The St Lawrence River was the lifeline of the wilderness beyond Tadoussac until the 1960s, when Highway 138 was constructed along the Côte-Nord to Havre-Saint-Pierre, 625km away, and later Natashquan, another 145km distant. The road sweeps from high vistas down to the rugged shoreline through the vast regions of Manicouagan and Duplessis. Traditional sightseeing diversions are thin on the ground in the villages and towns en route, but there is plenty to reward a journey to this remote region, not least the strong Aboriginal heritage and the panorama of spruce-covered mountains, the vast sky and the mighty St Lawrence. It is the river that holds much of what is most alluring in the Côte-Nord, from the striking beauty of the Mingan Archipelago to gazing at the Northern Lights aboard the Nordik Express.
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Immediately offshore from Havre-Saint-Pierre, the Réserve de parc national du Canada de l’Archipel-de-Mingan ($5.80; w pc.gc.ca/mingan) offers some of the most beautiful landscapes in Québec. Standing on the islands’ white-sand shorelines are innumerable 8m-high rocks that have the appearance of ancient totem poles, with bright orange lichen colouring their mottled surfaces and bonsai-sized trees clinging to their crevices. These formations originated as underwater sediment near the equator. The sediment was thrust above sea level more than 250 million years ago and then covered in an ice cap several kilometres thick. As the drifting ice melted, the islands emerged again, seven thousand years ago, at their present location. The sea and wind gave the final touch by chipping away at the soft limestone to create the majestic monoliths of today.
Bizarre geology isn’t the archipelago’s only remarkable feature. The flora constitutes a unique insular garden of 452 arctic and rare alpine species, which survive here at their southerly limit due to the limestone soil, long harsh winters and cold Gulf of Labrador current. Other than the Gulf’s whale populations, the permanent wildlife inhabitants of the park include puffins, who build nests in the scant soil of three of the islands from early May to late August, and 199 other species of bird.
In the Gulf of St Lawrence between the Jacques Cartier and Honguedo straits, the remote 220km-long Île d’Anticosti was once known as the “Graveyard of the Gulf”, as more than four hundred ships have been wrecked on its shores. The island’s vast expanse is made up of windswept sea cliffs and forests of twisted pine, crisscrossed by turbulent rivers and sheer ravines. Known as Notiskuan – “the land where we hunt bears” – by the Aboriginal people, and a walrus- and whale-fishing ground by the Basques, Île d’Anticosti became the private domain of Henri Menier, a French chocolate millionaire, in 1873. He imported white-tailed Virginia deer, red fox, silver fox, beaver and moose in order to gun them down at his leisure. Today, a less exclusive horde of hunters and anglers comes here to blast away at deer from the back of four-wheel-drives and to hoist the salmon from the rivers. For other travellers it presents an opportunity to explore an untamed area that’s still practically deserted.
Highway 138 used to end at Havre-Saint-Pierre, leaving the dozen or so villages along the rugged Basse Côte-Nord (Lower North Shore) cut off from the rest of Québec, as they had been for centuries – so much so that many inhabitants only speak English. Now Hwy-138 links Havre-Saint-Pierre with Natashquan and three other villages on the 160km stretch. If you make the lonely journey by car – as yet there is no bus – you will receive a welcome unique to a people not long connected by road to the rest of Canada.
Some 69km east of Havre-Saint-Pierre, is the village of BAIE-JOHAN-BEETZ, named after the painter and sculptor whose extraordinary and enormous house (late June to Sept daily 10am–noon & 1.30–4pm; guided tour; $5; t 418 648 0557, t 1 888 393 0557, w baiejohanbeetz.com) is open to the public.
At the end of the 780km road from Tadoussac, a small church, wooden houses and the old weather-worn huts of cod fishermen are about all there is to see in NATASHQUAN, one-time home of revered Québécois poet Gilles Vigneault. La Vieille École (24 chemin d’en Haut; mid-June to Sept daily 10am–5pm & Oct by appointment; $5; t 418 726 3060), a schoolhouse built in the early twentieth century, proudly displays memorabilia from his life’s works. The century-old general store has been reborn as an interpretation centre (32 chemin d’en Haut; opening details same as Vieille École) focusing on local history; it’s less impressive than the town’s long sandy beach.
Innu Nikamu festival
Innu Nikamu festival
Although Claude McKenzie and Florent Vollant, formerly of the local aboriginal group Kashtin – the only nationally-known band to perform in a native tongue – have gone on to solo careers, they still appear occasionally at the excellent Innu Nikamu festival of song and music (information t 418 927 2181, w innunikamu.ca), held in early August, 14km east of Sept-Îles in the Montagnais reserve of Maliotenam. Inspired by Kashtin’s success, numerous other groups travel to the four-day festival to produce some of the best of Canada’s contemporary and traditional aboriginal music. As well as the music, the festival includes aboriginal food and craft stalls; despite the reserve’s alcohol ban, there is always a good buzz. There is no public transport to the reserve: by car, take Hwy-138 towards Havre-Saint-Pierre and turn right at the Moisie intersection for the Maliotenam entrance. Tickets, available at the gate, cost $5–15.
The Nordik Express
The Nordik Express
The Nordik Express supply ship (mid-April to mid-Jan; t 418 723 8787, t 1 800 463 0680, w relaisnordik.com) makes a weekly journey here on a trip that affords stunning views of a rocky, subarctic landscape so cold that icebergs occasionally float past the ship even in the height of summer. The boat is evenly split between its role as a freighter and passenger ship; the majority of its passengers are locals skipping between settlements or heading for a longer jaunt to Québec’s bigger towns. Its voyage begins in Rimouski on Mondays, stopping in Sept-Îles and Port-Menier on Île d’Anticosti on Tuesdays and Havre-Saint-Pierre and Natashquan on Wednesday before calling in at the roadless communities along the Basse Côte-Nord, reaching Blanc-Sablon, Québec’s most easterly village on the Labrador border, on Fridays. The same route is then followed in reverse to arrive back in Rimouski on Monday.
The journey up this stretch of the St Lawrence is far more impressive than the destinations. During the day, whales, dolphins, seals and a wealth of sea birds are a common sight; at night the Northern Lights often present an unforgettable display. At some stops the village inhabitants surround the boat, as its twice-weekly arrival is about all that happens hereabouts. With careful planning you can arrange to spend a couple of days in one community and catch the boat on the return voyage; each village receives at least one daytime visit, but either the upstream or downstream stop may be in the middle of the night. Most travellers just hop off at each port of call for the couple of hours needed to load and unload freight. A rented bicycle is particularly handy if you want to see much.
Stops include Kegaska village, with its large sandy beach, and La Romaine, a scrappy Innu town further on. Beyond here the land becomes increasingly rocky and picturesque, the coastline cut with many intriguing inlets. Harrington Harbour, a pretty village and easily one of the sightseeing highlights of the trip, is set on an island whose topography of large rounded rocks made it necessary to make the pavements out of wood. The village is best seen on the upstream journey, when the boat arrives in the daytime rather than at midnight. Tête-à-la-Beleine, where boatmen are usually on hand to transport tourists from the ship out to the incongruous Chapelle de l’Île Providence perched on a nearby hill, and St Augustine have similarly picturesque settings. The Coasters Association at Tête-à-la-Beleine is the local residents’ group and their website (w coastersassociation.com) is a useful resource.
It’s possible either to travel all-inclusive (with three surprisingly good daily meals and a cabin berth) or to bed down on the aircraft-style seats and picnic on the deck or in the cafeteria. You can start and finish your journey from any of the stops along the coast, but the inclusive fare to travel the entire length of the route on a return trip to Rimouski is $1800. The same round-trip with a spot in a standard two-berth cabin (with a private sink, shower, toilet and TV) is $2049. Food is included in every package; otherwise, à la carte prices are $12.65 for breakfast, $24.75 for lunch, and $38.80 for dinner – check the website for price changes. Plan on booking your trip at least thirty days in advance; summer voyages should be booked several months in advance. Non-round-trippers can bring their car, although it’s inaccessible during the voyage; fares are based on distance and the weight of the car. A one-way journey from Natashquan to Blanc-Sablon – useful if you are continuing to or returning from Newfoundland and Labrador – costs at least $323 for the car, in conjunction with the purchase of a cruise package; for bikes, add $25 to the fare.