After Rivière-du-Loup, 209km (130 miles) from Québec City, the country slowly grows more typically Gaspésien: bogs on the river side of the road yield bales of peat moss, which are shipped to gardeners throughout the continent, while low rolling hills and fenced fields house dairy cattle. Along the roadside, hand-painted signs advertise pain de ménage (homemade bread) and other baked goods for sale. At this point, the expressway turns into the slower, more scenic 132 EST (east).
The region's largest city, Rimouski, is 108km (67 miles) past Rivière-du-Loup. Travelers not there on business are likely to pass on through. However, in the town of Grand Métis, 41km (25 miles) past Rimouski, you'll find the north shore's stellar attraction: the former Reford estate, known under both its French and English names, Jardins de Métis and Reford Gardens.
About 55km (34 miles) past Grand Métis, Highway 132 enters commercial Matane. This is about the halfway point to Percé and a logical place to stop for the night if you're trying to make the trip in 2 days. There are many motels and modest B&Bs called gîtes. The town's focal point is the Matane River, a thoroughfare for the annual migration of spawning Atlantic salmon. They begin their swim up the Matane in June through a specially designed dam that facilitates their passage, continuing to September. Near the lighthouse is a seasonal information bureau (tel. 877/762-8263).
Ste-Anne-des-Monts & Parc de la Gaspésie
It takes 5 nonstop driving hours to get from Matane to Percé. There are frequent picnic grounds (look for signs announcing Halte Municipale), a couple of large nature preserves, and ample opportunities to sit by the water and collect driftwood. While towns along the way are smaller and more spread out, simple sustenance isn't a problem. Look for casse-croûtes, simple roadside snack stands that always serve poutine and sometimes more refined light fare like lobster rolls.
Ste-Anne-des-Monts is a fishing village 87km (54 miles) past Matane, with a seasonal tourist booth (tel. 418/763-7633) on Route 132, 1km (1/2 mile) past the bridge, operating only from mid-June to late-September. The town also has stores, gas stations, and other necessary services. Scenic views of the St. Lawrence River are outstanding here.
Rising higher inland are the spectacular Chic-Choc Mountains, the northernmost end of the Appalachian range. Most of them are contained by the Parc national de la Gaspésie (tel. 418/763-7494, after the start of the recorded message, you must press 9 for the English message; www.sepaq.com/pq/gas/en) and adjoining preserves just off Route 132. For a scenic detour, turn south onto Route 299 in Ste-Anne-des-Monts. The road climbs into the mountains, some of which are naked rock at the summits, displaying rare artic-alpine flora and the only caribou south of the St-Lawrence. After about 24km (15 miles), a welcome station provides information about the wilderness park. Back here, the rivers brim with baby salmon and speckled trout, and the forests and meadows sustain herds of moose, caribou, and deer. Return on Route 299 the way you came and continue on Route 132.
After Ste-Anne, the highway becomes a narrow band crowded up to water's edge by sheer rock walls. Waterfalls spill along the cliffs alongside the road. Around a rocky point and down a slope, Mont-St-Pierre, 55km (34 miles) past Ste-Anne, is much like other Gaspésien villages except for the eye-catching striations in the rock of the mountain east of town. Due to its favorable updrafts, the site is regarded as nearly perfect for hang-gliders and paragliders, and for 10 days (at the end of July and the beginning of August), the town hosts the Fête du Vol-Libre (Hang-Gliding Festival). Colorful gliders that loop and curve on air currents fill the sky, landing on sports grounds behind city hall. For more information, visit the village website at www.mont-saint-pierre.ca.
In winter, the Mont-St-Pierre area remains a hub for outdoor enthusiasts. Nearby, skiers go down a wild, 550m (1,804-ft.) vertical drop, and then they go back up . . . with snowmobiles! Such is the off-trail skiing thrill of the Vallée Taconique (tel. 418/797-2177 or 866/797-2177; www.valleetaconique.ca), a new ski area where at least 6m (20 ft.) of snow falls every winter and does not thaw until spring. This is a true snow Eden.
Parc National Forillon
Soon the road winds up through the mountains, down into valleys, and up again to the next rise. The settlements get smaller, but there are still roadside stands advertising fresh and smoked fish. Approaching the eastern edge of Quebec, this is the part of the country known as Land's End.
About 120km (75 miles) past Mont-St-Pierre, there's an option to turn off Route 132 onto Route 197. This option goes to Gaspé and Percé more directly, skipping the very eastern-most tip of the peninsula that you'll have to pay to drive through.
If you stay on Route 132, you'll soon reach the reception center for the beautiful Parc National du Canada Forillon (tel. 418/368-5505; www.pc.gc.ca/forillon). Bilingual attendants advise on park activities and regulations. Route 132 continues around the park, whose 244 sq. km (94 sq. miles) of headlands capture a surprising number of the features characteristic of eastern Canada: rugged coastline, dense forests, colonies of seabirds, and abundance of wildlife. On the northern shore are sheer rock cliffs carved from the mountains by the sea, and on the south is the broad Bay of Gaspé. Hikers and campers from all over North America come for nature walks, beaches, picnicking, and overnight stays. The daily entrance fee in season is C$7.80 adults, with reduced fees for seniors and children, and a family rate of $20. Prices are lower in the off season. There are 367 campsites; some are open year-round, with others open mid-May through mid-October. Serviced camp sites cost C$30.
From within the park, you can pick up whale-watching cruises and sea kayaking excursions. Croisières Baie de Gaspé (tel. 418/892-5500 or 866/617-5500; www.baleines-forillon.com) has 2 1/2-hour boat cruises to get relatively close to the seven species of whales in the area. Fares are C$60 adults, C$55 seniors and students, and C$35 children, and park entrance fees are in addition to fares. Reserve in advance.
Shortly after the exit from the park is the town of Gaspé, protected from the gulf of St. Lawrence by the long, narrow Baie de Gaspé. In 1534, Jacques Cartier stepped ashore here to claim the land for the king of France, erecting a wooden cross to mark the spot. Today, the port is important economically because of the salmon rivers that empty into it. The principal attraction is the Musée de la Gaspésie, at Jacques Cartier Point on Route 132 (tel. 418/368-1534; www.museedelagaspesie.ca), which tells the story of Cartier's landing. It's open June through October daily, November to May Monday to Saturday. Admission is C$7 adults, C$5 seniors and students.
About 62km (39 miles) past Gaspé, you'll wind around the hills southbound toward Percé. From Route 132, you'll see Percé Rock -- Rocher Percé -- and just farther in the sea, Bonaventure Island.
The town of Percé isn't large, and except for a few quiet inland residential streets, it's confined to the main road running along the shore. The souvenir shops, snack bars, and motels that serve the summer tourists start to open by late May, and in high season, there's a family-oriented beach-party ambience. People are so friendly and attentive, in fact, that you might wonder if you've grown a really cute second head.
Fishing was once the primary enterprise, with tourism as a sideline. With fish stocks dangerously depleted and with ever-harsher government restrictions, that relationship is reversed. A vibrant artists' community has also recently brought a special, refined feel and flair to Percé. The Percé Information Touristique office, at 142 Rte. 132 (www.perce.info), is open daily in the summer season.
Exploring Percé Rock -- Percé Rock is a massive butte that sits off the coast of Percé and is one of the natural icons of the Québec province. Made of limestone, it is 470m (1,542 ft.) long and nearly 88m (289 ft.) tall at its highest point. It gets its name ("pierced rock") from an arch on its southern end that looks as if a giant needle has cut right through. At low tide, the rock can be reached by foot. Be careful, though: Percé authorities advise that, because of falling rock, you should avoid walking directly alongside the monolith.
Just beyond the rock is Parc national de l'Ile-Bonaventure-et-du-Rocher-Percé (tel. 418/782-2240; www.sepaq.com/pq/bon/en), a bird sanctuary whose lure is its nearly 300,000 nesting birds. On the island are gannets, puffins, razorbills, black guillemots, kittiwakes, and over 200 other species. There are four trails totaling 15km (9.3 miles), observation decks, and in warm months, an interpretation center staffed with naturalists. The center also has a modest cafe open June through September. The park is open year-round, although the visitor center is open only from May 28 to October 12. Entrance is C$3.50 adults, C$1.50 children 6 to 17, or free with a Parcs Québec card.
To get to the island, 75-minute boat tours take visitors around Percé Rock and then on to the bird colony. Park wardens are often on board to answer questions, and the boats stop at the island to drop off and pick up visitors. Tours are available from Les Bateliers de Percé (tel. 877/782-2974), Les bateaux de croisières Julien Cloutier Enr (tel. 877/782-2161), and Croisières Les Traversiers de l'Ile (tel. 866/782-5526). Trips are C$25 adults, C$15 students and seniors, and C$6 children 6 to 12. The boat operators also offer more expensive whale-watching and sea-fishing cruises. They operate from mid-May to late October.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.