Gaspé: the Friends and Family Tour

We know very few people who have spent any time in Gaspé; many aren’t even sure where it is. So we were so surprised when our friends Sheila and Ajay and their kids started going down to Coin du Banc, a small village near Percé. After a few years they bought a cottage and after 27 years, have become a big part of that community every summer. Ajay, who is the founder of the Guelph Jazz Festival, has transported his love of music to Gaspé. This year he organized a week-long improv music camp, which attracted participants from all over the country.

We were lucky enough to catch the final concert, held in the old church/museum. I’m a bit befuddled by improv – a woman barking into a tin pail, or rolling on the floor with a piece of rag rug is way over my head, but it was lots of fun and a good reminder that music takes many forms. The big lesson of the week’s camp was “how to listen” – an ongoing challenge for me.

The participants, taking a bow at the finale.

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Our friends Sheila and Ajay – in their element in this beautiful part of Gaspesie. We only had a few minutes to chat, but it was great to see them – the only thing that’s changed is the grey hair.

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As I mentioned before, my cousin Bob came to our rescue when he discovered we couldn’t find a place to stay; he moved to his girlfriend’s place for two days and handed over his apartment to us. We were extremely grateful for that generous and hospitable act and just as grateful to spend a bit of time with him and Phyllis – it had been many years. They treated us to an incredible home-cooked meal, which is so appreciated when you’re on the road and even sent us home with a tin of Quebec maple syrup!
Phyllis and Bob inside the shed they’re building.

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My  cousin Bob and uncle Keith are our two remaining family members in Gaspé. Everyone else moved away years ago, but a number of them still make the yearly migration. Our timing was good this time around – we got see not just Uncle Keith but my cousin Esther, who was down to visit her dad. Sadly, it coincided with my uncle’s wife being in palliative care, so not the happiest time for everyone, but we did manage to fit in a quick visit. Again, so easy to pick up with family and old friends –  Esther and I had not seen each other in over three decades. The passing of time didn’t seem to matter.

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With just two days in the town of Gaspé, we had a lot of ground to cover. First, we headed to L’Anse-aux-Cousins, about 3 km. from town, to see my mother’s old home. We have always pronounced this “Lancy- Cousins”; nicely butchering the French pronounciation. It is properly referred to as “Lonce-o-coozen“.

Some of the earliest settlers here were Irish, English, Scots and from the Guernsey and Jersey Islands; these are my ancestors. Today most of the peninsula is French, with just a few pockets of English left. Pronunciation of place names depends upon with whom you are speaking.

This was my mum’s childhood home.

The current owners call the home “Twin Brooks” – aptly named for the brooks that run on either side of the property. There used to be a henhouse at the back and a massive vegetable garden at the front – both gone now. So is my grandmother’s beautiful flower garden. Perhaps someone else’s grandchildren play here now.

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The town of Gaspé is considered the birthplace of Canada – this is where Jacques Cartier first landed in 1534 in his exploration of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. He planted a wooden cross then, but a mammoth granite cross was erected in 1934, and since then a recreation of village stores and homes as they appeared in the 1900s has been installed at the base of town, in front of the harbour.

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The town of Gaspé (pop. – 16,000+)  is the major centre on northern end of the peninsula; this is where hospitals, schools, an airport, and other forms of employment are located.  Gaspé harbour is a thing of beauty.

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When we were coming here as kids, the main street had a number of souvenir shops and a department store and the usual range of amenities. Now, there are select shops selling foie gras and nice lingerie. The French influence has been a positive thing – Cafe des Artistes has been around for ages.

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It breathed new life into the old post office and brought freshly roasted coffee and bohemian art to the mix.

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A trip to Gaspé is not complete without a visit to Percé, and most notably, The Rock.

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Named Percé by Champlain because the rock is “pierced”, this is one of the primary attractions of the Gaspé Peninsula. At low tide, you can walk right around the rock – you can see the sandbar in this photo. However, in the past few years, there has been so much falling rock and incidences of injury that the pathway is now considered “at your own risk” and signs are everywhere warning of the danger.

We didn’t have time to attempt the walk around the base of the rock – we were between tides, but happy to visit from shore.

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An interesting sidebar to Percé was its counterculture, hippie sensibility back in the ’70s. This building, now closed for some future project, was an artist/cultural centre.

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“Artisans” abound in Percé.  The walking stick carver has probably been hanging out in Percé for years, maybe decades. Funny how time gets away from you.

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This fella is banking on tourists not noticing that he has no woodcarving skills whatsoever, and will buy a piece of “Quebec art” from him anyway.

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The town of Percé has always been filled with tacky little souvenir shops, but that was almost part of its charm. Come for the Rock, buy the T-shirt.

That said, we were shocked by the change in Percé.  That magnificent rock has ceased to be regarded as a democratic natural wonder and has become a ticket to print money. Several municipal parking lots charge $9 for parking. A kiosk leading to a lookout suggests a $1 “donation” to walk up a hill for a better look at the Rock. Mediocre restaurants offer the same dated menus and charge $18 for a club house sandwich with greasy fries. With the exception of a very few shops featuring local artists, the main street is lined with stores carrying the same schlock. Dispirited tourists wander the streets, looking for things to buy. Even the mascot outside one of the stores seemed exhausted by it all.

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In spite of all that, if you visit the Gaspe peninsula, you can’t miss Percé. Here’s another reason to just enjoy the area and ignore the rest:

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A bientôt, Gaspé. We had a very happy detour with you.

On to Quebec City…

Gaspe: The Accidental Tourists

We weren’t even supposed to be in Gaspe on this trip. We had planned to go to the Charlevoix-Saguenay area, but since we left our bookings too late, there was not a room to be found anywhere. Plan B – Gaspe, and what a wonderful Plan B it was.  Both my parents are from Gaspe and we came here every summer when I was a child. Stephen and I came here once with our boys when they were young and then just the two of us several years later. Gaspe’s not where I’m from, but it still runs pretty deep.

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A typical Gaspe scene – this one in Forillon National Park.

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So – Plan B sounded great until we discovered the same challenge – no hotel rooms anywhere.  Quebec is one hot destination – and unlike the Maritimes, where we saw licence plates from all over North America,  here in “La Belle Province” we stick out like a sore thumb. A lot of people don’t make it up the coast, in part because of the distance and perhaps in part because of separatist attitudes towards the “maudit anglaise.” That is an old story – we have encountered nothing but politeness and in many cases, perfect English. My sad attempts at French work in a pinch.

After a couple of frantic hours online, we found rooms for the first three nights and began our pilgrimage up the north shore of the Gaspe peninsula.

The north shore is full of twisty roads cutting through small settlements along the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Many of these tiny villages don’t even have gas stations or stores – they are simply a collection of houses. This stretch of road is stunningly beautiful and desolate at the same time.

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There is nothing here for young families, so many little villages no longer have schools. “A vendre” signs are common, as are abandoned homes. And yet, you run across a business  like this – a hostel/cafe run by young Quebecois – fabulous food, cool surroundings, hip young bilingual owners – the hope for the future of Gaspe and such an incongruous sight on this shore.

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And then there are the fromageries. Quebec is noted for its cheese, particularly for the stinky, runny unpasteurized cheeses that cannot be sold out of the province.

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Les fromages.

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This is exactly the same bread my grandmothers used to make – two blobs of dough in a metal pan and voila:

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We sat outside the store on a picnic table overlooking the water and had lunch. We haven’t had whole grains for weeks – you’ve just got to give in to that homemade bread.

Back on the road, the scenery unfolds.

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You’ve got to watch yourself though. In a province where smoking, drinking and tiny Speedos are still encouraged, they are surprisingly stern about their speed limits. The Quebec police are unlikely to be sympathetic to your story and they’re not above hanging out in front of the Catholic church, waiting for sinners.

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A safer form of transportation, perhaps.

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Outside of the big cities, motels are the way to go. They are usually spotlessly clean, affordable and easy – pull in and unload the car. Motel Nanook in Cap Chat was our first stop,  run by the vivacious Suzanne and her charming husband Marc.

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Just before Cap Chat, we passed an enormous wind farm – one of the largest on the coast.

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We headed a few kilometres up the road to St. Anne-de Monts for groceries and wine  and came upon a wharf full of fishers. You see how bundled up they were – it was cold and windy and we needed coats.

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A pretty sunset that night.

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The next day our stop was Cap de Rosiers, where our motel was situated right across the street from a National Historic Site – Canada’s tallest lighthouse (112 feet).

Our motel is that strip on the left of the photo.

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The view from the motel.

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Yesterday we woke up to bright sun and warm temperatures – perfect for a full day in Forillon National Park, at the eastern tip of the Gaspe Peninsula.  Forillon was formed back in the ’70s, amidst great controversy and bitterness among the local residents whose properties were expropriated to make way for the park. Luckily, my dad’s old home fell just outside the boundaries.
Those hard feelings exist to this day – the park has been both a blessing and a curse.   In some ways, Forillon improved and enhanced the experience for locals and tourists. For example, this boardwalk was built to provide better access to the beach, as well as a very enjoyable and practical multi-use roadway for walkers, cyclists, a small shuttle service and baby strollers.

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Grand-Grave is the site where much of the cod fishing was located. I remember fish flakes on the beaches – salt cod laid out to dry. They are long gone – just part of a museum now.

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This is part of the Blanchette farm – the home has also been restored as a heritage site – typical of homes in the area to this day.

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The old Hyman store was in operation until the ’70s – it is now part of the Heritage site. I went to this store and others like it as a child – just walking in the front door brought a flood of memories – the smells are the same.

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Park staff were on hand inside the store to answer questions.

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There are several trails around Grand Grave – it is possible to go for 15 km. out to the most eastern tip and the lighthouse, but we stuck to a shorter hike along this path:

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And as we turned the corner, we saw a lynx staring down a young couple. As soon as we appeared, he slid down under the fence into the shrubbery, but not before giving us one final stare. It was thrilling.

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That is such a part of the attraction of our travels – the chance wildlife encounters. You know they’re there – five seconds can make the difference.

On to Peninsula to see the house where my dad grew up.

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It has changed a fair bit since Dad was a child – the current owners are a young family who were delighted to show my parents through the house when they visited one year. They still exchange Christmas cards. Unfortunately, nobody was home when we drove by, but I felt comfortable trespassing bit to have look around and take photos.

Just down the road, we went back into Forillon to visit Peninsula Point – one of our old swimming spots. I wouldn’t have recognized it – the beautiful boardwalk I showed before, as well as bike rentals, a shuttle and a stand renting standup paddle boards.

The beach and water are the same:

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A trip back to Gaspe is always steeped in nostalgia – I have one foot firmly back in my childhood memories – it is a bit of a parallel universe.  So when I see big changes, it is helpful to recall a story told to us by a Newfoundland woman. She was talking to her grampa about how her childhood beach had changed – the rocks she remembered being there were gone. His reply was eloquent, “Child, everything is product of time.”

Another product of time is Cap Bon Ami – an annual summer destination. The last time we were here was on our trip with the boys – we have a photo of them shrieking out of that ice-cold water.

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You can’t see from this photo, but there are hundreds of cormorants nesting in this cliff.
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Our last night on the north shore was spent at L’Anse au Griffon. We ate dinner at this very typical Quebec restaurant – old wooden floors, an art gallery upstairs and really well-prepared food. I ordered fresh cod and Stephen couldn’t resist the Gaspe sausage with local sauerkraut.

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I asked about the figures lined up along their fence. Each year, the town has a competition to create the most imaginative figure, and some of the winners are on display here. Others can be found through the town, in front of people’s homes.

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A couple of typical Gaspe homes.

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Our sunset last night.

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And one final shot that has nothing to do with Gaspe. We ran into a young family on holiday with their three-month-old puppy, Maui – a Bernerdoodle. Over-the-top puppy cuteness.

IMG_0212We’re on our way to Gaspe today. My cousin Bob lives in town and he came to our rescue. There is a huge music festival on now (hence the fully-booked hotels), so he is clearing out of his apartment for two nights and giving us a home.

Much more to come in a couple of days.