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Northern Gannets are cottony sea birds with butterscotch heads and Egyptian eyes, six-foot wingspans and beaks like tin shears.

French Made Easy: Quebec's Gaspé Peninsula

Story and Photos by Stephen Ausherman

It’s no longer fair to refer to Québec as the “poor man’s French vacation.” True, it’s still cheaper than France, but in many ways has more to offer. The province of Québec is enormous, more than three times the size of France. All that extra space helps keep much of the land untrammeled and untamed. And some of the best spots, like the Gaspé Peninsula, remain relatively unknown.

“People are just waking up to the extraordinary beauty of Gaspé mountains and sea,” notes Gordon Brinley in her 1935 budget travel guide, Away to the Gaspé. She goes on to describe a celestial land of country churches and covered bridges, and the friendliest gestures at every turn. Seventy years later, her observations still hold true.

Brinley afforded herself ninety days for her offbeat Gaspésian adventure. My travel companions and I had just seven, so we planned them wisely.

These are the highlights:

Bic National Park

Jean-Francois is struggling with his English to convince us that his kayak expeditions are completely safe. “We are prepared for casualties,” he says in his charming Québecois accent. He thinks a moment, then adds: “Casualties is the correct word, no?”

“Um, no,” I reply. “At least I hope not.”

The calm before the chop: Fellow travelers take a few practice strokes before venturing out to Massacre Island.

He apologizes for the limits of his English, but then quickly reminds us that today is St-Jean-Baptiste Day, the Fête nationale du Québec. “We must all speak French today,” he jokes.

Now that would be a disaster. Between my four traveling companions and me, we can’t seem to assemble one coherent sentence in French.

We launch our kayaks into the calm, chilly St. Lawrence off the coast of Bic National Park. I’m concerned whether my companions will be able to keep up. At least two of them haven’t excercised since the last days of disco.

Likewise, our kayaks are not the sleekest of models, designed for stability more than speed. But Jean-Francois reminds us: “Kayaking is not about strength so much as rhythm. It is like a dance.” With that, my companions find their rhythm and dance circles around me. We paddle out past Massacre Island, where the water turns choppy, then toward Cape Enrage, where curious seals join our tour.

I’m inclined to explore more unusual names on the map—such as Le Chocolat and Baie du Ha! Ha!—but eight miles (13 km) are about all we can manage for a morning paddle, and the rest of Bic National Park is best viewed from bikes and footpaths.

Nature claims an abandoned cottage in Bic National Park.

Nine miles (14.5 km) of gently sloping bike trails course through the park, along with 15 miles (24 km) of groomed hiking trails. We traipse along a coastal route, pausing frequently to absorb the harsh beauty at every turn, such as abandoned clapboard houses that testify to brutal winters and wild irises thriving in craggy rock.

Tip for a Better Trip: If you’re feeling less than confident in your kayaking abilities, request to ride along with your guide in a double kayak. However, do not share it with a loved one. There’s a reason these boats built for two are called marriage wreckers.

Gaspésie National Park

Albéric, our guide to the Gaspé, is fond of pointing out grand views and saying, “Now imagine this place under five meters of snow.” He sounds as if he’s proud of surviving so many winters here.

As much as I’d love to see this place frozen over, I don’t want to imagine it now. What I see before me is stunning enough: A glacial cirque that appears to belong to another mountain range. The snow-patched granite peak on the far side of a crystalline lake looks like a chunk of the French Alps gone AWOL. I check my map to confirm we’re still in the Appalachians. We are. And the lake is clearly marked as Lac aux Américains. We’re still on the left side of the ocean.

Fionne and Kim entice small trout in the Lac aux Américains.

Other vistas in the park resemble English Lake Country, only without the crowds, or the barren hills of Wales. One peak, the tundra-topped Mont Jacques-Cartier, appears to belong to another planet. Here on the windswept fields of rock, immense beauty grows on a miniscule scale. The biggest flower blossoms are the size of a fly’s wingspan, and ancient trees imitate banzai masterpieces.

Yet for all the variations in landscapes and environments, much of the park is accessible via easy and intermediate hikes that average around three hours, allowing ample time to knock off two or three peaks a day and still have time for French lessons.

That’s what we’re doing when the caribou shows up. We’re practicing (and mangling) French by the lakeside when a lone caribou wanders out of the woods, presumably to correct our pronunciation. The louder we talk, the closer she comes, until finally she deems us hopeless and trots up through scree on an impossibly steep hillside to rejoin her friends, the only herd of caribou south of the St. Lawrence. We stay behind, swirling lazy circles in the surface of the lake, enticing little brook trout to nibble on our fingertips.

Tip for a Better Trip: Consider renting hiking gear from the Visitor Center. Park wardens there can advise on potential trail and weather hazards, and offer appropriate clothing and equipment.

Bonaventure Island National Park

A view from an observation tower shows that while some Gannets seem to enjoy their personal space, there’s always room for more.

Picture Tippi Hedren tiptoeing through avian masses at the end of Hitchcock’s The Birds. That pretty much sums up our experience when we stumble across a colony of Northern Gannets, cottony sea birds with butterscotch heads and Egyptian eyes, six-foot wingspans and beaks like tin shears.

They are big and fearless birds, the largest of the boobies, and two or three together in your path can pose a formidable obstacle. We’re now facing over 70,000 of these winged beasts, with more in the air and over the horizon. Add to that an additional population of nearly 200,000 other sea birds, including razorbills, gulls, kittiwakes, and puffins, and you begin to get a sense of the crowd on the dizzying cliffs at the southeastern rim of the island.

Some 223 species of avian wildlife frequent this 3.5 square-mile (5.6 square km) national park in the Gulf of St. Lawrence off Percé at the end of Québec’s Gaspé Peninsula. None are a bigger draw than the Gannets that nest here from April to November. Most roost at disturbingly even intervals, as though prepared for battle, while many other flap and caper about, and spar and riot over fish carried up from the sea hundreds of feet below.

Still more emerge from eggs like little gray aliens. In all, they dwarf the blue whale we encountered during the eighty-minute boat ride to the island.

For an eerier view of this massive gannetry, consider a full moon tour hosted by Parcs Québec. Or if you prefer to explore the island from 15 feet (5 m) below, you can rent all the appropriate scuba gear and brave the 50-degree (10 C) waters. Yes, it’s that refreshing.

All 15 miles (24 km) of Bonaventure’s well-groomed trails are well worth exploring, though the shortest hike from the wharf to the colonies and back is 3.5 miles (5.6 km). Some trails, as well as the boat, are wheelchair accessible.

Tip for a Better Trip: Bring strong cologne, perfume, Vapo-rub - anything to mask the smell of hundreds of thousands of birds. It’s not as bad as a pig farm on a muggy summer afternoon, but it’s close.

Whale Watching with Croisieres Baie-de-Gaspé

Old salt Albéric keeps a sharp eye out for whales off the coast of Cape Gaspé.

With mere hours until our departure flight, we barrel down to the bay, don all available raingear, and jump aboard a 50-foot (16.5 m) Zodiac. Soon we’re coasting over a mass of krill—whale chow—and a pod of blue whales is circling like war wagons.

We motor through the whale-infested waters, chasing tails in all directions. When one giant cetacean surfaces about thirty yards in front of us, our guide gasps: “You won’t get a closer look than that!”

No sooner has she finished saying that when a bubble about the size of a large pizza wiggles up from the depths just a few feet off our port side. I have just enough time to think, There’s something down— before a whole mass of night-sky blue bursts through the surface and snorts out a mighty brume. Passengers are screaming and springing away from the rail, falling over their seats and laughing like mad.

“Now that’s close!” says our guide.

Close indeed. So close I could chip a golf ball into its blowhole. Any closer and we’d be set like Jonah. It’s strange the things you think of when you see a 150-ton creature that close to your dinky little boat.

Certain we’ve seen the best of the blues, we putt back through swarms of seals, toward Cape Gaspé, where the ancient Appalachian range, its legendary trail, and our journey come to an end.

Tip for a Better Trip: I’ve been on whale-watching excursions before, and the tempestuous consequences were too grim to mention here. Let’s just say that as far as whaleboats are concerned, smaller is better. Trust me on this.

Quick Guide to Québec’s Gaspesian Food and Lodging

Few would expect decadent food and lodging from this rugged peninsula, where the neckbones of the mighty Appalachians bow into the cold gulf waters north of New Brunswick. The Gaspé, however, is full of surprises.

Fast food franchises are making inroads here, but with a French accent. The KFC is known as le PFK (Poulet Frit Kentucky). And so-called french fries are served as Poutine—Quebec’s native concoction of gravy, cheese curds and fries. More quick bites can be scored from roadside cantines.

While you might be justified in cramming depeche cuisine into your maw to fuel a busy day of chasing moose, there’s no excuse for denying yourself the exquisite evening affair that is Quebec dining.

Here Old Country etiquette allows diners a minimum of two hours to savor five courses or more, along with Canada finest wines. Or beers, if you prefer. Quebec’s brilliantly crafted and heavily fortified brews are nothing like the watery Canadian lagers found in U.S. markets.

Keep in mind that you’ve left stuffy atmospheres back in the city. While we don’t recommend slurping down your soup du jour while dressed like a lumberjack, there’s no need to get decked out in Yves Saint Laurent gear either. In short, no jacket required, and don’t even think about packing a tie.

A hint: Before you go, brush up on your French culinary nomenclature. Understand the difference between a Table d’Hôte and a prix fixe and an a la carte. And while bilingual waiters and menus are usually available, the translations they offer don’t always do the dish any justice. For example, La Soupe du Bas du Fleuve doesn’t sound quite as appealing when translated as “The Soup of the Bottom of the River.”

And if all the French lessons during your marathon meals start to wear you out, don’t worry: Here in the Gaspé, the best restaurants are conveniently located in the best hotels, making the walk from your table to your bed a mercifully short one.

near Bic National Park

Hôtel Rimouski
225, boul. René-Lepage Est
Rimouski (Québec) G5L 1P2
(418) 725-5000
1-800-463-0755
FAX : (418) 725-5725
EMAIL

The Hôtel Rimouski boasts an indoor water slide, which sounds even more exotic when you say it in French: glissade d’eau. Those too mature for such juvenile amusements can indulge in a spa treatment. Order up to three masseuses to work over your tired bones, relax with an underwater massage, or choose from a variety of exfoliating body treatments. The only thing more decadent at the Hôtel Rimouski is its Restaurant La Seigneurie. Sample Canadian flavor with smoked salmon carpaccio, maple glazed duck breast, and a glass of Jackson-Triggs Meritage.

Auberge du Mange Grenouille
148, rue Sainte-Cecile
Le Bic (Quebec) G0L 1B0
(418) 736-5656
FAX: (418) 736-5657
EMAIL

L’Auberge du Mange Grenouille, which translates to The Frog Eaters’ Inn, employs buckets of lace, canopies, red velour, candelabras, gilded frames, French impressionism, and Byzantine décor to create a kind of casbah-cum-bordello theme, as though Louis XIV opened his own TGI Friday’s. And yet, strangely enough, it works. Maybe that’s because the food here is the best in the Gaspesie. The presentation is Japanese in its simplicity - some courses are cleverly disguised as sushi rolls, while the flavors are purely Old World. The award-winning menu offers a choice beef, lamb, veal, duck, rabbit, or burbot, but oddly, no frog.

Gaspésie National Park

Gîte du Mont-Albert
1901, route du Parc
Sainte-Anne-des-Monts (Quebec) G4V 2E4
(866) 727-2427
FAX: (418) 763-7803
EMAIL

The Gîte du Mont-Albert is one of three hotels operated by Quebec’s park network, SEPAQ, and arguably the best in the Gaspé. Completed in 1994, the 48-room Gîte has since added thirteen chalets to its grounds to accommodate a growing number of year-round visitors. This monumental hotel in the Chic-Chocs Mountains is the ideal base for excursions into the surrounding Gaspésie National Park. A sauna and heated outdoor pool await your return.

The café lounge boasts an impressive collection of beverages, as well as a view that rivals an IMAX production. Local flavors in the cavernous 200-seat dining room include pan-seared rabbit, caribou medallions, and the Gîte’s own house-smoked salmon. And with the Canadian dollar still hovering around 80 cents, a four-course meal at this four-star restaurant will set you back only 30 bucks—about the price of an entrée at an equivalent restaurant stateside.

Reservation tip: No elevators and the bellhops are skittish. So if you have a lot of heavy luggage, reserve a room on the ground floor.

near Miguasha National Park

Hôtel Francis
210 chemin Pardiac
C.P. 819 New Richmond
Québec G0C 2B0
1-800-906-4485
FAX: (418) 392-4819
EMAIL

Recent multi-million dollar renovations rescued this potential roadhouse from single-stardom and restored it into a chic, three-star hotel on the scenic banks of the Petite Cascapedia. No fewer than eight awards and distinctions have been heaped upon Madame Lucille Duchesneau since she took over the hotel in 1990, all of them well deserved for this relaxing and well-attended establishment.
Winter sees the Hôtel Francis's Bayou Pub crammed with snowmobilers.

Summer guests are more likely to be tourists from France savoring a gourmet meal in the dining room. Not that we need the French to vouch for the food, but they did. They seemed particularly passionate about the poissons frais, délicieux fruits de mers et savoureuses grillades. Roughly translated, that means it’s all good.

Reservation tip: Request a room with a view of the river and away from hwy 132, where logging trucks occasionally rumble early in the morning.

near Bonaventure Island and Forillon National Parks

Auberge Fort-Prével
2053, boulevard Douglas
Post Office Box 58
Saint-Georges-de-Malbaie (Québec) G0C 2X0
1 888 377-3835
FAX: (418) 368-1364
EMAIL

The popular park has spawned a nearby tourist strip burgeoning with trinket shops, restaurants and roadside hotels. While none are near so tacky as their Myrtle Beach counterparts, you may want to distance yourself from the crowds and stay at the SEPAQ-operated Auberge Fort-Prével.
Built on the site of a short-lived World War II fortress, the Auberge Fort-Prével is a family resort, complete with a playground, swimming pool, beach access, tennis, and an 18-hole golf course. It’s also conveniently located between two national parks.

The Auberge Fort-Prével's kitchen, once the training ground for local chefs, is essentially the birthplace of the distinct flavor in modern Gaspesian cuisine. Chef Armel Béland developed Fort-Prével's first menus—simple yet sophisticated recipes that enhance the flavors of regional ingredients. Now his son, Dominique, continues in that tradition here as head chef. The food here is comparable to the culinary masterpieces at the Gîte du Mont-Albert, where, incidentally, Armel’s brother Euclide was once chef. The difference here is somewhat more exotic offerings, like pan-fried cod tongue and sweetbread.

Oh, and if you’re not sure what that is, you’re in for another surprise.

 

Photo by Kyle Zimmerman



Stephen Ausherman is the author of 'Restless Tribes,' an award-winning collection of travel stories. He can be reached at his website: restlesstribes.com

 

 

 

 

 

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