GASPÉ PENIN­SULA IS EASY TO LOVE

Vis­i­tors find whales, gar­dens, light­houses and beau­ti­ful vis­tas

The Hamilton Spectator - - GO - ALAN SOLOMON

PERCE, QUE­BEC — This was go­ing to be a story about light­houses ... un­til I met a pe­ony named Elsie.

And the world’s ugli­est fish. And win­kles in gar­lic-but­ter sauce. And a dented Sec­ond World War Ger­man tor­pedo. And gal­leries. And whales. And wa­ter­falls. And a moose. And 50,000 north­ern gan­nets on an is­land. And cod tongues in sea-urchin but­ter. And a very big box of live lob­sters in yet an­other picture-book vil­lage ...

We’ll talk a lit­tle about light­houses, too. But.

Some oblig­a­tory ori­en­ta­tion: the Gaspé Penin­sula is an ex­ten­sion of Que­bec roughly the size of Bel­gium that’s bor­dered on the north by the St. Lawrence River and ex­tends into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It’s got coast­line, moun­tains, renowned salmon fish­ing and trees that turn bril­liant colours in Oc­to­ber. Be­ing mar­itime, it gets its share of rain and fog, which (along with ship­ping via the St. Lawrence) ex­plains its 14 light­houses.

Its pop­u­la­tion is about 130,000, com­pared — in the same amount of acreage — with Bel­gium’s pop­u­la­tion of 11 mil­lion. French is widely spo­ken, but An­glo­pho­bic tourists are wel­come and won’t starve.

Largest town is Gaspé (pop­u­la­tion 15,000). It gave the re­gion its mar­ketable name: Gaspésie. Ex­plorer Jac­ques Cartier planted a wooden cross some­where near Gaspé in 1534 and claimed the ter­ri­tory for France, which didn’t quite work out.

The west­ern gate­way, for most vis­i­tors, is the river town of Sainte-Flavie, and therein be­gins the prob­lem: you have to re­ally want to get here to get

here. The town is a 10-and-a-halfhour drive from Toronto and nine hours from Bos­ton. Air Canada flies in and out, but a flight from, say, Chicago could get you to Paris cheaper or faster or both, de­pend­ing on the num­ber of stops.

That’s the end of the prob­lems. The rest is all dis­cov­ery and joy.

Driv­ing clock­wise along the river from Sainte-Flavie on High­way 132 (the road that hugs the wa­ter and most ev­ery­thing else worth­while here), and past Mar­cel Gagnon’s 80 bizarre stat­ues (the first hint that artists live and thrive here), signs in­vite us into the sprawl­ing Jardins de Métis, a.k.a. Re­ford Gar­dens. Elsie Re­ford, a lady of means (the means de­rived from her un­cle be­ing a founder of the Cana­dian Pa­cific Rail­way), be­gan plant­ing stuff on the fam­ily re­treat 90 years ago. Her great­grand­son, di­rec­tor Alexan­der Re­ford, 53, has been in charge of ev­ery bloom­ing thing (in­clud­ing its trea­sured blue pop­pies) for the past 23 years. The gar­den is a Na­tional His­toric Site.

“This,” said Re­ford, “is a beau­ti­ful pe­ony here.”

The pe­ony is the Elsie, named by the Amer­i­can Pe­ony So­ci­ety for his great-grand­mother. It’s a hy­brid — pos­si­bly an ac­ci­dent, but as with hu­mans, un­in­tended pol­li­na­tion some­times works out splen­didly.

One of the gar­dens’ hosts is Paul Gen­dron, 70. His grand­fa­ther was light­house keeper at Métis Light­house just down the river. “And my fa­ther,” he said, “was as­sis­tant keeper. I grew up there.”

Ev­ery light­house has its own story, its own per­son­al­ity. We’ll let you dis­cover them.

Three light­houses east is the charm­ing vil­lage of Sainte-Annedes-Monts, not only the home of the afore­men­tioned win­kles (lo­cal sea snails, en­joyed at Restau­rant du Quai and bet­ter than they sound) but of Ex­plo­ramer, which we’ll de­scribe in­ad­e­quately as a hands-on aquar­ium and sea­side ex­pe­ri­ence.

A touch pool de­lights vis­i­tors who like touch­ing wet things. Not in the touch pool are great white sharks, one of sev­eral species of shark known to lurk in the neigh­bour­hood.

Just past the third light­house and the first wa­ter­fall — in English, Wed­ding Veil Falls — is the La Martre Light­house. Yves Fou­creault, who worked here for more than 30 years, con­tin­ues to show the place off a few years af­ter a new man­age­ment “threw me out.”

“Do you know about the big fight be­tween the light­house keeper and the priest?” he be­gan.

It’s a good story, es­pe­cially if it’s re­ally true but even if it isn’t.

We men­tion the light­house at Cap-des-Rosiers be­cause it’s Canada’s tallest (112 feet/34 me­tres) and be­cause it’s just be­fore the en­trance to Fo­ril­lon Na­tional Park, one of three parks in Gaspésie.

The park is the base for Bay of Gaspé whale-watch­ing cruises.

“Some­times,” said on-board nat­u­ral­ist Marc Trudel, “it takes half an hour to gain a good view.”

On this day, it took 14 min­utes to view our first hump­back. Fin and minke whales fol­lowed. In Fo­ril­lon, I found my moose, a bear, a por­cu­pine and one more light­house, the Cap-Gaspé, a beauty.

Gaspé town is a pleas­an­te­nough stop. Here is the Gaspé Mu­seum, and it con­tains that dented tor­pedo, ap­par­ently fired by a Ger­man U-boat prowl­ing off­shore in 1942.

“It went off course and kind of ran into the rocks,” guide Nathalie Spooner said of the tor­pedo.

A man found it on the shore­line and kept it in his barn, charg­ing neigh­bour­hood kids 25 cents to see it.

“He called it ‘the world’s small­est mu­seum.’” Now it’s in the big­ger mu­seum.

Percé, about 400 kilo­me­tres from the start of our drive, is a tourist town, a con­cen­tra­tion of mo­tels, sou­venir shops and restau­rants — one of which, La Mai­son du Pêcheur, pro­vided the cod tongues (again, bet­ter than they sound).

And speak­ing of sound: if you’ve never heard the sound of tens of thou­sands of north­ern gan­nets, plus pen­guin­like mur­res and ra­zor­bills si­mul­ta­ne­ously mak­ing bird noises, you prob­a­bly haven’t been around Bon­aven­ture Is­landPercé Rock Na­tional Park. The is­land is ac­ces­si­ble by Percé-based tour boats. Iconic Percé Rock teases pho­tog­ra­phers with dif­fer­ent pat­terns and colours as the sun makes its rounds ... and our ex­plo­ration ended here, five light­houses short of full cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion. (We flew home out of the Gaspé air­port.)

Ex­cept for one more quick stop, at L’Anse-à-Beau­fils, a fish­ing vil­lage just past Perce. Here, a ge­nial lob­ster­man — at a vis­i­tor’s re­quest — opened a large cooler filled with liv­ing, freshly gath­ered lob­sters.

“I wish,” he said, hold­ing up one of them, “I could show you a blue one.”

Yes, there are blue lob­sters. Ev­ery lob­ster­man, like ev­ery Gaspésie gar­dener and guide and nat­u­ral­ist and chef and artist — and light­house — has a story.

A visit to Gaspésie is in­com­plete with­out view­ing Percé Rock, one of Canada’s natural trea­sures.

Some of the 50,000 nest­ing pairs of north­ern gan­nets on Bon­aven­ture Is­land. Elsie, a pe­ony named for its breeder, Elsie Re­ford, blooms for all to en­joy in Re­ford Gar­dens/Jardins de Métis in Grand-Métis.

PHOTOS BY ALAN SOLOMON, TNS

The Cape-Gaspé light­house, on a cliff over­look­ing the Gulf of St. Lawrence, is the east­ern­most of the Gaspé bea­cons.

The cod fish­ery — which sus­tained Gaspé for gen­er­a­tions — may be all but gone, but lob­ster­men and crab­bers work­ing out of vil­lages like L’Anse-à-Beau­fils con­tinue to do just fine.

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