One of the oldest and loveliest European settlements in North America, Québec takes its name from the Algonquin word meaning "where the river narrows." The city that Champlain founded in 1608 was the capital of New France, and later of British North America. Today the proud capital boasts the old-world charms of Vieux Quebec, the world-famous Chateau Frontenac hotel, and the only remaining intact citadel walls in North America. Cultural riches, superb cuisine, and an incredible view over the river make Québec the perfect place to begin your voyage!
Home to Aboriginal cultures for thousands of years, the Saguenay Fjord’s first European visitor was Jacques Cartier in 1532. The Saguenay drains fresh water from Lac St. Jean, but the majority of its volume is salt tidal water from the St. Lawrence Estuary. The result is ideal habitat for marine mammals, including four species of whale: fin, minke, blue, and the famous (endangered) Saguenay beluga population. Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park and Saguenay Fjord National Park both protect the region’s vast natural riches.
It’s easy to forget Quebec is a coastal province – but not at Parc National du Bic. Watching the seabirds swoop and dive, viewing seals basking in rocky coves, or basking in the region’s glorious sunsets, the spirit of the Atlantic Ocean is ever-present. Salt marshes and rocky hills define the park, located on the South Shore of the St. Lawrence. Aboriginal artifacts dating to 5000 BC attest to the region’s natural riches; many such artifacts are now preserved in the park’s interpretive center. Walking trails give access to Le Bic’s unique landscapes; birding and wildlife opportunities abound.
Due north of Anticosti Island on the North Shore of the St. Lawrence, Havre-Saint-Pierre has a unique history. The village was settled in 1857 by a group of Acadian deportees from Georgia, by way of Magdalene Islands. The local dialect retains strong elements of Acadian French to this day.
The spectacular natural sculptures of the Mingan Islands are formed of limestone, shaped by the action of the sea. At 50 degrees North latitude, these islands owe as much to the north as to the east for their character. Atlantic puffins and Arctic eiders vie for the birders' attention, while harp, harbor, and gray seals cavort in the waters. Not to be outdone, the flora of the islands is wildly diverse and includes 450 plant species, 190 lichens and 300 mosses!
A huge island in the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, Anticosti Island is known for its breathtaking scenery and extraordinary birdwatching opportunities. Larger than Prince Edward Island, Anticosti is the twentieth-largest island in Canada by area, but has a human population of only a few hundred. By contrast, more than 160,000 non-indigenous white-tailed deer make their homes on Anticosti – rightfully known as a hunter’s paradise. It’s also a great spot for birds: 60 per cent of Quebec’s known bald eagle breeding grounds are here, and more than 220 species of birds have been sighted at Anticosti, along with numerous seals and whales.
The Gaspé Peninsula, also known as Gaspesie, separates the mouth of the St. Lawrence from the Baie de Chaleur. Dominated by high cliffs on the north shore, the Gaspé includes the eastern tip of the Appalachian mountain chain and offers amazing views of and from its highland regions.
The first National Park in Quebec, Forillon, is an important birding and marine mammal location. Forillon also preserves human history in the Grand-Grave National Heritage Site, telling the story of the fishing families who once made their homes here. The park contains Canada’s tallest lighthouse and fortifications remaining from the Second World War, when German u-boats were a threat to Allied shipping.
Parc national de l'Île-Bonaventure-et-du-Rocher-Percé is the formal name of the park at the eastern tip of the Gaspe Peninsula. But most Canadians are more familiar with its best-known feature, the awe-inspiring Percé Rock. Less well known is the area’s superb Northern gannet colony, extolled as the largest and most accessible in the world.
Named by Samuel de Champlain, the rock itself is world-renowned, containing a huge natural arch within a mass of reddish limestone and sandstone. A second arch once pierced the rock but collapsed in 1845, leaving a massive column at one end. Percé Rock has revealed fossils of 150 species and more than 200 species of birds are found nearby. Fin, minke, humpback and blue whales ply the nearby waters of this magnificent coastal outpost.
Long frequented by Mi’kmaq people, the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence were first sighted by Europeans when Jacques Cartier sailed among them in 1534. Today, although closer to Nova Scotia and PEI, they form a regional municipality of the Province of Quebec. However, the islands have a history distinct from that of mainland Quebec. When the British expelled the Acadians from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, the Magdalen Islanders remained, and to this day take great pride in their Acadian heritage. There are also long-standing English settlements, and a percentage of the population can claim descent from survivors of the many shipwrecks that have occurred among the Islands.
Pack ice has historically surrounded the Islands during winter, leading to near-total isolation for months at a time. Besides fishing, shipping, salt mining and tourism, sealing on the pack ice has been a traditional source of income and subsistence for Islanders.
You could be forgiven for not knowing the French history of Newfoundland: sections of the island’s coastline changed hands multiple times, and the remaining communities have in general come a long way since they were unequivocally French. The name of the tiny outpost of Francois, for example, is pronounced locally as ‘Fransway.’ Accessible by boat only, this charming fishing village is surrounded by spectacular cliffs and offers a glimpse of a way of life that has largely disappeared.
Newfoundland’s South Shore is full of surprises, including vast stretches of virtually uninhabited wilderness. Fjords, cliffs and islands offer excellent Zodiac cruising territory and terrific birding.
On a trip that traces the history and geography of New France, it’s appropriate that we wind up in France. The small islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon remain officially a part of the French Republic, despite their location only a few dozen kilometers off the shore of Newfoundland.
Disembark in charming Saint Pierre. Stay to enjoy the fine wine and cheese, excellent coffee and pastries, and contemporary French fashions independently or transfer to the airport for your homeward journey.