History, Culture + Hospitality along Quebec’s Lighthouse Trail
Words and photos by Jim Bamboulis
I didn’t know at the time but Quebec’s Highway 132 was about to become one of my all time favourite coastal drives. Starting in Dundee from the extreme southwest corner of the province, minutes from both the Ontario and American border, it stretches over 1,700km. Hugging the St. Lawrence River most of the way, this magical road trip adventure takes you deep into the mythical Gaspe Peninsula. Drive it on a stellar day week – because that’s how long you’ll need to truly explore this region – and you’ll be met with crystal blue skies serene blue waters, and mountains that will make you think you’re in the Rockies.
But there’s another reason to drive this coast. The history and culture, both deep, tangible and around every turn. The people, eager to share both with you, while the food speaks for itself with that spectacular Quebecois flare. But here, one character that has played an active role for centuries – and still does – is the sturdy lighthouse. As much as mariners once looked upon them as guiding lights, visitors today see them the same way, flock to them with a desire to learn more about them, their history, influence. Here, the lighthouse is embedded into the history, a literal pillar of the community, and visitors clamour to be included.
There are dozens of lighthouses that dot both of Quebec’s coasts surrounding the St. Lawrence. All of them historic and culturally significant but for this piece, I focus on two that provide overnight accommodations. YES! In this part of Quebec, you can actually sleep and dine in a lighthouse. And it’s as epic as you imagine. Read on, learn more and be inspired to visit and experience these beauties for yourselves. Not to worry, a full map of the lighthouses I visited is provided below so that you can plan your journey.
Head to the port of Rivière-du-Loup, reserve a spot on a small speedboat and head to this island gem. Three small islands in total are all part of the Îles de l’Estuaire National Wildlife Area, supporting the preservation of tens of thousands of sea birds; rocky outcrops are ideal for taking in mesmerizing vistas.
The Brandy Pot Island Lighthouse was abandoned in 1964, more than 100 years after it was first commissioned. Restored by Duvetnor in 1989, it’s now a cozy inn that features three 19th century themed rooms for visitors who want to stay the night.
Scroll through the photos below for a better idea of what an experience in and around Brandy Pot Island looks like.
Besides incredible accommodations, staff – who live onsite – offer incredible amenities, even meals that are inspired from the raw, diverse and delicious regions surrounding the lighthouse. That said, the menu varies with the seasonal availability of the products. For more information about this lighthouse, and accommodations, please visit Société Duvetnor
Iconic Lighthouses along Quebec’s Route 132
Whether it comes from the Mi’kmaq word mtctanmeaning meaning “beaver pond”, a Maliseet word for “spinal cord”, referring to the course of the Matane River, the word Mattawa/Matawin, meaning “meeting of the waters”, or an abbreviation of the word matandipives, meaning “shipwreck”, Matane and its lighthouse have both played a prominent role in the history of the region, be it for exceptional fishing and guiding navigators between Rimouski and Cap Chat.
A National Historic Site of Canada, the Pointe-au-Père Lighthouse – built in 1909 – is the third to be built on the site, the second tallest in Canada and has played a primary role in the history of navigation on the St. Lawrence River. In 1861, shipping companies sailing regularly between North America and Europe, chose Pointe-au-Père as the exclusive embarkation point for pilots boarding steamships. Since the 17th century, this “Great River of Canada” was always known to be a complex one to maneuver. Local experts who knew the terrain far better than occasional mariners took the helm of vessels that ventured here to ensure the voyage went smoothly. Climb to the top and take in views of the St. Lawrence, explore exhibits in the lightkeeper’s house, step inside the Onondaga (the only submarine open to the public in the country), and visit the Empress of Ireland Museum, which commemorates the tragedy off this part of the coast with a large exhibit of artifacts rescued from the wreck. Pointe-au-Père is a lovely place with exhibition spaces that help explain the development of sound signals and provide insights into the world of underwater archaeology.
With the right camera, from the right angle, it is possible to capture the lighthouse, Perce Rock and Ile Bonaventure in one photo. Tricky to get to but worth the effort, Cap Blanc is surrounded by red cliffs. Yet, oddly enough, it sits atop limestone cliffs facing the giant bay.
If you stood here in 1942, you may have seen German U-boats in the St. Lawrence. Stand here today and you’ll be able to still witness the Fresnel lens operate, its Cyclops eyes flashing every 27 seconds. Locals, it is said, could care less about the lighthouse but tourists do. Next to this gem from 1907, you’ll find a museum, a small cafe and the same view that has enchanted generations.
Located on the southern coast of the Gaspe, this part of the province has seen its fair share of naval battles between the French and English. The town got its name from a fishing boat that foundered here in 1591. In 1760, a French flagship sank, the wreck not brought up until 1972 and at the time became the largest underwater research site in the world. Small but packed with a punch, this lighthouse opened in 1902 to warn fishing boats of the point they approached and to facilitate navigation throughout the Chaleur Bay.
The light still works. The keeper’s house, a museum and tearoom. The lighthouse itself is set in the ‘Garden of Mists’ and is surrounded by two kilometres worth of of paths and flowerbeds all open to the public. Time it right and stay in the lighthouse keeper’s house which can accommodate up to 15 people and offers all amenities including a full kitchen, bathrooms, washer/dryer, four bedrooms and even WIFI. Eco-cabins are also available as is wilderness camping and even a yurt which is equipped with two double beds, a kitchenette, electricity and gorgeous views of the St. Lawrence.
Here, in 1901, history was made. Italian physicist Guglielmo Marconi launched the first transatlantic wireless message. By 1904, the Pointe a la Renommee station became one of the first transatlantic maritime telegraph stations on the continent. Exhibitions here guide you through the history of the lighthouse and the keepers. The “Fame Point: The Space of a Lifetime” exhibition explores the life and times of the light keepers and their families while the “Marconi and the Story of Radio Communications” showcases the integral moment when going wireless signalled not only a new age in communication but in turn, a new way of saving the lives at sea. In 2012, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada recognized the historical achievement of the marine wireless telegraphy system.
Complete with a dining table, boards games and a bulletin board, guests are encouraged to spend some time, look around and respectfully explore. It’s reminiscent of the former lighthouse of Saint-André, which was located on the island “The Long Pilgrim”, but no longer exists. Once done inside, take the walking path towards the water, sit on the bench and admire the views of the bay.
Considered to be the jewel of the Gaspe coast, La Martre is the only wood frame lighthouse on the coast. Fully automated, it is also the only light in Quebec that operates in a non-automated manner during the day, so that tourists can see the Fresnel lens rotating in its mercury bath using the original system of weights and cables. Unlike other lighthouses (and lighthouse keepers), La Martre isn’t isolated. Located on the hill, in the heart of the village and steps away from the church, it was also nicknamed the ‘Cadillac of lighthouses’, as visiting government dignitaries had the urge of removing their shoes upon entering. Further, throughout the years, a rivalry was said to have been established between the lighthouse keeper and the priest, two highly respected people in the community. Apparently, the priest had a hard time accepting the fact that someoneelse could be in charge of a building that was as tall as the church steeple.
At 34 meters, this is Canada’s tallest lighthouse. Sitting on the edge of Forillon National Park, it is only one of seven lighthouses in the country to be listed as both a National Historic Site and a Federal Heritage Building. Built of stone in the mid-19th century, it attracts over 30,000 visitors per year. Considered to be both a beacon for travellers navigating the treacherous waters that surround it and one of the primary gateways into North America, this lighthouse has witnessed the greatest number of shipwrecks since becoming operational in 1858. By 1871, it was equipped with new wireless tech and to this day, its electric light still travels more than 25 nautical miles at night.
Easy to spot, yet tough to get to, this graceful beauty was, for a time, in the middle of potential boom. Boat traffic was increasing in the mid-19th century and in turn, Metis was anticipated to become a bit of a summer resort town complete with hotels. But it wasn’t to be. When the railroad between Montreal and Halifax was built, many towns in-between saw a dramatic drop in visitors.
Ile Verte Lighthouse
From the beginning, once discovered, the St. Lawrence was regarded as one of the most dangerous waterways on the planet. Sure, the reefs and sea were both unpredictable but add the total and absolute darkness and you had a yearning for a guiding light. Finally, in 1809, the very first lighthouse in Quebec, oldest on the St. Lawrence and third oldest in Canada, opened here on Ile Verte at the junction of the Sageunay and St. Lawrence rivers. By 1856, two cannon were added to help during low visibility conditions, booming every 30 minutes.
Scroll through the photos below for a better idea of what an experience in and around Brandy Pot Island looks like.
Today, Ile Verte attracts thousands of visitors annually thanks to its gorgeous, rugged coastline, fields of wildflowers, its stunning sunsets and its lighthouse, of course. Spend the day, stay the night.
The best way to explore this 14km long x 1.5km wide island is by foot or with a bicycle. After a long day exploring, you’ll be super thankful that the Maisons du Phare de l’Île Verte B&B is there to give you an amazing nights’ rest. Fall asleep with the sounds of wind, waves and even whales in the far distance.
Nine rooms in two buildings, each room has a name that reflects the history of the lighthouse and can accommodate everyone from families to couples. There aren’t any grocery stores on the island but if you come during peak season, enjoy a meal at one of several restaurants on the island or bring your own grub and cook it yourself; the B+B comes with a fully equipped kitchen.
The Quebec Lighthouse Trail features thousands of kilometres of history, culture, life and hospitality. The drive is scenic and beautiful, stopping to explore is common. Take your time to enjoy the days, and savour the nights in some of the most quaint B+B’s in Quebec’s Riviera!
This map features lighthouses explored in this article. For more info about others along the St. Lawrence, please visit Quebec Maritime.
Hey y’all. I’m Jim. That kid went on to spend 16 years in the broadcast media world before starting up Travel Mammal, a site dedicated to working with brands to promote travel, food, and cultural experiences.
I’ve created content and collaborated with everyone from Chevrolet, Lonely Planet, Trivago, Nevada Tourism and The Weather Network to New Brunswick Tourism, Yellow Pages, Tourism Toronto, and Airbnb. Safe travels, y’all.
I’d like to thank Quebec Maritime for taking care of us on our Media Trip through a region of Quebec that was a dream come true. Thank you!