By the time I got back to the hotel, I was soaked from the inside out. I had already taken my hat and gloves off to keep from overheating. Which, I think, would be a medical miracle considering I was in boondocks Quebec in the middle of February. Fun fact: hiking through 42 inches of snow is like running under 42 feet of water. Particularly when you are only 67 inches tall to begin with (I’m 5’7”).
It is the case with a lot of vacations: They begin and end in one very well-worn locale. A little wintertime R&R in la belle province isn’t entirely unheard of, but wannabe (or saytheyare) snowbunnies make it as far as Montreal — or Quebec City for the more adventurous types — and that’s where they stay, leaving the other 595,391 square miles of Quebec untouched. Shame!
I forwent the bright-lights-big-city for the region of Bas-Saint-Laurent, which is about as far removed as it gets. Hugging the final southern shores of the St. Lawerence River before empties into the gulf of the same name, one does not come to this neck of the boreal woods for urban pleasures. The uptick is that those woods as primordial as they were when they first took root.
I landed, via prop-plane out of Montreal, in Mont-Joli, a town so small I was amazed it had an airport. Small and unassuming, but not with out its charms, it is the gateway to what has to be one of the last untouched places on earth. My destination was Parc national de la Gaspésie, which is the untouched of the untouched. A small, two-lane road winds eastward out of Mont-Joli, following the iceberg-studded, winter-grey St. Lawerence, and it was only minutes before I was beyond the furthest city light. That’s when the snow began to fall.
You can be the most Type-A vacation planner, but the weather has a mind of its own, and boy, was it pissed this time around. Forget a poetic flurry, I was in a full-on arctic blizzard. The drive would have been a snap under normal conditions, but the as the deep-purple storm gloom bathed everything as far as I could see in an otherworldly twilight hue, one good blast of wind and poof! The road vanishes as the snow swooshes in (although, let it be said that Canadians are masters of keeping their road clear even in the worst of winter storms, this one was just a really biggie even for them). By the time I pulled into the parking lot of the Gîte du Mont-Albert, my knuckles were as white as the landscape outside.
“Land!” I yelled when I parked.
Needless to say, I spent the rest of the day getting to know the Gîte. While the outside has a vague resemblance to that hotel in The Shining, the inside is pure Quebecois Colonial-style comfort in the common areas and almost Nordic designs in the rooms. It was soon clear that this was not the first time the 4-star Gîte got snowed in, and everyone, staff and guests alike, knew what to do. I found myself doing a lot of talking to random strangers; this was not the general Canadian niceness (although it may have been), but rather in these parts, with so few people spread out over so vast a territory, any living soul you come across in an instant BFF. Particularly when the booze starts flowing…
The Gîte du Mont-Albert is not one building, but rather a compound that includes the main hotel building, but also surrounding cabins and spa facilities. There is also an on-site learning center to familiarize me and other guests with the territory and wildlife I’d be liable to run into in the forests. Everything is close to everything else, and its a short walk even in a blizzard.
And then night fell, the clock struck cocktail-hour, and voila! The Gîte came suddenly came alive. The bar and cavernous lounge were practically cacophonies of conversation; the restaurant was buzzing, the kitchen pumping out forest-to-table creations at a magical pace. I had venison for the first time! And the desserts were off the charts. Snowstorm? What snowstorm?
But night comes fast to Bas-Saint-Laurent, and that is as literal as it is figurative. Being this far north in midwinter means the sun sets around 4, and because to come to the Gîte, me included, is to have some sort of outdoor winter activity planned — hiking, cross-country skiing, etc. — means everyone turns by 9 or 10 PM to make an early start.
Of course, with that much snow on the ground meant that an “early start” was a comedy. Rested and well-fed from scrumptious breakfast buffet, I threw on my snowshoes and was first out the door by 9, jonesin’ to hike the trails through a forest turned fairyland of white.
And then I found out I really was first. I had to plow my own path and I could barely find the trails because the snow was so deep. I nearly walked into a creek hidden under the snow, there was that much of it. And it was here that, miraculously, I began to overheat from the exertion. So I did what all intrepid Bas-Saint-Laurent first-timers would do.
I went back to the Gîte and waited for better hikers than I to forge the trails. I regret nothing!
Tune in next week for Part II!