The Canadian Maritimes
story and photography by Geoffrey Kula
[The Canadian Maritimes was originally published in the July 2011 issue of Rider magazine]
Most motorcyclists contemplating a cruise along Canada’s eastern coastline have their sights set on Nova Scotia’s fabled Cabot Trail. Rife with rugged grandeur, sweeping ocean vistas and plentiful wildlife sightings, it rightfully deserves its rank among Canada’s best rides. But having just completed a solo summertime circuit of our northern neighbor’s maritime provincial shoreline atop my trusty 1995 Honda Shadow VT1100, I can attest that Canada’s outstanding offerings to two-wheeled travelers exist wherever you aim your steed.
Starting this leg of my journey just east of Quebec City in Quebec, Canada’s second-largest and only French-speaking province, it quickly became apparent that without even a rudimentary understanding of the language, traveling through this region was going to have some unique challenges. That said, information could often be exchanged through questions posed in broken, basic French—paired with the occasional pantomime—and replied to in broken, basic English. Anyone traveling through Quebec not fluent in la langue francaise should be sure to pack some extra patience. Nothing will be as easy as it seems.
A unique aspect of traveling through this environment are the abundant ferry crossings. They offer the perfect chance to stretch one’s legs and are a good opportunity to get to know fellow riders and swap information about the roads and attractions that lie ahead. Reservations on larger ferries are strongly recommended, even for motorcycles; fortunately, some can be made with as little as 24 hours’ notice.
Following the northern shoreline of the St. Lawrence estuary east for about 260 miles (420 km) takes you to Baie-Comeau, where travelers can hop a two-hour ferry south to Matane, or take the haul road—Route 389—north to the Labrador border, where it becomes Route 500. Those with dual-sports will appreciate the incredibly detailed mileage-based log of Route 389 available at the Visitors Information Center in Baie-Comeau. It features road conditions (paved stretches vs. gravel ones), average speeds driven on each section and approximate travel times, as well as the location of services—food, fuel and shelter—along the way. Once you hit the Labrador border 350 miles (560 km) later, you’re on your own unless there’s an equally informative V.I.C. in Labrador City, since there’s no sanctioned information about Route 500 in Baie-Comeau, only speculation.
Throughout my travels, I had heard so many stories of what these two roads were like; frankly, I didn’t know what to believe. But the tourism department’s map was too detailed to ignore (the trip to the border would take five days as outlined), and the lack of readily available information about the roughly 340-mile (540-km) span of Route 500 from Labrador City to the ferry terminal in the eastern port town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay was enough to send me to the Matane ferry queue.
Being from New England, I’m quite familiar with riding’s two seasons: winter and construction. And in this region, where roads are repaved every summer to erase damage caused by Old Man Winter, the constant upkeep is inescapable. Time spent in Newfoundland aside, there wasn’t a day that I didn’t drive through at least one construction zone. As in the United States, roads are raked prior to the topcoat being laid over them, so if you’re lucky, you’ll encounter the more forgiving, bumpy, crisscross raking pattern, as opposed to the straight-raked roads that will grab the wheels and cause your bike to wobble. These torn-up patches of asphalt also make a full-face mandatory for anyone who doesn’t want to eat flying pavement nuggets for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Once you leave these work areas behind, however, you’ll be mesmerized by your surroundings: waves crashing onshore at the side of the road; gulls aloft on the currents, mimicking your carefree ride; boats moored in the harbor and out at sea; lighthouses on every coastal promontory; and the smell of the ocean thick in the air. Just try not to get too distracted—on several occasions, I’d snap out of a reverie only to realize the road took a sharp turn while my bike was still pointed straight ahead!
Nature’s bounty is especially abundant as you follow Route 132 along the Gulf of St. Lawrence and around the Gaspé Peninsula. The road rises and falls along with the cliffs, and on your approach to Perce, the formidable Perce Rock appears in the distance just offshore; nearby is Bonaventure Island, a national park that also serves as home to one of the largest gannet colonies in the world. Harbor cruises will take you within a stone’s throw of the enormous limestone arch, past sunning seals and hundreds of gannets torpedoing themselves into the water to catch lunch; they’ll also shuttle you to and from Bonaventure Island so you can explore on your own. This land/sea adventure was a highlight of the trip and worth every penny, despite the Canadian and U.S. dollars having reached parity. In fact, the ride around Gaspé and Perce easily rivals the Cabot Trail as the crown jewel of this maritime route.
Apparently, early September is rally season in Canada. Nearly every major town south of Campbellton, New Brunswick, was hosting a ride as I passed through, so I never lacked two-wheeled companions. That said, if you’re ever lonely on the road, just pull into a Tim Horton’s and order a cup of coffee. By the time you get back to your bike, a horde of Canadian riders will have materialized in the parking lot. It’s uncanny but true, and everyone I met was incredibly friendly and more than willing to share advice and discuss the best routes ahead. Also, this time of year temperatures range from about 40 degrees F or lower at sunrise/sunset and can spike to 80 degrees or more by midafternoon. Such swings require riders to bundle up or strip down throughout the day.
Following the coast south, you’ll ride through New Brunswick’s Kouchibouguac National Park before crossing the 8-mile (12.9-km), two-lane Confederation Bridge to Prince Edward Island, Canada’s smallest province. On a previous visit to the setting of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables stories, I’d ridden counterclockwise from the Wood Islands ferry to the Confederation Bridge, and thought this would be a good chance to tackle the one strip of shoreline I hadn’t yet seen. Turning east onto the Trans-Canada Highway takes you through 72 miles (116 km) of gently rolling farmland, a shoreline dotted with harbors and red clay cliffs, and past PEI’s capital, Charlottetown (known as “the birthplace of Canada”), to Wood Islands. From there, it’s a short ride across the Northumberland Strait to Nova Scotia, home to Cape Breton Highlands National Park, through which the Cabot Trail runs.
While I imagine a ride along the Cabot Trail is equally enjoyable regardless of the direction you travel it, every motorcyclist I spoke to told me the “correct” way to go is in a counterclockwise loop that keeps you in the outside lane, closest to the ocean. (Interestingly, everyone else must have heard the same thing—I only passed one rider traveling clockwise.) The town of Baddeck is a convenient starting point, and even with pit stops and exploratory detours, this 215-mile (350-km) jaunt can easily be done in a day.
Like many of the small villages and fishing outposts you’ll encounter in this area, Baddeck rolls up the sidewalks early, with most supermarkets, convenience stores and service stations closing between 6-8 p.m. A smattering of “late night” dining options exist, but be prepared to pay a premium for the privilege of dining after dark. Similarly, not all towns offer food or fuel, and after a full day on the road I began to wonder just how far some Canadians have to travel for their groceries.
With the Cabot Trail conquered, it was off to North Sydney, where one can catch a 14-hour ferry to Port aux Basques in the southwest corner of Newfoundland or a 16-hour cruise to Argentia, located in Newfoundland’s southeastern pocket. Since approximately 550 miles (900 km) of highway separate these two terminals—which have staggered arrival/departure schedules—plan your route based on availability. Need to get work done on your bike at this point? Most major motorcycle manufacturers have shops set up in Mount Pearl, an industrial suburb of St. John’s (Newfoundland’s capital), about two hours east of Argentia.
From Port aux Basques, I rode north along the west coast to Sainte-Barbe, with the mountainous inland on my right. It soon became clear that services were few and far between, making it wise (if not mandatory) to heed the two-wheeled traveler’s adage: “Never pass gas.” It’s also worth considering bringing an auxiliary gas can, depending on how heavy your throttle hand is and your vehicle’s range. Including detours, it’s about 600 miles (920 km) from Port aux Basques to Sainte-Barbe for the ferry to Blanc-Sablon, Quebec, on the Labrador border.
Two hours east on coastal Route 510 lies Red Bay, Labrador, where the paved road turns to gravel and the adventurous can continue on to Mary’s Harbour. From there, riders can swing north on the overland route to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, where ferries connect to Newfoundland, or you can continue on to Route 500 and circle back to Baie-Comeau. Rumors have it that the road from Mary’s Harbour to Happy Valley-Goose Bay will be completely paved within the next few years, opening the road to riders out for a more casual cruise.
Back on the mainland, the last coastal attractions I’d visit before crossing back into the United States were New Brunswick’s Hopewell Rocks and Fundy National Park. The Hopewell Rocks are in the Bay of Fundy, which features the highest average tides in the world (up to 52 feet). Fundy National Park has miles of hiking and cycling trails, and rents bikes by the hour or day. According to the park, a shoreline drive connecting Alma to the east and Saint Martin, the park’s western point of entry, should be completed in 2014, eliminating the 70-mile inland “V” currently required to get from one end to the other.
Canada’s national and provincial parks are outstanding, and many include indoor plumbing, showers and laundry facilities for campers—such amenities will make you reconsider the concept of “roughing it” while tra-veling on a budget. There are also private campgrounds in areas outside the reach of the Canadian parks system, as well as plenty of other lodging choices in larger towns. So whether you’re living high on the hog or just rolling on one, the Maritime Provinces offer plenty of options to satisfy your craving for adventure.