When most people think of Quebec, images of Montreal, poutine, maple syrup, and its namesake Quebec City come to mind. But venture a little further north—and a tad off the beaten path—and you’ll be rewarded with a wide world of flavors, sights, activities, and discoveries in the province’s Gaspésie region, a peninsula along Quebec’s northern shores by the Saint Lawrence River. Buoyed by abundant history, fresh seafood, and national parks, it’s a region filled with riches all its own. Here are 3 reasons to put Gaspésie (or as is commonly abbreviated: Gaspé) at the top of your Canadian must-visit list.
As a region touting itself as “the birthplace of Canada” and a timeworn bastion of fishing lore, Gaspé has a lot to offer for history buffs.
At the tip of the small seaside city of Gaspé, a historic monument heralds the origin of the entire country. Here you’ll find a looming cross and a reconstruction of a bygone village that looks the way Gaspé would have ca. 1900. It’s all an homage to French explorer Jacques Cartier, who made landfall here as an escape from a storm in the year 1534. Planting a cross at the shore in honor of King Francis I, this is widely regarded by Canadians to be the first arrival of European settlers (of course, native Canadian tribes and vikings pre-dated this landing), and the establishment of Quebec’s French heritage. Today, visitors to this “birthplace of Canada” site can witness actors clad in historic attire, an age-old tavern, general store, a seaplane, and a show called Tale of Time and Tides. Looking to take your educational experience further? There’s a Birthplace of Canada app you can download, which delves even further, and provides a guide to other historic sites in Gaspé along the city’s heritage trail.
Another pivotal piece of history in Gaspé ties into the region’s prevalent nautical roots. For centuries, cod fishing has been a prime industry and export for the peninsula—basically, cod is to Gaspé as lobster is to Maine, or Dungeness crab is to the Pacific Northwest. Long before European settlers arrived here and made a booming business out of it, indigenous people were fishing and eating cod as a mainstay in their diet. Post-Cartier, it quickly became clear to new residents and communities that cod was a valuable resource not only as a source of food, but as a boon to the local economy. Today, you can you taste cod in many local restaurants and in many different forms (dried cod pizza, anyone?), and you can also travel along Gaspé designated Route de la Morue, aka “Cod Route,” to learn even more. Stops along Route 132 include the Banc-de-Pêche-de-Paspébiac Historic Site, home to 200-plus years of cod-fishing history via 11 buildings with shipbuilding demonstrations, blacksmithing, and exhibits. Other stopovers include the Bourg de Pabos interpreation center, an exhibit highlighting the lives of fishermen in the 18th century, complete with samples of dried salted cod and traditional cod soup. Another must-see is the Musée de la Gaspésie, where an authentic cod-fishing boat anchors a museum filled with nautical exhibits, multimedia, and reenactments.
Beyond cod, another fascinating historical aspect is Gaspé’s important role in World War II. In what is now Forillon National Park (more on that later), the Gaspé naval base protected the peninsula from German U-boats upon the military complex establishment in the early 1940s. This thing was expansive, consisting of the Fort Ramsay base, three coastal batteries, an anti-submarine net, and upwards of 20 warships. This hub served as an important turning point for the Canadian military, which held its ground during the Battle of St. Lawrence, successfully devising a way to fend off German submarines. Nowadays, visitors can explore these defunct naval bases in the national park, venturing below ground into the cannon-equipped bunkers, where historical descriptions paint a vivid picture of Gaspé’s wartime resilience.
As previously mentioned, Forillon National Park is a major draw for Gaspé. As the most visited park in the province, thanks to its diverse wildlife and terrain, it’s among the most unique and most dazzling of any park in Canada’s national park system, and it’s well worth spending a few days exploring.
Nestled along the Gulf of St. Lawrence, an easy drive over the bridge from the heart of Gaspé city, there’s much more to see here beyond military history. From seals and waterfalls to moose, old-timey general stores, and soaring peaks, Forillon really runs the gamut. Prior to its designation as a national park, this was a region populated by fishing villages and logging companies, both of which you can learn all about at the well-preserved Hyman Store, laden with vintage equipment and provisions that once supplied the peninsula’s communities. The shop even has a replica of an actual cod, which rangers handily use to display how fishermen traditionally fillet and utilize the iconic local fish. Just down the hill from the store, fishermen still depart from the marina today, though most of their catch is lobster.
From here, trek to Forillon’s northern portion, where many of the park’s best hiking trails reside. This includes the absolute must-do trail: Cap-Bon-Ami. It’s a steep route that quickly ascends to one of the park’s tallest peaks, where an intimidating observation tower provides a crystal-clear panorama of the entire park, gulf, and peninsula. Along the way, you’ll hike through lush boreal forests and past several incredible overlooks, which get you up close and personal with a few craggy seaside cliffs. Keep your eyes peeled for seals and whales in the water!
For something a bit less strenuous, but no less captivating, hit up La Chute. This is one of Forillon’s most renowned waterfall trails, taking hikers down into the bountiful depths of the forest and along a fast-moving stream to the base of a cascading waterfall. En route, you’ll spy plenty of mighty cedar and maple trees, and this is also an area where you’re likely to see a moose. Once you’re done taking advantage of this prime photo op, continue the trail to make a larger loop, as this route passes over top of the falls to provide a different vantage point.
Although the Penouille region of Forillon is only a short drive away from La Chute and Cap-Bon-Ami, this sandy peninsula feels worlds away. In fact, there are types of mosses growing on this little expanse not found anywhere else in the park, or really anywhere else in Canada beyond the arctic tundra. The varied vegetation here speaks to Penouille’s fascinating, and distinct microclimate—a facet made all the more fascinating by the fact that the water here is among the warmest in Quebec, making it fit for swimming in the summer months. Whatever the temperature, though, you’re sure to see a few seals splashing around off-shore.
Beyond Forillon, and a bit further south along the Gaspé peninsula, lies Île-Bonaventure-et-du-Rocher-Percé National Park. Located off the coast of Percé, a bustling little seaside community filled with top-tier restaurants, shops, and museums, it’s an island park that can only be reached via ferry. Once on board, boasts circle around the island before docking, to show visitors the flocks of northern gannet birds that have come to make this place as famous as it is sacred. An important nesting ground for these large sea birds, the island preserves the largest migratory bird population in North America, which is front-and-center on the Les Colonial Trail. This easy out-and-back jaunt weaves through the middle of the forested island to the cliff-side where the birds nest in populations into the hundreds of thousands. Other things you can see on your trip include the enormous Percé Rock in the bay, seals, vintage cabins, and a cafe serving more of that traditional fish soup.
Between the seafood, the poutine, and the maple syrup, Quebec is well-regarded as a foodie mecca for good reason, and Gaspé has all of the above (and more) in spades.
In Percé, La Maison du Pêcheur is the most esteemed dining destination, regarded for its innovative takes on seafood and fish. For instance, this is the kind of place that flecks wood-fired pizzas with pieces of salt-cured cod. And stews soup with salty ribbons of seaweed. And rubs salmon fillets with maple sugar before adding a spritz of lemon sauce. Served up in a sprawling, lofty space reminiscent of a huge fishing cottage, the bay-side haunt also features a great wine list and classic cocktails.
Up in the city of Gaspé, be sure and stop at TÉTÛ Taverne Gaspésienne, a suave neo-gastropub featuring smooth-as-silk maple old fashioneds, pan-fried cod with moonshine puree, and a contemporary riff on poutine brimming with plump scallops and sweet shrimp. There’s more seafood to be found at the humble little coastal cafe, Baleinier, located just outside the entry for Forillon National Park. As casual as it is delicious, the homey eatery features piled-high lobster club sandwiches, bubbling seafood gratins, and of course, more poutine.
Everywhere you turn in Gaspé, you’re filled with a sense of discovery and a taste of local flavor—oftentimes literally. As remote as the peninsula is, it’s well worth the excursion. After all, where else can you see the birthplace of Canada, a flock of northern gannets, and cod pizza all in the same day?
All photos by Matt Kirouac