Glorious Gaspé

Keith &
Keith & Heather Nicol
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Vive le Québec: There's plenty to celebrate in La Belle Province, including 400 years of history

The whoosh on the other side of the boat caught everyone by surprise and we turned in unison with cameras ready. Then we saw the blow from the first whale, followed almost immediately with a second and then a third small blow.

Everyone ran to the other side and cameras clicked non-stop. A telephoto lens was hardly necessary given the whale action just five metres away.

The tallest lighthouse in Canada, at Cap Des Rosiers in Forillon National Park, is 112 feet tall with 122 steps and celebrating its 150 anniversary this year. Photos by Keith and Heather Nicol/Special to The Telegram

The whoosh on the other side of the boat caught everyone by surprise and we turned in unison with cameras ready. Then we saw the blow from the first whale, followed almost immediately with a second and then a third small blow.

Everyone ran to the other side and cameras clicked non-stop. A telephoto lens was hardly necessary given the whale action just five metres away.

After feeding near the surface for a few minutes, the humpbacks showed their tail flukes as they dove deep. It was then that I noticed our guide, Marc Trudel, with several sheets of tail fluke photos. He announced that one of the females was Irisept, a whale they had seen for several summers.

"If you have some good tail shots of the other female whale can you send them to us and perhaps we can identify her by the markings on her fluke?" he asked me.

We were just a couple of kilometres off Forillon National Park in Quebec's GaspÉ Peninsula, and although we had seen numerous humpback whales in Newfoundland, they had never been this close. And I had never been on a whale-watching trip where the guide knew the whales.

Quebec City is 400 years old this year and the celebrations keep on going. We planned the start of our trip for July 3 which was 400 years to the day when Samuel de Champlain arrived on these shores. There were dignitaries of all sorts on hand, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"My dear compatriots, maybe I grew up in Toronto and decided to live in Calgary with my family, and I work in Ottawa, but where I come from, there's a saying that you must have two cities in your heart: your own and Quebec City, because it is the most beautiful city in Canada, the most enchanting."

We couldn't agree more and were captivated by the city and its joie de vivre. There was music everywhere and street performers on just about every corner. The celebrations are planned for most of the summer and fall, so if you have wanted to visit Quebec City, this is the year. After three days exploring the city, we headed for the GaspÉ Peninsula, a part of Quebec that we had never visited.

The GaspÉ region is surrounded by ocean and sticks out eastward into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The name appropriately means "land's end" in the native Mi'kmaq language.

They say that rail travel will be the way of the future due to the problems of air travel and climate change. It is estimated that since planes fly at such a high altitude, where carbon dioxide has an even more potent effect than at ground level, trains typically release 30 per cent of the CO2 per passenger/kilometre compared to planes. Since we had never travelled by train, this seemed like the perfect trip to sample Via Rail's passenger service.

Overnight rail

We took the overnight train from Quebec City to PercÉ, known for its famous landmark - PercÉ Rock. We awoke to bright sunshine as the train chugged along the spectacular Bay de Chaleur. Rugged cliffs, fishing boats and sandy beaches were part of the landscape as we ate breakfast in the dining car. I couldn't think of a more pleasant way to eat and travel.

We arrived at noon at PercÉ and after getting our rental car we went to our beachfront motel (Riotel PercÉ) which featured PercÉ Rock front and centre. In the afternoon we took a tour boat to Bonaventure Island and were presented with a "don't miss" colony of more than 100,000 gannets - evidently the most accessible colony in the world. I have seen Cape St. Mary's gannets but you can approach these birds to within a metre or two. You don't need a fancy camera to get good photos of this seabird spectacle.

The next day we travelled to Forillon where we visited Canada's tallest lighthouse (112 feet), and 122 steps later we were presented with a spectacular 360-degree view. We also saw displays about the early cod fishery and sampled salted cod.

Then we went whale watching and had close encounters with fin, humpback and minke whales. That night we enjoyed a fine lobster supper at the Maison William Wakeham and reflected that the GaspÉ was much like home, but with a French accent.

The next day was misty and rainy as we headed west along Highway 132 for Cap Chat. We visited La Martre Lighthouse, where we met Yves Foucreault and he wouldn't let us leave until he showed us his lighthouse museum, which he says is the only one in Canada. It is clear he is passionate about saving and restoring lighthouses in the GaspÉ region.

At Cap Chat we met Jean Francois Dube, who would be our guide for the next two days at the Chic Choc Mountain Lodge. This magnificent new lodge is located in a wilderness reserve in the middle of the Chic Choc Mountains. The mountains are similar to the Long Range Mountains, with forests flanking valley sides and barren summits which are home to caribou.

"Chic Choc" means impenetrable wall in Mi'kmaq, and they are well-named. Chic Choc Lodge offers activities like hiking, mountain biking and moose viewing, and we weren't disappointed.

A "must do" hike is to the Chutes des Helene waterfall. In the evening we went moose watching, seeing three the first evening and four the next.

From Chic Choc lodge we drove to Rimouski and then to Quebec City. Near Rimouski we stopped at the MÉtis Gardens, once the site of a salmon fishing lodge.

Defying a harsh climate, Elsie Reford gradually created a magnificent garden between 1926 and 1958. More recently, her grandson, Alexander Reford, has taken it over and this year it also celebrates the ninth International Festival of Gardins, a unique blend of art, gardens and landscape architecture.

As Reford showed us the gardens it was clear he was very pleased with the success they have had with the Himalayan blue poppy, which is evidently notoriously hard to grow.

The GaspÉ region of Quebec is much like Newfoundland with similar coastal landscapes, whales, gannets, moose and lighthouses. But be prepared to loosen your belt a couple of notches since the food is often exquisitely prepared and a work of art in itself. If you have ever thought about visiting this part of Quebec, with Quebec City in celebration mode, now is the time to see it all.

Keith and Heather Nicol are travel writers/photographers from Corner Brook. Keith can be reached at knicol@swgc.mun.ca.

Organizations: Via Rail, Chic Choc Mountain Lodge

Geographic location: Quebec City, GaspÉ Peninsula, La Belle Province Canada Newfoundland Forillon National Park Toronto Calgary Ottawa Chic Choc Bonaventure Island Long Range Mountains Rimouski MÉtis Gardens Corner Brook

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