Reaching out from Canada’s eastern shore, the rocky, remote Gaspé Peninsula is one of the country's best-kept secrets.
My first taste of the Gaspé Peninsula was a mouthful of flowers: a spoon piled with petals was offered to me when I visited five years ago. Quebecers are surprised when I tell them about it. That’s partly because the fertile eastern hunk of Canada, jutting out into the Gulf of St. Lawrence as if it were trying to visit Newfoundland, is where much of the population of Quebec went for their childhood holidays without being much disturbed by international tourists like me. It’s also because, while the Gaspé is famous for a type of food, it isn’t flowers. It’s fish.
When I went back last September with my husband, Craig, to make a full circuit of the peninsula, I discovered that, even in our age of disappearing resources, that is still the case. There are 22 salmon rivers on the peninsula, their clear water fringed with trees. Fantastic fresh seafood is served everywhere, from small island shacks to stylish waterside restaurants. But the fish have always been more than just dinner. The history of the peninsula could be written in fins and scales.
The Indigenous people whose ancestral territory this is, the Mi’kmaq, probably migrated east up the St. Lawrence River, past what is now Montreal and Quebec City, then stayed because the food was so plentiful. Around the year 1000, the Vikings showed up to fish cod, then dry and salt it for transport across the Atlantic. In 1534, Jacques Cartier arrived, planted a large crucifix in what is now the town of Gaspé, and claimed the entire country for France. Gaspésie, the French name for the peninsula, comes from the Mi’kmaq name Gespeg, meaning “land’s end.” But given that the Atlantic was the medieval equivalent of a highway connecting North America to Europe, “land’s beginning” might be just as appropriate.
We plotted a weeklong trip that would take us on a 565-mile loop northeast from Quebec City along the St. Lawrence River. We would pause at the farthest point for a brief flirt with the Gulf of St. Lawrence, then return via Chaleur Bay, the water always on our left, sometimes so close that it seemed we might cast off.
We began at Pointe-au-Père with a reminder that wild water is far more than just a beautiful backdrop. We climbed the first of the slender, elegant red-and-white lighthouses that warn vessels away from the banks of the St. Lawrence and visited the next-door museum, in a building shaped like a sinking ship, that commemorates one instance where that warning proved futile. A dramatic film and poignant displays include the tiny wallet that belonged to nine-year-old Dolly Brooks, who drowned when the ocean liner Empress of Ireland sank in 1914 on its way from Quebec to Liverpool. More than two-thirds of its 1,477 passengers were lost.
"Gaspésie, the French name for the peninsula, comes from the Mi’kmaq name Gespeg, meaning “land’s end.”"
We headed farther along the river in the direction of Reford Gardens, a botanical paradise near the village of Grand-Métis, about 200 miles northeast of Quebec City. This was where, five years before, I had been offered that spoon heaped with begonia, pansy, carnation, and marigold, a prelude to a superb homegrown four-course lunch. It was this improbable, beautiful place and those dishes strewn with flowers and leaves that had made me curious about the rest of the peninsula.
To our right, the landscape changed, forests and villages came and went; on the left, the opposite bank of the great river receded and eventually vanished. The views were so spectacular that I couldn’t understand how Quebecers had kept the Gaspé Peninsula to themselves for so long. The answer may have been under our wheels. The road was built in 1929. Before that you had to be pretty determined to venture out this far.
Elsie Reford certainly was. After she had an operation, her doctor recommended gardening as an alternative to her hobby of fishing. It’s a safe bet he wasn’t expecting his patient to create the amazing expanse that bears her name, with its azalea walk, an arboretum, and groves of ferns and flowers in every shade of pink. Reford was no professional gardener, just a very stubborn Ontarian with a lot of money, and although she started in 1926, before the road arrived, she somehow transformed a spruce forest into a glade of delights — in a part of the world where it often snows as late as May. It was easy, in the balmy early fall, to forget how fierce the Quebec winters are. Cartier nearly died of what we now know was scurvy, and was saved only because a son of Donnacona, chief of the St. Lawrence Iroquois, gave him tea made from the bark of the “aneda” (probably white cedar) tree.
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On this trip, as was the case five years ago, there often seemed to be petals on my plate — unsurprising, perhaps, in a peninsula with four national parks and a range of flora so wide that it was a favorite destination for the great Québécois botanist Frère Marie-Victorin. At Gîte du Mont-Albert, a hotel in Gaspésie National Park where we spent our first night, I spotted a photo of him taken during his stay in the region. As wall decoration, however, it was overshadowed by the gargantuan stuffed moose head in the restaurant: the fauna on the peninsula is amazing, too, with black bears, lynx, beavers, ermines, and more than 150 species of birds. This park has one of the highest densities of moose in Quebec and the only caribou population south of the St. Lawrence. That night, though, I wasn’t spotting herbivores but rather imitating their eating habits. My dinner ended with sugar pie and ice cream made from melilot, or white sweet clover, which grows nearby and tastes like vanilla.
Still, even more frequently than flowers, I was served fish. And what fish: in a rich soup at Café de l’Anse on the riverbank near Forillon National Park, where our second and third nights’ accommodation was at the Ôasis, a campground of five tiny structures resembling teardrops, practically on the beach; a sandwich that seemed to contain a shoal of shrimp at La Poissonnerie du Pêcheur, a roadside fishmonger and café on Chaleur Bay with a forested view across to New Brunswick. Even the Resto des Margaulx served a superb lobster sandwich, and this simple shack is the only game in town on Bonaventure Island, which has been uninhabited since 1971.
Bonaventure wasn’t our first venture off the mainland. Our stop in Forillon included a whale-watching boat trip, with a close-up of a humpback more than 40 feet long and two smaller minke whales playing beside it like a sideshow. We also took a guided kayaking tour, during which we found ourselves at eye level with a dozen harbor seals, their big dark eyes and slicked-back fur rendering them as cute as puppies. Then it was on to Gaspé, the halfway point of our trip, notable mainly for its gorgeous location, sheltered from the gulf within a beautiful inlet, and for the pleasant 15-minute stroll along a waterside boardwalk from the plaza that calls itself the Birthplace of Canada.
We spent nights four and five at the Hôtel La Normandie in Percé, an exceptionally pretty town on the farthest point of the peninsula. Percé is named for a vast hunk of pierced limestone just offshore, a natural wonder that is estimated to weigh 5 million tons and looks, from one angle, like a gigantic horse drinking from the sea. It was nearly as memorable a sight as the mountain of shellfish at La Maison du Pêcheur, a waterfront restaurant that also featured flowers in a place that could be seen as even more unlikely than Elsie Reford’s gardens: my cocktail. “It’s sea buckthorn berry,” Craig told me, checking his translation app for the enliveningly sour apricot-colored berries sprouting from a concoction that included local gin, absinthe, and spruce beer. The bartender, like almost everyone I met, was bilingual, but the word for argousier had defeated her.
The huge holed rock loomed at close quarters as we passed by on our hour-long boat ride to Bonaventure. We took a peaceful hike across the island, wind sighing through the long grass, water bumping against the base of the cliff, disturbed only by what sounded like a loudly crying baby. Peering down to the water, we discovered more seals, sunning themselves on the rocks and howling amicably to one another. Noisy or silent, these creatures, like the herons, cormorants, and bald eagles, had chosen this place for a reason. We were all, it seems, there for the fish.
This was also true of one of the strangest of the many wild creatures, the northern gannet, a long-beaked white bird with eerily blue eyes. One of the world’s largest colonies nests at the east side of Bonaventure Island, and our hike ended at a high precipice with birds settled like snowflakes on every ledge, speckling the dark, rocky soil in their thousands. I ignored the wooden viewing tower and stationed myself farther back, away from the whiff of guano, to watch them swoop down to feed their fuzzy gray young.
We took a different route back to the dock, through the woods, stopping for those excellent lobster sandwiches and a craft beer. Quebecers are fanatical, talented brewers, and we were able to dot our circuit with breaks for local drafts. After the boat dropped us back in Percé, we passed an enjoyable evening at the Pit Caribou pub listening to live music while sipping on Cuvée Edras, an excellent limited-edition beer made with Riesling wort. And several times along the road, we were tempted into pausing to poke our heads around the door of an interesting microbrewery. Still, it wasn’t until we got to the last of these, Tête d’Allumette, in St.-André-de-Kamouraska, a hip hangout with salty snacks and views of the vats, that it occurred to me that, in a sense, these beers were also mouthfuls of flowers. That was because at the time I was drinking Grosse Fleur, which actually is infused with petals.
I was still weighing up the relative importance of flowers and fish, land and water, when we reached the Paspébiac National Historic Site on the edge of a barachois, a lagoon formed by a sandbar, where vast quantities of cod were once dried, salted, and exported. In the 19th century, “you’d buy a hat for twelve cod,” recalled Lorraine Parisé, our guide, whose family has worked there for generations, “or shoes for fifteen.” Fish wasn’t just a foodstuff, or even an income: “It was our money.”
To get to this scattering of 19th-century warehouses, we had rounded the peninsula onto its southern side and crossed a causeway onto a spit of land jutting into Chaleur Bay, which Cartier sailed into in early July 1534. He named it Chaleur, after the French word for warmth, because he found it “more temperate than Spain.” We had had beautiful weather, fresh enough for hiking and biking through the many forests and parks but not cold enough to spoil any of our boat rides. The sun shone on groves of maple, birch, and balsam fir interspersed with white clapboard houses, danced across the water, glinted from slender metal church spires, and illuminated jagged cliff edges and the lighthouses along them.
Wandering around the town of Paspébiac, which is now an open-air museum, it was clear to me that this side of the peninsula really was warmer than the northern part along the St. Lawrence River. This was despite the wind, so useful for drying fresh-caught fish, that wove between the old buildings housing mementos, photographs, displays about boatbuilding, and, in one case, an active forge complete with a blacksmith. It tugged at our clothes in the open spaces where racks of cod were once laid out. Still — more temperate than Spain?
We carried on driving west along the peninsula’s southern shore toward Carleton-sur-Mer, the water of Chaleur Bay so luminous it made the sky look dull and, at points, came so close to the level of the road that it seemed as if the two means of transport were greeting one another. In La Mie Véritable, Carleton’s bakery and delicatessen, the cheerful server, a native of Marseille, France, who was stoically learning to cope with the winters after falling in love with a Quebecer, tipped us off that the house across the road was owned by a fisherman. So we knocked, and he sold us fresh oysters and a shucking knife.
We drove with our bounty through thick forest up Mont St.-Joseph to Géodômes Desjardins, five great round cabins, one of which would be our home for the night. Our arrival coincided with the sun sending a magnificent wash of fuchsia over the treetops and the sea beyond as we shucked our oysters and grilled fresh cobs of sweet Quebec corn. The domes are all shielded from one another by trees, so we felt pleasantly isolated: like woodland creatures, but with shelter, electricity, and a gas barbecue on the deck. The curved interior space was large enough for a kitchen, a mezzanine bed, and, best of all, two hammocks. The views were stupendous, and so were the oysters.
French control of Quebec ended definitively in 1760 with the Battle of Restigouche, in Chaleur Bay; since the British victory prevented supplies from reaching the French troops, it could be said that once again, fish had played a role in winning Canada, this time for England. The battle was named for the Restigouche River, which flows northeast from the Appalachian Mountains and forms the border between Quebec and New Brunswick before pouring into Chaleur Bay. These days, the former battleground is a historic site. In nearby Miguasha National Park, we walked a scenic two-mile hiking trail along the water. Its name, Evolution of Life, refers not to any latter-day power struggles between Europeans but to a cliff so packed with exceptionally well-preserved fossils from the Devonian period (called the Age of Fishes) that it is on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
"The sun shone on groves of maple, birch, and balsam fir interspersed with white clapboard houses, danced across the water, glinted from slender metal church spires, and illuminated jagged cliff edges and the lighthouses along them."
After our hike, we wandered around the fascinating permanent exhibition that contextualizes the rare specimens, as beautiful as sculptures, many of them dug out of that cliff back before it was protected, when anyone could come along and grab a priceless 350 million-year-old souvenir. Among the displays was a kind of spiny fish, extinct for 250 million years, with the marvelous name Diplacanthus horridus, and the so-called “prince of Miguasha.” This forerunner of terrestrial vertebrates thrilled the Swedish scientist Erik Jarvik so much that he dedicated his entire career — 60 years! — to its study.
And then it was time to turn away from Chaleur Bay and cross the neck of the peninsula, back to its northern edge. The St. Lawrence felt like an old friend as I sipped a gin and tonic and gazed out from the glass-walled deck of a bar that is part of the St.-Laurent Distillery, which opened in 2022. Mist curled above the water like a scene from a ghost story as the barman told me about the bootleggers who used this place to smuggle booze during Prohibition: a new perspective, although a journey from illicit rotgut to excellent (and legal) gin, distilled from riverside botanicals — yet more flowers! — certainly looked like progress from where I stood.
Then the mist cleared a little, and a familiar red-and-white column appeared: the Pointe-au-Père lighthouse. We had come back to our starting point. Cartier hoped the fish would make his fortune and needed the flowers, or at least the tree bark, to save his life. I had come only to eat and learn, to breathe that salt-scented air and discover the exceptional beauty of this wild eastern sliver of Canada’s early history. His months were complicated, controversial, and world-changing, but our week had been pure pleasure.
A Grand Tour of Gaspé
Where to Stay
Géodômes Desjardins: Set above the coast of Carleton-sur-Mer, these five domes offer fabulous views. Each has hammocks, a kitchen, and a wraparound terrace with a barbecue.
Gîte du Mont-Albert: A 60-room hotel that opened in 1950 in Gaspésie National Park. The generous breakfast is clearly intended for hikers, who need only step outside to find themselves in glorious woodland.
Hôtel La Normandie: Just beyond the waterfront boardwalk in Percé is this unpretentious hotel with a good restaurant and balconies that overlook the famous Percé Rock.
The Ôasis: The only way to stay inside the magnificent Forillon National Park is to book a designated campground. Fortunately, there are a number of unique structures, including these five charming teardrop-shaped cabins just a two-minute walk from the sea.
Where to Eat and Drink
Café de l’Anse: Not far from Forillon National Park in the village of L’Anse-au-Griffon is this delightful restaurant, which serves rich fish soup, fish burgers, and local monkfish.
La Maison du Pêcheur: Percé’s best restaurant has a menu offering the finest of the coast: lobster and sea urchin, arctic char, and Gaspé seafood chowder. The cocktail list, packed with exciting inventions, keeps the ambience festive.
La Mie Véritable: This bakery and grocery in Carleton-sur-Mer is especially useful for stocking up on provisions before spending a night in the wilderness on Mont St.-Joseph.
La Poissonnerie du Pêcheur: A fish market in the town of Bonaventure that also serves up the fresh catch in delicious sandwiches and hot plates.
Le Mange-Grenouille: This charming building in Le Bic was once a general store. More than a century on, it’s an eccentric inn, stuffed with antiques, that includes an impressive restaurant.
Pit Caribou: An old-fashioned pub on Percé’s main street — and one of the peninsula’s biggest microbrewing success stories. There are charcuterie, cheese, and smoked-fish boards, and the live music is excellent.
Resto des Margaulx: Bonaventure Island may be uninhabited, but it does have one thriving business. Nothing beats a lobster or crab sandwich and a microbrew at this shack with a terrace overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Tête d’Allumette: In St.-André-de-Kamouraska, this microbrewery uses a traditional wood fire to brew the beers served in the pub or on the terrace.
What to Do
Bonaventure Island National Park: The boat trip past the giant rock that gives Percé its name makes for a worthwhile day out, even before landing on the pretty island.
Forillon National Park : It’s quite the experience to kayak out to a seal colony and watch as the creatures swim and sunbathe. Summertime is also peak whale-watching season.
Micmac Interpretation Site of Gespeg: This permanent exhibition beside Gaspé Bay includes an interesting collection of traditional objects, but the real draw is a reconstruction of a 17th-century Indigenous encampment.
Miguasha National Park: The cliff is so rich in ancient fossils that UNESCO lists it as a World Heritage site. A museum is nearly as packed with fossils as the cliff.
Pointe-au-Père Lighthouse National Historic Site: Climbing the stairs of this lighthouse is worth it for the view across the St. Lawrence.
Reford Gardens (Les Jardins de Métis): In the first half of the 20th century, Elsie Reford turned a wilderness near the town of Grand-Métis into an extraordinary floral paradise.
A version of this story first appeared in the October 2023 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline "At Land's End."
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