Port of Gaspe
If you're lucky, you might be escorted to Gaspe (GAS-pay), in Quebec, Canada, by the whales that favor the bay here in summertime through late fall; the region is home to seven species, including minkes, humpbacks and right whales. The latter could also impact your visit; when they are sighted in the area, cruise ships are required to slow their speeds, causing occasional port call adjustments -- albeit for a very good cause.
Even without whale sightings, anticipation will build as you glide past the craggy coastline of the Gaspe Peninsula toward the city that sits at its tip. During autumn, the peninsula's landscape of russet leaves and rocky shoreline make it a favorite stop on New England-to-Canada fall foliage voyages. Add mountains, lakes and three major rivers (not to mention the brilliant blue Atlantic Ocean) and you've got an embarrassment of natural beauty that rivals anyplace else in the Canadian Maritimes.
Located in the Gaspesie region of Eastern Quebec, this city of 15,000 people gets its name from the Micmac Indian word gespeg, meaning "end of the lands." There's definitely a lands' end feel to this place, where, as guides will tell you, "Gaspesians live for the outdoors." The word "city" is a bit of a misnomer, though, since the City of Gaspe is 87 miles long and encompasses 17 coastal villages. The best way to get a feel for it is to do as the locals do and celebrate nature: Explore the rock formations, woodsy trails and glorious seascapes of Forillon National Park, located an hour's drive north of the city, where residents include black bear and moose. Or, head an hour south to Perce and take a ferry for close-up views of Perce Rock and Bonaventure Island, home to the largest bird sanctuary in North America: a rocky islet that hosts 122,000 nesting gannets, the largest colony of these birds in the world.
A quick chat with any local will reveal another source of pride: the history of French Canada started here. In the summer of 1534, Jacques Cartier sheltered his fleet in Gaspe, and officially took possession by planting a wooden cross with the king's coat of arms. History-lovers can learn more at the Musee de la Gaspesie, located at the edge of town.
It's common to spot whales in Gaspe Bay during summer and fall.
During fall, especially around Canadian Thanksgiving, some shops in nearby Perce close down for the season.
This collection of coastal villages is the perfect gateway port for excursions to Forillon National Park, Bonaventure Island and other natural sites.
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A 15-minute tender ride gets you to the cruise terminal, where you'll likely encounter a battalion of cheery greeters wearing red shirts or jackets. Inside, the modern terminal is staffed with members of the local chamber of commerce (or Bureau d'Accueil touristique de Gaspe), who have maps aplenty, and lots of ideas about where to go and what to see. There are also clean restrooms and strong, free Wi-Fi.
Just outside is the parking lot for coaches that will take you on shore excursions. Bear to the right to head into town; it's about a 10-minute walk across the bridge to get to the town center of Gaspe. There's also an Enterprise Rental Car outlet at the airport; advance reservations are strongly suggested, and they can bring the car to you at the port.
Good to Know
Getting in and out of the ferry to Perce Rock and Bonaventure Island can be bumpy, which makes it challenging for those with mobility issues. Also, for those visiting Gaspe in the fall, note that some of the shops in Perce, a touristy fishing village known for its shopping, will be closed for the season. (Thanksgiving in Canada is typically held in early October.) Despite limited shopping, the town is beautiful, especially its reclaimed coastline with seaside boardwalk.
On Foot: From the port, it's a short walk into town, where there's a nice selection of shops and restaurants, plus a couple of interesting sightseeing options: the Gespeg Micmac Interpretation Site, the Musee de la Gaspesie and the Jacques Cartier Monument. Just outside the marina is a 10-mile hiking/biking trail that leads to a sandy town beach at Haldimand, southeast of Gaspe.
By Shuttle: During the summer season, the Regim shuttle leaves from the shopping center in Gaspe (just across the bridge from the marina) twice daily to transport visitors to Forillon National Park. The park is a 40-minute drive, heading northeast from the city center, so this is an affordable option (as opposed to taking a taxi.)
By Car Rental: To get to Perce, most people take a shore excursion, though rental cars are available in town -- (Discount) and at the airport (Enterprise). If you book in advance, these companies will deliver the car to you at the cruise port, but vehicles are limited and more expensive than might you find in larger ports; plan accordingly.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Gaspe's currency is the Canadian dollar. Credit cards are accepted nearly everywhere, especially Visa and MasterCard. Most retail shops and restaurants will accept U.S. dollars, but will give you change in Canadian currency. The closest bank to the cruise terminal is Banque Nationale in the Carrefour Gaspe Mall, just up the hill from the cruise terminal, or the TD Canada Trust at 134 Rue de la Reine in Gaspe.
Gaspe is primarily French-speaking, but English is widely spoken and well understood, especially by those in the tourism and service businesses, and at cruise port terminals. Signage is mostly in French and, if you rent a car, note that mileage is given in kilometers.
Food and Drink
Of course you can get a nice, gooey dish of poutine; the signature Quebecoise dish of cheese curds and fries smothered in gravy is a staple at roadside food stalls and nearly every sit-down restaurant offers its own take. You also won't go wrong with the fresh local seafood. Locals recommend the mixed platter (typically fried) so you can sample it all; lobster, shrimp, crab and halibut are the usual suspects. In town, most of the action is centered on or around Rue de la Reine, the main drag in Gaspe. There aren't tons of choices in this small town, but what's here isn't bad. The village of Perce also has a few small cafes (lobster rolls and hamburgers are menu mainstays), located close to the ferry dock and near the spot where shore excursion buses park.
Brulerie Cafe des Artistes: Cold beer, whimsical art and a local following make Brulerie Cafe des Artistes a fun place to grab lunch in downtown Gaspe. An outdoor balcony overlooks the water here, where food is on the lighter side (or so it will seem if you've been cruising!), including salads, sandwiches and wraps. Desserts are made in-house, and nearly everyone (of appropriate age) orders a Pit-Caribou La Gaspesienne, a locally brewed porter. Bonus: free Wi-Fi. (135 Rue de la Reine, Gaspe, 418-368-3366; open daily from 7 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.)
Bistro Le Brise-Bise: Shrimp poutine and maple syrup pie, oh my! Those, and the reasonable prices, will make you a fan of Bistro Le Brise-Bise. The main floor is home to a casual restaurant, while the basement is pub style. Either way you go, the menu will make you happy featuring French standards (think bouillabaisse and escargot) along with crowd-pleasers like fish-and-chips and heaping piles of mussels steamed in fragrant broth. Just try to get out of here without at least sharing a piece of maple syrup pie. (If not now, when?) (135 Rue de la Reine, Gaspe, 418-368-1456; open daily from 11 a.m. to 3 a.m.)
Given that this area is famous for its gannet bird colony, anything with gannets on it is a cool keepsake from Perce. Gannet sculptures range in price and artisanship, and you can find them in virtually every gift shop and gallery. Look for ceramics by local artist Marie-Josee Tommi, and nature-inspired jewelry by Martin Boucher Arsenault.