With Bastille Day on July 14, you might think there’s not enough time to visit France for La Fête Nationale. But just off our East Coast there’s a little piece of France that’s almost within shouting distance of Canada.
Tiny Saint-Pierre et Miquelon is a French archipelago that lies about 25 km south of Newfoundland. If you’re looking for a taste of France without heading across the pond, Saint-Pierre makes a unique destination.
Named after St. Peter, the patron saint of fishermen, the territory is made up of eight islands, of which just two – Saint-Pierre and Miquelon – are inhabited. It covers an area about the same size as Brampton, Ontario with a population of just 5800. Most residents (about 5000) live in Saint-Pierre.
There are two ways to get to Saint-Pierre – by air or by ferry. The daily ferry takes about an hour to travel from Fortune, Newfoundland to the town of Saint-Pierre. Direct flights from St. John’s take 45 minutes.
From a distance, Saint-Pierre doesn’t look much different than Newfoundland – rocky and scrubby. But as you get closer you’ll notice the brightly painted houses and yes, those are Renaults and Citroëns zipping around the cobblestone streets.
Fish, Whiskey, Oil
Originally discovered by the Portuguese explorer João Álvares Fagundes, the islands were settled by the French in the 1700s. The archipelago changed hands a number of times, permanently becoming French in the early 1800s. It is the only bit of New France that remains today.
During prohibition, Saint-Pierre became a massive liquor depot of (legally imported) Canadian whisky. American rum-runners took full advantage of the situation and transported hundreds of thousands of cases of booze to America.
Saint-Pierre’s economy is traditionally tied to the sea, but that is declining. Residents live well, thanks in large part to millions of Euros in French government subsidies. Tourism is on the rise and there may be large deposits of oil off the coast.
Exploring the town of Saint-Pierre (which is also the capital) is easy. It’s small and everything is within walking distance. When you first arrive, get your bearings by strolling around and taking it all in. Poke your head into the many little shops that sell local crafts, wine, cheese and perfume. You can buy delicious French pastries virtually everywhere.
Speaking French is helpful, but not necessary. Most people working in the tourism industry speak English and can explain things to the curious anglophone. If you speak a little French, then this is a great place to practise your skills.
Because this is France, you expect the food to be great. And it is – with the added bonus of a wide range of fresh, local seafood. Imagine plump scallops resting in hazelnut sauce. Or cod cheeks floating in seaweed flavoured cream.
St. Pierre’s restaurants rival the very best in Newfoundland, and meals are often more affordable. French wine is dirt cheap – as low as $3 a bottle. Thanks, mainland France subsidies!
Regular visitors rave about Ongi Etorri, a restaurant known for its traditional Basque and French dishes. The La Brasserie del L’Ile de France is very popular with the locals – a good sign!
After indulging in Saint-Pierre’s great food and wine (and desserts!), why not work off some of those calories by cycling around the islands. Hop on the ferry to Miquelon for a different take on the territory. Sparsely populated, Miquelon features great hiking and walking. Or cycle a stunning 25 km route sandwiched between sand dunes and the sea.
Back on Saint-Pierre, make a point of visiting the Pointe aux Canons Battery, the museums (there are 3), lighthouses, fishing stations and the Saint-Pierre Cathedral. If you have the time, be sure to check out nearby Ile aux Marins (Sailors’ Island) – where you can photograph the massive iron hull of the Transpacific shipwreck and visit a ghost town.
Residents often describe themselves as being “between the sea and the sky” and, to experience this, climb the hill in Saint-Pierre to the giant cross. The view is amazing. You might even see Canada in the distance!
If you’re heading to Saint-Pierre et Miquelon for Bastille Day (July 14), you’ll find most events close to the Place du Général de Gaulle in the capital. France’s national holiday concludes with fireworks and dancing.
The weather is just like in Newfoundland: cold, wet and foggy. There are nice days, of course. But bring a raincoat and umbrella, just to be sure. Because this is France, bring your passport as well.
Accommodations are generally more expensive than you’ll find back in Canada, but there are lots options to choose from. Many visitors prefer bed and breakfasts (with early morning croissants) to the standard hotels.
Air Saint-Pierre offers direct flights from St. John’s ($289 return), Halifax ($543 return) and Montreal ($1092 return). The ferry from Fortune is much cheaper ($79.95-$89.95 return).
Saint-Pierre uses the Euro, although credit cards and the Canadian dollar are widely accepted. There are several ATMs on the islands.
Like France, Saint-Pierre is on 220 volt power and uses European plugs. If you’re bringing electronics, check to see if you’ll need a plug adapter and/or voltage converter.
Main Tourist Site: tourisme-saint-pierre-et-miquelon.com