Canada's largest province, Quebec, is also one of its most beautiful, diverse, and intriguing. It is steeped in French culture—Montreal is the second-largest francophone city in the world, behind Paris—and offers visitors an abundance of history and nature, from its Laurentian Mountains (a skier's paradise) to its fjords. One of the best ways to get a taste of the region is by embarking on a 10-hour road trip from Montreal to Gaspé.
This roughly 600-mile (965-kilometer) route covers barely an iota of the province—focusing on Quebec's southwest-to-northeast corridor and showcasing very little of the far north—but it's a good sampling of the province's urban and rural regions. It begins where the vast majority of Quebec's population lives, in and around Montreal and Quebec City, then follows the Saint Lawrence River to the remarkable Gaspé Peninsula, home to four national parks and the very famous Percé Rock.
Driving in Canada is much like driving in the United States, except that speed limits are posted in kilometers instead of miles. Signs in Quebec may be in English, French, or both. Try to travel outside of Quebec's annual "construction holiday," a two-week period over the summer during which many locals take their vacations while the province doubles down on road works (resulting in painfully slow traffic). Travelers should allocate upwards of eight days for the road trip.
Montreal is a major aviation hub, which makes it an ideal starting point for international visitors. With a population of 1.7 million (3.8 million if you count the surrounding region), this city is heavily influenced by French culture, as can be seen in Old Town, Montreal's main attraction. Old Montreal is a central riverside neighborhood that is preserved in much of its original state and profuse with European flair. Seventeenth-century architecture and cobblestone streets are just a couple of the features that make this area special.
Top sites include the Gothic Revival Notre-Dame Basilica, Olympic Park (home to the Biodome, which hosts four different ecosystems in a spherical greenhouse), and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. To get a real feel of the city's joie de vivre, though, simply sit down for foie gras poutine—a local specialty—and an orange julep at a sidewalk café. You may even forget you're not in Paris.
The Eastern Townships
The Eastern Townships is a charming region of Quebec about an hour south of Montreal, sandwiched between the Saint Lawrence River's southern shore and the northeastern U.S. At one time a haven for United Empire Loyalists, today the Eastern Townships is known for being a swanky getaway for Montrealers and New Englanders due to its quaint heritage buildings, lakes, and ski resorts.
Magog is one of the area's urban highlights. This historical town, formerly famous for its textile production, has reinvented itself as a cultural destination with ample boutiques and galleries.
To get from the Eastern Townships to Quebec City, about a 200-mile (320-kilometer) drive, head north through Drummondville on Highway 55 towards Trois-Rivières, then east along Highway 138. This is the historic and rural Chemin du Roy, a much more scenic (but less speedy) alternative to taking Autoroute 40. En route, you'll discover soaring, double-spire churches, many of which date back to the 18th and 19th centuries. You'll also notice the bright red roofs of the buildings, originally intended to guide seamen to shore.
Finally, you'll hit the capital city. Strategically chosen for its position at a point high on the river, this super-sized version of Old Montreal is brimming with history and European charm. Cobblestone walkways, well-preserved 17th-century architecture, sidewalk cafés, and the only North American fortress walls that still exist north of Mexico have all contributed to Quebec City's status as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
This place is bustling year-round, but especially in July and August and during the Quebec Winter Carnival (held every February and beckoning thousands with night parades, snow sculptures, shows, and ice skating). Hotel choices range from elegant boutique hotels in the Old City to larger chain hotels, but the most iconic is Chateau Frontenac, a castle-like Fairmont property.
A half-hour north of Quebec is Jacques Cartier National Park, an expansive mountainous plateau cut by deep valleys where visitors like to raft, inner tube, fish, kayak, and canoe. A 20-minute drive away, Valcartier tempts families with its acres of kid-friendly ski hills, tubing routes, skating arenas, and more.
On your way out of town, stop at nearby Montmorency Falls (taller than Niagara Falls) and Île d'Orleans, where sprawling fields of berries, apple orchards, and colorful farmhouses abound.
There are lots of places to stop along the Saint Lawrence Route (Route du Fleuve) en route to La Malbaie. This scenic drive covers 30 miles (50 kilometers) on Highway 362 between Baie-Saint-Paul and La Malbaie in southern Quebec's Charlevoix region, known for its agricultural prowess. The route through Charlevoix is lined with picturesque towns, villages, and farms backed by mountains on one side and the Saint Lawrence River on the other.
About a half-hour outside of Quebec City, the 17th-century Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré shrine cuts an impressive silhouette along the shores of the river. Thousands flock here for the apparent healing powers of the chapel. Baie-Saint-Paul—the birthplace of Cirque du Soleil, where Gilles Ste-Croix took to the streets with his troupe of jugglers, dancers, fire breathers, and musicians in the '80s—makes for a great lunch spot. Today, the town is a hub for artists and craftspeople.
Finally, you'll reach La Malbaie, home to one of Canada's grand historic railway hotels, Manoir Richelieu. The hotel boasts an extraordinary location with exceptional vistas as well as three pools, tennis courts, an 18-hole golf course, and a casino. During the snow season, skiers flock to the nearby resorts, Mont Grand-Fonds and Centre de Plein Air Les Sources Joyeuses.
The drive between Malbaie and Tadoussac is only about an hour and a half, but you will need a full day (or two) to explore this region. Tadoussac is one of Canada's premier whale-watching destinations. Located at the mouth of the Saguenay River, this historic town was first settled by Europeans in the early 1500s and became home to the country's first trading post in 1600.
The Saguenay River flows into the Saint Lawrence River, and this mix of Atlantic Ocean saltwater and inland freshwaters cultivates an optimal environment for a number of marine animals, including fin, minke, blue, and beluga whales. Whale-watching excursions from Tadoussac's harbor range from large vessels to smaller, nimbler Zodiacs. You can even go by kayak. Reservations are highly recommended.
If you're keen to explore the region in more depth, visit the adjacent Saguenay Fjord National Park, which lies along the shores of the Saguenay River and is open to visitors for camping, whale watching, boating, and more. The park offers huts and other rustic shelters for accommodation.
Sainte-Anne-des-Monts in the Gaspé Peninsula
After Tadoussac, head to the south shore and begin your journey across the Gaspé Peninsula, which starts with a ferry ride across the Saint Lawrence River out of Les Escoumins. The ferry ride (which you can reserve online) takes about an hour and a half. After making your way across the Saint Lawrence River, you'll arrive in Trois-Pistoles and embark on your exploration of the Gaspé Peninsula. This Quebec region's geography puts it in close proximity to the Atlantic provinces with which it shares many maritime features, including rugged shorelines, ample fishing, and a laidback, friendly population.
Enjoy the scenic riverside drive on the south shore's Highway 132, stopping for lunch at Reford Gardens, a 1920s property notable for its imaginative landscape design and unique botanical collection, especially given the challenging growing conditions of the area. Elsie and Robert Reford left this place with a remarkable collection of photographs that depict life in the early 20th century, all on display now in the small-but-entrancing gallery.
Continue along the same highway, passing by luscious river vistas and quaint seaside towns, until you reach Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, a three-hour drive from Trois-Pistoles. From here, take Route 299 to Gaspésie National Park, a stunning protected space with many scenic (albeit challenging) hikes. Tourists can camp here or at the Gîte du Mont-Albert, a gloriously situated lodge in the park with chalets, cabins, and lodge guest rooms. There's a good chance you'll catch a glimpse of the local caribou, as a bonus.
From Gîte du Mont-Albert, hop on Route 198 and make your way to the Gaspé Peninsula's biggest draw by far, Percé. The town, about three hours from Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, gets its fame from this immense limestone formation with a "pierced" (percé) arch that elevates it from a mere rock to a sculptural work of art. The famous rocks are easily seen from the shore, but boats are readily available to get you up close.
Bonaventure Island, just a couple kilometers off Percé's shores, is a migratory bird sanctuary for the northern gannet and has more than 50,000 pairs of nesting birds (the second largest population in the world). Additionally, if you have time, Forillon National Park offers not just green space for hiking but also a lighthouse, a heritage fishing village, and a rocky beach, all with a layered craggy backdrop that has been thwarted by the elements for more than a million years.
From Percé, it's about an 11-hour drive to get back to Montreal, but you can break up the journey by stopping for a night in Kamouraska. If you head back towards Montreal on Highway 132, you'll make a complete loop of this mostly shoreside scenic Gaspé drive. Kamouraska is about seven hours from Percé, located 15 minutes off the highway on the water's edge.
Many of the villages that dot the Saint Lawrence shore were resort towns in the 19th century for wealthy Montrealers or New Englanders. Kamouraska has retained its appeal and continues to draw visitors to peruse its lively main street and shop its local, artisan fare. Kamouraska to Montreal is a 250-mile (400-kilometer), four-hour drive.