What country outside of Canada is the nearest neighbor to Newfoundland? Is it Greenland? Nope. The United States? Not even close. It is France! Saint Pierre and Miquelon, an archipelago of eight islands, is a self-governing territorial overseas collectivity of France. It is only 12 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. There is a daily ferry that runs from Fortune, Newfoundland to the capital city of Saint-Pierre. Unfortunately, it is a passenger-only ferry, so I couldn’t take the Airstream or the Touareg. Even so, it was an adventure!
My day started so early that I had to actually set my alarm. I know! I drove to the ticket office, filled out some Customs forms, showed them my U.S. Passport, parked in an off-site parking lot, took a shuttle to the ferry terminal, waited outside with other somewhat confused tourists, and then finally boarded the catamaran ferry. I don’t know if it was the Newfoundland way, the French way, or a little of both, but the entire process was confusing. No matter, it was still pretty cool!
Fortune is about 30 miles from Saint-Pierre. After almost an hour on the fast ferry, we arrived at the downtown port. Again, it was a total free-for-all. There was a bus tour leaving immediately, but it would have gone right through lunch time. That wasn’t going to happen for me. I walked around town a bit, and finally found a restaurant open for lunch. Apparently it is French custom to close businesses from 11AM-1PM. Other than the random wandering tourist like me, it was amazing how the streets were empty. With a full stomach, I ventured out again, wandered the slowly filling streets, and figured out the same tour was available later in the afternoon. Well, it was available if enough people signed up for it. Apparently five was the magic number. Counting the driver and tour guide, the seven of us went for a ride on a giant bus.
I am so glad I did the tour. Spread out and built on the side of a small mountain, the town wasn’t really designed for walking. In just a couple of hours, the bus took us to different parts of town and all over the island. The tour guide spoke first in French, and then quickly explained in English what she had just said. I loved it! So what did I learn? Here is what I can remember:
65% of the 6,000 residents work for the French government. The other 35% are seasonal workers usually unemployed in the winter. While unemployed, they receive 75% of their normal salary. There are over 5,000 cars on the island; they usually get shipped in directly from France. Almost no stop signs are found. Instead, the driver on the right has the right-of-way. Because of the rocky ground, very little produce is grown on the island. Since almost everything is shipped to the island, food prices are higher than average. In the local grocery store, a gallon of milk from Canada costs more than a gallon of milk from France. The new $100 million airport has two commercial airplanes. It is more expensive to fly from Saint-Pierre to Montréal than it is to fly from Montréal to Paris. There are four jail cells for the six current inmates. All police officers (or gendarmes) arrive directly from France; otherwise, it would be a conflict of interest since everyone on the island knows one another. There are over 10,000 buried in the one and only cemetery, often three to four levels deep. Once an entire family line dies out, the gravesite will be given to another family. If a person dies in the winter, the body is kept in the dépositoire (a morgue-like building) until the ground thaws enough for burial. To be honest, it was so touching, I almost didn’t take a photo.
The entire experience was so educational. But with the ferry leaving again in the afternoon, I had to make my way back to the terminal. Oh, first, I had to get rid of a few euros, so I bought a bag full of croissants – some plain and some filled with a chocolate cream. Yes, the island operates entirely on the euro system. A few places may take Canadian dollars, but I had to get another tourist to trade his euros for my dollars. I only spent the day in Saint-Pierre, but now I can officially say I have been to France!