Exploring The “Route Des Navigateurs”
It was the title of the brochure that caught my eye, – “Route Des Navigateurs”. I had been wandering around a Montreal tourism office, perusing the racks of travel pamphlets and gathering information. Several weeks earlier, my wife Maureen and I had left home on a cross-Canada adventure. Now, we were in Montreal. After several delightful days of touring the city and surrounding countryside, it was time to move on, but where? I had a general idea but nothing specific. I was looking for inspiration, something out of the ordinary, a route less travelled. Could this be it?
The title, roughly translated meant, “Route of the Navigators” or “Route of the Explorers”. In my mind’s eye, it evoked images of those great French navigators, Samuel de Champlain and Jacque Cartier. I felt an immediate connection. After all, weren’t those early navigators and modern day RV’ers kindred spirits, motivated by the same desire to see what lay over the horizon or around the next bend? Naturally, I picked it up.
The brochure (https://www.routedesnavigateurs.ca/en/home/) was beautifully done with gorgeous colour pictures, maps, lists of attractions and activities plus compelling commentaries.
“Ride the waves and take the time to explore the many historical, cultural and maritime sites in our beautiful regions. Well-indicated with easily recognizable signs, the Route des Navigateurs mainly follows Route 132 on over 470 kilometres, leading you through the tourist areas of Centre-du-Québec, Chaudière-Appalaches, and Bas-Saint-Laurent, from Baie-du-Febvre to Sainte-Luce.
To follow the Route des Navigateurs is to enjoy the splendour of innumerable panoramas, the generous gift of the St. Lawrence and its islands. Since we know you won’t want to miss a thing, we have carefully indicated each site using sail-shaped symbols. So cast off on a voyage of discovery and search for unforgettable treasures!”
Wow, this route seemed to have it all, pastoral farmland, quaint villages, rugged coastlines, stunning views, attractions to see, activities to do, all set against the azure blue waters of the mighty St Lawrence. By the time I had finished reading the brochure, I was hooked. With a little convincing, so was Maureen. We had to drive this route.
Quebec Highway 132 – Mostly
As the brochure explained, Route Des Navigateurs was about 500 km long and followed Quebec Highway 132 along the south shore of the St Lawrence River with the occasional side trip through villages, settlements and other areas of interest bypassed by the main highway. To assist modern day navigators (and RV’ers), the route was marked with distinctive road signs. What I didn’t realize at the time was, the route was meant more for cyclists than Rv’ers. As a result, some of the side trips were a little “tight” for a large rig and some of the recommended stops did not have adequate parking for RV’s. Overall, it was not a big issue except for one spot, which I mention later on.
The Route Des Navigateurs began at the intersection of Highway 255 and 132 near the village of Baie-du-Febvre, about halfway between Montreal and Quebec City. Driving up from Montreal, we reached the intersection around 12:00 PM. On one corner was a large graveled parking lot, the perfect place to stop for lunch. Off to one side was a food cart complete with tables, chairs and awnings. Our plan was to eat in the trailer so we parked as far away as possible, wanting not to interfere with their business and feeling a little guilty for not eating there. To assuage my conscience, I wandered over to the cart with the intention of buying something. When I saw their menu, advertising two dollar hot dogs and one dollar chips, onion rings and drinks, I quickly revised our lunch plans. After all, we were simply following the advice provided by the brochure:
“In the Centre-du-Québec region, beautiful landscapes and interesting stops along the St. Lawrence River invite you to take a moment to relax or, even better, to take the time to enjoy a picnic treating yourself to fresh local products purchased along the way.”
While hot dogs and onion rings were probably not what the brochure writer had in mind when he suggested, “… treating yourself to fresh local products …”, it certainly was a treat and an inexpensive one at that. I can’t remember the last time my wife and I dined out for less that $10.00.
Baie-du-Febvre To Quebec City
From Baie-du-Febvre, the Route Des Navigateurs followed Highway 132 along the south shore of the St Lawrence River with only one or two side trips. For the most part, the highway was smooth and wide with a decent sized cycle paths on both sides. That may be why the route was very popular with cyclists. Winding through the countryside, it followed the twists and turns of the St Lawrence shoreline.
Thankfully, there were enough open spaces to provide us with amazing views of the river, the river traffic and settlements, which dotted the shoreline. The landscape was a mix of rural and urban that reminded me of the Fraser River around the Maple Ridge, Mission Area. While we did pass some beautiful old stone homes, heritage buildings and appealing communities, the area was far more developed then I had expected and seemed to lack the picturesque, historic vibe that I at least, had hoped to find.
Levis From The Water
By the end of the day, we had reached our destination, the Quebec City KOA campground (http://koa.com/campgrounds/quebec-city/), which was actually on the western edge of the city of Levis. Quebec City was across the river. We chose this park because, among other things, it advertised a shuttle service to the historic old town area of Quebec City. I had heard horror stories about the parking situation around this area so, a shuttle seemed like the perfect solution. Maureen and I spent two wonderful days wandering the streets, shops, historic landmarks and promenades of this historic city.
With our Quebec visit over, we continued on our way. The plan was to keep following the Route Des Navigateurs, which ran through the city of Levis. Instead of following Highway 132 however, the route took a deviation down through the old part of town. Much like old town Quebec City, the streets of old town Levis were narrow, congested and difficult to navigate. After a couple of near disasters trying to maneuver through the narrow streets, I abandoned the route and beat a hasty retreat back to Highway 132. Heart stopping, hair-raising experiences were not part of our travel plans.
Narrow Streets Of Old Town Levis
On the eastern edge of the city, the Route Des Navigateurs once again rejoined Highway 132. From there, we gradually left the city behind and rejoined the countryside. Past Levis, the landscape took on a more rural, pastoral feel. There seemed to be fewer people, less development and more agriculture then before. It was the type of landscape we had hoped to find.
Quebec City To Riviere-Du-Loup
Highway 132 continued on, wide and smooth with wide bike lanes on both sides. While it did twist and turn as it followed the banks of the St Lawrence and contours of the landscape, it was no more challenging to drive than most BC roads. The speed limit however, was considerably lower. In most sections, 80 kph was the top speed with some stretches being a little higher. Nevertheless, no one seemed in a hurry. Unlike other provinces where the cars behind would bob and weave endlessly, itching for an opportunity to pass (often on a hill or blind corner), the drivers along the Route Des Navigateurs seemed quite content to do the speed limit and savor the beauty and grandeur of the countryside. That definitely made for a much more enjoyable drive.
The route passed through several picturesque villages with narrow streets, heritage style stone or brick houses and of course, a large Catholic church. Some communities were so small, they consisted of little more than the church surrounded by a few dwellings while others boasted a small downtown area with a store, post office, restaurant or two and perhaps even a gas station. A couple even featured a boutique hotel, (known as an “Auberg” in French) overlooking the St Lawrence.
Stately Stone Homes
It was tempting to stop and explore but, finding a parking spot large enough for a truck and trailer in these quaint surroundings was “problematic” to say the least. Also problematic was trying to navigate through some of them. Many of the houses and other buildings crowded the edge of the road. Some appeared so close that a person standing on a porch could reach out and “high-five” the driver of a passing vehicle. It definitely required an extra measure of caution.
More Narrow Streets
As we proceeded northeast, the landscape around us gradually changed. Along the shores of the St Lawrence, the marshy areas, common before Quebec City now gave way to a rocky coastline with the occasional sand beach. The river had become wider as well, wide enough so that a number of rocky islands could be seen offshore. Many have scheduled ferry service with developed hiking and biking trails. To landward, the Appalachian Mountains, which had been barely visible on the southern horizon before Levis, were now drawing closer to the river’s edge. Nevertheless, as we rolled along Highway 132, the landscape ahead of us was a beautiful tableau of shimmering blue water on our left and peaceful, pastoral farmland on our right. In places, the highway ran along high cliffs, providing breathtaking views of the river, numerous islands and marine traffic.
Islands of the St Lawrence
Riviere-Du-Loup To Rimouski
The first large community after Levis was the city of Riviere-Du-Loup. Sandwiched between the St Lawrence River on one side and hills to the other, the city had evolved along a long, narrow strip of flat land in between. Many travellers may know Riviere-Du-Loup as the jumping off point for the Maritimes, for this was where the TransCanada Highway leaves Quebec and turns eastward towards New Brunswick.
After Riviere-Du-Loup, the Route Des Navigateurs headed inland for a bit, winding through pasture lands, cultivated fields, and the occasional wood lot. A few kilometers past the Parc National Du Bic, one of the few parks along the south shore of the St Lawrence River, the route rejoined the river. Even though the name seemed to indicate that it was a national park, it’s actual administered by the Quebec government. Regardless, the park was well known for its hiking trails, nesting colonies of seabirds, rare plants and seals who enjoy basking in the sun along its shoreline. It also seemed to be a popular destination for many of the cyclists on the road.
Popular Cycling Route
Not far past the park was the city of Rimouski, our destination for the night. We were lucky enough to find a nice motel and RV park combination just off Highway 132 called Camping and Motel De Lanse. Their full service sites were on a bench about 200 ft. above the highway overlooking the St Lawrence River. The views of the river at sunset were amazing.
Sunset Over The St Lawrence
Pointe-au-Pere Lighthouse National Historic Site
With a population of around 50,000, Rimouski was the largest city east of Quebec City on the St Lawrence River. Forestry was still significant, but tourism has grown in importance, thanks not only to the neighboring Parc National Du Bic but other nearby attractions as well such as the Pointe-au-Pere Historic Maritime Site. On a peninsula, just outside of town were 3 marine attractions. The first was the Empress of Ireland Museum, which told the story of the Empress of Ireland, a passenger ship that sank not far from Rimouski with the loss of 1,012 lives. The second was the Pointe-au-Pere Lighthouse National Historic Site featuring the second highest lighthouse in Canada with 128 steps to the top (ask me how I know). The third was the submarine, HMCS Onondaga, once part of the Canadian Navy, now on display for the general public. In addition to the attractions, the site also offered some unserviced RV spots.
One thing we hadn’t noticed as we made our way along the St Lawrence River were seafood restaurants. Up to Rimouski, the water of the St Lawrence had been more fresh than salt. After that, the salt water began to dominate and with it came the fish. Not long after leaving Rimouski, we came across a very “kitschy” seafood restaurant called, “Capitaine Homard” or “Captain Lobster” in English. With cut-out figures in front and a myriad of fishing items dangling from the ceiling inside, it might have been considered a little “over the top” were it not for the food which was excellent and the ocean view which was fabulous. Their specialty was lobster but their menu contained a wide variety of other seafood dishes. When I asked if the lobster was local, I was told that while there were a few in the area, the season had long since closed. The crustacean on my wife’s plate had come from New Brunswick. In addition to the restaurant, there was also an RV park next door with some of the sites right on the water. Mighty handy for those who love their lobster.
Capitaine Homard’s Eclectic Ceiling
Capitaine Homard’s Great Food
The Village of Stainte-Luce
Stainte-Luce And The End Of The Trail
With full tummies, we hit the road again for the final few kilometers of our route. Up ahead was the village of Stainte-Luce and the end of the Route Des Navigateurs. In many ways, Stainte-Luce was a fitting place to end the route. It was a beautiful, charming village built along a long, crescent shaped beach, one of many such picturesque settlements it had been our pleasure to visit. Overall, the route had been a delight to drive, tight spots not withstanding. The quaint villages, the rugged shoreline, the pastoral farmland, the picturesque vistas, the beautiful St Lawrence had been amazing and through it all, the Route Des Navigateurs had been our faithful our guide. Jacque Cartier would be proud.