There’s a little group of islands just of the south coast of Newfoundland, Canada but doesn’t belong to Canada. They belong to the European country of France and has a lot of history. Whilst doing a road trip around Newfoundland, we had the opportunity to do a weekend trip to the main town of Saint Pierre and grabbed the chance to go there.
History lesson: The islands were first recorded in the history books when a Portuguese explorer found the islands in 1520. A short time later in 1536, the islands were grabbed by France’s Jacques Cartier, another explorer who claimed lots of land in the area for his country which is now present-day Canada. Over the years many fisherman from Northern France and the Basque region came and go to grab the fish to take home but it was many years later that the islands were settled permanently by them. Then there was a war between England and France and the islands were grabbed by the British for a few years before a treaty was written by the two countries and eventually the islands were returned to France in 1814. Since then life has been good apart from a minor dent in the community when 400 people lost their lives serving the French army in World War II in Europe. So now we want to take you through our short time in this outpost of France in the North Atlantic Ocean.
Getting there and some handy tips: As we were driving around Newfoundland, we took the road down to Fortune where the harbour is located. It is best to book this trip in advance as the boats are quite small. As we had a car, we had to go to the ticket office on the main street of town and pay for the parking as we had to leave the car in Canada. Then we drove around the corner to the harbour where the parking attendant told us to go to the car park and then a shuttle service will be provided to take us back to the harbour (it was only about a three minute journey). Then back at the harbour, allow thirty minutes (in case there is a huge crowd of people) to get through passport control and security. Once at Saint Pierre there is French passport control (of course) but we got through pretty quick. The same will happen on the return journey (apart from the car parking) but expect a longer queue on the Canadian side.
The boat journey itself was a quick one, one-hour long in fact. The seats were comfortable and plenty of plugs to charge cellphones and laptops (but remember you MUST have the EUROPEAN adaptor as its a French ferry company and France is European power supplies etc so if you have North American plugs, have the adaptor!). There is no food for sale on board but there is hot drinks and water. Not much to be honest. The sea can get very rough on the crossing, so most of the time everyone justs stay seated unless you are like me (Danik) who had to seat on the small open deck and try and not get seasick. I have done many ferry crossing across the world and never known a rougher sea than this area.
However if anyone wants to avoid driving through Newfoundland and the rough ferry crossings, there are direct flights to and from Halifax and Saint John’s in Canada and Paris on mainland France.
Geography and language: there are several islands which make up Saint Pierre and Miquelon. The big one is Miquelon, not many people live there but is mostly a nature reserve and great for hiking. I heard that there is a brewery there. However we went to one of the smaller islands in the southern parts called Saint Pierre, where the main town of Saint Pierre is located. The town has 5,000 people living there (but we hardly saw a soul during our visit) in a town the size of, well, London ’s Heathrow airport. There is a small mountain which overlooks the town and there are plenty of hills where the houses are located north of the main centre.
Now, I love this. The language. As these islands are located in North America, it doesn’t mean they speak the same derelict of French which is used in Quebec, Canada. No, they use Parisian French with a slight accent of the French people from the Brittany and Normandy regions where the fisherman mostly came from. The Basque derelict disappeared about fifty years ago. Many people who visit the islands think it’s Quebec version of French is spoken but the locals soon tell them straight as we have seen.
Arriving: We arrived late afternoon and as soon as we walked out of the ferry port (which as the town’s post office), we were in the heart of the town. Just like that.
Accommodation: we stayed at the modern hotel called Jacques Cartier on Rue St Jean. The beds were very comfy, washrooms were fantastic, WIFI was simply perfect and the amount of French television channels from over the pond was brilliant. Breakfast was included in the price (which is continental) and the staff made us very welcomed.
Now the fun starts, our Saturday evening out: Just like many tourists who landed on the island as we did by the ferry and just checked into their accommodations, it was time to get dinner. There are around four-five restaurants in town. The one at Hotel Robert on the seafront, you need a reservation (but was packed with diners). Another restaurant (which was also packed) needed reservations. The staff there recommended an Italian restaurant around the corner, we went there and was told we need a reservation. However they did do pizzas and we asked if we could do a take out to which they agreed (and we also checked out a local blond beer which was delicious).
On Sunday lunchtime, the same thing happened again. We wanted a meal before we departed the island and everywhere was either packed or needed a reservation. We found another restaurant near the cathedral and was told we needed a reservation. It was half empty. However the waitress said we could eat if we weren’t going to be long which wasn’t a problem. By the time we finished, everyone had left and the restaurant was empty. We were confused.
We have a funny feeling that reservations are a requirement here so if anyone knows they are coming to the island and wants to eat out, make reservations. They isn’t really a back up plan with buying products at the shops as they were closed in the evenings and nothing is open on Sundays. There is a supermarket on the outskirts of town but that is a distance to walk.
Bars: there are not many bars either. Everyone went to the discoteque in town and it seemed pretty lively. However we wanted a sociable drink and landed up at La Baratin on Rue Marcel Bonin. This spacious bar with a snooker table and televisions dotted around was the perfect place to have a drink. We spent most of the night speaking drunken French with the bar man and the locals (who don’t know any English apart from the word ‘Queen’).
Sightseeing: we actually couldn’t do much in the time we had there because of the ferry times etc that weekend. Also it’s impossible to do the island of Miquelon to the north of the island of Saint Pierre to do the fantastic hiking and see the nature which is heavily advertised by the tourism board. Everything in Saint Pierre town is very close together and we did a walking tour (by ourselves) and completed everything in one hour. Yes, one hour but it would have been longer if the museums were open at the weekend.
We started off at the Place du Charles de Gaulle right next to the harbour. We saw the post office and a quirky little ice cream stand. This made us feel like we were definitely in France and not just a town built here by the Canadians and was then taken over by the French. The buildings reminded us of those in the harbour towns in Normandy or Haute de France. There were French flags everywhere on buildings, cars with French registration number plates (SPMs followed by a few numbers) and a cafe/visitor centre which was closed.
Walking westwards along the Rue du 11 novembre and then slightly into the suburb (about four minutes worth of walking), we were out of the centre. The buildings here do look like those from the Canadian Arctic or Norway. Wooden and colourful. However the hills around here are very steep but the next part of the walking tour was at the top of a nearby hill so we had to conquer it. One place to check out is Le Fort Lorraine where an panoramic view of the city is to be had. However this viewpoint is also historical because it was built as an observation post after the liberation of the islands by the Free French Forces during the Second World II (yup, there’s some history to be had here and if the Nazi Germans wanted to, when they captured France, they could have sailed over here and used this an outpost and brought the war to North America but it never got that far). Nearby is a Christ-on-the-cross sculpture made out of hand-sculpted wood which is also a great place to look eastwards and get a good view over Saint-Pierre and it’s harbour.
Walking all the way eastwards to the sea (and skimming the northern outskirts of the city centre), we came across the Cathedral. History states that the locals in the 19th century decided to build a cathedral out of cement (which was opened in 1907) as smaller churches which were made out of wood was burned down, but not sure on the reason why they were burnt down.
The highlight was walking down a path over the sea to where the lighthouse is located (and seems to be the main emblem of the islands). It is called ‘La pointe aux canons et le phare’. Despite getting another great view from here (if you look back at the town and see the small mountains overlooking), there are also cannons nearby which were installed by the French and were used when the English tried to invade.
We then headed back westwards along Boulevard Constant Colmay and landed at our starting point at the ferry terminal. So remember guys, here’s the best advice we can tell you: when you are planning a trip to the islands, RESERVE everything. Don’t expect to get a meal or a hotel room on arrival. BOOK IN ADVANCE. We love this little corner of France, despite the awkwardness with reservations.
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