I have visited many parts of the belle province, but never Chaudière-Appalaches or Bas St. Lawrence, on the south shore of the mighty St. Lawrence river. When given a chance to tour this area in the fall, I jumped.
After landing in Quebec City, we drove a short distance to Cap-Saint-Ignace and climbed aboard an Air Montmagny 8-seater and took off on the world’s shortest scheduled flight to Isle-aux-Grues. A staggering four minutes. Great for some aerial photography. The island was part of a 21 island/islets archipelago of the same name, and it was the only one inhabited year round. Our host, Gilles Tardif picked us up at the tiny airport and we headed to his inn, Maisons du Grand Héron. “I bought it as a summer home and the islanders convinced me to also open a restaurant there. Now it is a main gathering place.” Located next to the ferry dock, it was a prime location to catch islanders coming back on a 30-minute ride from the mainland. Gilles treated us to a delicious dinner of black sturgeon, caught in the St. Lawrence. “There are only two places in the world you can find this fish,” he explained, “here and in Iran.” As well as the inn’s eight standard rooms, it offered guests a choice of two teepees and two yurts. I was in the main part of the inn with a terrific view of the river.
The next day we headed to a main employer on the island of around 90 inhabitants. At Fromagerie de L’Isle, sales manager Michelle Beaulieu treated us to some samples of cheese. My favourite was world award-winner Brie le Riopelle de l’Isle, a triple cream formula with flavours of mushroom and butter. After sampling the Cheval Noir, aged 60 days with an ash rind, and Curé Quartier, with an orange, chewy rind, I could see why Michelle proclaimed “We have the best cheese in Quebec!’
Gilles took us on a little tour of the island, stopping at a lovely church, Paroisse de Saint-Antoine de L’Isle-aux-Grues, and the Jean-Paul Riopelle natural reserve where almost three kilometers of trails looped around 300-year-old trees. “More than 200 species of birds come here. We have the highest wetlands in North America and are a feeding stop for migrating birds such as bobolink, short-eared owls, great blue herons, snow geese and eagles,” Gilles explained.
The next island in the 21-island Isle-aux-Grues archipelago we visited had special significance for me. Grosse-Ile was a quarantine station for the port of Québec from 1832 to 1937. The main entry point for immigrants to Canada was experienced by three of my grandparents when they came from the United Kingdom in the 1920s.
Parks Canada took over operation of the site in 1990 and costumed historic interpreters walked us through the steps the immigrants had to go through. “Line up, men on one side, women on the other,” ordered a young man in a navy uniform. After introducing himself as the site’s assistant doctor, he told us to stick out our tongues. “If it is black, white or brown, you might have a disease,” he warned, noting the worst were typhus, diphtheria, small pox and cholera. Lucky, we all came out pink. He showed us the huge pressurized cages where the immigrants belongings would be disinfected, they led us to the showers where they would have stood under a nozzle spurting a mixture of water and disinfecting mercury hydrochloride. “The disinfection building was built in 1890. We have the best preserved quarantine station in the world,” he informed us.
Grosse-Ile is also the site of the Irish Memorial National Historic Site. Our Parks guide, Chady Chahine, led us to a quiet corner of the island where white crosses marked the mass graves of more than 5,000 Irish immigrants, many who perished during the potato famine in 1847. A towering Celtic cross was positioned looking out over the water to honour the largest potato famine cemetery outside Ireland. In other areas of the island, there were 30 restored buildings, including the first, second and third class hotels where immigrants were housed, depending on their berth on the ship they arrived on.
One room was hung with promotional posters urging immigrants to come to Canada. I noted not one said anything about winter. “People were offered 160 acres of land. This was really enticing since the average small farmer in Europe at the time had an average of 15 acres,” Chady explained. To get to Grosse-Ile, there’s a ferry at Marina de Berthier-sur-Mer that takes 45 minutes. Admission, including the ferry, is $70 and people bring picnics since there is no café or restaurant on the island. The site opens in May and closes at Thanksgiving.
Back on the south shore of the St. Lawrence, we drove to Auberge Glacis, a charming inn that had once been an old mill. Located near L’Islet, it was surrounded by farmland and the dining room featured a tasting menu that integrated 55 local producers.
The next morning, we headed to the Maritime Museum of Quebec in L’Islet. The highlights here were tours aboard the Earnest Lapointe, a Coast Guard icebreaker built in 1941, and a Canada’s only hydrofoil, HMCS Bras d’Or. Capt. Bernard Girard, who helmed oil tankers for 25 years, showed us around the ice breaker. I learned that ships like this don’t directly plough into the ice, but climb up over it. “The weight of the ship comes down and breaks the ice. When she’s breaking ice, trying to sleep is hell,” he said, indicating one of the crew’s bunks. The hydrofoil was an experimental project, used from 1960-71. Based on work of Alexander Graham Bell and Frederick Walker “Casey” Baldwin, her speeds could get up to 117 km per hour (the fastest unarmed warship in the world at the time). Unfortunately, it was an expensive project and when a new government came in, the military budget was cut.
Driving to Saint-Roch-des-Aulnaies, we stopped to walk the gardens of Seigneurie des Aulnaies and tour the historic home of the Dion family. “The house was built in 1853. It’s a Regency style with 11-foot-ceilings. We have all the original Dion furniture,” explained our costumed guide, clad in period dress complete with hoop skirt. Also on property was the village mill, the largest bucket wheel in operation in Québec where stone-ground flour is made to this day. Du Pain C’est Tout Bakery next door, owned by baker Charles Létang, proudly serves bread baked daily with heritage wheat such as Red Fife, Marquee, and Huron. My grilled cheese on cranberry bread made with Marquee flour was ooey, gooey good.
Entering the Bas-Saint-Laurent region, we parked the van and climbed 150 m to the top of Montagne a Coton. Catching our break, we scanned the horizon, glad for the breathtaking view and also happy to have burned off a few calories.
A five-minute drive away was Kamouraska, a charming town with artisanal bakeries, chocolate producers, a gourmet grocery, craft soap maker, fish shop, art centre, and general store. The impressive Saint-Louis-de-Kamouraska Church, stood impassively over the bustling town. A little outside town, it was time for some thirst quenching at Tet d’Allumette microbrewery.
Sitting on the outdoor terrace overlooking the St. Lawrence, we sipped sample flights and watched the sun slowly begin to sink. One of the most joyous patrons here was Marcel, a nine-month-old French Bulldog. I was in heaven.
On our way to Notre-Dame-du-Portage, we stopped at Saint-André de Kamouraska. Winding down a path lined with wild roses, we came to a picturesque little lighthouse. Going inside, we found that it wasn’t a real lighthouse, just a shelter for hikers in the area and maintained by the locals. Very cute.
Dinner was at Auberge du Portage, with a fantastic view of the St. Lawrence. I had the yellow perch. Delicious.
The next day we caught a boat in Riviere-du-loup and headed out on the choppy water to Ile-aux-Lievres, Island of Hares. The island was bought 20 years ago by a non-profit group called Duvetnor and today, 3/4 of the island is owned by the provincial government. Duvetnor was founded 1989 by a group of biologists to protect the seabirds that nest on the islands. Before reaching Ile-aux- Lievres, we passed Iles-du-Pot a L’eau-de-vie, Brandy Pot Island, where Duvetnor had converted the lighthouse into a three-room inn. This was a birders paradise. The islands are home to thousands of Razorbills, Common Murres, Black Gullemots and Common Eiders. Melody Lachance, a coordinator with Duvetnor, told us that for around 100 years the island was uninhabited, just used for logging and hunting. “Duvetnor bought the islands 20 years ago. Now there are seven cottages and an inn with nine bedrooms, as well as some rustic campgrounds. Guests staying at the inn have meals included but if you are camping you have to bring in your own supplies,” she said.
Dropping off our gear in our rooms, we made our way out to an old logging trail behind the inn. “I’ll take you to the end of the world,” teased Melody. When we emerged at the windy, rocky edge of the island 30 minutes later she popped a thermos, cups and muffins out of her bag and we sat silently drinking in the stunning scenery.
That evening, Melody gave us a presentation on the island. “This is about science, conservation, and tourism,” she explained. We learned that Duvetnor’s founder, Jean Bedard was a Quebec biologist who along with seven colleagues, decided to do something to protect the nesting areas. One of their prime missions was to make harvesting of Eider down sustainable. Eider females are brown and camouflaged, while the males sport striking white and black feathers.
“Seagulls are their biggest predators. The females pool together to defend the ducklings. If a baby loses its mother, the aunties take over,” explained Melody. Since 2003, 20,000 females have been banded. The delicate work of no-harm down collection was devised by Duvetnor and the method is now embraced by Conservation Canada. Females pluck down from their breasts to cover their eggs and keep them warm. In the old days, harvesters would gather the down, in some cases disturbing the nest so that the female would not return. Today, Duvetnor staff and volunteers visit each colony only once towards the end of incubation to collect a portion of down in each nest. It is cleaned and sterilised by Duvetnor, then sold to wholesale companies in Europe that supply quilt (comforter) and outdoor wear manufacturers. Profits made from eiderdown has allowed Duvetnor to purchase, protect and enhance several islands of the Lower Saint-Lawrence and to maintain its ecotourism program. One kilogram of Eider down is worth around $1,000 and a king-sized eiderdown duvet can cost up to $10,000. The eiderdown harvest is an important way Duvetnor can sustain its activities. Along with the St. Lawrence, colonies are found in the far north, including Iceland and Greenland.
Driving towards Rimouski, we stopped at Parc Nationale Bic, where 200 harbour seals make their home, the biggest colony in the St. Lawrence estuary. A climb to the highest point in the park delivered a spectacular view of the St. Lawrence.
Dinner that night was at La Reserve Bistro in Rimouski. A warm, bustling establishment, it served a lot of fresh seafood including a halibut tower, salmon tartar, and oysters on the half shell.
The next morning, we drove to Pointe-au-Pere and the Historic Maritime Museum where I learned of Canada’s worst maritime disaster, the sinking of the Empress of Ireland. Owned by Canadian Pacific Steamships, the vessel went down in 14 minutes when she was struck in heavy fog by the SS Storstad. The accident occurred in St. Lawrence in 1914 and 1,012 people were lost. It was heartbreaking to see the artifacts that had been retrieved including a tiny child’s purse. Of 138 children on board, only four survived. Amazingly, a stoker named William Clark who had been rescued from the Titanic, also survived.
Also on the site was a lighthouse that had operated from 1909-1975. At 33 meters high, it is one of the tallest in Canada. Climbing up the spiral stairs was a challenge, but the views at the top were worth it.
Testing my tolerance for cramped spaces, I boarded the Onondaga, a 90-metre submarine that had a crew of 70 men. Built in 1967, it was a cold war initiative and was decommissioned in 2000. Donning a headset, I was guided through the extremely compact interior and learned that missions lasted up to 90 days, travelling speed was seven km per hour and it had circled the planet 23 times. Judging by the tight escape hatches, crew members really had to watch their weight.
My final stop was Reford Gardens, a 30-minute drive from Pointe-au-Pere in the Gaspésie region. Despite it being mid-September, the garden was flourishing. There were more than 3,000 species of plants in more than a dozen gardens. It wasn’t the right season for its famous Himalayan blue poppy to be in bloom, but I saw pictures of this exquisite flower at Estevan Lodge, the summer home of Elsie Reford who created the gardens from 1926 to 1958. Alexander Reford, Elsie’s great-grandson, the garden’s director and historian, met us at the gate and we lunched at the Bufton Café. The geranium bars at dessert were perfection, decorated with real flowers. “Bufton was the name of Elsie’s butler,” Alexander explained. “George Steven was Elsie’s uncle. He built the Canadian Pacific Railway in five years.
He built this house as a summer place to fish salmon. John D. Rockefeller used to come here and fish. George gifted the property to Elsie in 1918.”
Walking past gurgling brooks, and pathways lined with late blooms, Alexander noted that his great-grandmother was 54 when she started gardening. “It was an organic process for her. She’d try things out and if it didn’t work, she’d rearrange them,” he said, adding, “well, she’d have someone else do the heavy lifting. But she was a tough, old bird. Loved to fish and hunt.”
For 20 years, the International Garden Festival that runs from June to October, takes over a section of Reford Gardens. The innovative outdoor designs are submitted by landscape architects, artists and creative souls from around the world. Colourful and interactive, the installations were a delight. My favourite? The one with a swing!