If you aren’t an expert on North American geography, if you don’t have distinct memories of your Grade 6 Canadian geography class, or if you aren’t from the Canadian Maritimes, chances are, you’ve never heard of the tiny little islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon.
Luckily, I have a very distinct memory of my geography classes from 15 or so years ago, so I never forgot about this French overseas territory that is nestled within eyesight of Newfoundland.
So how do you get to this strange land? You basically have two options. The first and easiest is to fly in via Air St. Pierre, which connects the island with Halifax, Montreal, Sydney and Saint John’s. Alternatively, there’s a ferry that departs from the rather remote Fortune, Newfoundland and takes about an hour.
So why visit this strange, oft-forgotten island? Well it’s France, but in North America, which is kind of cool. Although you can see Canada, the currency of the land is Euros (although most places will take Canadian dollars) French is spoken, and apparently it’s France French, not Quebec French, although as an anglophone, I couldn’t tell the difference. You can transplant yourself in the culture of Europe even though the continent is thousands of miles away. The archipelago, originally named ‘Islands of the 11,000 virgins’ has a population of about 6,000 and is actually made up of three main islands – St. Pierre, Miquelon and Langlade, which is joined to Miquelon by a long sand bar.
There’s a lot to see and explore in St. Pierre – a deserted village on an adjacent island, a shipwreck of a German cargo vessel washed ashore, and an amazing little bakery to name a few. The town itself can be easily explored by foot, but to see the whole island, you need to get a car. That proved to be a bit difficult as there weren’t any car rental agencies on the island, since there isn’t really to far to go. So we decided to ask around and after a few dead ends and just as we were about to give up, we were told about a little garage that may rent us a car.
“Go up a block then take a left and go down a couple more blocks, you’ll see the garage,” we were told. No address or name was given, but we were told we couldn’t miss it and we didn’t. It was your typical small town mechanics shop. Cars were up on hoists in the bays, but there wasn’t exactly a flurry of activity going on. Crashed or otherwise damaged cars sat out front, in what seemed to be a long queue to get in for repairs. I don’t think I ever got the name of the place, but you don’t need to know it if you want to rent a car. If you can’t find it, all you need to do is ask a friendly local. I went in and asked if any cars were available to rent the next day. The mechanic I spoke to said the little Suzuki Swift was and to come back any time the next day to pick it up. He didn’t take my name or anything, but we shook hands and I told him I’d be back.
Next day, my wife Karlie and I walked back to the shop, handed the same guy a small amount, maybe €20 and he handed over the keys. I showed him my license and he wrote down my name, but unlike with most rental companies, I didn’t have to sign and initial agreements and waivers until my hand was cramped.
Armed with a only cartoony tourist map, we set out to explore the tiny island. We started by heading down to the harbour, got onto the main drag then headed northwest out of town, to what was not much more than a dead end. But it did offer up some great views of the town and the pseudo-ghost village of Ile aux Marins. We then headed back up into the hills behind the town of St. Pierre to get a panorama of the colourful village. We spent the rest of the day driving relatively aimlessly, exploring dead ends, catching glimpses of Miquelon and seeing many lonely horses. Like experiencing the island in general, it was something I won’t soon forget.
If you’re going to St. Pierre, which I highly recommend you do, you don’t really need a car. After we flew in on a tiny eight-passenger Cessna from Sydney, Nova Scotia, we weren’t really sure how we were going to get to our B&B. We tried to find a taxi at the airport, but there were none to be found. Thankfully, one of the other five people who was on the plane with us offered us a ride and pointed out all the town’s highlights along the way.
When you’re there, don’t feel much pressure to do too much. Experience the French culture, eat some delicious pastries at the bakery just off the harbour, and definitely visit the slightly eerie Ile aux Marins. I have an odd fascination with shipwrecks and the remains of a giant hull washed up on the island fascinated me. The island is also home to probably the most beautiful cemetery I have ever seen.
We left the island on a foggy morning and flew to Halifax. Just before we took off, the fog seemed to lift from around the airport so we had a clear takeoff. Then once we got off the ground, the fog once again encroached in and made the island disappear. Had we actually even been there?