An oasis of tranquility, particularly if you stick to the rural coastline and avoid anything remotely associated with Green Gables, Prince Edward Island is the ideal escape from the daily grind. There’s something about the lush, rolling meadows, the tang of salty air and sand dunes laced with sea grass under your bare feet that coaxes out the knots of tension and leaves behind a peaceful sense of well-being.
Certainly, there’s a wealth of local touristy attractions if you’re so inclined...
Certainly, there’s a wealth of local touristy attractions if you’re so inclined – from deep-sea fishing, lighthouse tours, “ceilidhs” featuring traditional Celtic music, to the Victorian-era charm of Charlottetown, and of course, umpteen-dozen sites dedicated to Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables.
We took note of these, and were sure to give them a wide berth – though we were nearly lured in by the Canadian Potato Museum. Frankly, our days consisted of deciding where we were going to drive, and what we were going to eat next.
From our home base of Darnley Bay, we traced the perimeter of the island via North Cape Drive – “Canada’s Oyster Coast”, featuring the longest natural rock reef in North America.
Miles of sand bars and fishing villages, finally coming to an abrupt end in Tignish, the northern most tip of the island. This remote point is home to the Wind Energy Institute of Canada, its turbines towering high above the single lighthouse perched on the cliff’s edge. Our smallest province, PEI is shrinking thanks to the continual erosion of its sandstone cliffs , and the lighthouse has been moved six times.
There are three such coastal drives and a network of red earth lanes, that dip and curl through stands of wind-swept pine before ultimately ending at the sea.
After nearly a week spent gorging ourselves on fresh lobster, watching the tide roll in, and then back out over the endless red sands, we were sliding into near-catatonic levels of lazy satisfaction. Bidding a fond farewell to this peaceful place, we headed back over the Confederation Bridge – a 12.9 km skeletal white curve spanning the Northumberland Strait. Ahead of us lay several hundred miles of rugged Maritime coastland.
Of course, one of the essential ingredients of any successful road trip is the vehicle you choose to drive it. For most people, it’s one that can accommodate an inordinate amount of “stuff” while being as reliable and unobtrusive as possible.
My partner James and I both get more out of the journey than the destination.
Therefore, our ideal vehicle not only had to pack two weeks’ worth of gear, it would also have to be fun while doing so.
A $60,000, two-door German coupe may not sound like the most practical choice for an eastern tour, far from smooth highways – but for us it checked all the right boxes. The BMW 435i xDrive coupe cuts a sleek figure, especially in dark graphite with striking red leather interior.
While we enjoyed the adjustable grip provided by the highly bolstered sports seats up front, the 445 L trunk and 40/20/40 split back seats managed to swallow our suitcases, laptop bags, yoga mats, and a 3.0-inch memory foam mattress pad.
Not to mention such essentials as an ice grinder and oyster shucker, espresso machine, and a roof rack for our mountain bikes. This particular coupe boasts BMW’s “xDrive” all-wheel-drive system and adaptable suspension. Under the long nose is a 3.0L twin-turbo six putting out 306 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. Suffice it to say, that’s all our bases covered.
We covered a lot of ground that day, working our way north across New Brunswick and stopping just before the Quebec border in Campbellton. This rather unremarkable town of 7,500 was the site of the 1760 Battle of Restigouche, the last naval battle between English and French for possession of North America.
One of the oldest mountains on the continent, Sugarloaf is part of the northern Appalachians, an ancient volcano that’s well worth climbing for the views from its 1,000 foot summit.
Campbellton is also home to Restigouche Sam, a 27-ft, one-ton stainless steel salmon, which we both agreed was far more elegant than the Shediac Lobster.
Crossing the Restigouche River, we turned onto Route 132, 1,600 meandering kilometres that constitute the Gaspésie Tour that circumnavigates the enormous peninsula.
Our first stop was Miguasha Park, a fascinating place guaranteed to give creationists a first-rate case of indigestion.
Discovered in 1842 – coincidentally the same year that Charles Darwin published his controversial book on the origin of the species, the fossil cliffs of Miguasha produced the first definitive proof that air-breathing mammals evolved from fish.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the story goes that visiting scientists were horrified to find roadside vendors hawking fossils alongside local crafts and produce, and moved to have it protected in 1999.
Like moments frozen in time, steps in the evolutionary chain are preserved forever in this wonderful and intriguing place.
Suffering from severe caffeine withdrawal since we’d left our espresso machine with friends back in PEI, we enjoyed a memorable cappuccino at Carleton-sur-Mer while listening to the haunting cry of gulls wheeling high above the Baie-des-Chaleurs.
After more than 2,000 km, the BMW 4 Series had really proven itself to be admirably road-trip worthy. That much seat time could’ve become a grueling endurance test in a lesser car, but we never got tired of the 4 Series’ perfect 50:50 weight balance and athletic handling. Rolling serenely into the coastal villages, we were the very picture of respectability, but no sooner did we reach city limits than the sport button went back on, exhaust erupting in chuckle-inducing blatts.
By now we were well-enamoured with Gaspé’s craggy grandeur. But nothing could have prepared us for the first sight of Percé. Cresting the hill, the village – with folk-art charm – lay far below. And suddenly, it appeared, like a monstrous red frigate anchored offshore, the iconic symbol of Gaspésie.
An enormous red limestone and shale formation, Percé Rock was at one time pierced by two natural arches, one of which collapsed in 1845, leaving behind a giant obelisk. At 49 feet high, the Percé tunnel is large enough for a small boat to sail through. To pick your way across the slippery rocks at low tide to stand dwarfed at its base is a humbling experience.
So taken were we by the town of Percé and its people, we extended our stay for a couple of days – hiking the surrounding mountains, eating seafood and listening to traditional folk music in the cafés.
Far enough off the beaten track to have escaped the worst of commercial tourism, Percé’s laid-back vibe attracts artists, hippies, bikers and vacationing Quebecois. Not much English was spoken here – but our rudimentary attempts at French, accompanied with hand gestures were met with smiles and nods.
One of the highlights of Percé is a boat ride to Bonaventure Island, about 3.5 km offshore in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Fat seals bask on the rocks below the rocky cliffs, which harbour hundreds of thousands of seabirds, from great black-backed gulls to puffins and cormorants. A migratory bird sanctuary since 1919, Bonaventure is also home to one of the world’s largest colonies of gannets. Some 50,000 pairs of these fascinating birds raise their young on the rocky tip of the island, and wandering among them is a sensory overload.
It was with fond regrets that we pulled out of this magical place, watching the great rock gradually recede in our mirrors.
Nearly 1,000 km of Route 132 lay before us, coastal stretches where the waves rolled across the pavement and the spray spattered our windshield. Tiny fishing villages, the gorgeous red lighthouse of Pointe-à-la-Renommée, the breathtaking beauty of the sun setting over Parc du Bic, all strung along one of the world’s best driving roads.
By the time we rolled onto the ferry taking us back over the border toward home, we knew why they’d called it “La belle province”.
The grand tour de Gaspésie is one of the crown jewels of any road-trip bucket list.
|2016 BMW 435i xDrive Coupe|
|Engine Displacement: 3.0L|
|Engine Cylinders: I6|
|Peak Horsepower: 300 hp @ 5,800–6,400 rpm|
|Peak Torque: 300 lb-ft @ 1,300–5,000 rpm|
|Fuel Economy: 12.0/7.9/10.2/10.2 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb/obs|
|Cargo Space: 445 L|
|2016 BMW 435i xDrive Coupe|
|Base Price $56,050|
|A/C Tax $100|
|Destination Fee $2,145|
|Price as Tested $61,709|
|Optional Equipment $2,795 – Mineral Grey Metallic paint $895; M Performance Package $1,900|