A kind of perfection

Kayakers approach signature Percé Rock in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The writer took her two kids solo on a 2,500-mile round-trip to Canada's Gaspé Peninsula.
Kayakers approach signature Percé Rock in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The writer took her two kids solo on a 2,500-mile round-trip to Canada's Gaspé Peninsula. (WENDY HORWITZ)
Posted: August 04, 2014

GASPÉ PENINSULA, New Brunswick - I am coaxing my 1999 Toyota along a road in a pelting rainstorm. Logging trucks career by, coating the windshield with water. A construction detour off Canadian Route 2N has us in country that would be idyllic if we could see it. My 12-year-old daughter Anne's iPod is on the fritz; my 15-year-old son, Noah, announces that our printed-out directions have west and east reversed. My lower back screams, "Stop and stretch"; my better judgment whispers, "What were you thinking, taking the kids solo on a 2,500-mile round trip to the Gaspé Peninsula?"

I'd seen the peninsula, aptly shaped like a lobster claw, on a National Geographic best-places list. Bounded by the St. Lawrence River and Chaleur Bay, La Gaspésie boasts four national parks in an area the size of Maryland. Lighthouses dot the coastline, and moose, caribou, and black bear range in the Chic-Choc and Appalachian Mountains. It was summer 2013, and my son wanted to practice his French, and we'd be in wilderness for what was supposed to be the most impressive meteor shower in years.

The rain continued as we crossed the swollen Restigouche River onto the peninsula and into the central valley. Past soggy bicyclists and streams labeled rivière saumon, we soon entered what I hoped was Val-Brillant, our first stop. And it was - suddenly - brilliant. Sun glinted off Lake Matapédia, illuminating an elegant double-spire cathedral and trim clapboard cottages. Every guardrail, front yard, and lamppost was adorned with oversized petunias, geraniums, and hydrangeas. Not a soul; it was silent.

GoogleMaps to our B&B planted us in front of the only dilapidated building in town. I tossed that page onto our other useless directions and approached two men. After some debate in an esoteric twang, they pointed down the road and said, " En face du sanglier." "Across from the wild boar"? That couldn't be right. "May I pay you a compliment?" the younger man continued in French. "You are super belle." Super-Belle, I repeated as we rolled away, streaking a superhero "S" on my shirt. "Your French is pretty good, Mom," Noah conceded.

Serendipitous travel, in a language you marginally know, has its risks. But Gaspé in August turned out to be perfect for a family with few plans, an unintelligent phone, and a tendency for mishaps.

Ambitions to kayak and hike the first day gave way to road-weariness and an appealingly dangerous municipal playground, the first of many. The kids exploited a zip-line and long-roped swing next to Matapédia Lake. A hawk spiraled in a clear sky, its translucent wings like the pattern on a Navajo blanket. Heading north to the St. Lawrence River, our car was fragrant with a large basket of raspberries we'd picked at a local farm.

Despite our limited information, I had gleaned a small list of Gaspé must-dos: our first, a "highly recommended" tour in Cap-Chat of the "largest energy-generating windmill of its kind in the world." I promised the kids a Washington Monument sort of climb with panoramic views of the St. Lawrence and the Chic-Choc Mountains.

Instead, we sat among 20 visitors on hard chairs in a hot room, looking at faded photos and listening to a blow-by-blow account of engineering experiments and political battles. My wilting children pretended to pay attention. My sweat turned to ice when our guide peered at me and queried, in French: "And how much is a kilowatt hour in the United States?" After 30 minutes, I grabbed Anne's hand, and with an apologetic smile, we fled into the cool wind.

Turns out the "climb" is a separate tour. We went on to twice miss the parking entrance to Cap-Chat lighthouse, and only glanced at the mystifyingly described "cat-shaped rock formation" to do what the kids really love: explore tidal pools and climb boulders on the beach, a lone fisherman our only company. The windmills looked majestic at a distance, and we had our souvenirs: smooth gray stones and a small packet of St. Lawrence sand.

On our first real hiking day, in Gaspésie National Park, we chose a trail because our B&B breakfast companions had spotted a family of moose. The quiet path, dense with evergreens, soon opened to 360-degree views of emerald peaks cut with brown cliffs. This was the vacation I wanted.

Back on the gravel road, a startling bump; my car sounded like a faulty wind turbine. Some tube-thingy hung ominously underneath. How would I drive next to the 18-wheelers carrying whale-sized windmill blades and negotiate repairs?

Hoping it would magically fix itself, I continued doggedly to the trailhead for Lac aux Américains. A family with two toddlers approached and the father explained something about the exhaust system. But it's not dangerous, he added kindly.

My kids wandered the path to the lake and told each other funny stories; I kept checking the time and calculating the distance to town. They wanted to look for beaver dams, but I snapped at them and snapped a picture.

"Aren't we going to see the waterfall, Mom?" my daughter asked sweetly.

The mechanic in Saint-Anne-des-Monts nonchalantly said the car would be ready in two hours. ( Bien sûr, I thought.) Along a trail of little signs saying chocolatier, I plodded after my children, Hansel and Gretel, to a quiet store where we were engulfed in a heady aroma. Glossy confections were displayed like Tiffany diamonds, and we tasted chocolate-coated caramels, warm and satiny.

Back to the garage. Very easy, the mechanic said, $20. Twenty? I repeated, not sure I'd understood the nasal "vingt." "Ouah, Madame." I pulled out a smooth new bill. No receipt, no signature.

That evening at our cliff-side B&B, dozens of herons stalked in the shallows and the occasional fishing boat glided by.

By the second week, both children were at breakfast on time and took pride in packing the trunk (guitar on top of the duffels, muddy hiking shoes in the canvas bag). Ignoring AAA's bland lists of restaurants and must-sees, we zipped along the dark sweep of cliffs on Route 132, stopping only to eat flaky croissants next to a red lighthouse and watch gray seals lolling offshore. Without a smartphone, we missed getting tickets for the international music festival in the town of Gaspé but stumbled upon the accompanying street fair: Afro-Caribbean music, graffiti artists, actors on stilts. We ended up in a "grocery" stocked mostly with beer, but also at roadside stands with crisp cucumbers and the sweetest red onions I've tasted in years. And no app would have directed us to the bilingual sign instructing English-speaking guests not to "eviscerate your mackerel on the dock."

One morning next to our guided boat from Forillon National Park, blue whales rose and dove, their great knobby bodies seeming to go on forever; for days, we squinted at the horizon, hoping to see another misty spout. And after a brief search for the perfect spot to view the Perseids, we instead snuggled on top of the car in front of our cabin to watch dozens of brilliant meteors.

Ah, hubris. A small cut, and my left middle finger swelled, sausagelike, pink and hot. I anxiously left the children - with $50 and too many mom instructions - for the local emergency room.

Fumbling for parking change and French medical terms, I psyched myself to deal with bureaucracy. But there were no lines, no officious receptionists: just three local people chatting jovially, and a finance person, shocked by my American insurance company's rigmarole on the phone. I was whisked through paperwork to a quiet examination room and in less than two hours, I left with a prescription and a new vocabulary word: enflé (swollen).

I beat the kids to Café des Artistes, our meeting place. They sauntered in with mocha cream pastries and local crafts. No amount of vacation planning could have produced the conspiratorial grin that passed between them.

Over the two weeks, we got the French practice my son wanted. Besides, we experienced one of my main reasons to travel, meeting people: the Parisian couple who directed us to a hike to a lovely grotto; Michel Boudreau, owner of Gîte au Presbytère in Percé, who showed us his rare Beatles debut album; and the Montreal grandmother who watched Anne, upside-down on a rope-lattice merry-go-round, and asked, "Cirque du Soleil?"

One of our last nights, the sunset reddened Percé Rock, the geological emblem of Quebec. Seabirds dove arrowlike into the water. A motley garbed troupe at the Percé pier mesmerized us with a fusion of dance, circus, and Colombian and Roma music. A familiar toddler was jumping to the beat: It was our "friends" from the lake trail who'd helped me with the car.

Idyllic vacations have no abscessed fingers, broken cars, or boring tours. But my children tell me they will remember blue whales, Michel's breakfasts, and our pedantic tour guide. I'll remember dining on whiskey-maple glazed salmon, but mostly, watching my kids at a distance, their heads inclined, almost touching, as they collected shells and agates.

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