Opinion: Ride to France!

Now’s the time to plan next year’s road trips, and for the first time ever, that can include a ride to France. Yes, France. From Canada. It’s not so far away.

I’ve just made the drive, in a pickup truck I admit, but there’s now a working car ferry between the south coast of Newfoundland and the tiny French territory of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon. It’s a 90-minute ride over on the ferry from the port of Fortune on the Burin Peninsula to the port of Saint-Pierre, where almost 6,000 French citizens maintain a toehold on North America.

Why make the ride? Because it’s France! There are Peugeots and Citroens on the roads, and you pay for things in euros, and you enjoy French cuisine and fine wine. It’s a different feel from anywhere else on the continent: the landscape is rugged Newfoundland, but the town has a European ambience among its colourfully painted wooden houses.

It’s not a big place. Most people live on the island of Saint-Pierre, which has a natural deep-water port that’s a base for ocean fishing. There are maybe 25 kilometres of paved roads on Saint-Pierre, with a blanket speed limit of 70 km/h outside of the town, and the riders on the island know them all well.

I met up with three riders who I kept seeing as I travelled around the island, Bruno, Bruno, and Jean-Guy, who were making the most of some unseasonably warm weather this month to enjoy their bikes. “We do the loop in one direction and then in the other direction,” said one of the Brunos, who owns four Harleys. It’s not really a loop though – all the roads start from the town, so the 45-km run with its dead-ends is more of a lop-sided spider.

Bruno, Bruno and Jean-Guy keep watch on their bikes through the window.

The town itself is challenging to ride because the streets are narrow and some of the hills are very steep. If you want to head out to the west of the island (which you will – duh), you need to climb through the town to reach the outlook at the top, and then the road twists its way through short, stumpy trees to a stop at some hiking trails. The south of the island is a lovely ride along the coast to, again, some hiking trails. You can do the whole thing in an hour, but you’ll want to go back and ride the roads a few times. I covered 200 km in my two days there and the scenery seemed to change constantly.

For an idea of what it looks like, go to the islands on Google Maps and click on Street View. Every road is covered and many of the hiking trails, too.

Apparently Mark didn’t take pictures of the landscape he speaks of, so here’s the Google Street View.

I didn’t travel to the larger island of Miquelon, which has fewer than 600 people but close to 100 km of roads. Miquelon is really two islands joined by a long grassy causeway with a connecting road, and it seems like a place for adventure tourers, with more gravel than asphalt.

There are no campsites on the islands, but there are hotels and Air BnBs, as well as restaurants. They’re not cheap, but they’re not that expensive, either. You probably won’t want to stay more than a couple of days, though in that time, there’s plenty to do. My trip this month was dictated by the ferry, which is on a winter schedule of three times a week from Newfoundland; in the summer season, the ferry runs daily. It will also run from Newfoundland direct to Miquelon, but at this time of year, the only way to reach Miquelon is on a separate ferry from Saint-Pierre.

The road trip is new because before this year, there was only a passenger and freight ferry that connected the islands to Newfoundland. You had to park your bike in Fortune and then walk onto the ferry, and there are no motorcycle rentals in Saint-Pierre. The French government, however, invested in a pair of Dutch-built ferries that can carry 15 cars each; they were delayed by having to modify the wharfs at both ends to accommodate them, and then by Covid shutting down the international border, but finally became operational in August.

It takes a while to reach Saint-Pierre from outside Newfoundland and most vacationing riders will probably just settle for a visit to Cape Breton and the Cabot Trail. Realistically, the extra distance to Saint-Pierre will mean another week of travel from the Nova Scotia terminal at North Sydney: either the 18-hour ferry to close to St. John’s and then a day’s ride to Fortune, or the six-hour ferry to Port-aux-Basque on the southwest of the island and then two longish days to Fortune.

You’ll drop off the Trans-Canada Highway to take the road that heads down the Burin Peninsula. It’s about 200 km south on smooth and often winding asphalt that is a joy to ride, and you should follow the loop around the south that starts and ends in Marystown. That loop is a destination in itself, but now the crossing to visit France is the cherry on top.

I would recommend this trip to any rider looking for a unique experience. If you’re on a cruiser or tourer, then probably just stick to Saint-Pierre; if you have an adventure bike, then add Miquelon to the schedule. The best time to visit is August and September, because the weather is unpredictable in the spring and the Grand Banks get very foggy in June and July.

You’ll need to make sure you’re covered by personal and vehicle insurance, just as you would if you want to ship your bike to Paris. I was told that it’s possible to buy short-term vehicle insurance when you leave the ferry in Saint-Pierre, but check this for yourself prior to leaving. All the answers are available through the tourism office at www.spm-tourisme.fr.

It’s a bit of a hassle at the moment to visit the islands because you must be double-vaccinated against Covid19 and also test negative with an Antigen test to cross to France, and then negative with a PCR test to return to Canada. Let’s hope that’s all a thing of the past by next summer.

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