This is a place of imaginings, where nature bends and never-before-fathomed creatures emerge to flutter against the lichen and thunder among the monoliths. This is where Aslan ( The Chronicles of Narnia), Buckbeak (Harry Potter's hippogriff) and Maurice Sendak's Wild Things go when they're tired of being spectacles, when they need an escape in a landscape as big and surprising as they are.
This is Mingan Archipelago, a magical destination hidden in plain sight 10 hours northeast of Quebec City. Or as the locals say, " C'est cinq pause-cafés" – five coffee stops away.
Still can't picture it? If you draw a vertical line through Mingan, you'll slide your pencil just east of Halifax to the south, and glide through Newfoundland and Labrador, Davis Strait, Baffin Bay and Greenland, finally, to the north.
It's here, at Mingan, in the handfuls of islands (and thousands of islets and reefs) sprinkled liberally at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, that locals from the small town of Havre-Saint-Pierre and even smaller communities nearby take afternoons picnicking with a giant "rhino" and other fantastical rock creatures on otherwise empty beaches as whales breach the deep-blue waters offshore. It's here that visitors from overseas come to kayak and overnight with foxes in the forests.
But when I first look up Mingan Archipelago National Park on a map, I don't foresee such possibility: It seems skinny and linear and harsh. It doesn't seem possible this underfed strip of a park will be worth the 10-coffee journey from our home base.
Getting there is all the fun?
I'm not all that optimistic so I embrace the "getting there is all the fun" tactic – and book an overnight train journey for my daughter (12), son (9) and me. Ensconced in facing seats around a table in the newish Via cars designed for but rejected by the Chunnel, Caiden and I take turns trouncing each other at gin rummy between Toronto and Ottawa, where Alyanna joins us from a soccer tournament. In Montreal, we board the sleeper train bound for Gaspé.
We had opted not for a private cabin but bunks in the roomier sleeper car. We're surprised by the dated shabbiness – but we're not spoiled travellers, and it's the getting there, remember?! We meet fellow travellers and move to the adjoining dining car, where we discover it's a squeeze-yourself-in-where-there's-a-seat affair. We join a French-speaking woman returning home to New Richmond, and as we wait (and wait) for dinner, we manage to keep a lively conversation going.
When you return to your seats, your beds are made and curtains hung, waiting for you to clamber into cozy cocoons. It's like camping at 100 kilometres an hour.
But here's a fact about sleeping on a train: You either love it or hate it. Sadly, my 12-year-old who suffers most when sleep deprived is the one who hates it. The view from the observation car makes up for the grumpy tween, though, and playing Crazy 8s with one eye on the cards and the other on the beautiful shoreline – making sure to wave at the kids with their grandparents in the yards whipping by – is a lovely escape from the office.
From Gaspé, we jump on a six-seat float plane to cross the Gulf of St. Lawrence and finally arrive at our main destination.
Life in a northern town
Havre-Saint-Pierre is in transition. Mining giant Rio Tinto has just committed to spending millions to extend the life of its open-pit ilmenite mine here to 2050, and Hydro-Québec is spending $6.5-billion on a hydroelectric project. (The Romaine Complex is one of the biggest infrastructure projects in Canada – and yes, you can book a tour.) The heart of town is being ripped up to make room for a pedestrian square with a shop to showcase works by local artisans. Housing prices have tripled in a year, and a utilitarian hotel offers lodging to incoming workers.
But we want a more personal experience, so we're staying at Gîte Chez Françoise, a bed and breakfast with a family-size suite. When we arrive, Françoise Jomphe is waiting to greet us, her warmth matched by the colourful decor, and we are surprised to find a full laundry and kitchen in our suite. But this is lobster and crab season and I'm not cooking, so we rush to Chez Julie, popular with the locals depuis 1977, especially for the delicious seafood. They say, at least in these parts, and I'm inclined to agree, that the best lobster comes from the east side of Anticosti Island.
The next morning, decked in life jackets, we pull away from the small marina in a Parks Canada boat (a workhorse of a vessel with an angled front for plowing onto the shore for "docking"), with guides who make guests feel at home and even knowledgeable in this unexpected environ. We pull up to the wharf at L'île Quarry, a rather typical-looking island that hides marvellous surprises. We follow a gravel path into a forest that seems to close behind us. The trees are draped in lichen (more than 200 kinds), the air is moist and cool, the sound of water trickling ever present. A boardwalk leads us deeper into the wood and we notice we're not alone. Hidden in the trees among the berries and mosses and all manner of greenery are imposing limestone monoliths.
In quiet tones, we learn that about 100,000 years ago, the 500-million-year-old limestone was buried under the crushing weight of 2.5 kilometres of ice. When it melted, about 10,000 years ago, the rock decompressed (like a mattress) and the harder stuff withstood the seas, which caressed and shaped it into the forms cherished today.
Entranced, we move forward, through a boggy wetland and onto the shore where the giant rock stars await. With help from biologist Stephanie Cloutier (who came to the archipelago for a summer and just couldn't leave), the kids find life in the tide pools; the grownups wander in and around the monoliths.
And then we're off to another island, with even more majestic monoliths and a fossil playground that invokes the "I wish my friends could see me now" reaction as Aly and Caiden find more and more specimens. We take loads of pictures because, after all, you can't collect in a national park.
On the water, much-tattooed Captain Pierrot Vaillancourt lets the kids take control. At one island, he shows Caiden how to ram the boat ashore and we mind the waves as we jump to dry land. Mindful of sibling rivalry, he teaches Aly how to do doughnuts. (Clearly Captain Pierrot knows that getting there is half the fun.)
Back on shore, in this town where people know the streets not by name but by who lives on them, we beat the daily 2 p.m. lineup at Poissonnerie de Havre for freshly baked petits pain (slightly sweet pull-apart buns), admire the salmon and seafood pies and the seven-pound lobster dominating the tank, and indulge in smoked cod (kids love it!) and strips of dried salt cod (I love it!). It's departure time, but having just discovered Mingan and its magical monoliths, I'm thinking, "Let the wild rumpus begin!"
IF YOU GO
Best time to visit
From mid-June to the end of August – though you can access the islands before and after this time, and you'll always find someone willing to take you on a boat tour.
For seafood: May and June are crab, scallop and lobster season.
For birds: If you're an ornithologist, you'll want to visit go in July when the terns, sea ducks and shorebirds arrive in search of food and migration spots. And you'll want to meet park biologist Stephanie Cloutier and conservation officer Captain Pierrot Vaillaincourt to talk bird life.
For live music: Get to the picturesque lighthouse on Petite île au Marteau for live performances on July 4, 11 and 18.
What to bring
Layers! Bring a warm coat and hat, hiking shoes, water bottles.
Mingan Archipelago National Park: 1-888-773-8888; parkscanada.gc.ca/mingan; find information on boat tours here.
Gîte Chez Françoise: 1122 Boréale, Havre-Saint-Pierre; 418-538-3778; gitechezfrancoise.qc.com. From $58.
Chez Julie: 1023 Rue Dulcinee, Havre-Saint-Pierre; 418-538-3070.
Via Rail: viarail.ca/adventures. The shower is clean and comes with a towel, facecloth and amenities. Pay for your meal separately.
Exact Air: 877-589-8923; exactair.ca.