Rising dramatically from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, massive, sheer Percé Rock towers off the tip of Quebec's Gaspé Peninsula like a ship at sea. This rugged, windswept region spans 11,714 square miles and is split into five natural areas: the Coast, Land's End, the Chaleur Bay, the Valley, and the Upper Gaspé. It is home to four national parks, including Bonaventure-Island-and-Percé-Rock, summer nesting home of some 200,000 northern gannets, the continent's largest colony of gannet seabirds.
And for birders, there is much more. "The seabird sanctuary is well known, however, many other spots within a close distance are wonderful sources for birders and nature-lovers," says Percé resident and artist-naturalist John Wiseman. "Percé can boast of some 300 bird species or more, which is a good sum for an area so far north. We benefit from being on a major flyway and from the fact that there is quite good habitat diversity including coastal marshes, long beach areas with surrounding cliffs and mountains, bogs, boreal forest, some limited mixed hardwoods, and more."
When to Go: Bird migrations occur in spring and fall. The coastal cliffs of Pointe St.-Pierre, Cap-Blanc, and Cap-d'Espoir in Percé provide great lookouts. In June, the Festival en Chanson de Petite Vallée showcases emerging and seasoned French-speaking musicians from across Quebec. Summer heat pulls sun-seekers to the warm waters of Chaleur Bay and to the St. Lawrence for kayaking among the whales. In autumn, fishermen can angle for spawning salmon. Winter brings about 20 feet of deep powder to the Chic-Choc Mountains, looming 4,000 feet above the banks of the St. Lawrence River in Gaspésie Provincial Park. Book a guided backcountry trek to ski, board, or snowshoe through the untracked snow.
Where to Stay: For unobstructed views of Percé Rock, reserve an ocean-view room with balcony at the Hôtel la Normandie or the deluxe suite at Riotel Percé. The stone La Maison William Wakeham, built in 1860, has a restaurant and 11 rooms, including one, La Reine, with cathedral ceilings, wood paneling, a fireplace, and a four-poster bed.
How to get Around: For the most flexibility, drive. From Quebec City, it's 214 miles via Route 132 to Sainte-Flavie, gateway to the Gaspé. The route splits here to form a 550-mile loop called the Grand Tour Circuit. For the most dramatic coastal views, follow the northern route along the St. Lawrence River to Percé at the peninsula's tip. Retrace your route from Percé or complete the loop by continuing south, where you will pass along sandy beaches before heading inland.
Where to Eat or Drink: The peninsula is accessible year-round, but many coastal route seafood restaurants, such as La Maison du Pêcheur, are open only from early June to mid-October. Make reservations for the pricier upstairs dining room. (The same folks run the more casual Café de l'Atlantique downstairs.) Start with a cup of fish chowder, try the fresh caught halibut or salmon (if you're not tempted by the lobster), and save room for some maple crème brûlée. Épicerie Fine at the Auberge du Marchand serves a fish soup from the Baie-des-Chaleurs; carnivores can sample the local lamb or their charcuterie and Quebec cheese plate. Brise Bise serves up a variety of French staples such as escargots and French onion soup, and live music Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. Throughout the Gaspésie casse-croûtes (roadside food stalls) serve up the Québécois staple poutine, gravy-smothered cheese curds and fries.
What to Buy: Housed in a restored 1845 farmhouse in Percé, artist John Wiseman's studio and gallery La Maisonart is open year-round and showcases a wide selection of original artwork, including lithographic and giclée prints, stone sculptures, and agate jewelry crafted by local artisans.
What to Read Before You Go: Author Paul Almond's historical fiction series, the Alford Saga (McArthur & Company, 2010), is set on the Gaspé Peninsula.
Fun Fact: Percé Rock is one of the largest natural arches in the world, measuring about 300 feet wide and high.
Born in Ontario, photographer Taylor Kennedy lives in Victoria, British Columbia. He has worked on assignment for National Geographic Traveler, the Globe and Mail, West, Explore magazine, WestWorld, and Vanity Fair.