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Just the thought of rolling along Highway 132 in Haute-GaspĂ©sie makes me happy. On one side lies the seemingly endless Gulf of St. Lawrence; on the other, the majestic Chic Choc Mountains. Iâ€™m on a ribbon of asphalt between the two, and the fresh salt spray announces itself when I open the car window. Itâ€™s a rainy day, and thick mist hanging over the sea and the mountains makes the tableau particularly poetic.
Iâ€™m headed to Saint-Maxime-du-Mont-Louis, a village of 1,130 creative souls that has everything you need to enjoy life â€” or a vacation â€” and where reinventing yourself seems to come more easily.
Saint-Maxime-du-Mont-Louis is located in a bay about 60 km from Sainte-Anne-des-Monts. It was an important fishing outpost in the 17th century, thanks to the goodwill of Denis Riverin, a French merchant and high-ranking official. With partners, he founded the Compagnie de Mont-Louis, which fished and processed cod. The villageâ€™s economy today is more diversified, ranging from cultural offerings to vegetable production, but fish processing remains a thriving industry. Entering Mont-Louis from the west side, you first glimpse the fishing docks, the Cusimer fish market and processing factory, then the Atkins et FrĂ¨res smokehouse.
I head for the most colourful buildings in the village and stop in front of the fuchsia-hued Lâ€™AmarrĂ© Inn, where I shake hands with the owner, Julie Asselin.
The atmosphere inside is as bright as the exterior of the building, and its shelves are lined with local products. Itâ€™s a favourite spot for people driving through as well as outdoor enthusiasts who are feeling peckish. European tourists often stop here, too, when such things are possible.
Asselin is 42 years old and set down roots in Saint-Maxime-du-Mont-Louis 15 years ago. She sees a great many reasons to adore this little corner of GaspĂ©sie. â€śThe sea and backcountry are gorgeous â€” a grandiose playground. You have everything you need, the village life is beautiful, people help each other out, and I know the families of all of my employees. All thatâ€™s missing is tourist development, but weâ€™re working on that.â€ť
The innkeeper previously lived in MontrĂ©al for several years, working in restaurants and bars. â€śWhenever I had vacation time, I wanted to be in nature. I was tired of the city. So I decided to make the move, and the water drew me to Mont-Louis.â€ť Asselin is not the only one to give herself a fresh start here where the sea and mountains meet.
For the past few decades (until the pandemic hit, at least), waves of newcomers have been breaking on the shores of Mont-Louis with projects of all sorts â€” including social economy ventures like the PĂ©piniĂ¨re des Pionniers (the Pioneer Nursery).
Her inn has worn many faces since it opened in 2013. Before the pandemic, it was a restaurant as well. â€śIt worked great for a time. I used to serve amazing breakfasts. But when the cost of ingredients increased, it became no longer viable. I also lacked the staff, so I was filling in by working 120 hours per week. I was exhausted. The pandemic let me slow down and restructure. I wouldnâ€™t have been able to stop on my own. The cafĂ© was where people gathered.â€ť Though the restaurant is no longer running, Lâ€™AmarrĂ©â€™s terrasse â€” with its breathtaking view of the river and the bay â€” has remained, and you can still enjoy a local beer or espresso along with the landscape.
Asselin now runs a gourmet deli counter in lieu of the restaurant. She offers dishes chock full of local products, like her Thai salad with shrimp or halibut steak with beurre blanc. Her fresh vegetables come from the local market gardening company Les Jardins Taureau & BĂ©lier and RAC co-op.
The change of pace did Asselin a lot of good: â€śIâ€™ve got a life again, and Iâ€™ve rediscovered my passion for cooking,â€ť she says with a smile, having also picked up a boyfriend and a new chef in the process. Asselin is here to stay. She plans to add outdoor activities and culinary workshops to Lâ€™AmarrĂ©â€™s offerings, which will serve to attract tourists to this village that everyone who visits seems to want to return to.
Next, I stop at La Pointe Sec, a cultural space housed in a former cold store that dates back to the 1930s.
Iâ€™m there to meet Yanik Ă‰lĂ©ment, founder and director of La Pointe Sec. Itâ€™s raining cats and dogs. Between the swishing windshield wipers, I spy a huge mauve building, wild roses, the river, and lobster fishers lifting their traps not far from the shore.
Ă‰lĂ©ment ushers me in through â€śFace b,â€ť the small performance room that serves as a gathering place year-round. Soon, it will be the site of a village bar, where youâ€™ll be able to enjoy tapas and local spirits. Itâ€™s meant to take over for Lâ€™AmarrĂ©, so that a four-season social space remains in the village. Ă‰lĂ©ment has hired a young couple who have just arrived in Mont-Louis to run the bar. â€śThe pandemic has given us a good boost. People in their twenties have moved out here. I like to believe that La Pointe Sec is a draw; culture is the best way to add life to a village.â€ť
Ă‰lĂ©ment is originally from here. He left his hometown at 17 to study music at university and to travel. In 2007 he wanted to settle down somewhere and bought the old, 5,000-square-foot cold store. For the next three years, he travelled back and forth between MontrĂ©al and Mont-Louis to renovate the building. â€śIâ€™d never so much as touched a hammer before! Iâ€™m a jazz saxophonist . . . I have a sort of creative fervour. My father is a craftsman, and he showed me how to do some things. I learned new skills. I refitted everything inside the building by myself with recycled wood because I couldnâ€™t afford new materials. But it yields unbeatable acoustics and makes the dĂ©cor unique.â€ť
Finally, in 2010, Yanik Ă‰lĂ©ment returned to live in the village where he was born. He held his first year of programming, which featured emerging and local artists, in 2012. With help from the Machine Ă Truc co-op, which develops cultural and artistic events, he created the Festival GaspĂ©sien de Contes et LĂ©gendes (Tales and Legends Festival of GaspĂ©sie) and the Festival tout mĂ©langĂ© (All Mixed Up Festival).
La Pointe Sec also features a loft for artistsâ€™ residencies, and theyâ€™re working on developing a little studio. During the warmer months, the large concert room is open to the public, who flock to it, sometimes from great distances.
Itâ€™s set to become legendary.
I end my tour of Mont-Louis at Atkins et FrĂ¨res: the smokehouse is a must-see. They make smoked salmon, trout, mackerel, and seafood as well as rillettes. I adore their hot smoked salmon.
The company was founded by Charles and James Henry Atkins, two wandering brothers from the Eastern Townships who fell in love with Saint-Maxime-du-Mont-Louis. Theyâ€™ve since sold the business to Guillaume Thibault, whoâ€™s currently the captain of the ship.
Thibault is originally from Brittany, France. He met James Henry in GaspĂ©, quite by chance. It was an encounter that changed his life. He moved to Canada with his sweetheart, Marina, and worked for Atkins et FrĂ¨res for a few years before acquiring the company in 2013. He was 33 years old at the time: â€śBecoming an entrepreneur had never been my goal, but now I canâ€™t imagine doing anything else.â€ť Thibault takes the same care as the Atkins brothers in making quality products and maintaining a warm, welcoming environment. The salmon they use comes from New Brunswick: â€śI like that itâ€™s fresh and local, and that I can offer a 100 per cent Canadian product.â€ť
About 15 people from in and around Mont-Louis work for Atkins et FrĂ¨res. The smokehouse runs year-round, as does its attached boutique. Thibault continues to grow the business in new, beautiful ways: soon, it will also be an â€śeconomuseumâ€ť teaching visitors the precious know-how behind the products they so adore.
â€śWe do everything by hand to ensure our products are high quality. Our smokers donâ€™t even have electronic controls. We will always operate at a human scale: I want to work with people, not machines.â€ť
Strolling along the beach, I recall Yanik Ă‰lĂ©mentâ€™s words of pride about the proactive, upstanding, and daring character of his community. He likes the people who come to visit, too â€” a lively, interested crew. â€śAdventure tourists are also frequent visitors â€” theyâ€™re really daring people. You have to be a bit crazy to jump off Mont-Saint-Pierre on a hang-glider. Thatâ€™s the alternative, indomitable side of GaspĂ©sie. I love it!â€ť
MĂ©lanie GagnĂ© is always writing â€” even when sheâ€™s not. Whether on the shore, in the forest, on a mountaintop, or in an open-air market, sheâ€™s constantly recording her inspirations and attentive to the finest details. She divides her time between being a mother, a French-as-a-second language teacher, and a writer. She dreams of one day writing a collection of poetry.
Tourisme GaspĂ©sie is a promotion and tourism development organization that aims to establish the GaspĂ© Peninsula as a major destination in QuĂ©bec. With over 700 member companies, the organization is an indispensable reference tool to help you plan your trip to the region.