It doesn’t take long to drive around this tiny French territory of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, but it’s taken what seems like forever to get here.
The new car ferry between a southern Newfoundland community and the last remnant of France’s once vast North American colony began operating in August, six years after it was first commissioned. Before then, there was only a ferry for foot passengers and freight. If any of the islands’ 6,000 residents wanted to drive their cars in the rest of North America, they had to ship them as cargo or, more commonly, keep a locally-registered car 25 kilometres across the water at the small port in Fortune, Newfoundland.
Everything’s a bit different here, which is why I came to see it for myself. It’s a road trip to France, direct from Canada.
There are direct flights from Atlantic Canada and Montreal, and even direct from Paris in the summertime, but I drove down from St. John’s. It takes about four hours to reach Fortune, half of it on the dull Trans-Canada Highway and the other half on the more interesting Burin Peninsula, through Marystown. I was driving a 2021 Chevy Silverado, the upscale High Country edition, and the truck was noticed everywhere I went.
“We just can’t get a truck like this here at the moment,” said one St. John’s resident, the owner of an older Silverado, who wanted a look under the hood. “There’s nothing on the lots. It’s the chip shortage.”
Out on the highway, I felt very much the urban cowboy with my luggage on the back seat of the crew cab and nothing under the tonneau of the truck bed. The electronic driver’s assistance, turbocharged diesel engine, thick leather seats and even the powered retractable door steps all helped to add more than $14,000 to the base price of $67,500, and that’s before taxes.
“That’s my dream truck,” a Saint-Pierre resident said. “I’d love to buy a basic Silverado, but here, I’ll have to pay at least an extra 10,000 euros just for import duties. That’s a lot of tax.”
Saint-Pierre and the neighbouring island of Miquelon may be small but they are a fully-fledged part of France and have been for most of the last 400 years. They’re considered a “territorial collective,” slightly different from other territories like Reunion and French Guyana because the income from most taxes stays on the islands. In return, they provide a deep-water fishing harbour to French vessels in the Grand Banks and give France the rights to ocean resources that stretch 320 kilometres to the south.
That makes these two islands worthy of generous French investment in the airport, harbour, and roads. And now that you can actually bring your own vehicle on the ferry, the roads are a pleasure to drive.
Most residents live on the island of Saint-Pierre, with another 600 or so on the larger island of Miquelon. The main town has steep hills and narrow streets that are sometimes a challenge to fit the big Silverado, but there are some full-size pickups here. More common though are compact Peugeots and Renaults brought over from Europe, as well as small Canadian-sourced vehicles. All are fitted in the winter with studded tires.
Saint-Pierre has perhaps another 25 kilometres of non-urban roads, mostly narrow and paved, and very well maintained with a blanket speed limit of 70 km/h outside town. I met a trio of local motorcyclists who were making the most of unseasonably warm weather in November to ride their bikes, and they told me they follow a 45-kilometre route that includes a few dead-ends; one finishes at the south coast and another high in the island’s centre, where boardwalks and hiking trails continue across the windswept moor.
I drove to the south coast to experience a spectacular sunset, grateful for the comfort and warmth in the Silverado’s cab. This may be France but the landscape is pure Newfoundland, with short tuckamore trees, long peaty grass, and plenty of rocks. There are horses everywhere and at first they seem to be wild, but they’re privately owned and brought inside for the harsh winter. In summer, many are taken over to Miquelon where they roam untethered in the open fields.
I didn’t travel on to Miquelon because I ran out of time. In the long off-season, the 15-car ferry runs only three times a week between Fortune and Saint-Pierre, and on other days stays within French water up to Miquelon. In the summer, however, there are two car ferries that run daily from Fortune, and direct to each island.
Tourists visit for the fine French cuisine, and the natural beauty. Some buy French wine and cheese that can’t be found in Canada, and they can now carry it back easily in their vehicles. Many visit the restored fishing village on the island opposite the town. They might also go out rowing in restored dories: a local group of traditionalists called Les Zigotos has rebuilt some of the dory boats their fathers used to catch fish. They charge $50 for a tour on the water with lunch, but it’s free if you help with the rowing.
I drove almost 200 kilometres during a day-and-a-half on Saint-Pierre. Some of that was getting lost in the town, which has a European ambience to its narrow streets despite the Newfoundland familiarity of its colourful wooden houses. Most of it was exploring the roads to the coast and hooking up to the hiking trails. The Silverado was the only vehicle I saw without a French licence plate and people waved at me as I drove past; I got the feeling that everyone knew who I was, and exactly where I’d just been, and where I was headed.
That’s okay. It’s a comfortable and friendly feeling and not something I’m used to in a big pickup truck. It’s certainly not something I’m used to when driving in France, but then again, everything’s a bit different here, and it’s just 90 minutes with your vehicle from Canada.
The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.