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The St. Lawrence River was once a North American superhighway. Today, following its path takes you along a coastline best described as otherworldly.
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It’s the Western Hemisphere’s original superhighway: Long before Route 66 or the Oregon Trail or even the Erie Canal — for that matter, before Henry Hudson ever sailed into New York Harbor French ships, trailing the wake of Indigenous peoples such as the Mi’kmaq and the Innu, were already navigating the St. Lawrence River to explore, exploit and settle the new world. To this day, the St. Lawrence moves more than 150 million tons of cargo a year. But it can also move people, in unexpected ways. Follow alongside, and it will take you through other countries. And realms. And even back in time.
The fleuve Saint-Laurent — a fleuve is a river that empties into the sea; others are merely rivières — flows northward from Lake Ontario for some 800 miles, but a good place to start shadowing it would be about a third of the way downstream, at the Plains of Abraham, in Québec City, where, in 1759, the British effectively secured their hegemony over the French in this part of the world for the next two centuries. Stand up there, on this elevated battleground, and gaze out — over the rooftops of the city that Samuel de Champlain founded 12 years before the Mayflower left England — at the fleuve, spreading out like a bay, and, to your right, two bridges that span it.
The last two.
You don’t have to go across; you could just remain on this side, where Champlain planted roots, and visit waterfalls, ski resorts, artsy towns. But that other side: It’s mysterious. Somewhere out there — around 500 miles of two-lane macadam away — is Rocher Percé (pierced rock), a striking offshore monolith, one of Canada’s great icons, and next door, Île Bonaventure, where cliffs rising hundreds of feet from the water teem with birds rarely spotted south of the border. Both merit the drive; but to do it straight in one day — rather than, as I did, over the course of several — would be like going to an épicerie, buying a Coffee Crisp bar (that cherished Canadian confection), framing the wrapper and throwing the candy away.
Cross over into the city of Lévis and pick up Quebec 132, the road that will take you all the way around the Gaspé peninsula. At first, suburban sprawl obscures the river; then, suddenly, you’re in the middle of lush farmland with open driver’s side views of the fleuve. This region is known as Chaudière-Appalaches, as in, the Appalachian Mountains. They’re up here, too, lurking somewhere off to your right.
You’ll pass many cyclists, their bicycles strapped with bulging saddle bags; the road here runs flat, and straight. The coast, though, does not, so while 132 goes right through some towns, others nestle off to its left. Detouring through one every five or 10 minutes is like unwrapping Christmas presents.
Though they all look like charming mashups of New England and old France, each is distinct from its neighbors. In Saint-Vallier, for instance, I stumbled upon an otherwise nondescript home, its front lawn festooned with more than a dozen elaborate scale models: houses, shops, a gazebo, a church. A neighbor who noticed me gawking walked over to explain, “They’re all buildings in town. The fellow who lives here used to make one a year. He’s 85 now and can’t do it anymore, but he still puts them out every June and takes them in come winter.”
The town of L’Islet has a splendid stone church with gleaming twin spires. Though the parking lot was empty when I passed through, a side door was unlocked; inside, a woman encouraged me to explore its capacious interior, warmer and sunnier than any ornate église I’d ever seen. “This is a patrimoniale church,” she beamed, meaning it’s landmarked, a designation that carries even more prestige here than it does in the States. “It was built in 1768, after the town outgrew two earlier ones.”
Follow the steeples. Churches here stand at the center of town; around them you’ll often find warm cafés, humble museums, public artwork, homemade chapels, placid riverfronts, little houses painted in bright colors. And sometimes — full disclosure — a potent whiff of cow manure. Fertile land, this.
At Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pocatière, past a sign welcoming you to the next region, Bas- (or lower) Saint-Laurent, a roadside shrine lists the town’s pioneers, going back to 1715. Others nearby were settled even earlier, like Kamouraska.
There are a few things that will stop you in Kamouraska. There’s that founding date, of course (1674); but there’s also its name — I’m told it’s Algonquin for “the place where rushes grow at the edge of the water” — which may well be the first thing you’ve seen on this whole drive to remind you that other people were living in these parts before the French sailed in.
But what will really stop you in Kamouraska is all the foot traffic, right along 132: people exploring historical sites, yes, but also plenty of boutiques, galleries, eateries. I asked the gentleman at the visitors bureau what drew people there in the first place, figuring the businesses had followed the tourists. “We’re known for having the second-most-beautiful sunsets in the world,” he said. Having heard tell of other Saint-Laurent towns with spectacular sunsets, I asked him where No. 1 was. “Hawaii,” he replied.
But for the silver-painted steeples and mansard roofs, this part of the drive, where the towns are now maybe 15 or 20 minutes apart, may remind you of the Low Countries — at least until Bic National Park begins, bumping smooth shoreline for rugged inlets and channels, peppered with little pine-topped islands, which evoke Norse country. Road and river reunite near Rimouski, population 50,000, by far the largest city this side of Lévis, almost 200 miles back. When I stopped at the tourism office there and asked where the historic district was, the woman behind the counter told me: “There isn’t one. The city burned down in 1950.”
Rimouski does have a pleasant elevated walkway along the shore, though the serenity you experience gazing out at the fleuve there may be tempered by a visit to the Empress of Ireland Museum, dedicated to a liner of that name that sank nearby in May 1914, taking more than a thousand people down with it in just 14 minutes. The museum has a fine film about the ship, how it sank and why it went down so quickly — despite having safety features inspired by the Titanic disaster just two years earlier — and displays hundreds of artifacts salvaged by wildcat divers: water heater, egg boiler, baby bottle, moose antlers. Only as I was walking back to my car did I realize the building itself is a Cubist rendition of the foundering ship, smokestacks and all.
At some point, it will occur to you that you can no longer see the opposite bank, and you’ll come to understand why folks here refer to the river as la mer, the sea. At Sainte-Flavie, you enter the region of Gaspésie. The towns get noticeably smaller and even farther apart, the Christmas presents more surprising, including working phone booths and mechanical gas pumps.
More than 200 years have passed since Métis-sur-Mer was founded by a Scottish seigneur, but it’s still somewhat Anglophone. (It was “Métis Beach” until 2002.) It still has a Presbyterian church, too; in its graveyard, scattered among the marble and limestone, you’ll find a few wooden markers, long since weathered to illegibility. At Baie-des-Sables, while you stroll yet another waterside promenade sprinkled with comfortable chairs, it may occur to you that there is in these towns a tremendous sense of civic pride: Almost everything in them is tidy, well kept (even abandoned houses have mowed lawns) and, by the shore, inviting.
Past Matane, the coast starts to bulge and buckle with approaching mountains. Towns bear-hug the water, sometimes even spilling out over it, like Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, where I came upon a large quay, its surface covered with vehicles, its edges with anglers. These settlements were built on fishing, but people here apparently love it so much they do it in their spare time, too.
Soon thereafter, you will have crested the peninsula, your car’s compass having gradually spun from NNE to just E. It’s here, at the ceiling of Gaspésie, that the Appalachians finally end, and not with a whimper. They crash right into the water, forcing the road to accommodate them by rising and falling and contorting such that you may feel it’s trying to shake you off its back.
But, then: those views. Here analogy fails me; I know of none like them. If you’re the type of person who stares at far-flung places on maps and envisions what they must be like, this one will exceed your imagination. At one point, for instance, a sharp bend in the mountainside road suddenly reveals a vista of more mountains alternating like the teeth of an opening zipper; before them, the village of Mont-Saint-Pierre clings to the slender rim of a half-moon cove. Stand on its dark-gray-speckled-with-white beach, looking forward and back, and you’ll wonder how any thoroughfare — much less the modest one bedside you — can possibly make it around the promontories jutting into the sea.
Past each, other mountains inch back from the shore just enough to accommodate settlements, some only one house deep; a few are simply a handful of small dwellings huddling together against blue infinity. Others are a bit larger, like Madeleine-Centre, where the lighthouse — you’ll have passed many by now: wooden, stone, brick; white, red, white and red — has a small museum that illuminates the history of the area, the life of a lighthouse keeper, and the indispensability of such structures, quaint artifacts though they seem now: In just two decades, from 1856 to 1876, the St. Lawrence swallowed at least 674 ships.
This raw coast, compelling as it is today, was, for centuries, terribly forbidding. The hamlet of Pointe-à-la-Frégate — named for the British frigate HMS Penelope, which ran aground there on April 30, 1815; more than 200 on board either drowned or froze to death — has a pocket park commemorating that shipwreck, with informative kiosks, a couple of picnic tables shaped like (pink) Napoleonic-era warships, and a cannon. You may be tempted to pose behind the porthole for a picture, but I wouldn’t: It’s mounted at the edge of a cliff.
If you like local, Gaspésie’s northern fringe is the place. When I cheekily asked a server at a small restaurant what other kinds of dining options were in the vicinity, she grinned and said, “There’s A&W in Matane, and McDonald’s in Gaspé.” Matane was then 100 miles behind me; Gaspé still 100 miles ahead. Sparsely populated as the area is, though, it has a great deal of history, not all of it tragic. At Pointe-à-la-Renommée, Guglielmo Marconi opened his first North American maritime wireless station in 1904. It’s still there on the spot (next to yet another lighthouse) that Marconi chose precisely because it was so remote.
At the eastern tip of the peninsula, Forillon National Park leaps out into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Nearly 100 square miles of conifers, beaches and capes, it was created in 1970, though not without tears: As kiosks at an anse, or cove, there explain, a great many families, some of whom had been there for centuries, were displaced in the process; their memories and lamentations grace other kiosks. (“We had lots of fun at Christmas.” “Families always got together for meals; it was a tradition.” “I know it’s been over 40 years but it still hurts. We’ll never forget.”) Some of their empty houses remain, as does William Hyman’s store, which provisioned generations of cod fishermen.
That cove is called L’Anse-aux-Amérindians (thankfully renamed from L’Anse-aux-Sauvages) to commemorate earlier generations of displaced residents. A trail that starts nearby leads to this eastern tip’s eastern tip, Land’s End. Its French name, Le Bout du Monde, seems more apt — the End of the World. And yet, somehow, inadequate: Ride a whale-watching boat around the Gulf and you’ll behold a land-and-seascape — indigo water waging an ancient war on ochre cliffs, more than you can count — best described as otherworldly.
Heading on, you’ll pass Fort Péninsule, a preserved coastal defense dating to World War II, when the Nazis sank some two dozen Allied ships in the St. Lawrence, before you come into the city of Gaspé, population 15,000. The town of Percé — where the sights include not only Rocher Percé and Île Bonaventure, but more souvenir and tchotchke stores than I care to recollect, not to mention the first paid parking lots I’d encountered in 500 miles — is still about 45 minutes away; but, again, don’t rush. Gaspé, one of the great natural harbors on the Atlantic — with its nearby beaches and surprisingly warm water, enticing restaurants and shops, fine regional museum and snug main street, Rue de la Reine, where the lampposts and parking-meter poles are outfitted with rainbow-striped knitted cozies — is as good a place as any I can think of to hunker down for a bit.
Jacques Cartier would agree. A tall stone cross on Gaspé’s waterfront marks the spot where the explorer planted a more modest wooden one in 1534, when he stopped by seeking shelter from a storm, and decided to do some trading with the locals. And, while he was there, invoke the papal Doctrine of Discovery (the one that decreed Christian nations like France could just assert ownership of territory already occupied by non-Christian Indigenous peoples) to claim the land for King François.
What he claimed — about 35 years before Champlain was born — is what we now call Canada. Though Gaspé also sometimes refers to itself as the End of the World, it was, in fact, the beginning of a whole new one. And well worth traversing several to see.
Lodging: If you’re an R.V. person, there are campgrounds all along Route 132, some right on the water. If you’re not, there are large hotels in Rimouski and Matane, but you might also consider an auberge, or inn, in a Victorian-era house; there are a couple, for instance, in the village of Le Bic, which also has a very fine bakery, Folles Farines, and lovely views of Bic National Park. There are plenty of inns in lower Gaspésie, ranging from humble to much less humble, and small motels. Up on the peninsula’s ceiling, options range from pretty basic motels (which nonetheless usually look better in real life than they appear in pictures online), to small inns, to cabins. (Few will turn up in a hotel app search; better to just use Google Maps.) And in Gaspé, there are motels, inns and hotels; the Baker Hotel is upscale for this area, but not exorbitant. You deserve it after all that driving.
Dining: This area is, not surprisingly, known for its seafood, but there are also plenty of local specialties that don’t come from the water. You will find a number of more upscale dining options — though not as many as you would have before Canada started experiencing its own labor shortage; you can still get a good breakfast at many hotels and inns, and even motels, though dinner at these can be trickier these days — but the food at the roadside shacks (called cantines) is often outstanding, too, even when they’re the only option. The line at Cantine Ste-Flavie, for instance, just outside that town, can be very long, and there’s a good reason for that. Even on such an enticing menu, the poutine aux crevettes — a mountain of fresh local shrimp atop fries, cheese curds and gravy — stands out. (Be forewarned: They only take cash and certain debit cards.) La Banquise 102 de Gaspé offers a delicious Montreal smoked meat poutine; so does Brise Bise, a restaurant on Rue de la Reine. Cafe des Artistes and the bakery Oh Les Pains, both also on Rue de la Reine, are also very good, and the restaurant TÉTÛ at the Baker Hotel is a fine option. Just make sure these are open on the day you plan to go — again, that labor shortage. Finally, when you see the giant roadside strawberry in L’Isle Vert (about 45 minutes past Kamouraska, heading north/east), pull up to the little red shack — Potager Côte D’or — and get a sundae made with their fresh strawberries. You’re welcome.
Museums, etc.: There are many small museums and local historical sites all along the route; serendipity may well guide you to some you won’t forget. The Empress of Ireland Museum is part of a maritime heritage complex that includes a lighthouse and a Canadian submarine. In Gaspé, you might want to check out the nascent Site d’Interpretation Micmac de Gespeg, and the generous array of informative kiosks at a plaza down by the waterfront where Cartier planted his cross. But you definitely don’t want to skip the Musée de la Gaspésie, which has excellent permanent exhibits about the history and culture of the area, including millennia of Indigenous societies and centuries of Anglo-French intrigue and commercial fishing. There’s also a wondrous temporary one (running through fall 2023) called “Cher Léo,” about Léonard Lapierre (1928-2014), an Indigenous area folk artist who made everything out of anything. (The exhibit’s name refers to the many fan letters Lapierre got from schoolchildren throughout Canada.)
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