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Land’s End

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Fireweed colors the hillside of Ile Bonaventure, off the coast of the Gaspé Peninsula (Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

“We don’t know if we’re going to land today,” explained the flight attendant.

Not to worry, he assured me as he directed me to my seat—if I didn’t get to land in Gaspé, I could continue to Québec City and backtrack whenever the weather improved.

The Air Canada pilot chimed in on the radio, “Mesdames et messieurs, there’s a big storm over Gaspésie.” The French word he used was moche—ugly. “The weather is ugly,” he reported, fatalistically.

It’s not often that I board a flight with a ticket for a destination that you may or may not land at. I did not like the idea of ending up so far off course from my intended destination, but I accepted the risk and tried to drink my orange juice before it spilled.

As predicted, it was a roller-coaster ride over the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Gaspé peninsula. I kept watching out my window for a speck of landscape or even the sea, but all I could see were layers and layers of grey, moody clouds. Our tiny twin-engine plane descended like a child sliding the stairs on his bottom, bump—bump—bump. Outside it was so foggy that I spotted the runway only a few seconds before the wheels slammed into the runway.

I was the sole passenger to exit at Gaspé and as I walked from the back of the plane to the front, I felt the entire planeload of passengers stare me down, as if they were less than content to have risked their lives for a single passenger’s travel whims.

But no matter—I had a ticket to Gaspé and I as I walked from the plane to the one-room airport, I was cheered up by the expansive view around me. Perhaps the weather had been ugly, but it was already lifting and revealing a most beautiful landscape of dark green mountains and endless pine forests that swept down to light charcoal beaches and blue water.

I thought back to 477 years, one week and four days prior to my own arrival when another uncertain traveler encountered a spot of ugly weather in this exact same location. After sailing from France and making a pit stop on Les îles-de-la-Madeleine, Jacques Cartier encountered a serious storm that lasted for ten days. Seeking refuge, he entered the protected Bay of Gaspé where he was met by 200 native Iroquois who surrounded his ship with some 40 canoes. He offered them gifts of knives, glass beads and combs—then landed and erected a 30-foot high cross claiming this new land in the name of François the 1st, King of France.

My first purchase in New France was a chicken sandwich and some chocolate-covered raisins, which I picked up from the Jacques Cartier shopping mall, the parking lot of which overlooks the Bay of Gaspé.

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Cross commemorating 400th anniversary of Jacques Cartier’s landing in Gaspé (AE/NG)

Scholars disagree about the exact location of Jacques Cartier’s cross, but I doubt it was in the mall parking lot. Since three theoretical landing spots exist, I decided to visit all of them.

The town of Gaspé is home to several competing monuments that all celebrate different anniversaries of Cartier’s landing. For the 400th, a 30-foot high granite cross was erected on one of the higher points in the city. A more conceptual piece (giant pebbles) stand in front of the local museum, while a less sophisticated effigy in front of Gaspé’s Café des Artistes makes such bold assumptions as Jacques being blue-eyed, smiling and wearing a crown.

En tout cas, in chasing Cartier, I arrived in the Gaspé peninsula. The French words Gaspé and Gaspésie derive from the Micmac Indian word Gespeg which means “Land’s End”. This it most certainly is, for despite the utter geographic relativity of the term, this particular land’s end truly feels like the end of the world.

Gaspé’s green waves of mountains are the Appalachians’ last gasp before diving back into the sea—the final hurrah of North America’s oldest mountain chain. Water is all around—bays, rivers and streams, the gulf and the open blue sea. This is maritime Québec—a coastline of small communities that still live thrive on fish and lobster.

Moody weather is part of the poetry of this wild coast. In the space of a morning, I removed my coat, applied sun block, fished for a sweater, then stripped back down to a t-shirt and shorts. If you can imagine a land that is both warm and cool, wet and dry, light and dark, cloudy and clear—that is Gaspésie.

Gaspé is also a land of lighthouses. As I travel around this most scenic peninsula, each new town offers their own historic lighthouse, like a colored birthday candle placed at the end of each rocky point. The landscape is so magnificent and so gigantic that every manmade thing seems miniature and fitting, like someone painted in the minutest detail for each new valley. Covered bridges cross streams, sleek white windmills turn with the ever-present wind, brilliant barns stand out against the miles of unplanted fields and bright purple fireweed.

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The Cap-des-Rosiers lighthouse near Gaspé is the tallest in Canada. (AE/NG)

The danger of such a scenic drive is that it takes three times as long to drive the distance you meant to achieve. I couldn’t help but stop the car–pulling over to take pictures or simply to sit for a while and watch the waves crashing on the beach. Seagulls, herons, gannets, and cormorants are ubiquitous and if you stare long enough into the Bay of Gaspé, you’ll see seals (definitely) and even whales, which I did. Off Cap Forillon, I saw two minke whales swim through clear teal shallows—a sight that hasn’t changed from 400 years ago.

Way back in 1603, Samuel de Champlain remarked on the whales that lived in these waters. I was thrilled to stand in the same spot as Champlain and read his description of Cape Forillon, as “one league from Cape Gaspé—a stone’s throw from the land.” Today, Parc Forillon is one of Canada’s great national parks, including both capes and also the Panouille peninsula—one of the proposed landing places for Jacques Cartier. Today it is a protected beach and salt marsh, scattered with sun-bleached driftwood and taiga woodlands.

I came to the Gaspé peninsula for the history but also on very good recommendation from a friend—many friends. You see, our very own National Geographic Traveler has consistently recommended the Gaspé peninsula as one of the top destinations in the world—the Gaspé made it onto our 20 best trips of 2011, and back in 2009, out of our 133 destinations rated, the Gaspé peninsula ranked number three, placing it in the highest category of best-rated places in the world.

I don’t take this lightly because I know all the factors that we consider before scoring any place over another. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to see it for myself. Ainsi, why so much attention to such an unknown corner of Québec? As I’ve come to discover in my three days here, Gaspésie has all the right ingredients: small, unaffected fishing towns that have keep their charm alive and lighthouses lit, endless miles of incomparable scenery, lots of clean wind energy (hence clean air and water), a solid tourist infrastructure without any ugly (moche) overbuilding or chain hotels, and perhaps most important—a wealth of understated restaurants that serve superb local cuisine.

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A clear day on the Gaspé peninsula (Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

Such high-class humility is a rare balance to find, but I found it in Gaspé. Like so many regions of Québec, the Gaspésiens have their own accent and words—even a dialect that is all their own. They also have their own pride in this place they call home. I think they secretly enjoy the fact that much of the rest of Québec overlooks Gaspésie—that the 8-hour drive to Gaspé from Montreal is enough to keep the crazy crowds away. Indeed, this is a destination that has benefited from being left alone.

On a physical map of the world, the Gaspésie is the one part of Québec that you can really distinguish, sticking out like a curved left index finger, pointing back towards France. Even if it was a storm that brought him here, it makes geographic sense that Jacques Cartier landed here first. Centuries later, the same storms pass over the coast of Gaspésie, painting the sky with streaks of black, blue, grey, and white and pulling the waves back into shore.

But storm or no, I arrived all the same—I landed at land’s end.

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