prices were surprisingly modest, and after sharing those three, we felt sated. Several of the ingredients came from the herb garden behind the restaurant.
PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND
The next day, I added my 9th Canadian province. We crossed into Prince Edward Island (often known by its initials, PEI), gaped at the eight-mile-long bridge we were crossing as I fought to keep control in heavy crosswinds, and were shocked to see that it would cost CDN $46 to get back out again (still cheaper than the ferry). At the time of our visit, gas on PEI (regulated by the province and uniform all across the island) was actually a penny a liter cheaper than the cheapest gas we saw in New Brunswick—but saving 40 cents on a 10-gallon fill-up doesn’t make up for the toll.
A modern, garish welcome village is just over the bridge. We stopped only at the visitors center and loaded up so many brochures that I needed to get a bag from the car. Bicycles to rent, artisans to visit, parks to hike…far more than we could do in our two-night stay.
Once out of that compound, the island immediately turns farmy, with rolling hills and broad metal or wooden barns that reminded me a bit of Amish Pennsylvania. Farm stands abound, and in our short visit, we stopped at several. It was getting toward lunch time, and we headed straight to Charlottetown, the capital and by far the largest population center (pop. 64,487 in metro area, 34,562 within city limits).
Charlottetown boasts a beautiful Victorian brick shopping district with a lot of small 19th-century clapboard houses on the side streets and a few prominent historic edifices (adjoining a very modern arts complex) near the harbor. It feels a lot like places such as Newburyport, Massachusetts and the Fox Point section of Providence, Rhode Island. On our Monday afternoon visit, several stages downtown were featuring child artists, including a talented folksinger whose voice attracted us from a block a way; from the sound, we expected a grown woman, not a 10- or 12-year-old-boy.
It’s also the home of Cows Ice Cream, with locations around the city (and the island). Our B&B hosts in Sackville had told us that it had been rated #1 in the world, so of course we had to go there. However, the garish colors and county-fair-midway flavors (including bubble gum) were a turnoff to us. It was a bit of a challenge to find a flavor I was even willing to sample (I chose coffee; my wife chose maple walnut)—and we found both samples tasting kind of chemical. I would rate it above Cold Stone Creamery but below Ben & Jerry’s (which was #10 in the ice cream survey that chose Cows as its top pick) and far below Herrell’s. We chose not to order cones after all.
Instead, we got back in the car and drove south along the coastal drive (Route 19) to Rocky Point and the Fort Amherst historical site, where we first studied signs about the early French and later British forts that had once stood there, then walked along the tiny beach, and finally hiked some lovely woods trails with ocean overlooks and red-rock cliff views.
Our final stop before showing up at our hosts’ back-to-the-land hand-built home was a cliffside park in tiny Canoe Creek for a short walk and some more beautiful red-cliff views with the water lapping right up to them. The next morning, they took us clam digging on the same beach, but at low tide. Now we walked hundreds of yards across sand flats that had been underwater the previous evening.
After lunch, we took the coast road west to Victoria, a pretty village with several antique and craft stores along its beautiful harbor—but rather than going into stores, we relaxed on the beach.
By this time, we needed a hike. We’d thought we’d find one in Victoria but we were wrong. So we drove north to the Confederation Trail, which runs through the spine of PEI. With its wide right-of-way, it’s better set up for biking than hiking, but we still enjoyed an hour’s walk.
By then, we were out of time to explore, because we had to get back to Charlottetown for dinner before a concert. In a day and a half, we’d only explored the southern half of the middle third, and that bag full of tourist brochures went mostly unused (we left them for our homestay host’s future guests).
And there was no wind on the bridge back to the mainland this time, which made those eight miles a lot easier.
After the long haul across the Fundy Coast from Maine to PEI, going north along the eastern side felt so easy and quick. By Shediac, it starts to feel very Acadian, with French often preceding or replacing English on signs and many Acadian flags (the French tricolor with a single yellow star in the blue stripe). And many of the white churches have bright-colored trim, usually red or blue.
We did a mix of highway and scenic coastal driving and the time passed rapidly. In little over an hour, we were in Bouctouche, and then another fifteen minutes to Irving Eco-Centre, a magnificent dune and beach park operated by the Irving oil company. An 800-meter boardwalk takes you out over the dunes, with informational placards about natural features, wildlife, and local history—which were better than the rather paltry display at the visitors center at the near end. The boardwalk also offered several access points to a beach popular with both Anglophone and Francophone visitors. We walked the entire length of the boardwalk and enjoyed a picnic at the far end, in the company of ospreys, piping plovers, cormorants, and gulls. Stunning views, too. No charge to visit.
We bypassed the actual town, but later I read in one of the area guides that Bouctouche is known for its artists and crafters. Oh, well!
From there, it was only about half an hour to Kouchibouguac (pronunciation: coo-she-boo-zhak) National Park. Our plan was a swim at Kelly Beach followed by a walk along the beach, a hike through the woods, buying food to cook dinner at our B&B just outside the park gates, and then a concert in the park. We were able to do three of the five items.
I headed to the lifeguarded area, put one foot in the water, and then saw the largest (and most beautiful) jellyfish in my life, a deep purple one of the type (we’d just learned in Bouctouche) whose sting is painful for several days. This one was a good eight or ten inches across and had a long stinger. Then I looked around and saw dozens of baby and mid-growth jellyfish; apparently, our visit coincided with “lambing season” for jellyfish. Our B&B host later told us this is normal in July and August. Swim aborted! And as we walked on the beach, we probably saw about 100, being washed up by the tide, turning over, in once case eating seaweed. Even in Miami Beach, I’d never seen anywhere near this many.
We did manage the lovely beach walk and an equally lovely hike along the River Trail. Then driving to the nearest town (St. Louis de Kent) for dinner, we somehow didn’t notice the sign that the bridge was out. We could see the village on the other side of the construction zone, but short of driving several miles out of the way and missing the concert, we couldn’t get there. So we repeated our lunch meal at the outdoor concert and used up our provisions. The music was an acoustic duo performing a mix of well-known Canadian and American (and a few British) pop and rock crowd-pleasers.
The following day, we took advantage of the noon expiration on our park entry to go back in for one more hike, on the Osprey Trail. We did the longer side of this lollypop loop trail first, but the views are better coming back on the longer side, which is how the signs direct people.
Exiting at the north (Pointe Sapin) end of the park, we followed the long coastal road most of the way to Miramichi, probably doubling the time and distance versus Highway 11. Plenty of scenic views, but not much of interest, and after stopping at a co-op grocery store to restock, we got back on the highway.
If you’re driving this, DON’T get off at the first Miramichi exit. The local road is 50 kmh (30 mph) for miles, for no particular reason.
Miramichi itself—which the locals refer to as “the Miramichi”—is worth a stop. An Irish enclave in a French area, it’s distinctively Anglophone. We only encountered one person who even spoke English with a French accent. The city is a group of several discrete villages. We explored Chatham, one of the larger ones, walking historic and beautiful Water Street and the adjoining wharf (which was setting up for an Irish Festival that started in the evening). We also enjoyed a much-better-than-expected Chinese meal at the Cunard Chinese Restaurant a block up the hill on Cunard Street. The Szechuan, Cantonese, and Canadian menu included several vegetarian choices. We had spicy Ma Po tofu, which was listed with beef but they were happy to leave the meat out—and curried vegetables.
Our next stop was in Tracadie-Sheila, where we walked into the Historical/Genealogical Museum located in a large, beachy wood-frame former Catholic school built around 1912. The exhibits were all in French and the lobby was mostly class pictures, so we chose not to pay and tour. On the Web later, I discovered that the main exhibit is actually about the treatment of leprosy, and not about the local families’ genealogy. This village also has a nice independent natural foods store a few doors down from the museum. Across the bridge, you can walk a multiuse trail, but it was over 90 degrees and this trail offered little shade or scenery, so our walk was brief. We didn’t stop again until arriving at our hosts’ beautiful seaside home in Caraquet, the cultural heart of Acadie. The t at the end is pronounced, because the origin is Miqmak (First Nations), not French.
Caraquet totally charmed us. We spent the following day entirely within the town other than a quick detour into adjoining Bas Caraquet to get a drive-by look at its famous church. Parking at the eastern end of downtown, we took a long and beautiful walk starting near the fishing quay and ending on Foley Street, which comes up from and west of the abandoned lighthouse (white with red trim) that marks the Plage Sauvage (Wild Beach). Caraquet harbor is one of the most photogenic I’ve ever seen, with its mid-size fishing trawlers decked out in assorted bright colors, mixed in with some small pleasure boats. The harbor is well set-up for pedestrians, with lookouts and benches, fabulous scenery and small clumps of retail with large undeveloped stretches between. The beach at the lighthouse has a few picnic shelters at the bottom, which is accessible both by car and by footpath, and two more shelters on the hill above. We chose one of the upper ones for our picnic and almost didn’t want to leave.
After lunch, we drove a few kilometers to Ste. Anne de Bocage, a church built in 1755 overlooking the bay, on a campus with adjoining privately owned cabins to rent, stopped at the local cheesemonger on the way back, and then relaxed with cold drinks at Le Grain Folie, a really nice café/whole grain bakery that serves a terrific iced coffee.
We finished our day with an hour in the Acadian History Museum in the center of town, small, inexpensive (CDN $3), and worth the struggle with reading French. It offered a lot of information about farming and fishing in the old days, the deportation of Acadians (a story I’d not heard before this trip), and local families that settled the region.
With many hours of driving ahead of us the following day, we stayed on the highway all the way to Dalhousie, then continued the short distance to Campbelton on the very scenic coast road, with great views of wide Chaleur Bay, the Appalachian Mountain part of northern New Brunswick, and the Gaspésie (Gaspé Peninsula) across the water. It felt energizing to see real mountains after the relative flatnesss of southern and eastern NB. And then we crossed the bridge into Quebec Province, set our clocks back to Eastern Time—an odd experience while going east—and began the Gaspésie part of our adventure.
At last, 20 years after we’d decided to visit—and after 12 days of traveling—here we were. Our original plan was to start on the south shore, drive all the way east, and then circle back on the north shore. This would have been more convenient in several ways, but because of the schedules of our homestay hosts, we had to reverse it—and this turned out to have several blessings.
Our first day’s drive would take us through four of Gaspésie’s five regions: The Valley, The Bay, The Coast, and The High Gaspésie. One day later, we’d reach the last: far eastern Land’s End. The regions extend deep inland, but almost all the settled areas are quite close to the shore, except along 132 as it goes from the New Brunswick border to Mont-Jolie and (via Route 195) Matane before turning east..
One good part of doing the north shore first was getting to stop in Causapscal, which we would have missed. This village is home to the Matamajaw historic site, a cute complex of green-trimmed white 19th-century buildings dedicated to the salmon fishing experience of the period, with both an indoor and outdoor gallery, a nice pedestrian bridge and nature trail, and a generally good vibe. With many hours of driving still ahead, we chose not to go through the whole thing, but we enjoyed spending 20 minutes or so walking around.
Another benefit was that the booklets we’d picked up about the artisans with open studios and the local food scene were both organized geographically, and in the direction of our trip. You’ll definitely want copies of both of these; tourist information centers have them in both English and French.
In Matane, where our route joined the coast again, we stopped first to picnic at a nature trail on the outskirts, and then again in the charming, colorful historic downtown. In summer, a few blocks of the main street (St. Jerome) are reduced to one lane so the cafes can offer outdoor seating. There’s also the Captain’s Walk, a waterfront walk one block over, along the river.
Coastal Route 132 along the north shore offers breathtaking views of both harbor and mountain, and the hills rise up almost from the shore—like parts of the California or Maine coasts. The mountains get higher as you cross from the Coast region to the High Gaspésie, as the road comes within viewing distance of sprawling Gaspésie National Park (part of the Canadian extension of the Appalachian Mountains).
Approaching Cap-Chat from the west, we made a lucky stop at Phare Roches (Lighthouse Rocks), which looks like an ordinary campground from the gate but turns out to offer a surprisingly deep network of short-distance spectacular-view walking trails above and on the beach, out to a very old lighthouse, and through beautiful informal gardens (clearly planted by humans, but emphasizing the naturescape, which I prefer to the manicured-and-trimmed look of so many gardens. No admission charge, but we were happy to put a few bucks in the donation slot on our way out. The official guidebook doesn’t even mention this place.
Then we had a quick walk around the old harbor in Ste. Anne des Monts before calling it a day. There’s a beautiful old stone church “graced” with a hideous bright red single-seam roof. I always hate it when I see that industrial-style roof on historic buildings, and didn’t even price it when we redid the roof of our own historic house several years ago, despite the energy, cost, and longevity advantages. The harbor is also home to a large aquarium, Exploramer, which offers boat tours.
We spent most of the following day exploring the national park, starting with a quick walk around the beautiful pond at La Grande-Fosse and then a hike up Mont Ernest LaForce, which offered scenic rewards most of the way up and down, as well as at the summit. It’s a particularly good place to view massive Mont Albert, about 180 meters (100 feet) higher. This was billed as a two-hour hike, but we did the easy gravel trails in 82 minutes from bottom to top to bottom. However, in retrospect, we would have not completed the lollypop loop but returned on the longer trail we’d ascended, because it’s less steep and offers better views—and that would have taken more like an hour and a half. Of course, we spent some time enjoying the summit, too.
Speaking of gravel, you get to this trail by driving 7 km on a well-maintained and wide gravel road. It’s not hard, but if you’ve never driven off pavement before, be prepared for the clouds of dust every time a vehicle passes going the other way. They have it posted with an absurdly high 70 kph speed limit; we took it at 40.
Our picnic was at the incredibly scenic Chute Ste Anne (St. Anne’s Falls), where you can look out at a torrent of water tumbling through large rocks, and then walk down to the water’s edge. This is accessible directly from a small parking area off the main park road with a one-hour parking limit, so we returned our cooler to the car before hiking along the river a short distance to the Footbridge of the Living Waters, and then beyond up a surprisingly steep 1 km trail to another lookout, which wasn’t really worth the climb—our only disappointment in this beautiful park. Had we known, or had the parking lot had a longer limit, we’d have walked instead to Devil’s Falls.
Before leaving the park, we took in the small exhibit at the Visitors Center, which had a few spectacular photographs (including moose with enormous antlers and the park in winter) as well as some geological information.
We stopped in a few craft galleries first in Sainte Anne Des Monts (which also has a pleasant chocolate shop, which we visited, and a nearby free science and nature museum that might be worth a stop—we didn’t go) and then in La Martre, ending our day at La Martre’s iconic bright red lighthouse and main crossroads, on a hill above Route 132. We got there just as the lighthouse museum was closing, but we could still walk around and take pictures of the lighthouse, the church, and the beautifully painted Turquoise Café.
We started the next morning with another hike, up Mont Saint Pierre. The entrance is at the eastern edge of cute Mont Saint Pierre Village, starting at a small ticket booth on the right—NOT the hiker turnoff for Sentiere Riviere in the village center (though the information sign in the center will bring you to a really nice craft boutique).
While the previous day’s climb was easier than expected, this mountain was far more difficult. We’d been told it take about an hour to climb, but at 45 minutes, we were nowhere near the top. The steep, rough trail between the trailhead and the next crossing of the road was challenging even for us (we hike several times a week at home). We’d had terrific scenic views in the first 20 minutes, and we realized that if we made it to the top, we wouldn’t have time to hike at the Gaspé’s other national park on the east end. With regret, we aborted the climb and headed back down—taking the road this time, which was faster and easier.
Back on 132 heading east, our next stop was in L’Anse Pleureuse, a section of Mont Louis, and home to La Vielle Ecole Galerie d’Art—the studio of Sylvain Gagnon. We almost skipped this stop, because the picture in the crafters brochure was a rather boring picture of the old school house that houses his studio. Luckily, it was one of only two galleries along our route that was open on a Monday morning, so we stopped anyway—and were greeted with an explosion of color around numerous urban, village, and country landscapes. Here’s a nice example:
http://www.sylvain-gagnon.com/virtuel/index.php/marche-bonsecours. His website’s virtual gallery shows many of these, but the first screen is dominated by much more ordinary work.
Our next real stop was the scenic lighthouse at Sainte Madeleine, which we were able to climb ($3 CDN per person) and photograph before picnicking in front of it, enjoying a breathtaking view of the sea.
It was still a couple of hours more to get to the visitors center at Forillon, where we found out exactly how to get to “the end of the world,” as they call the point on the very tip of the peninsula, paying at the southern entry station, following the road until it ends, and then walking an easy and beautiful few kilometers to the lighthouse, which is Kilometer Zero for the Canadian portion of the Appalachian Trail. From the lighthouse, it’s only 375 meters of easy trails, stairs, and boardwalks to Bout du Monde, the eastern tip of Gaspésie. A cloud had settled on the tip, so we didn’t have stunning long-distance views, but it was still amazingly beautiful (and we got some great pictures of this cloud on our way into the park). This is why we’d wanted to visit Gaspésie for so long! It was also our farthest point, and our journey home officially began as we turned back toward the lighthouse.
On our way back to the car, we detoured onto the first of several trails marked Les Graves—one of the most beautiful and deeply satisfying trails I’ve ever walked. Paralleling the multiuse main trail, this narrow but easy pedestrian-only path goes quite close to the shore, passing through lovely meadows and offering lots of avian wildlife. We might have taken some of the later Les Graves detours as well, but we wanted to be at our B&B in Gaspe town before dark, and we barely made it.
The next morning was delightfully sunny as we headed to Perce (pronounced purr-SAY) and discovered yet another advantage of starting on the north coast: as magnificent as Forillon was, it didn’t have the “eye candy” aspect of magnificent Perce Rock rising out of the sea like some Utah canyon rock formation that somehow transported itself to the Atlantic seaboard. Coming in on 132 from Gaspé, the first time you see the rock is absolutely stunning—the best view of it until you’re in the town. We were able to fully appreciate Land’s End without it being dwarfed by Perce.
After buying our tickets, we had a 40-minute wait until we could board the boat for Bonaventure National Park—and finally check off a boat experience for this trip. All the good reviews are totally justified. Even though it's $30 for the boat and $8.50 park admission, it is THE thing to do in Perce. Make sure you take the boat that goes around both sides of Perce rock (another boat only goes past one side), do your best to understand the nature commentary on the scratchy PA system, and allow several hours to enjoy it (we took three hours, which felt perfect for hiking, but didn’t give us time to explore most of the historic buildings near the wharf). We took the direct (Colonie) trail to the bird nesting area, and came back on the exquisite Sentier Chamin de Roi, with its fabulous sea views. You really get up close and personal with thousands of Northern Gannets. Seals and various other seabirds are also part of the fun.
Chilled after the boast ride back from Bonaventure Island, we stopped in at Boulangerie Le Fournand, 194 route 132, to get warm with excellent cafe au lait and great service. We also bought a bread, and when we discovered the lack of vegetarian options for dinner in the farm settlement near Port Daniel where we stayed that night, we were very happy to use the multigrain artisan loaf as the basis for a great picnic.
The next day, we only had to make it as far as Nouvelle (less than two hours), so we took our time, stopping to hike two short trails: a marsh trail in Hope Town and a sea-cliff trail in Hope. The second of these has a big poster about the view of a huge cliff with a hole, halfway down the 1.6 km trail. The views approaching from the parking lot are unspectacular, but once you cross above the rock and pass on through, they’re worth it—even if you might miss the hole the first time and have to spot it on the way back, as we did.
We also stopped at the Hope Town gallery of porcelain crafter Enid Legros-Wise, and had the luxury to let the artist spend half an hour showing her delicate work, telling the stories behind her various projects, and discussing her philosophy of living a life open to new discoveries.
The other galleries we visited that morning were all in a small quad behind the Acadian Museum in Bonaventure town (not to be confused with Bonaventure Island). Our favorite by far was the Old Gospel Church, which offered an extensive selection of many Gaspésie artists and artisans including several whose studios we’d visited.
Then we drove 10 km off the main road to a park in St. Alphonse, where there was a hike to the Domaine des Chutes du Ruisseau Creux waterfall. But we didn’t realize either how much of a detour it was (a good half hour), or how far on foot to the waterfall from the parking area. We could have easily done the five km each way if that had been our only hike, but we also had to show up on time in Nouvelle. In the end, we crossed the picturesque pedestrian bridge, hiked for about 40 minutes on one of the river trails, then scuttled back to the car and continued without stopping to do anything else.
But we made up for it in the morning, with a walk along a beautiful beach with our host and then a guided tour of the fossil museum at Miguash National Park. This park was built around a vast trove of fossils discovered on the beach that has allowed scientists to learn a great deal about the evolution of four-legged land-dwelling animals from primitive fish, the diets of prehistoric animals, and the evolution of plants. Quite interesting. Explanations are available in English a few times daily and in French throughout the day, and you will learn a number of things from the guide that you won’t get simply by reading the signs.
Quebec’s Eastern Townships
Leaving the museum at 12:30, we didn’t have time to explore much along the drive to our next host in Saint-Pacôme, in mainland Quebec—goodbye to the wonderful Gaspésie—but we did stop for a very good cup of coffee and incredible maple ice cream that tasted like maple syrup in solid form at Ma Cabane en Gaspésie, a sugar shack in Mont Jolie on the roundabout where Highway 20 starts. Our route also took us through very cute downtown Mont Jolie, filled with interesting-looking shops and galleries. Maybe next time we’d be able to stop and explore not just this village but Rimouski and Rivière-du-Loup, both of which we bypassed on the highway.
We also stopped at a rest area near Levis, just across the river from Quebec City—where we were bemused in this rest area to see signs (in French) saying “visit our National Capital.” Canada’s capital of Ottowa, Ontario is only a few hours west—but this sign was referring to Quebec. We didn’t visit that charming city this trip but we’ve been there several times. I did wonder what Anglophone Canadians would think of this mindset.
Our last night in Canada was with a wonderful host in Orford, next to a beautiful national park that we’d hiked on our 2012 visit to the Eastern Townships. The next morning, she took us for a long walk along Lake Memphremagog, which starts in Magog and goes 25 miles south into Vermont, and also Magog’s main street of cafes and interesting shops. We stopped to visit a craft show that spanned the tiny villages of Georgeville and Fitch Bay before arriving in Rock Island, Stanstead—the last bit of Canada before crossing to the US on either Canada 55/US Interstate 91 or Quebec 143/US 5.
If you think Canada is just an extension of the US, visit Rock Island. Much of the downtown district is built in English Canadian style, with very solid, square buildings of brick and stone, while the homes—many quite large and stately—are mostly wood-frame and run more to late Victorian. But the town itself is overwhelmingly French Canadian. Use up your Canadian dollars either at the large supermarket at Exit 2 off 55 (where we bought two 12-packs of Boreale, our favorite beer and one I’ve never seen sold in the US), or at the delightful boulangerie (bakery) on 143 between Exits 1 and 2 (on the left if coming from the north toward the border), where we picked up an excellent loaf of organic whole wheat to have with the last of our Canadian artisan cheese. Remember—don’t bring fresh produce across the border; it will be confiscated.
Oh, and visit the public library. It’s Canadian and French, but the entrance is in Derby Line, Vermont, even while most of the building (and the staff, collection, etc.) is in Canada.
Consciousness around water conservation (especially in Gaspésie) is pretty high, at least in the circles we were traveling. Awareness around local and organic food is growing, but still not at critical mass. However, it’s usually pretty easy to find something vegetarian, and many restaurants offer gluten-free choices.
The region has several wind farms but not much solar. Quebec does get much of its energy from renewables, notably large-scale hydro—but flooding large areas with massive dams has a pretty major environmental impact of its own.
Recycling was visible in all three provinces we visited. Most only separated into wet and dry and were presumably sorted later. A few stations separated glass, plastic, and paper.
Oddly, Canada has two national parks systems—SEPAC, operating the parks in Quebec, and Parks Canada, serving all the other provinces—and then each province has its own park system as well. Each has separate administration and separate admission systems, and they don’t honor each other’s passes. For this reason, we chose not to buy a long-term pass for either system, but paid individually at each park. If one pass had been good at all the parks, it would have been worth it.
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