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Gasp

Posted on | May 31, 2010 | Comments Off on Gasp

Unprepared trips sometimes bring about wonderful surprises.  Several summers ago,  I had vaguely planned a short escapade to Quebec city.  However, one of my friends persuaded me to acompany her to Gaspe Peninsula, a destination she had  briefly toured the previous autumn and which had completely enticed her.  At first, I had been reluctant to visit this Quebec region which had always appeared so remote, because I am not a very outdoor person.  Yet, despite a little anticipation, I accepted her invitation, mostly on account of my desire to explore new places.  Consequently, following a few days in Quebec city, a detour to l’Ile d’Orleans and several stopovers along the drive, we finally reached the peninsula.  To my astonishment, the majestic, measureless and arresting panorama, which comprises a profusion of mountains, valleys, parks, beaches and lakes, enhanced by the omnipresence of the sea, mesmerized me instantly.  I have visited many fascinating sites in North America and in Europe, but Gaspe is the most beautiful place I have ever seen.  I’m not sure whether it’s because the trip was spontaneous or because I had no idea of what to expect, but I felt a good, happy feeling throughout the whole journey, the kind of sensation you have when you fall in love.             

Gaspesie is not a motionless panorama, it is dynamic, alive.  There is so much to see and do! The peninsula offers a wide choice of hiking and interpretation trails and activities such as hunting, salmon and trout fishing, deepwater excursions, cruises and swimming.  There are hundreds of towns and villages to visit, each with their own little cachet.  For those who love cultural activities, there are craft shops, art galleries, theatres and museums. It is also an idyllic destination for lovers, not only because it is extremely vast, but because it is submerged with isolated alcoves, bays and inlets.  Another good reason to visit Gaspesie is the food.  As all regions situated by the sea, travellers may savour regional dishes and fresh caught fish and seafood, prepared according to old-fashioned local recipes or cooked “à la moderne”.  And last but not least:  the hospitability!  Gaspesiens are warm people who are very proud of their region.  They love to recommend unusual sights while relating anecdotes of their native village’s history, their elocution colored by a unique regional French accent.

 Gaspesie or Gaspe Peninsula is hundreds of thousands of years old and constitutes one of the oldest masses on earth, but one of the last to be populated by human beings.  It was fish that first brought people to the region.  The Micmacs, “the Indians of the Sea”, have lived on the peninsula for over 2,500 years.  They named the peninsula Gespeg, meaning “land’s end”.  A panoply of nationalities including Acadian, Loyalist, Breton, Basque, English, Jersey, Irish and Scots subsequently colonized the territory.   Anglophones accounted for 40% of the population half a century ago, but are now just over 10%.   Nowadays, on account of large exodus resulting from unemployment, accentuated during the last decade by  the decline in small-scale agriculture, the depletion of mineral and forest resources, the closing of paper mills such as the Gaspesia (scheduled to re-open soon)and the collapse of the fishing industry,  there are  approximately 80, 000 inhabitants residing in the region. 

 Located on the eastern tip of the province of Quebec, north of New Brunswick, Gaspe is divided into five distinctive natural sectors:  The Coast, Upper Gaspe, Land’s End, The Bay and The Valley.  A tour around the entire region takes at least ten days as the territory covers 800 kilometres – back and forth. 

The Coast

Following a lengthy drive along the gorgeous Saint-Laurent seaside,  we reached an exceptional floral location.  Les Jardins de Metis, accessible to the public from June to mid-October, enclose more than 500 native and exotic species and varieties of perennial and annual plants, bushes and trees, cultivated in the six ornamental gardens.  Lilies, Pinocchio polyantha roses, Pink Peace hybrid tea roses and larkspur can be found, to name just a few.  Declared a national historic site in 1996, it is the only authentic historic gardens in Quebec and among the most beautiful ornamental gardens in Canada.  A very popular tourist attraction, it has received more than 100,000 visitors a year since the 1990s.  It is doubtful that Elsie Reford ever imagined that one day her gardens would suscite such admiration.  For more than thirty years, she worked as an amateur horticulturist, collecting plants, cultivating them in the land she had inherited from her uncle, Lord Mount Stephen, first President of Canadian Pacific.  The property of the Quebec government during many decades, the Metis Gardens are now administrated by Alexander Reford, the founder’s great grand-son.  Another attraction of the park is the luxurious 37-room villa, formerly Mrs Reford’s residence, which presently houses a restaurant, a museum and a crafts shop. Throughout the season, the Villa Reford regularly hosts concerts, exhibitions, workshops and lectures. 

 We then made a little stop in Matane, a town reputed for its “Festival de la Crevette”.  After a hearty meal of delicious shrimps, we continued our journey.  We lingered very shortly at the dominant appeal of Upper Gaspe:  Parc de la Gaspesie.  The park encloses more than 240 kilometres of interpretation trails and looms as a vast, rugged region created by profound valleys betweeen peaks ranging up to 4,160 feet.  It forms a segment of the structure of the Appalachian chain; the Chic-Choc mountains comprise its spine.  This is one of the few places in Quebec where one discovers within the same territory, according to the vegetation and the climate, caribou, moose and deer.  The interpretation centre has a permanent exhibition, slide shows and many activities to offer.

   LAND’S END

 We were eager to reach Land’s End, the most popular destination of the peninsula.  Three superb forcal settings are located in this area:  Gaspe, Bonaventure Island and Perce.   We stopped briefly at Cap-des-Rosiers to tour the 37 metre-high lighthouse built in 1858,  the highest in Canada.  It was in this small municipality, which is part of  the city of Gaspé,  that in 1759, an officer caught sight of English general Wolfe’s fleet (during the war between the French and the English over la Nouvelle-France) and immediately sent a messenger to Québec city.  Cap-des-Rosiers has witnessed many shipwrecks and is the gateway to Forillon National Park, which we visited later.  We were eager to arrive in Perce.  We initially reserved accomodations for one night, but the motel clerk  informed us that a single day would not suffice to explore this renowned section.  Since all sites are situated at neighbouring proximity and it was getting increasingly difficult to find vacancy, we considered his suggestion and reserved two additional nights.

 Perce is a charming little village which assimilates the languorous flavour of a medittteranean town and the verve of a dynamic city.  There are many restaurants, accomodations and quite a heavy movement, compared to the other small towns.  From 1930 to 1960, it was a very popular cultural centre.  Artists flocked to the village, drawn by its magnetism and by the picturesque aspect of the fishermen.  However, travellors have always been  fascinated by the Perce Rock, the emblem of the Gaspe peninsula.   It was named by Samuel de Champlain, founder of the province of Québec,  for its pierced (percé) profile.  The giant boulder,  the result of an erosive work of 375 million years, is flanked by a smaller tower and stands as a massive block of five million tons,  85 meters high, 30 meters large and 433 meters long. 

 The following day we drove to Gaspe, which is the administrative centre for the whole sector and the railway terminus.  Interestingly, it is the only town in the world with a national park – Parc Forillon- and several magnificent bodies of water lying within town limits:  three salmon rivers, Gaspe Bay and the sea stretching out to the horizon.  It is also culturally diversified, including members of the Anglophone, Francophone and Micmac communities.   However, what is most striking is that  a multitude of restaurants, streets, bars, etc, include the terms “1534” or “Jacques Cartier” in their appellations!  Indeed, it is in Gaspe that the official history of Canada started when French discoverer Jacques Cartier raised a wooden cross, thus taking possession of Canada, then Nouvelle France, in the name of the king of  France on July 24, 1534.  A unique aspect in the city is the cathedral, which is the only wooden one in North America and has a magnificent stained glass window and a fresco, given by France in 1934 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Jacques Cartier’s arrival.  A granite crucifix of  30 feet,  opposite the cathedral commemorates the historic event.  We also visited Gaspe’s museum which houses  the largest exhibit ever prepared on the Frenchman’s first voyage in 1534.  Jacques Cartier: the discovery of a new worldinvites visitors to accompany him through his exploration of the Gaspe shores. 

We then spent an entire afternoon on Bonaventure Island.  Access is possible only by boat, from the end of may to mid-october. During the voyage, a fabulous scene awaited us as tens of thousands of birds sunbathed on the boulders or bustled near the cliffs.  The location of the island is spectacular as it is framed by the St-Lawrence Gulf, the extraordinary Percé Rock and the Gaspe Coast and surrounded with highlands, peaks and capes.  Acquired by the provincial government in 1971 following a series of expropriations, Bonaventure Island, covering only 5,8 km,  is one of Quebec’s smallest park.  The abundance of wildflowers, the long trails, the blue sky, the mountains and the sun shining over a jewelled sea, procure a sense of infinity.  Le Sentier des Coloniesis 2,8 km long – back and forth  – but is worth the effort.  At the end of the road, you will admire a sanctuary of  200,000 nesting birds, including 50,000 Fous de Bassans (gannets).  It is the second largest colony in the world, behind the one in Scotland. 

 Limited by time, we visited briefly Parc Forillon.  As most parks of the peninsula, it is huge.   The park’s uneven coastline illustratres the powerful contrast between land and sea.  Whale-watching cruises, sea kayaking excursions, swimming, fishing, scuba diving and sailing excursions are among the many activities the park offers. 

   THE BAY

 Jacques Cartier was so impressed with the warm weather of this sector that he named it Baie des Chaleurs.    There are immense shores of clement water, ideal for swimming, sailing and surfing.  The people are so scattered that we had the impression of vacationning on a private island!  The region is also characterized by its tiny pictorial villages.  New Carlisle, the birthplace of René Lévesque, prime minister of Quebec  from 1976 to 1985, is a typical English-speaking village, with old Loyalist families making up a good portion of the population.   We took a guided tour of  fourteen-room Maison Hamilton, the home of a former legislature member of Lower Canada.  New Richmond, also founded by Loyalists, has sumptuous houses and hillside farms.  Relay point of the Gaspé touristic circuit, Carleton, founded in 1756 by Acadian refugees,  seduces tourists with its magnificent setting of sea and mountains.  We enjoyed walking along the footpaths by Ruisseau de l’Eperlan leading to the back of mont St-Joseph.  From the top of this peak,  we had a panoramic view of the whole sector and the shores of Gaspésie and New Brunswick.  The town also offers a myriad of outdoor and cultural activities such as theatre, art galleries, swimming, golf and tennis. 

 We then stopped  in the village of  Maria, which bears the name of Lady Maria Effingham, wife of Sir Guy Carleton, the third Governor of Canada and nearby, we saw a Micmac Indian reservation which has a church built in the shape of a wigwam.  Another beautiful town in the Bay area is Bonaventure.  It  is one of the two Acadian strongholds in the Baie-des-Chaleurs area. We visited the Musée acadien du Québec where we learned that one million Quebecers have Acadian roots.  The museum displays a magnificent collection of antiques and period photos and a slide show.   For those who wish to know more about the French-Canadian and Indian history, fascinating facts are revealed during a visit to Lieu historique nationale La Bataille-de-la-Restigouche, where tourists witness the journey of a small squadron conveyed to rescue Nouvelle-France in the spring of 1760.  Several ship’s debris, period objects discovered on the boat and an animated movie serve to elucidate the particulars of the naval battle.  The town of Restigouche is the largest Indian reserve in Gaspesie and is well-known for its handicrafts such as baskets and leather items.  Our last stop in the sector was Parc de Miguasha.   The fish and plant fossils at Miguasha have been imprisoned in the cliffs along rivière Ristigouche for 365 million years.  This site, made unique not only in Quebec, but in the world, by the importance, diversity and number of its exceptionally well-preserved fossil species, has attracted researchers from all over the world since 1880.   On the road, we perceived Paspebiac, a town well known for its thalassotherapy center, situated in Auberge du Parc Inn, a beautiful mansion built at the beginning of the 19th century.    The center combines the virtues of the Baie des Chaleurs and its invigorating climate and includes a vast range of modern facilities. The treatment program, given by a specialized and highly-qualified staff consists of exercises, relaxation, leisure activities and sports.

 THE VALLEY

Our journey was slowly drawing to an end and The Valley, the last sector to be seen, would lead us back to Sainte-Flavie.  The Matapedia Valleyis located at the meeting of two magnificent salmon rivers, rivière Restigouche and rivièreMatapedia.  The amount of maples and elms differentiate this area from the rest of the peninsula.  This sector is especially beautiful in the fall, when the red and yellow maple and elm leaves contrast with the green of the fir trees. 

 For over 70 kilometres, we followed Matapedia River.  At times, we were high above the river, sometimes we  were  almost at sea-level, but there was a beautiful view at every turn.   This sector also has many tiny villages.  Val-Brillant, the “Queen of the Valley”, is magnificently located on Matapedia Lake.  Its graceful church of gothic conception is one of the area’s most exquisite religious constructions.  Located at the eastern tip of lac Matapedia and home to the river bearing the same name, Amqui is the Matapédia county town and an industrial, commercial and agricultural centre.  We were informed that there are twenty-five kilometres of interpretation and observation trails for salmon enthusiasts at “Les Falls, Le Marais”.   We visited a zoo, a mini-farm and an amusement park  in Centre Naturanimo.   Our last stop was at Mont Joli,  a commercial and industrial centre, housing an important regional airport and railway station.

 Thoughout the long ride back to Montreal, I was still hypnotized.  I would continue to be for several more weeks.  The world is vast and there are many places to be visited, but I will surely return to Gaspe Peninsula,  where I had been awakened to the  wonder, peace and wildness of nature.

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