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Touring Quebec Province, Canada

Interested in a European vacation, but would rather skip the transatlantic journey? Consider the Canadian Province of Quebec. The language, culture, architecture, and cuisine are firmly rooted in France. Toss in spectacular scenery, abundant wildlife, and uncrowded spaces, and you get a most irresistible destination.

The scenery of Quebec is exceptional, as are the opportunities for wildlife spotting (especially for whales and seabirds such as puffins and gannets) and hiking. Moreover, the local architecture can be quite charming and the inhabitants of this region take great pride in creating beautiful homesteads, often with dazzling private gardens in full view from the roads. The native tongue of nearly all of the population is French, which adds an added dimension of "foreign" travel to a location that is adjacent to northern New England. Nonetheless, English is widely understood, and non-French-speaking travelers can get by with little difficulty. For those who know some French, any attempts to use the language, however imperfect, earn you an extra special welcome in what is already a very hospitable region.

The roads are very well maintained and the signage (which relies on international symbols) is excellent. In particular, attractions, hotels, gas stations and places to eat are very well marked off the roads. Additionally, along the main road most towns have a tidy rest stop, invariably with immaculate rest rooms, picnic tables, and a scenic view.

As in France, food is taken very seriously here but at a very reasonable price. Scrumptious 4-course table d'hote dinners in many fine restaurants can be had for under $40 Canadian (less than $30 US) per person, counting taxes and tips. You can spend a lot less in humbler establishments, even roadside snack shops (called casse-croutes), and still eat very well. I give high marks to all the places where I ate, and they included a random assortment of snack shacks, a coffee house, a bakery, fine restaurants (one was attached to a campground!), diners, and a jazz club that offered vegetarian burgers.

The town of Perce has transformed itself from a sleepy, remote fishing village circa 1900 into a major tourist destination. Nonetheless, it is not yet overbuilt, and the streets are remarkably quiet from around 8 PM until roughly 10 AM, even in the midst of the tourist season. This is the one town on the Gaspe peninsula with a noteworthy concentration of hotels, motels and B&Bs (gites, in French). Farther west, on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, the cities of Riviere-du-Loup and Rimouski have a number of places to stay, although these are not prime destinations for vacations but handy overnight stops instead.

The north shore of the St. Lawrence, in the region east of Tadoussac, is relatively sparsely populated and less visited that the south shore, with correspondingly more limited hotel facilities. The cities of Baie-Comeau and Sept-Iles are the major centers of population, commerce, and industry, and the best places to find accommodation. Nonetheless, the rocky subarctic terrain of the north shore is, in many respects, even more memorable than that of the Gaspe. The Mingan Archipelago (pronounced, roughly, as "MAN-gaw") is home to a large colony of puffins (over 1,800 nest here in the spring and summer) and stone monoliths that have been sculpted by wind and water into truly fantastic, sometimes surrealistic, shapes. Whales frequent the area as well. This area, though relatively remote (about 1,100 km or 660 miles driving from Quebec City), is a truly memorable landscape that deserves many more visitors than it receives.

Much closer to Quebec City (120 km or 72 miles), Ile-aux-Coudres (Island of the Hazlenut Trees) is a pastoral gem only 11 km (7 miles) long and 5 km (3 miles) wide. It makes a splendid contrast to a Quebec City that often is thronged with tourists. Travelers with more limited agendas, such as just visiting the walled city of Quebec, would do well to consider a modest diversion eastward to this small paradise. It has a variety of hotels, motels, and inns, yet it does not feel the least crowded or overrun. It has one ring road, and the traffic is surprisingly light. Indeed, many visitors choose to bike around it.

At the time of writing, reaching this region by air is slightly problematic, however. Lesage Airport at Quebec City does not have full status as an international airport, and flights from the U.S. are few. In fact, the airport is a rather sleepy one that has relatively few domestic (Canadian) flights and pretty much closes by 10 PM. Continental flies 3 times daily to/from Newark, but only with 40 passenger Embraer jets. Northwest also has a limited presence, flying from Detroit. Otherwise, Air Canada is the main option but usually with a change required in Toronto, Montreal, or Ottawa. Air Canada's prices are considerably above those charged by Continental: my trip cost $300 roundtrip per person, but Air Canada's started at over $700.

A week's car rental from Avis, with unlimited miles, cost me $375.73 (Canadian), all taxes and fees included, or about $272 (US). Note that gasoline is expensive, and prices ranged from 76.9 to 84.9 cents (Canadian) per liter of regular unleaded. This translates to between $2.12 and $2.34 (US) per gallon. Moreover, don't bother to price shop. Prices are controlled, and all the stations in a given area will post the same price. Interestingly, the highest prices were around Quebec City, while the more remote areas had lower prices. The lowest I found, 76.9 cents Canadian, was in the area around Tadoussac on the north coast.

Travel Tips
  • If you need cash, most U.S. ATM cards will work in Canadian cash machines. Check with your bank before leaving. You generally get good exchange rates using the ATMs.
  • A French phrase book or dictionary can be very handy (see our suggestions from Amazon. com above).
  • Get a detailed provincial highway map from Tourism Quebec before your trip. Also get an application for refund of the GST (Goods and Services Tax, a sales tax) on your purchases of gifts and on your hotel room rate.
  • Bring your passport. While technically not required for U.S. citizens to enter Canada and return, airlines are demanding it. Not having a passport also sets you up for a difficult time with customs/immigration officers on both sides of the border in this post-9/11 era.

When to Go
May through September is best for our sample itinerary. Late July or early August is ideal. The city of Quebec has a renowned winter carnival in February, but the outlying areas will be too frigid and snowy for most travelers.

Sample Itinerary for 8 Days
Day 1: Fly from Newark to Quebec City. Stay in Quebec overnight.
Day 2: Drive south shore of the St. Lawrence River, making scenic stops. Stay at Perce, at the eastern tip of the Gaspe Peninsula. Total drive for the day is about 788 km, or 473 miles.
Day 3: Morning boat trip around Perce Rock and Bonaventure Island. Hike to the Rock at low tide. Take afternoon trip to Forillon National Park, a roundtrip of about 242 km, or 145 miles. Return to Perce.
Day 4: Hike the hills behind Perce in the morning. Take a whale watch trip at midday. Visit other viewpoints in the late afternoon. Remain in Perce overnight.
Day 5: Drive along south coast of the Gaspe Peninsula, turning north and inland at the Town of New Richmond. Visit Gaspesie Park in the mountainous center of the peninsula for short hikes. Drive north to the town of Matane for a 5 PM ferry across the St. Lawrence to Baie-Comeau. Drive east to the town of Sept-Iles for overnight stay. Drive from Perce to Matane is about 400 km, or 240 miles. Drive from Baie-Comeau to Sept-Iles is 222 km, or 133 miles.
Day 6: Drive east for boat excursions in the Mingan Archipelago. Drive 222 km (133 miles) east to Havre-St- Pierre for 3-hour tour of the eastern islands embarking at 7:45 AM. Take 1:00 PM boat out of Mingan (38 km or 23 miles west) for a 5-hour tour of the western islands. Return to Sept-Iles for the night.
Day 7: Drive 524 km (314 miles) west to Ile-aux-Coudres for overnight stay. En route, make several scenic stops, including scanning for whales from shore at Baie-Sainte-Catherine. Board 5:30 PM ferry for the island at St-Joseph-de-la-Rive. Tour the island before sunset.
Day 8: Make another quick tour of Ile-aux-Coudres before boarding 8:00 AM ferry back to St-Joseph-de-la-Rive. Make scenic stops on 120-km (72-mile) westward route to Quebec City. Make brief afternoon tour of the city. Board return flight to Newark.

Where to Learn More

What to Budget
All price quotes are in U.S. dollars, for 2 people:
  • About $100/day can buy highly satisfactory lodging.
  • Under $50/day can get excellent meals for the value-conscious who splurge occasionally.
  • Car rental and gas runs about $50/day for our sample itinerary.
  • Tour boats, attraction admissions, etc., should cost about $40/day.
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