In this special four-week series, Wheels takes a road trip through Eastern Quebec, learning more about the people, culture and history of the region. We learn why La Belle Province is “ours to discover” this summer and beyond. This week, we are leaving Tadoussac and crossing the St. Lawrence River to the Bas-St-Laurent region.
Stretching along the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, the Bas-Saint-Laurent region is rich in history and culture. For much of this drive, we follow the navigators route along Highway 132, visiting quaint and historic villages, towns and cities. Along the way, we also learn about one of Canada’s worst maritime disasters and visit several scenic lighthouses
In the morning: After breakfast at Hotel Tadoussac, begin your drive east on Route 138 to the small village of Les Escoumins to take the ferry across the St. Lawrence River to Trois-Pistoles. You must pre-book your place on the ferry and arrive at the dock approximately one hour before your departure to register with the attendant. Once on board for the journey of approximately one hour, hand over your gray card at the cash desk and pay for your crossing.
Back on land, start driving southwest on Route 132, which runs along the river, to Kamouraska. The quaint community, a member of the Association of the Most Beautiful Villages of Quebec, gave its name to Anne Hébert’s historical novel ‘Kamouraska’, based on a murder in the area in the 1830s. Park at the church local and explore the shops and restaurants, as well as the small local museum and community waterfront.
In the afternoon: Head back northeast toward Rivière-du-Loup along Route 132 or Highway 20. Once in town, stretch your legs at Parc des Chutes. Spend some time admiring the 33-meter-high waterfall, located next to a redeveloped hydroelectric power plant, before hiking some of the trails through the park and across the river.
Once done, explore rue Lafontaine filled with shops before heading to the Musée du Bas-St-Laurent, to learn more about the community and its inhabitants through nearly 500 historical photos, and the Manoir Fraser, the residence of the 1830s of the Fraser family, who where the lords (owners) of the region.
In the evening: Installation at the Hôtel Universel Rivière-du-Loup for the night. The 300-room hotel has an indoor swimming pool, a Nordic spa with hot and cold water treatments, and two restaurants, La Verrière and Le Rialto.
For the reader
Spend time listening to the greatest hits of singer Juno Roch Voisine, who spent his teenage years in Notre-Dame-du-Lac, located near Rivière-du-Loup. Or listen to the audiobook of “Kamouraska” and its story of unfortunate love and murder.
In the morning: Drive east on Route 132 for just under an hour and a half to the Pointe-au-Père neighborhood of Rimouski to learn about one of Canada’s worst maritime disasters, the sinking of the RMS Empress of Ireland.
Shortly before 2 a.m. on May 29, 1914, the liner collided with the Norwegian collier Storstad in heavy fog off Pointe-au-Père. In 14 minutes, the Empress disappeared under the waters of the St. Lawrence River, taking with it 1,012 of its 1,477 passengers and crew.
More than 200 artefacts from the liner, including those salvaged after the disaster and from the wreckage before she was protected in 1999, are housed in the Empress of Ireland Museum. It also features a model of how the Empress rests on the river bed.
The museum is part of the Pointe-au-Père Lighthouse National Historic Site, which includes the second tallest lighthouse in Quebec. A guide takes visitors up the 128 steps to the top of the 33-meter-tall structure. Then visit the HMCS Onondaga, a decommissioned Oberon-class submarine that is now open to the public and is part of the historic site. You can tour its interior and learn more about what it was like to serve on board.
Around noon: Drive less than 15 minutes to downtown Rimouski for lunch at La Brûlerie d’Ici. Bite into a baguette with smoked salmon, chicken, Brie and caramelized onion ciabatta or its house specialty, a tuna panini, before exploring downtown.
In the afternoon: Head to nearby Parc national du Bic, a small national park nestled on the St. Lawrence River. It is home to a variety of ecosystems, from coves and bays – home to harbor seals and gray seals – to rocky peaks and salt marshes. Explore some of its nine hiking trails, which range from easy to difficult, or kayak along the shore.
Seal watching is a popular summer pastime in the national park. At mid-tide or high tide, position yourself at the Pointe-aux-Épinettes observation area to see the seals basking on the rocks along the shore. At low tide, the best spot is at Anse aux Bouleaux.
In the evening: Spend the night at Auberge Le Mange Grenouille, an eclectic hotel housed in a historic building in the village of Le Bic. It includes eight classic rooms with shared or private bathrooms, six garden rooms with private entrances that open onto a lush garden with a small waterfall, and an attic suite with views of the national park.
Once settled in, enjoy a cocktail or a glass of wine in its lounge, filled with local antiques, books and comfortable sofas, before tasting halibut with seared mushrooms and garlic flowers or young beef with fiddleheads , at the hotel restaurant.
In the morning: Enjoy an early breakfast at the hotel to fuel up for a day of driving. From Rimouski, start heading east on Route 132 towards Matane, just over an hour away. Along the way, be sure to stop at the Center d’Art Marcel Gagnon, an art gallery that also features a series of statues that disappear into the waters of the St. Lawrence.
The town of Matane is the gateway to Gaspésie and dates back to 1616, when the first trading post was established on the Matane River. Visit the old lighthouse, now a tourist information center and, if you have time, cast a line in the river. Fishing is a popular local pastime, and you can do it from the town square.
In the afternoon: Enjoy your drive east along the Gaspé Coast. While the entire drive along Route 132 is spectacular, the section roughly between Matane and the Cap de la Madeleine lighthouse is particularly spectacular. Here, the hills and cliffs of the Chic-Choc Mountains touch the causeway on one side, while on the other, the waves of the St. Lawrence crash against the rocks a few feet away.
There are plenty of scenic lookouts, lighthouses, and charming roadside restaurants to stop along the way, so take your time and enjoy the ride. A must-visit is the Pointe-à-la-Renommée Lighthouse, a historic site that housed the first maritime radio station, installed by the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company in 1904.
Stroll the grounds and local trail, admire exhibits about Guglielmo Marconi and his invention, and enjoy views of the Red Lighthouse and its weathered wood-shingle building against the waters of the St. Lawrence River.
In the evening: Upon arriving in the town of Gaspé, stop at one of the local grocery stores to stock up on food for the next few days. The region is home to many hotels, but also fully equipped cottages and chalets that you can rent by the night or for a few weeks.
The Chalets Nautika Gaspésie, located a 15-minute drive from Gaspé, are an option. Its modern chalets offer views of Gaspé Bay, are equipped with full kitchens – stocked with dishes and cooking utensils – and outdoor fireplaces, and can accommodate up to six people.
We explore the natural wonders that await you in Gaspésie.
DISCLAIMER The Toronto Star has teamed up with Bonjour Québec to bring you this road trip series. The writer traveled as a guest of Bonjour Québec, which neither reviewed nor approved this article.