“Stunning coastal scenery.” “Breathtaking.” “A trip of a lifetime.” That’s how visitors describe Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, a spot home to an unlikely amount of varied, untamed landscapes packed onto one 155-mile-long peninsula jutting into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. A National Geographic top travel destination a few years back, it's a place of stirring natural beauty and serenity, rugged seascapes, gorgeous beaches, and small-town charm. Lucky for us, it’s still largely undiscovered.
Take your time on a bucket list road trip through the Gaspé’s brightly painted fishing villages and pine forests, past historic lighthouses, whitewashed farms atop plunging red cliffs, and quaint little bays of clear blue-green water with fingers of coastal fog reaching across velvety green hills. Follow this how-to travel guide to see this enchanting place like a local.
Your best option is to fly in to Quebec City. Then, it’s a beautiful drive north on Route 132 along the steep St. Lawrence River shore and through the celebrated Charlevoix food-and-farm region with views of the wild Chic Choc mountains. If you’re taking a longer trip, be sure to detour for a hike through this wilderness playground in any season. En route, stop to stroll the Jardin de Métis (or Reford Gardens) off 132 — 45 acres of English style topiaries, fields of Himalayan blue poppies and peonies, meandering paths, meadows, and ponds created by Elsie Reford in the 1960s. Today it's a Canadian National Historic Site. Follow the 550-mile Gaspésie Tour, a renowned loop circling the peninsula with several itinerary combinations.
Where to stay
If you pause at Jardin de Métis, consider overnighting at Auberge du Fleuve, a lovely inn on the shore with outstanding dining. In Charlevoix’s La Malbaie, enjoy river views and locally-sourced fare at cozy Auberge des 3 Canards. Once you get to Gaspé, savor Percé Rock views from seaside Hôtel la Normandie’s balcony. Another top option there is the waterfront Riotel Percé, also with commanding vistas, or the immaculate 1860s La Maison William Wakeham, much like lodging in a museum. In picture-perfect Tadoussac, book a room at landmark Hôtel Tadoussac.
When to go
Summer is glorious here. But fall time is not only sleepy (in terms of battling other tourists for views), the forest is also ablaze in golds and oranges. Be sure to book in advance if you’ll be visiting during the summer high season (June to September). Take at least four days to explore the area, though a week to 10 days is best — allowing you to settle into the serenity of the place and see everything at an easy pace.
What to know
Quebec is proudly French-Canadian, and you might be surprised at how many people speak French. Don’t worry, most speak English, too, but a little bit of French goes a long way. It’s polite to say, “Bonjour” (“Hello”) when you enter a store or restaurant. Just learn a few words — “merci” (“thanks”), “Bon journée” (“Have a nice day”), and “s’il vous plaît” (“please”) — to fit in with the locals. Like all of Quebec, the place is big on Euro charm. Expect superb, from-scratch cuisine and an ease to life infused with the pervasive “joie de vivre” (cheerfully enjoying life) attitude. Locals are genuinely friendly and warm — one of Gaspé’s biggest draws.
What to see and do
Hands down, Gaspé’s top two highlights are whale watching and Percé Rock, one of the world’s largest natural arches. To get started, cycle — and savor the beauty — in 1600s trading post and traditional summer holiday spot Tadoussac. Look for breaching whales off the coast or book a whale watching tour. Then there’s Percé: A hulking vertical mass that rises dramatically out of the water off the peninsula’s tip. This is Quebec’s icon, and as the name suggests, “pierced” by a 40-foot-high hole. Hike the area, kayak, and walk around the quaint fishing town, looking out for North America’s only all-wood cathedral, plus handsome mid-1800s buildings. Boat to Bonaventure Island and its sanctuary just off the coast to see the continent’s largest colony of gannets (about 100,000). Also popular are dizzying lookouts from Grande Crevasse near Gaspé. Relax and play on one of the area’s many beaches, especially on the Haldimand peninsula’s southeast, looking for agates on the sand.
Get back to nature in the mountains of Forillon National Park at the eastern tip, a gorgeous place to hike, camp, and scuba dive. Gaspé is also prime salmon fishing country: In particular, the clear Rivière Bonaventure. Outfitter Cime Aventures can drop you on the river and offers guided and un-guided river tours. Another option is angling for mackerel at the Miguasha peninsula, with an impressive UNESCO World Heritage fossil site nearby, or the Matapedia Valley for river salmon. Book ahead if you want to tour cutting-edge, world-renowned Les Quatre Vents in Malbaie, open just four times a season. Legendary New York plantsman Francis Cabot, who summered in Gaspé, created the whimsical, genre-melding, eight-hectare garden in the 1960s on his family’s historic estate, inspired by gardens around the world — even the Taj Mahal.
Where to eat
Not surprisingly, fresh seafood is the forté here along with local game. Big, fluffy waffles are a must, as is French-Canadian favorite poutine, and any roadside stand will do. Pick up the Gaspésie Gourmande guide online or at the Matane tourist office to find the best cuisine recommendations, such as Atkins et Frères for delicate smoked salmon in Mont-Louis, and La Broue dans L’Toupet for seasonal stand-outs in Saint-Anne-des-Monts. Sample clam chowder, trout, salmon, and lobster at Maison du Pêcheur on the Percé wharf, or local cheese and charcuterie at Épicerie Fine at Auberge du Marchand in Maria, or go to Gaspé’s Brise Bise for delicious classic French fare.
Gaspé is special, but it’s only one incredible place in a huge province with lots to offer. If you can, make time for some other Quebec-style adventures before or after Gaspé.