Rte. 138 is easy to find heading out of Montréal or Québec City. An alternate and far more rewarding way to cover the stretch between the two cities is taking Canada’s oldest roadway, the Chemin du Roy or “King’s Road.” This highway, which once linked three of New France’s largest cities—Montréal, Trois-Rivières and Québec City—will lead you through attractive farming country and historic towns.
As the 138 is relatively new all the way to Natashquan, it’s pretty smooth sailing, with little traffic to contend with. The only challenge may be planning stops for provisions once you are east of Sept-Îles. The Côte Nord towns get fewer and farther between, but even then most of them boast a dépanneur (convenience store) and gas station.
If you want to spend more time on the North Shore (Côte Nord), you can take a flight to Sept-Îles and simply rent a car from there. To explore the remote reaches of the Côte Nord near Labrador, contact Relais Nordik (a shipping service that ferries people along the North Shore). You’ll have to hop onboard in Rimouski or Sept-Îles.
When to Go
Late spring to early fall is the best time for kayaking and camping. If it’s whale watching you’re after, June-July is best for minke and fin whales, while August-September is best for humpbacks.
An advantage of travelling in winter is that the eastern end of the Côte Nord is suddenly connected by a marked ice road for snowmobiles. These days winter travel to the region’s villages is becoming popular.
Gîte la nichée—a modest B&B with excellent hospitality in Portneuf-sur-Mer. Don’t sleep in and miss breakfast. Everyday pancakes are transformed into delicious works of art. Portneuf-sur-Mer, 888.966.2825, www.gitelanichee.com
Hôtel-Motel Havre-Saint-Pierre—is pretty basic, but it doesn’t matter when you’re busy exploring the outdoors. Havre-Saint-Pierre is well situated on the Côte Nord, about 160km east of Sept-Îles. 418.538.2800.
Six of the 40 or so limestone islands that make up the Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve boast some of the best-appointed wilderness campsites you’ll ever enjoy. Add an incomparable evening show feature the minkes ploughing the water for capelin and blowing spray into the night sky. 1.888.773.8888. www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/qc/mingan/index.aspx
What to See
Recommended stops along Côte Nord:
Les Escoumins—a less hectic spot for whale watching than Tadoussac, this attractive little town also attracts divers and whale watchers. The Innu section of town is called Essipit, and with its crafts boutique and campgrounds, it’s reputed to be one of the better organized Native reserves in the province.
Godbout—a tiny village that was originally a 17th-century trading post, today it attracts visitors with salmon fishing nearby. A ferry connects Godbout with Matane on the Lower St. Lawrence.
Sept-Îles—at 25,000 people, this is the last major stop before the eastern end of Rte. 138. Its port is Canada’s second largest by tonnage, giving the lakefront area a surprising bustle. Musée Shaputuan is perhaps the region’s best museum, devoted to documenting Innu peoples and their culture.
Longue Pointe de Mingan—lying at the western end of the western archipelago, you’ll want to stop here to check out the Mingan Island Cetacean Studies’ (MICS) Education Research Station and Interpretation Center. Browse the centre’s informative museum to learn about the region’s whales, then sign up for one of he MICS’s day-long research expeditions. www.rorqual.com
Havre Saint-Pierre—your base for exploring the archipelago and entering the national park by kayak. Walk right down to the docks to find the Parks Canada office, or book a boat or kayak trips. An excellent new museum on the town’s history is also worth a visit.
Expedition Agaguk is your all-purpose outfitter for the Mingan Islands, whether heading out on your own and need rentals, or joining a guided group tour. A passionate and knowledgeable bunch, they’ve got a bar in the back from the docks.