Saint Pierre and Miquelon is kind of like rural Newfoundland from a parallel universe: the pickup trucks are replaced by compact French-manufactured cars, the roads are narrow, your lassy bun in now a pain-au-chocolat, and the French flag is flying off the province’s south coast.
Like a Grade 7-er on a field trip, I discovered St. Pierre for the first time, on a 48-hour trip to the little piece of France that sits 25km off the Burin Peninsula.
The high-speed ferry ($63.00 one-way, $93.00 return) takes 55 minutes, and the stormy seas that day bowed my sea legs. By the halfway point, I was breaking into a cold sweat, queasy, and considering booking a flight home via Air St. Pierre ($217.76 one-way, $353.21 return). On the return trip, it was calm seas and I was totally fine.
The streets are narrow (and the sidewalks barely there) but the houses have more in common with the architecture of NL than that of mainland France, and the colourful clapboard is entirely Jellybean Row. To quote a fellow resident of my B&B, visiting from France, “The style of the houses is not at all France… but the colours are so delicious!”
1200 of the 6000 residents are school-aged, meaning the place skews young. Boasting high graduation rates, most graduates go to France for post-secondary, and return home to settle.
The biggest employer is not tourism, but government and public works. There’s a relatively large presence of les gendarmes (the French police, made up of men and women on limited tours of duty from France), and the place is as safe as any rural town, but you still look both ways before crossing the street.
YOUR TO-DO LIST
A tour is essential for getting your bearings, and it’s not too pricy. We went with a Callou Blanc van tour (15€ for a 90-minute tour of the island), and a walking tour from L’Arche (10€ for two hours of the downtown and harbourfront).
The bakeries are obviously the highlight, and there’s plenty of nice French cuisine. But filed under “stuff you won’t find back home” is Le Café du Chat Luthier, the cat-themed restaurant. It’s like a Japanese grill with a wood-fired pizza oven, mixed with a piano bar. And it’s full of cat tchotchkes. I had a Miaou-jito.
Pro tip: Avoid roaming fees by manually selecting your cellular carrier in your phone’s settings. Most NL cellular networks are still usable in St. Pierre, and most places have Wifi, so you’re covered, either way.
THE WORST STUFF
You either have to have a pretty chill vacation disposition, or better-than-decent planning skills, because the hours of operation are screwy, with most places closed for lunch, closed for supper, and often closed on weekends. Either way, there’s usually someplace to pick up bread, cheese, and sausage, and go for a stroll.
I didn’t get to Miquelon and Langlade, the western part of the archipelago, which is home to just 600 residents and some wild horses and white-tailed deer. It’s a day trip (another 60 minutes on a ferry), so it didn’t fit the itinerary.
It may get you an international stamp on your passport, but there’s an unmistakable connection to our own island home. After all, the people of SPM have lived alongside us for our entire history.
“We are French people, living in North America,” said one local. “One foot in France and one foot in North America. It’s fifty-fifty.”