How to travel overland from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Saint Pierre and Miquelon, and things to do once you get there!
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On June 17th 2022, my brother and I were up early as we had a full-day ahead of us. After all, we were driving from St. John’s to the city of Fortune, on the southwest coast of Newfoundland, and then taking a boat to France. Confused? You’re not alone. Few people seem to know about the French island of Saint Pierre and Miquelon. But after reading this post, you’ll join the ranks of people “in-the-know” about this interesting destination!
Driving from St. John’s to Fortune, Newfoundland
We checked out of our AirBnb in St. John’s and were on the road at 8am, ready for the 4-hour drive west to a small town called Fortune, Newfoundland. The scenery along the way reminded of Alaska, without the high mountains, but with plenty of small lakes and rivers. Despite the abundance of moose crossing signs, I’m bummed to report that we never saw any moose during our trip.
Typical scenery during the drive from St. John’s to Fortune, Newfoundland
Swift Current and Vernon’s Antique Car Museum
For any car enthusiasts making the drive between St. John’s and Fortune, you’ll likely want to stop off in the town of Swift Current (population of 207 people) to check out Vernon’s Antique Car Museum. Vernon’s collection includes roughly 56 automobiles, many of which are rare (cars with very low production numbers), and all of the cars are in pristine condition. A local that we met in St. John’s during the Celebration of Life for my aunt happens to know Vernon and he told us that that Jay Leno once tried to buy a car from Vernon’s collection but was unsuccessful in his efforts. Despite knowing all of this, my brother and I passed through Swift Current without stopping. We don’t care much about cars (see my post on Monaco for more about that), and we were on a tight schedule to catch a boat!
About 3 hours and 45 minutes after departing St. John’s, we arrived in Fortune. Fortune is a small fishing town (population of 1,285 people) that serves as the base of the SPM Ferry that operates between Newfoundland and Saint Pierre and Miquelon during the spring and summer. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to explore the town. The only thing we had time for was a very quick lunch at Mary Brown’s Chicken (fast food chain) … not exactly the type of meal we were hoping to experience in a small fishing town. Oh well, we planned to fix that when we arrived in Saint Pierre.
SPM Ferry between Fortune, Newfoundland and Saint Pierre and Miquelon
Going through Customs
There is an option to transport your vehicle on the SPM Ferry, but we decided to avoid the cost and hassle. Instead we found one of several overnight parking options near the SPM Ferry ticket office in Fortune. The cost was $23 Canadian for 2 nights. After parking, the first step was to check in at the SPM Ferry ticket office by showing our ticket and passport. Next, we were directed to walk down the street to a separate building for customs, since we were technically leaving Canada and entering France. The customs building is also where you board the boat.
After waiting for 20 minutes, it was time to board. We were amused to find that we had to show our ticket and passport again … to the very same people who reviewed our documents in the first building! Inside the customs building, it was interesting to see the two clocks on the wall indicating that Saint Pierre and Miquelon is 30 minutes ahead of Newfoundland, even though it is west of Fortune. Compared to New Mexico (Mountain time), Saint Pierre and Miquelon is 4 hours ahead and Newfoundland is 3.5 hours ahead.
Inside the customs building, we got our passport stamped and soon after that, we were on the boat.
The 90-Minute Boat Ride from Fortune to Saint Pierre
We spotted a few outdoor seats near the back of the boat and immediately made a bee line to those seats. My brother gets seasick and we figured that outdoor seating would be a better choice. However, a few minutes after we were seated, a crew member came out to inform us that passengers are not allowed to sit outside for the first 10 minutes of the trip. We grabbed two seats inside the boat, as close as possible to the door that leads to the outdoor seating area. Ten minutes later, the door was opened and we pounced on our original outdoor seats. It felt good to be outside for the 90-minute journey to Saint Pierre. The weather was fantastic and it was a relatively smooth trip in terms of waves. My brother didn’t feel sick at all, and that’s saying something.
Arriving in Saint Pierre
Saint Pierre and Miquelon, which you’ll see written as “Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon” in French, has a total population of around 6,000 people. About 5,400 of those residents live in the capital city of Saint-Pierre. We went through customs again to get our passport stamped. We also got quizzed (in French) by the customs agent about our travel plans and whether or not we were carrying alcohol. Luckily, I speak some French and was able to answer his questions, but he asked the alcohol question twice. Apparently, we must look sketchy. He then asked where we are staying. When I told him the name of our hotel, he changed his tune and said we were good to go. We were staying in the nicest hotel in town, Les Terrasses du Port. It’s not how my brother and I usually travel but, thanks to COVID, it was one of the only places accepting reservations at the time I made them. It turned out to be a great decision.
Les Terrasses du Port Hotel and Gym
The hotel was about a half-mile walk around the water, so we decided to just walk since we travel light. Part of the walk was paved and part of it was dirt/gravel, which makes a difference if you’re dragging luggage with wheels. If the wheels on your luggage aren’t sturdy and you can’t easily lift your bags up, then you’ll probably want to get a taxi. If your hotel is in the main part of town, then you have nothing to worry about.
We were in a two-bedroom suite (Room #5) at the Terrasses du Port. Our suite was about 330 Euro per night. Yep, the currency in Saint Pierre and Miquelon is the Euro. It was basically the same price as getting two separate rooms at the hotel (169 Euro per night) so we chose the suite. It turned out to be a good decision. It was a very nice place, with a large balcony and views of the town and the Atlantic Ocean. Everything was modern and clean. As a bonus, the hotel had a terrific gym with all new equipment and virtually nobody there. I used it every day I was there and was told that it’s the best gym in town. Across the street from the hotel, there also happens to be a good bakery and pastry place called Boulangerie Pâtisserie des Graves. If you decide to go to the bakery, I suggest you get there early! By the time we arrived, their inventory was very depleted – it had already been picked clean by the locals who know better.
Restaurants, Nightlife, and Things to Do In Saint Pierre
After getting our bearings we asked the person at the front desk for restaurant recommendations (she spoke French and English). She said that two of her favorites were Le Select and Le Feu de Braise and she recommended making reservations as they fill up. Reservations don’t even start until 7pm, so early dinner options are likely hard to find. It’s basically just like being in France because, well, it is France! Even the cars are Peugeots. When Charles De Gaulle gave all French colonies the option for political and financial independence in the 1950’s, Saint Pierre et Miquelon decided to remain part of France.
We walked along the sleepy streets of Saint Pierre and came across a place called Bar Le Rustique that had signs of life, so we went in and had a beer. I was hoping for something interesting on the non-alcoholic beer front, but all they had was Heineken Zero. Bummer. My brother tried a local beer and one “bière rouge”, thinking that the latter would be an amber. Wrong. It turned out to be a strange fruit-punch-like red beer.
At Bar Le Rustique, a band was setting up their equipment. They were ridiculously loud in their warm up, making it very difficult to talk. We assumed that the band would start playing soon. Wrong again! After a long setup period, I asked the bartender what time the music was expected to start. 10:30pm! Glad I asked, since it was around 5pm at the time. We went back to our room to hang out before our 7pm dinner reservation.
Le Select Restaurant
When we arrived at the restaurant, Le Select, it was about half full. The first thing we noticed was the bizarre music selection. Over the course of dinner we heard, Neil Young, classical music, a variety of rock songs, and what sounded like the Red Army Chorus from Russia. It was as if somebody opened up the entire library of Apple Music or Spotify, selected “random”, and let ‘er rip. The dinner was tasty. I went for the scallops (wrapped in bacon) and my brother went for a steak. Following what seems to be a French tradition, my brother ordered the steak cooked medium but it was more like medium rare. Seems like steaks are always cooked a bit less in France. As for dessert, I tried the chocolate lava cake and my brother had the crème brulée. Both were good, but I think my brother made the better choice. Was a nice meal overall – a solid 7 out of 10.
After dinner, we walked by the Feu de Braise restaurant and made a reservation for the next evening. Then it was back to the room. By the time we were back in the room it was 9:30pm and I was ready for bed. But I had a nagging feeling that we were missing out on the live music scene. Rather than go to bed, I decided to take a shower to wake myself up and I walked back to Le Bar Rustique to check out the band. My brother decided to relax at the hotel instead.
Dode performs at Le Bar Rustique
As I walked through the streets of Saint Pierre, everything seemed dead … until I arrived at Le Bar Rustique. It was absolutely packed, spilling out into the street. Impressive for a small town of town of 5,400 people. The band was called Dode, a French rock band that (I was told) happens to be the only local band in Saint Pierre and Miquelon. They were surprisingly good. And, not surprisingly, they were very loud.
I talked to a local guy named Arnaud for about 20 minutes to learn more about the local scene and to practice yelling intermediate-level French while the band played. He is a driver and tour guide who takes tourists fishing for lobster and fish, and he also hosts visitors at his house for a more authentic experience. Something to consider if I’m ever make it back out to Saint-Pierre.
Le Feu de Braise Restaurant
The following day turned out to be a rainy day. Taxis were not easy to find so we ended up walking in a light drizzle to a grocery store in town. By the time we got to the grocery store, the drizzle turned into a heavy rain. We looked for a restaurant to have lunch and hopefully wait for the rain to subside. We ended up at Le Feu de Braise, the same place where we had dinner reservations later that day. We both ordered salmon with rice and it was very good. For dessert, I tried the crème brulée with vanilla. It was cold but tasty. My brother had a trio of sorbets – raspberry, lemon and mango, which he enjoyed. For dinner (later that day), my brother and I both tried the filet of beef. It was very good and not too rare. For dessert, I tried their profiteroles, which is a puff pastry filled with ice cream and topped with chocolate sauce. It was an excellent meal and we both liked Le Feu de Braise better than Le Select although both are good choices. We rated it an 8 out of 10.
A Rainy Day in Saint Pierre
On our walk back to the hotel after lunch, the rain turned into a total downpour. My brother and I had jackets, but no umbrella. We were absolutely soaked. It was as if we had jumped into a swimming pool. My pants were so wet that soap suds were bubbling up out of the knee area of my pants with each squishy step. It was pretty funny. One car stopped to ask my brother if we wanted a ride, but we were so soaked at that point that my brother declined as we didn’t want to mess up their car. You might want to bring an umbrella if you make the trip to Saint-Pierre. It sure would have come in handy for us that day.
As for things to do, we focused most of our time just wandering around the streets. We didn’t visit the island of Miquelon so I can only comment on some of the attractions in Saint-Pierre. Some of the tourist attractions include museums such as L’Arche Museum and Archives and the Le musée Héritage. Saint Pierre and Miquelon has an interesting history that includes a boom during Prohibition (of alcohol) in the United States in the 1920s. Saint Pierre and Miquelon became a prominent location for the smuggling of alcohol into the US from 1924 – 1933. Even the gangster, Al Capone visited Saint Pierre and Miquelon to scope out the alcohol smuggling operations that helped make him rich, before he was eventually caught and put in jail. To counterbalance what you learn about the islands’ alcohol smuggling, there are two churches that you can visit: Saint-Pierre Cathedral and Eglise de Miquelon. Some people also recommended visiting the cemetery, but we abandoned that idea given the heavy rain.
The return journey to St. John’s and back home to New Mexico
On our departure day, we basically did everything that I’ve already described in the beginning of this post, just in reverse. Although there is one important nugget of information that we learned at the ferry office … the boat was canceled the previous day due to the weather. In other words, be aware of the possibility of boat cancellations and plan accordingly. We had never considered that possibility when planning our trip. Given our early morning flight that departed St. John’s the following day, we could have easily experienced the fun that comes with missing an international flight, if our travel plans were one day earlier.
Luckily, everything went smoothly for us. The boat ride took 90 minutes (again) to Fortune, and we made the return drive to St. John’s in just under 4 hours, again. We celebrated with one more terrific meal at St. John’s Fish Exchange before calling it a night. We had a ridiculously early morning ahead of us. My alarm was set for 2:30am in order to shower, checkout of our AirBnb, fill up the gas tank, return the rental car, and get to the airport in time for a 5am departure. I was flying from St. John’s to Toronto, followed by a flight to Denver and another flight to Albuquerque. It was a long day of travel, but the trip was well worth it. I’m definitely glad we made the effort to visit Saint Pierre and Miquelon as a side-trip during our time in Newfoundland.
My next stop will be a wee bit different than Saint Pierre and Miquelon. I’m off to the UFO Festival in Roswell, New Mexico!
Mark Aspelin, The New Mexico Travel Guy, is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States. Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his New Mexico Travel Guy blog (www.newmexicotravelguy.com)