It’s the first highway in the Western Hemisphere: long before Route 66 or the Oregon Trail or even the Erie Canal — indeed, before Henry Hudson entered New York Harbor — French ships, following in the wake of indigenous peoples like the Mi’kmaq and Innu, were already sailing the St. Lawrence River to explore, colonize and exploit the New World. To date, the St. Lawrence transports more than 150 million tonnes of goods per year. But it can also move people in unexpected ways. Follow it, and it will take you through other countries. And kingdoms. And even go back in time.
The St. Lawrence River — a river is a river that flows into the sea; others are just rivers — flowing north from Lake Ontario for some 1,287 km, but a good place to start viewing it would be about a third of the way downstream at the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City , where, in 1759, the British effectively secured their hegemony over the French in that part of the world for the next two centuries. Stand there, on this raised battlefield, and contemplate the river which spreads out like a bay and, to your right, the two bridges which span it.
Le Rocher Percé, one of Canada’s great icons, stands on the eastern tip of the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec, September 14, 2022.
The last two
You don’t have to cross; you could simply stay on this side, where Champlain put down his roots, and visit waterfalls, ski resorts and artistic towns. But this other side is mysterious. Somewhere out there – about 800 km of two-lane tarmac – is the Rocher Percé (pierced rock), a striking offshore monolith, one of CanadaCanada’s great icons and, next door, Bonaventure Island, where cliffs rising hundreds of feet above the water teem with birds rarely seen south of the border. Both deserve the reader; but doing it straight in one day — rather than several — would be like going to a grocery store, buying a Coffee Crisp bar (that darling Canadian confectionery), framing the wrapper, and throwing away the candy.
Departure from Quebec
Cross the city of Lévis and take the Québec 132, the road that will take you around the Gaspé Peninsula. At first, suburban sprawl obscured the river; then, suddenly, you’re in the middle of lush farmland with a clear driver’s side view of the river. This region is known as Chaudière-Appalaches, meaning the Appalachians. They’re here too, hidden somewhere to your right.
Quebec City’s two-lane Route 132, seen from one of the many antique shops along the road in Bas-Saint-Laurent, September 11, 2022.
You will come across many cyclists, their bikes strapped with bulging panniers; the road here is flat and straight. The coast, however, does not, as the 132 passes through some towns, others nestle to its left. Diverting by one every five or 10 minutes is like unpacking
Although they all look like charming blends of New England and old France, each is distinct from its neighbors.
The town of L’Islet has a splendid stone church with sparkling twin spiers. Although the parking lot was empty when I passed, a side door was unlocked; inside, a woman encouraged me to explore its spacious interior, which was warmer and sunnier than any ornate church I had ever seen. “It’s a heritage church,” she beamed, meaning it’s historic, a designation that carries even more prestige here than in the United States.
Follow the steeples. The churches stand here in the center of the city; around them you’ll often find cozy cafes, humble museums, public works of art, artisan chapels, placid shores, brightly painted little houses and sometimes – a complete reveal – a mighty whiff of cow manure. Fertile land, that.
In Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pocatière, in front of a sign welcoming you to the next region, Bas-Saint-Laurent (or lower), a roadside shrine lists the town’s pioneers, dating back to 1715. Others nearby settled even earlier, such as Kamouraska.
There are a few things that will stop you in Kamouraska. There is of course this date of foundation (1674); but there’s also his name, which might just be the first thing you’ve seen on this whole road to remind you that other people lived in these areas before the French arrived.
But what will really stop you in Kamouraska is all the foot traffic along the 132: people exploring historic sites, yes, but also plenty of shops, galleries and restaurants. I asked the gentleman at the visitors desk what drew people there in the first place, thinking that the businesses had followed the tourists. “We’re known for having the second most beautiful sunsets in the world,” he said. Having heard of other towns in St. Laurent with spectacular sunsets, I asked him where number 1 was. “Hawaii,” he replied.
At some point, you will realize that you can no longer see the opposite bank, and you will understand why people here call the river the sea. At Sainte-Flavie, you enter the Gaspésie region. Towns become noticeably smaller and even more remote, Christmas gifts more surprising, including working phone booths and mechanical gas pumps.
The Onondaga submarine, near the Empress of Ireland Museum, in Rimouski, Quebec, on September 12, 2022.
More than 200 years have passed since Métis-sur-Mer was founded by a Scottish lord, but it is still somewhat English-speaking. (It was “Métis Beach” until 2002.) It still has a Presbyterian church too; in its cemetery, scattered among the marble and limestone, you will find a few wooden markers, long weathered until they are unreadable. In Baie-des-Sables, as you stroll along yet another waterfront promenade dotted with comfortable armchairs, you may realize that there is a tremendous sense of civic pride in these towns; almost everything is tidy, neat (even the abandoned houses have mowed lawns) and, by the sea, inviting.
Past Matane, the coast begins to swell and deform as it approaches the mountains. Cities caress the water, sometimes even overflowing it, like Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, where I came across a large quay, its surface covered with vehicles, its edges with fishermen. These settlements were built on fishing, but people here love it so much that they also do it in their free time.
On the ceiling of the peninsula
Shortly after, you will have crossed the crest of the peninsula, your car’s compass having gradually turned from NNE to just E. It is here, on the ceiling of Gaspésie, that Appalachia finally ends, and not in a whimper. They crash straight into the water, forcing the road to accommodate them by rising and falling and contorting in such a way that you might feel like it’s trying to shake you off.
But then: these points of view. Here the analogy fails me; I don’t know any like them. If you’re the type of person who looks at distant places on maps and imagines what they must look like, this one will be beyond your imagination. At one point, for example, a sharp bend in the mountainside road suddenly reveals a view of more mountains alternating like the teeth of an opening zipper; in front of them, the village of Mont-Saint-Pierre clings to the slender edge of a half-moon cove. Stand on its white-flecked dark gray beach, gazing back and forth, and you’ll wonder how a thoroughfare can possibly bypass the headlands jutting out to sea.
A view of a migratory bird sanctuary in L’Islet, Quebec, September 11, 2022.
Beyond each, other mountains recede an inch from the shore just enough to accommodate settlements, some a single house deep; a few are just a handful of small dwellings huddled against the blue infinity. Others are a bit larger, such as Madeleine-Centre, where the lighthouse has a small museum that sheds light on the history of the area, the life of a lighthouse keeper and the indispensability of such structures, quaint artifacts that they now seem: In just two decades, from 1856 to 1876, the St. Lawrence swallowed up at least 674 ships.
At the eastern end of the peninsula, Forillon National Park juts out into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Almost 258 km². of conifers, beaches and capes, it was created in 1970, not without tears: Like kiosks at a cove, or cove, they explain, large numbers of families, some of whom had been there for centuries, were displaced in the process; their memories and their lamentations adorn other kiosks. Some of their empty houses remain, as does William Hyman’s store, which supplied generations of cod fishers.
This cove is called L’Anse-aux-Amérindiens (thankfully renamed L’Anse-aux-Sauvages) to commemorate previous generations of displaced residents. A trail that starts nearby leads to the eastern tip of this eastern tip, Land’s End. Its French name, Le Bout du Monde, seems more appropriate – the end of the world – and yet, somehow, inadequate; board a whale-watching boat around the gulf and you’ll see a land and seascape – best described as otherworldly.
Relax in Gaspé
Continuing, you’ll pass Fort Péninsule, a preserved coastal defense dating from World War II, before entering the town of Gaspé, which has a population of 15,000. The city of Percé is still about 45 minutes away; but again, don’t rush.
Gaspé, one of the great natural havens of the Atlantic, is the best place I can think of to settle down a bit.
Jacques Cartier would agree. A tall stone cross on the Gaspé waterfront marks the spot where the explorer planted a more modest wooden one in 1534, when he stopped to seek shelter from a storm and decided to do some trading with the people of the country — and, while there, invoked the papal doctrine of discovery (the one which decreed that Christian nations like France could simply claim ownership of territory already occupied by indigenous peoples not Christians) to claim the land for King Francis.
What he claimed — some 35 years before Champlain was born — is what we now call Canada. Although Gaspé also sometimes refers to itself as the end of the world, it was actually the start of a whole new one – and it was worth driving through many to see.
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