Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 17, 2017
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End of the line

Take a train to the tip of the world and explore the farthest reaches of Gaspé

The name Gaspé comes from a Micmac word meaning "the tip of the world." One glance at the extreme landscapes of this eastern Quebec peninsula and you'll agree that there couldn't be a more apt description. Here, where the Appalachian mountain range plunges into the seemingly endless ocean, visitors feel like they have indeed reached the edge of civilization.

If you only have a few days to spare, there's no more relaxing a way to take in the spectacular scenery than aboard the train. Three times a week, VIA Rail's Chaleur makes the overnight journey between Montreal and this remote but surprisingly accessible destination. At just over 17 hours -- the bulk of which is at night -- the trip is just long enough to be enjoyable, while saving your energy for exploring by car when you get there.

Amorous ambience
The Chaleur leaves Montreal in the early evening, following the south shore of the St. Lawrence River through towns like Drummondville and Ste-Hyacinthe. There's not much to look at on this leg of the trip, so it's a good time to get acquainted with your immediate surroundings.

With its narrow corridors, battleship-grey sleeping quarters and art deco dining car, the train is infused with the all the intrigue of an Agatha Christie mystery. While there was no murder on this Gaspé express, the time-warp railroad cars, although refurbished over the years, would certainly make a great setting for a dinner theatre whodunit.

To make the most of the train's retro charm, we booked a relatively new VIA package called Romance by Rails. Designed for couples in search of life's finest comforts, it conjures up the heady days of ultra-luxurious train travel. Adjoining bedrooms are made into one suite by folding up the dividing wall and presto -- the two lower berths come together to form a generous queen size bed. A bottle of sparkling wine awaits in an ice bucket, along with an arrangement of fresh flowers and a variety of hors d'oeuvres at your fingertips. His and hers bathrooms, a pair of signature terrycloth robes and more VIA Rail soap than you could ever need are touches that make this rolling bed and breakfast even more special. Add in a down duvet and sheets a cut above the ordinary and the accommodations have all the makings of a good night's sleep.

This pampering of high-end customers reflects a renewed interest in railroad travel, but it comes at a price. While some of the better-travelled routes may have the logistics of Romance by Rails down pat, the well-meaning but unpolished staff of the low-key Chaleur didn't appear to have worked it out yet. We agreed that, at least in the near future, a regular sleeper would have been just as fun, with a lot less fuss and for less money.

Either way, you aren't confined to your sleeping quarters for the duration of the voyage. The lounge car was filled with friendly locals downing bottles of Molson Ex and discussing the dire state of the fishing industry. A few steps up in the observation deck, vacationers squinted through the windows into the setting sun. The dining car was equally friendly, but offered less in the way of regional specialties than it could have. We'd hoped the menu might feature shrimp from Matane, a town on the northern Gaspé coast, or perhaps some goat cheese from the Chimo factory near Percé. Nevertheless, we were pleased to find seafood chowder, a nice serving of haddock, breaded and grilled, accompanied by potatoes, veggies and a hearty pot roast that went down nicely with a surprisingly decent red wine. As we enjoyed our meal, the sky outside darkened and with nightfall came the promise of a feast for the eyes the next morning. That's when the locomotive leaves the Matapédia River valley and makes its way through Baie des Chaleurs.

Room with a view
From the moment we awoke, spectacular scenes unfolded through the window. The rails hug the seashore for most of the journey, with stops in little villages that have no more than a handful of houses and a clapboard station to distinguish them. All these manmade buildings are further dwarfed by the steep cliffs and vertiginous valleys behind them. After a solid breakfast and plentiful coffee to shake off the uneven sleep of the night before, we headed straight to the dome car to take in the sights.

These are some of the oldest landscapes on earth -- and it shows. Red pre-Cambrian rock formations jut out of the ocean at severe angles. Mountains stretch as far as the eye can see, their sharp edges softened by dense green foliage. The region is sparsely inhabited and host to an immense variety of wildlife and some of the oldest fossils on the continent. Here and there are plots of farmland carved out of the rocky soil, the grasses swaying in time with the relentless waves only a few metres away.

Just after the miniscule hamlet of Port-Daniel, the train chugs through a short tunnel and emerges into a sun-dappled forest. Suddenly, there is a hollow in the trees and at the end of it the water sparkles in the sun. There, far below, is a fisherman's wharf carved out of the ancient rock, a jetty into eternity. A few minutes later, the train nears a beach, where a solitary figure leaves footprints in the red-tinged sand and glistening seaweed. Then we creep over a trestle bridge, inch by inch, finally regaining speed as we burst past a smattering of modest houses whipped by the wind -- another unimaginably small town come and gone.

 

The Gaspésie remained fairly isolated well into the last century. Many of the inhabitants still remember what life was like before the paved roads made life a lot easier. In addition to a strong Acadian presence and the descendants of early French settlers, there are numerous villages with anglophone roots. These were settled by American Loyalists who arrived after the Revolutionary War, as well as Scottish and Irish refugees fleeing the potato famine of the 1840s. Some communities have even more dramatic origins. Cap-des-Rosiers, for instance, was the site of several shipwrecks, most notably a boat called the Karrik that was full of Irish immigrants. Many of the survivors stayed on to make a life for themselves at the very site where they had washed up on shore.

The town of Gaspé is the end of the line -- literally. The tracks simply stop in the grass a few metres from the ocean, near a quaint little station a stone's throw from the fishing boats and tugs moored in the harbour.

The lay of the land
Because of its manageable size -- you could drive around the whole perimeter in a day and a half -- and nonstop natural beauty from sweeping farmland to fishing villages and lonely lighthouses, the Gaspé peninsula is the perfect destination for a short-term getaway. You could either spend a few days exploring the coast, or make a tourist hub like Percé your base from which to make short excursions. We rented a car and found no shortage of things to fill our three-day sojourn.

Gaspé is the biggest town in the region and its main claim to fame is that it was "discovered" by successive waves of explorers before being claimed by France in 1534. It doesn't have much to offer tourists except for a couple of cafés and the answers to Everything You Wanted to Know About Jacques Cartier But Were Afraid to Ask. A short drive away, however, is the perfect spot to soak up the rays or while away an afternoon with a good book. A little off the beaten path, Haldimand Beach is a favourite retreat for locals, a sudden ribbon of sand hidden away in a deeply forested bay.

From here, the sinuous road (Highway 198) takes you inland towards the breathtaking hiking trails of the rugged Chic Choc mountains in the midst of the gigantic Parc de la Gaspésie, a must-see for nature lovers. There is also flora and fauna aplenty in the nearby Parc National de Forillon. We drove further south towards the more touristy Baie des Chaleurs area (on Highway 132). There are a number of casse-croûtes along the road where you can stop for a salmon burger, sausages or a salt cod sandwich. One of our finds was Dixie Lee, a fast food emporium offering seafood to go and fantastic Louisiana-style fried chicken (which seemed incongruous until we remembered the Acadian connection).

A popular and charming destination is the resort town of Percé, about 40 minutes from Gaspé. The raison d'Étre of this little village is catering to tourists, who angle for space on the beach, tables at the many seafood restaurants on the water and hotel rooms that offer a view of the Rocher Percé. This enormous rectangular rock is 400 metres long and almost 90 metres high, a wall of red stone in which a dramatic archway has been carved by the sea. In fact, there were once two archways in this eye-popping colossus, but one of them gave way to the eroding power of the water back in 1875. The rock is close enough to the craggy shore that the adventurous can walk to it at low tide -- just be sure to get back to shore before it's too late!

Nearby Ile Bonaventure, which resembles a half-submerged whale, is also worth a closer look. Launches leave regularly from the pier and be sure to buy a ticket with debarquement in order to explore it on foot. In addition to being home to seals and occassional whale sightings, it is also the summer residence of one of the largest colonies of gannets in the world. A 45-minute walk across the nature park will bring you within a few metres of 50,000 of these beautiful and fascinating birds.

Perched atop a cluster of mountains overlooking the town, the restaurant at the Auberge Gargantua guarantees a memorable evening. This charming chalet offers rustic French food and breathtaking views. When the rest of Percé is cast into shadow by the sheared-off mountain peaks, you can still catch a stunning sunset at this altitude, so make your reservations accordingly. The setting is so remote that when it opened in the late 1950s, the owners couldn't find anyone willing to tackle the steep incline in order to deliver produce, so they set about growing lettuce and other vegetables themselves. The food is delectable, all manner of finely prepared fresh seafood and meats. The portions, appropriately enough, are gargantuan.

It's easy to miss the miniscule harbour of L'Anse-à-Beaufils in the blink of an eye, but this little inlet is worth a visit. An old cod factory has been transformed into a cultural centre casually known as L'Usine, where you can experience local joie de vivre first hand. Chansonniers provide live music on the terrace of this bar, art gallery and performance space. Just up the road is the original Robin general store from 1928, which offers a glimpse into what life was like in this rural fishing community until not all that long ago.

No matter what direction you choose for an adventure, the undulating strip of highway encircling the peninsula offers memorable sights. It's always worth making an extra little detour for an up-close view of that lighthouse flanked by farmland, to collect rocks from a barren beach or to lose yourself in the woods for a few moments.

 

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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